Milky Whey: Following the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail

Sonoma and Marin counties—the Normandy of Northern California—are home to the most artisan cheesemakers in California, if not the country. The foggy, grassy north boasts some 22,000 acres of land dedicated to making cheese and fermented milk products. To celebrate this bounty, the Marin Economic Forum (MEF) just introduced the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map [PDF], the first-ever guide to local artisan cheesemakers.

Launched just in time for the fifth annual Artisan Cheese Festival, taking place this weekend in Petaluma, the colorful, informative map raises the profile of local cheesemakers, an important element of our vibrant local agricultural economy. Artisan cheesemaking is experiencing a renaissance as both long-time dairy families and new cheese entrepreneurs are milking the trend. The Cheese Trail map includes some outstanding local dairies, such as Bellwether FarmsPug’s LeapRedwood Hill Farm & Creamery, and Saint Benoît Yogurt.

“Cheesemaking is a reemerging craft, and it’s happening in our own back yard,” said Vivien Straus, MEF board member and managing partner of Straus Home Ranch, who helped shepherd the map from concept to reality. “Twenty-seven local artisan cheesemakers are included in the map, which tells people all about the cheese, where to get it, and which cheesemakers are open for visits.”

The map relays the history of cheese in the area: Spanish priests first made cheese from the milk of mission livestock in the early 1800s. Later, during the Gold Rush, European immigrants built dairies on the Point Reyes peninsula to supply butter and cheese to gold miners in San Francisco. It also provides some interesting cheese facts (to make one pound of cheese, it takes five pounds of sheep’s milk, seven pounds of goat’s milk, or 10 pounds of cow’s milk), and gives tips on where to buy local cheeses.

“The region as a whole boasts an impressive collection of small cheesemakers. We’ve got plenty of culture here,” said Sue Conley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery. “Thanks to the grass, the cows, the farmers, and the cheesemakers for putting cheese on the map in Sonoma and Marin.”

The map provides activities for the millions of visitors to the area, potentially injecting more revenue into the local economy. “With small family dairy farms continuing their rapid decline, with an average yearly loss of five percent, the map encourages the sale of local products and by extension supports the agricultural community,” said Ellie Rilla, Community Development Adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension.

Two driving tours map out where you can meet some of the cheesemakers, learn about the animals, and see cheese being made. The Marin county tour travels from Novato to Nicasio and Point Reyes and starts at the Marin French Cheese Company, where you can take a tour, picnic, and taste their award-winning Rouge et Noir brie. Try the farmstead cheese at Nicasio Valley Cheese Company and watch cheesemaking or take a class at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station.

In Sonoma County, you can stop by the Petaluma Creamery, sample Spring Hill Cheese and then head to Sonoma to try aged Jack at Vella Cheese Company. You can stock up on fresh cheeses and other local food at Epicurean Connection and then head north to Sebastopol to the Matos Cheese Factory and try their St. George, a buttery semi-hard cheese.

“This will put our cheese on the map,” said Carleen Weirauch of Weirauch Farm & Creamery, which produces raw aged sheep cheese as well as organic cow cheese. “Being able to contribute to our community in such a pleasurable way is the greatest reward and stepping into this great tradition is a magnificent, humbling honor.”

 

Originally published on SFGate

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