You can almost taste the grass . . .
. . . in the cheeses from Nicasio Cheese Company
Randy, Rick and Scott Lafranchi of Nicasio are making and marketing their family dream. Around 1973, Will Lafranchi, their father, started it all. Rick Lafranchi says, “We knew Dad was up to something. But he never mentioned outright that we were going to make cheese.” It was some years later, after the family members found sketches, doodles, and notes on cheese making, that they discovered Will’s secret passion for making the Swiss-Italian-style cheese that he grew up with on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.
Fred Lafranchi, their grandfather, started the dairy farm in 1919, running a very successful operation, and eventually handing it over to the family. The ups and downs of the dairy industry are well known, but what most folks don’t know is how much the “value” of the milk has dropped. For instance, in 1946 milk was selling for $6.00 per hundred weight, which translates in today’s commercial economy to $46 per hundred pounds of milk. At this writing, dairy farmers are getting paid $11 dollars. Looking at those numbers, it is painfully obvious how much the economic value of milk has declined.
The Lafranchi family, like many other families here in Marin, are rooted in the land and its agricultural heritage. Selling out is often not an option for these families, so adding value to the milk makes sense to keep the business going. The dairy certified organic to capture the milk premium, but that was really a first step. Deciding to make cheese was the next.
Around 2004 the family began to research the possibility of making Will’s dream a reality. Rick, Randy, Scott, and the rest of the family returned to their grandfather’s village, Maggia, Switzerland, to see where the family cheese making history began.
In the Alps, several families in the villages will typically pool their cows together and move them to higher mountain pastures, milking on-site, and carrying the milk back to the cheese maker’s house. They make cheese and cellar it in local caves. For generations this has been the tradition, and each village has its own cheese with its distinctive terroir. In the Lafranchi village, cousin Gabrielli introduced the family to the local cheese maker, Mauritzio Lorenzetti.
The family stayed three weeks and fell in love with the cheese and the process. Mauritzio was making a soft-rind cheese called Formegella, unique to this area of the Alps. They asked Mauritzio to visit the home ranch in Nicasio and help them learn how to make his cheese.
Mauritzio visited the US in 2008 to help the family get started in the art of making the cheeses of Valley Maggia. Scott Lafranchi, a CPA in his last life, emerged as cheese maker, applying his precise skills in economic management to cheese making. The result is artisan production of the cheeses from the family’s ancestral village: Black Mountain (aged mountain style), Foggy Morning (fresh cow), Formagella (bloomy rind), and Nicasio Square (washed rind). All the cheeses are made from organic whole milk, fresh from the family dairy tank just a mile away.
The cheeses have been received with enthusiasm. Leah Smith from the Agricultural Institute of Marin says, “I love the cheese. You can really taste the milk. All the cheeses are pleasantly mild but have lots of taste. My favorite is the fresh, soft cheese, Foggy Morning.”
“We really haven’t started to market the cheese aggressively yet, since we are still learning. We are kind of a work-in-progress, right now,” comments Rick.