Photo: Courtney Michalik
SEASONS OF CHEESE
It’s All in the Grass
BY KIRSTEN JONES NEFF
One light and airy barn, several artisanal cheese-makers with their wares, tin buckets of carefully paired regional wines, tables of locally sourced honeys, chutneys and jams, and dozens of swooning tasters … all on a bursting-with-green April day in the hills outside of Sebastopol. Oh, and did I mention Gwen, the sweet-eyed baby water buffalo waiting in the paddock beside the barn?
All of the above make for a very happy cheese lover’s love-fest. This is the “It’s All in the Grass” cheese education and tasting event organized by the Russian River chapter of Slow Food.
The theme of the day? Seasons.
It’s early spring and there seems to be a buzz of excitement in the air. The animals have been let out to pasture and their bountiful milk is infused with layers of botanical flavor provided, gratis, by the hills of western Sonoma County. Over the past decade, the sea-misted hills here, so radiantly verdant in the spring, have cultured the growth of an artisan cheesemaking mecca.
Thanks to natural abundance in the form of long growing seasons and diverse pastureland, and a lot of hard work, a good number of Sonoma ranchers and cheesemakers and their animals—cows, sheep, goats and water buffalo—have made quite a name for themselves turning out award-winning cheeses distinct to this terroir.
Clearly, it is “all in the grass” (and weeds and wildflowers), but as Sonoma’s own “Madame de Fromage”—Collette Hatch, an internationally known food and wine connoisseur—speaks to the group about noticing the tangy flavors of the season, it becomes clear that the taste of each cheese we sample is more than the sum of its parts. The climate and soil of this landscape are textured by a salty marine layer and a wide array of flora—clovers, bromes, sedges, wild ryes … to name just a few—for grazing milk-producers, but the passion of this small community of individuals who have chosen to make cheesemaking their art, along with the sacrifice and adventure they have discovered along the way, are the added “mystery” ingredients.
“I am so humble next to these cheesemakers,” Hatch says as she samples and encourages the crowd to notice the tastes on their tongues. “I can taste the grass. I can taste the seasons. I can taste all that is in it. It almost makes me cry. The product of an artisan will take you right to the place it was made.”
Cheesemakers from Two Rock Valley Creamery, Bohemian Creamery, Weirauch Farm & Creamery and Ramini Mozzarella share samples and regale us with stories of their personal paths to gourmet cheesemaking. The room swirls with tales of ancestry, professional risks, beloved herds, unconventional business plans and creative aging techniques. Part picnic, part salon, the afternoon provides a highly concentrated view into the dance with seasons, equipment and the marketplace that is cheese production.
Don DeBernardi, owner of Two Rock Valley Creamery, tells us about the cheesemaking blood he inherited from his Swiss-Italian ancestors.
“My dad and grandpa milked their animals way up in the Alps,” DeBernardi tells the crowd. “They didn’t have pasteurizers, so dad would carry that milk five hours down on his back. And I still have relatives making cheese with the same cultures up in the Swiss Alps.”
DeBernardi has owned dairy cows for decades, but hadn’t thought to enter the cheese trade until his wife, Bonnie, adopted a few baby goats to keep the cows company. They bred the young does, and suddenly had more goat milk than they could use. The DeBernardis traveled to the homeland to observe the family’s traditional techniques, and, upon return, tried their hand at making a raw-aged goat cheese.
That was back in 2005. Fast-forward to 2013 and, although they don’t yet have a website, their Alpine-style goat milk cheese has earned a reputation for a satisfying sweet, nutty flavor, and the DeBernardis cannot keep up with demand.
Through various herd management and milking techniques, DeBernardi has been able to keep milking about 20 goats through the winter, but throughout the ages goat herds and cheesemakers have welcomed the grasses and milk production that come with the last frost.
“This is a pretty exciting time for us,” he says. “This is when we get to get our goats out to the grass. In the old country, of course, spring was the time that they went up into the Alps.”
We also hear from Miriam Block, who has brought three cheeses from Bohemian Creamery. She and cheesemaker Lisa Gottreich had both made major midlife changes and set up shop—namely a small herd of Alpine dairy goats and a 200-gallon vat—just a mile outside of Sebastopol. Within a couple of years their offering of 10 goat, sheep and cow milk cheeses made a mark in the artisanal cheese market. In 2011, the Los Angeles Times called Bohemian’s BoDacious goat cheese “one of the most compelling, lush cheeses out there.”
“We cheesemakers are especially excited about spring because our goat and sheep milk comes back,” says Block. “There are a lot of changes. The animals are eating grasses now. There is more water in their diet and the milk composition changes, so we need to adjust the formulation. The grassy flavor becomes a lot more prevalent this time of year.” She, like the others, sings the praises of spring, but reminds us that the cheesemaker is always beholden to the whims of the seasons.
“A lot of being a cheesemaker is being in control of as many variables as possible. You have a formula down but then there might be a cold snap and suddenly the milk changes and the cheese changes and the customers don’t want that.” Block smiles and says, “You do have to be a little bit nuts to do this.”
Joel and Carleen Weirauch of Petaluma’s Weirauch Farm & Creamery credit organic Jersey cow’s milk and their superstar flock of East Fresian sheep, along with grassy hillside flavors—clover and sorrel, for example—for the popularity of their array of Alpine-style hard cheeses as well as their soft and semi-soft cheeses. Joel tells of persevering through bureaucratic hoops and purchasing used modular classrooms from a Modesto school district in order to build their dream creamery.
He then describes one of the cheeses they have brought along: a particularly popular washed-rind cheese called Peau de Peche (“peach skin”) that he describes to us as their most “robust and stinky cheese.” This is a memorable cheese, with a “complex and assertive finish.” You can almost taste the Weirauchs’ journey toward their dream in the layered flavor of this cheese.
Finally we hear from Craig Ramini, the proud papa who brought baby water buffalo Gwen to the gathering. Ramini is another who had a midlife cheese epiphany and found his way to the mecca that is western Sonoma County to begin his journey. Ramini, a Silicon Valley consultant whose grandfather was an Italian immigrant restaurateur, was drawn to the exotic challenge of mozzarella di bufala. Baby Gwen is a product of the first round of semen imported from Italy, Ramini tells us as he offers up a sample of the porcelain- white and very rich buffalo milk in a wine glass.
Ramini will not sacrifice quality in a rush to put a cheese on the market, he says. Few have been able to recreate a beautiful mozzarella outside of Italy, but Ramini seems to calmly and patiently accept the long-term challenge to grow his herd and refine the milking and making techniques in order to provide a nicely textured and nuanced mozzarella worthy of his Italian ancestors.
When we get back to tasting, we study the cheese flavor wheels that were handed out when we arrived, ready to look out for “new grass” or “fermented grass” flavors. Madame de Fromage Hatch reminds us to “Do exactly as you would do for wine: Bring the cheese to your nose to smell it. This is when we begin to taste all of the flavors, in the aroma. Then we put just a little bit of cheese in the middle of the palate. Don’t swallow! Give it time. This is a very well-crafted cheese and you will really have a finish. The layered flavor of our terroir … something really special. This reflects our geography, because our animals give us everything that is in the grass.”
Oh happy spring!