Cheese, Please

By Jane Black
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Just a second. I'll be right back."

My friend Lee Anne hopped out of the car and dashed into a Rite Aid in downtown San Francisco. I sat back in the passenger seat, enjoying the sunshine and the cloudless February sky.

Two minutes later, she was back. "Now I'm ready," she said as she rattled a bottle of Dairy Relief.

"You're lactose intolerant?" I asked with amazement.

"I'll be fine," Lee Anne said, knocking back a pill and putting the car into gear. "Let's go."

Obviously, when I'd suggested a cheesy road trip through Marin and Sonoma counties, Lee Anne hadn't, until now, understood that I'd meant it literally. Our previous jaunts to the wine country had been cheesy in a girly, Thelma-and-Louise way -- a chance to talk about our lives and loves, minus the dramatic finish.

This time, though, the trip really was about cheese -- the artisan cheeses of Northern California that are fast becoming as famous as the region's wines. The Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, 45 minutes north of San Francisco, won best in show at the 2003 American Cheese Society Awards for its Red Hawk, a pungent washed-rind, triple cream cow's milk cheese, while Bellwether Farms, also in the Petaluma area, won first place in 2004 in the sheep's milk competition for its Pepato, an aged pecorino-style cheese with whole peppercorns. Our plan: to pack a cooler full of local cheeses, then match them with local wines.

Over the past five years, California's cheesemakers have become established favorites in restaurants and specialty food shops. Now, like the winemakers before them, they are beginning to market themselves to tourists. Nearly half a dozen cheesemakers already have tasting rooms or retail shops at their dairies, where you can learn how cheese is made or pick up a perfect pairing for a special California zinfandel or chardonnay. Next month, Bellwether Farms will open a retail outlet in Healdsburg, a hub for wine country tourists; Spring Hill Cheese Co., also of Petaluma, will open viewing and tasting rooms at its factory, which turns out tens of thousands of pounds of Monterey Jack and cheddar a day.

It's no longer just wine country. It's wine-and-cheese heaven.

Since it was a Saturday, we started at the San Francisco farmers market, at the recently renovated Ferry Building. With stunning views of the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island, the market is a magnet for the best of the Bay Area's organic farmers, bakers, wine and olive oil producers, and cheesemakers. The Cowgirl Creamery has a permanent retail outlet here, but as the first stop on our road trip would be the Creamery's factory in Point Reyes Station, we wandered through the outdoor stalls in search of small dairies for which the market is the only retail outlet.

On the water, in the glimmering sunshine, we found the Redwood Hill Farm stand, which sells farmstead goat's milk cheeses. ("Farmstead" means that the cheeses are made only from the farm's own milk.) Cheesemaker Jennifer Lynn Bice has been raising goats in Sebastopol, 60 miles north of San Francisco, for 37 years, but only recently have her cheeses begun to shine. Bice's California Crottin, a version of the Crottin de Chavignol, was named best farmstead goat cheese of 2002 at the American Cheese Society Awards. She also sells raw and pasteurized feta and goat's milk yogurt. We bought a small round of Crottin ($4), then crossed the plaza to buy a loaf of crusty bread. By 10 a.m., we had the start of a perfect picnic.

We browsed the farm stands, which were piled high with pink, yellow and green chard, watermelon radishes, Fuji apples and blood oranges. We found the Point Reyes Blue Cheese stand in front of the building. Like Redwood Hill, the Giacomini family dairy uses its own herd's milk to create its full-flavored blue. The cheese is made within hours of milking, then aged for a minimum of six months. Lee Anne and I are no fans of blue cheese, but when the saleswoman suggested we try it on a Tuscan pizza or a cabernet burger, we couldn't say no. A chunk of Point Reyes Original Blue, which sells in groceries for $18 a pound, went into the cooler.

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