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5 Stops on a California Cheese Trail

The New York Times
The New York Times

Marcia Barinaga was showing me and seven other visitors around her ridge-top sheep ranch overlooking the long, slender finger of Tomales Bay and the hills of Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, north of San Francisco. As she told us about her flock of 100 East Friesians in a pasture where some of the less timid sheep had gathered around, she bussed the pinkish, wet nose of a ewe. It was an offhand gesture but a telling one, revealing a deep affection for the animals that provide the milk she transforms into cheese in the style of her Basque ancestors.

Barinaga Ranch is one of the several dozen farms and creameries that have made Marin and its neighbor, Sonoma County, the epicenter of California’s lively artisanal cheese movement. Twenty-two thousand acres of land in the two counties are currently used to produce almost 100 different cow, sheep, goat and water buffalo milk cheeses as well as fermented products like yogurt and crème fraîche. The cheeses are all made primarily by hand, in small batches, and in keeping with cheesemaking traditions — hence the artisan designation — and most are also classified as farmstead, meaning they are made on a farm with milk from its own animals.

Ten years ago, when I first made cheese-touring day trips from my San Francisco home to Marin and Sonoma, few creameries were producing cheese, let alone allowing the public a peek. But with the growth in cheese has come increased access. Among the 29 producers listed on a Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map, Web site (cheesetrail.org) and mobile app, 21 are open for regular or periodic tours and tastings, or for visits by appointment. Guided cheese tours are also popping up, including a five-hour jaunt that includes four creameries, tastings of 30 cheeses, and a picnic ($152; foodandfarmtours.com).

On two consecutive weekends late last year, I crisscrossed Marin and Sonoma to visit five diverse cheese producers. I ate exceptional cheeses, many of them award winners, but I also met the people behind them and saw firsthand their multiple passions: for the craft of cheesemaking; for their cultural heritage; for the animals they raise; and for the beautiful, bountiful land on which they depend.

My first stop did not initially seem promising. On a gray-washed, showery Saturday morning, I parked between wandering chickens in the muddy barnyard of the Joe Matos Cheese Factory (3669 Llano Road, Santa Rosa; 707-584-5283). It offers no tours and makes a single product, an aged, farmstead cow’s milk cheese called St. George that Joe Matos based on a recipe from his native Azores. In the closet-size salesroom with a few holy cards on the walls, a grumpy-looking worker emerged from an interior door, through which I could spot hefty wheels of cheese on racks. Unsmiling and without a word, she held out a tray of precut samples.

The cheese, firm but yielding, was the golden color of sunlight and had a lingering taste that nicely balanced mellow and bright. I bought a chunk and, on my way back to the car, bumped into Mr. Matos. “My wife and I came from the Azores in 1965, when I was 26 years old,” he said. “I am the fifth generation of cheesemakers.” He described their first jobs in the United States — his was at a dairy farm and hers at a chicken ranch — and how they eventually bought their own farm, acquired their small herd of Holsteins and started making cheese in 1979. “This is a good country,” he told me, “if you want to work hard.”

That afternoon, after a 45-minute drive past rolling pastures, Victorian farmhouses and rows of fragrant eucalyptus, I joined the monthly two-hour tour at Barinaga Ranch ($20; barinagaranch.com), which has 100 acres of organic sheep pasture. We patted sheep that looked like big cotton balls on stilts and visited the lambing barn and milking parlor. While in the steel cargo containers that have been retrofitted into a pristine creamery and aging room, Ms. Barinaga offered a detailed explanation of cheese pH that betrayed her early training as a biologist.

At the end, we sampled aged, raw milk Txiki, one of the two similar, nutty-tasting cheeses Ms. Barinaga has made since 2009. Telling us they were inspired by semi-hard Basque tommes, she explained that Basque-Americans have no cheesemaking tradition because immigrants like her grandfather worked as herders of sheep raised for meat, not milk. “But if my cousins from Spain ever visit,” she told us, “I’d be proud to serve them my cheese.”

The next Friday, a day of sun and blue skies between storms, I set out again across the Golden Gate Bridge, heading for the weekly tour at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station and a later appointment with some goats outside Petaluma. Founded in 1997, Cowgirl was an early promoter of others’ cheese before turning to its own production using local organic cow’s milk. It now makes a variety of fresh and aged cheeses, including the decadently rich, Brie-like Mt. Tam and the more pungent triple cream Red Hawk.

The tour ($5; cowgirlcreamery.com) was more an informal class and tasting conducted by Cheryl Dobbins, who has been with Cowgirl since the beginning. With 18 of us seated by a public viewing window into the creamery — where workers in white rubber boots could be seen scooping curds into round molds — Ms. Dobbins demonstrated the alchemy of curd formation by dumping coagulant into a bucket of warm milk, where curds almost immediately began to “knit together” and separate from the watery whey. She also briefly recounted the venerable history of cheese and butter production around Point Reyes, which became California’s first important dairy region when it supplied booming, Gold Rush-era San Francisco.

I later met Bonnie DeBernardi and her herd at Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese (7955 Valley Ford Road, Petaluma; 707-762-6182). Ms. DeBernardi will show you her adorable, floppy-eared goats if you call in advance and if her schedule permits.

“It all began when I bought two goats to amuse my grandkids,” she said as we walked through a barn where she greeted some goats by name. “Now I’m up to nearly 100. Believe me, I had no idea this would happen.” She introduced me to her husband, Don, a cow dairyman who seven years ago began to make wheels of aged, raw goat milk cheese like those produced by his Swiss Italian relatives. I wasn’t able to sample the cheese at the farm because their sales and tasting room was not yet finished, but the wedge I bought and took home had a firm, dry texture and a tangy flavor with lingering caramel notes. Mr. DeBernardi showed me his tiny cheese-making room and the 40-pound weights used to press the new wheels to expel more whey and make a drier cheese. “When Grandpa and Dad made cheese in the Alps,” he told me, “they used rocks.”

I made the final stop of my cheese tour at the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which made its debut in 2000 with a creamy and pungent Original Blue produced with raw milk from the Holstein herd of the company’s owners, the Giacomini family. The farm welcomes visitors by reservation or during organized events (pointreyescheese.com; combination tour and tastings start at $25).

I had reserved for a five-hour $120 event that included a farm tour, a guided cheese tasting and a chef’s demonstration and four-course lunch. Bob Giacomini, the family patriarch, showed 18 of us around the barns and milking parlor of the farm he and his wife bought in 1959, and he explained how methane gas from the manure pond powers generators that supply 65 percent of the farm’s electricity. He talked about the lives of the cows we encountered, including one who was about to give birth. Outside the creamery, we peered through large windows at workers tending a 500-gallon vat that would become semi-hard, mild and buttery Toma cheese.

Three hours later, after a lunch that included Tomales Bay oysters on the half shell with dabs of blue cheese and stout mignonnette, I went back to check the expectant cow. She hadn’t birthed yet, or so I thought from a distance until something wet and white in front of her moved. As I watched, aware that I was witnessing a vital link in the running of a farmstead cheese operation, the calf unfolded its spindly legs, rose unsteadily, and took the first wobbly steps of its life.