Growing up with a Parisian-raised mother, my obsession with well-made cheese was pre-ordained, a function of both nurture and nature. I don’t think she planned it at the time but landing in Northern California decades ago would seem equally inevitable for a cheese-focused family and yet, it was just pure luck that we ended up living in an epicenter of incredible artisan creativity.
Sonoma County and West Marin’s pasture lands had long been nurturing places for grazing cows, goats and sheep and so dairies were always in the mix in this part of the world, concurrent to the local wine industry on the rise. It’s no surprise that creameries would thrive here, inspired by both the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s/70s and accompanying farm-to-table restaurant scene building momentum in places like Berkeley and San Francisco.
Laura Chenel was among the first to spark the movement when she began making her own goat cheese in the West County town of Sebastopol using techniques she had learned living in Europe. Her cheese was chosen specifically by Alice Waters for Chez Panisse’s baked goat cheese salad, a personal favorite and reason alone to eat there. (22085 Carneros Vineyard Way, Sonoma, CA 95476 and https://laurachenel.com/)
Chenel helped inspire Peggy Smith, herself a chef at Chez Panisse, and Sue Conley, co-founder of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, who in the early 1990s launched Tomales Bay Foods, with the aim of helping dairies and farms get their goods into Bay Area restaurants.
Before long, the friends were using Straus Family milk to make cheese of their own. They called themselves Cowgirl Creamery, opening a storefront in Point Reyes Station in 1997. Its most coveted cheese is named for an important place to many of us in Northern California: Mount Tamalpais. An aged triple cream made from organic milk, it tastes of earthy forest and mushroom and is a frequent go-to. (80 4th St, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 and https://www.cowgirlcreamery.com/)
Not far from Cowgirl is Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, a sustainable working ranch famous for Point Reyes Original Blue, a blue-veined cheese it has made since 2000 that has rightfully won dozens of awards. (14700 Shoreline Hwy, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956 and https://www.pointreyescheese.com/)
Joe Matos Cheese Factory is a working dairy farm in Santa Rosa that makes St. Jorge, a semi-soft rind table cheese inspired by the family’s native Azores. Entering from a dirt road, Matos’ cows stand watch as you come in to taste and buy; don’t be alarmed by the wandering farm cats and kittens. (3669 Llano Rd, Santa Rosa, CA 95407 and https://www.facebook.com/Joe-Matos-Cheese-Factory-1530291580548953/)
Closer to the coast in Petaluma is Ramini Mozzarella, one of the only places in America making fresh mozzarella from water buffalo milk. Ramini has a herd of about 65 water buffalo that may be visited during Saturday tours. Gentle giants that like to be brushed and pet, water buffaloes produce milk that is twice the fat of cows’ milk. (175 Gericke Rd, Tomales, CA 94971 and http://raminimozzarella.com/)
If you love baby goats as much as I do, take a tour at Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery in Sebastopol and learn about the four breeds (Alpine, LaMancha, Nubian and Saanen) that contribute milk to its yummy yogurts, cheeses and kefir. Founder Jennifer Bice, the oldest of 10 children, started raising goats five decades ago on her family’s dairy farm, introducing the first goat milk kefir in 1970 and a raw goat milk feta in 1980. The farm itself was certified humane in 2005, the first goat dairy in the U.S. to be given this animal welfare certification. (2064 Gravenstein Hwy N Building 1, Suite 130, Sebastopol, CA 95472 and https://redwoodhill.com/)
Bice was the inspiration behind the first Jennifer Bice Dairy/Cheesemaker grant to mentor newer cheesemakers given to the head cheesemaker of Pennyroyal Farm. Pennyroyal makes outstanding farmstead goat and sheep cheeses and offers tours, picnic areas and live music. (14930 CA-128, Boonville, CA 95415 and https://www.pennyroyalfarm.com/)