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From the Archives 11-28-01

A New Cheese Capital, North of the Golden Gate
NY Times Nov. 28, 2001


R.W. Apple

VALLEY FORD, Calif. -- CAN this be the place? Dubiously, you drive up a muddy, unmarked road potted with water-filled holes, park next to a worn army-surplus generator, poke your head into a metal farm building and peer down a corridor.

At the far end stands a pink-cheeked woman with short-cropped gray hair topped by a fluorescent lime- green baseball cap energetically stirring the contents of a stainless-steel tank with a wooden paddle. This, it turns out, is Cindy Callahan, Sarah Lawrence alumna, nurse, graduate of the University of California's exacting Hastings law school, mother, cheese maker.

With her husband, Ed, a doctor, who died several years ago, Mrs. Callahan forsook the pleasures of cosmopolitan San Francisco in 1986 to begin raising sheep in southwestern Sonoma County. This is not the Sonoma of obsessively tended vines and chic shops. Here vast pastures roll rhythmically into the distance, punctuated by rough granite outcrops and enormous eucalyptus trees. In the mist of a late November morning, the dark bulks of Angus cattle loom large on the hillsides; small, vulnerable-looking sheep huddle in the foreground.

Now 66, Mrs. Callahan runs Bellwether Farms with her two sons, Liam, 35, and Brett, 32. They produce handmade goat's- and cow's-milk cheeses of rare excellence, including a firm, sweet, slightly caramel-flavored ricotta. It bears no resemblance to the wan, wimpy stuff that Americans are accustomed to. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in the Napa Valley, who uses it in ravioli, describes it as the best he has ever tasted in the United States.

Amazingly, this profoundly rural area, much of it beyond the reach of cellphones, lies only 50 miles or so north of the Golden Gate. More amazingly, it has evolved in recent years into one of the nation's prime centers of artisanal cheese making, a New World counterpart to Lombardy and Normandy. At many of the best dairies, as at Bellwether Farms, women play leading roles, like their Old World sisters.

Up the road, near Sebastopol, Jennifer Bice (rhymes with "dice") owns Redwood Hill Farm, a producer of goat's milk yogurt and cheeses sold nationally in Whole Foods markets, among others. Down south, near Point Reyes in Marin County, where the landscape looks less like Wales and more like Scotland, three Giacomini sisters oversee the making of California's first blue cheese, and Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the head cowgirls at Cowgirl Creamery, turn Ellen Straus's gorgeous organic cow's milk into all manner of delights.

My wife, Betsey, and I had tasted one or two of these cheeses in the East, but it was only last summer that we learned just how much we had been missing. Toward the end of an excellent dinner at Gary Danko, one of the premier restaurants in San Francisco, I did what I have done hundreds of times in England and France and Italy: I asked to taste some local cheeses.


Lynn Andrews, the resident cheese expert, who matures some of the cheeses she sells in an in-house cooler, did not let us down. She brought out eight of them and, Scheherazade-like, spun an intriguing tale about each of them in her soft voice.

We tasted. We talked. We surrendered. No inner voice whispered "yes, but." We felt no longing whatsoever for the great cheeses of far-off Europe.

California is the nation's largest dairy state and its second-largest cheese producer; some expect it to take the lead from Wisconsin by 2005. Cheese is made all over the state, even near Los Angeles, in Winchester, where the Netherlands-born Jules Wesselink and his daughter, Valerie Thomas, produce a granular aged Gouda whose hauntingly nutty, salty flavor dazzled Mr. Keller and his cheese manager, Lachlan Patterson, when I took a big chunk by for them to taste.


We were much intrigued, after our tasting session at Danko, by the involvement of so many women in Marin and Sonoma cheese making. Traditionally, men herd the sheep, goats and cows on the European continent, while their wives make cheese. In England, Mrs. Kirkham, Mrs. Montgomery and Mrs. Appleby — they are known by their family names alone — have helped to keep the tradition of farmhouse cheese alive.


The same pattern seems slowly to be developing in the United States, through the efforts of women like Sally Jackson, who makes cheeses of unusual complexity in Washington State, near the Canadian border; Paula Lambert, who makes a broad range of Italianate cheeses in Dallas; Dr. Patricia Elliott, a physician in Rapidan, Va., near Charlottesville, who specializes in hard sheep's milk cheese; Mary Keehn, who makes the unparalleled Humboldt Fog in far northern California; and, of course, Laura Chenel, whose Sonoma County goat cheese began the California boom in the 1970's. She has been so successful that her cheese is now made by machine, not by hand.

A Tangy Wedge

Bellwether Farms deals in meat as well as cheese, selling spring lambs, less than six weeks old, to San Francisco restaurants like Masa's and Rubicon. The dressed carcasses weigh only 20 pounds, a bit more than the baby lamb, or abbacchio, that forms the centerpiece of Easter feasts in Rome.

Lambs are born here in late winter or very early spring and weaned 35 to 40 days after birth. Only after they go to market do the Callahans begin to milk the ewes in their flock of East Friesian sheep, continuing until October. When no sheep's milk is available, they buy cow's milk from a neighboring farmer, but the sheep cheeses have made Bellwether's reputation.


All are grounded in the lessons Ed and Cindy Callahan learned at farms in Tuscany and Umbria when they visited Italy early in their cheese-making careers. Liam Callahan's favorite among them, and mine, is San Andreas, which is named after the earthquake fault line that passes near the farm. It is made from unheated milk and shaped into fat wheels that weigh about four and a half pounds when they are fresh.

After two to four months on pine slats in an aging room, where the temperature is held at a constant 50 degrees, they are down to three pounds. In the process, the cheeses lose moisture and develop surface mold. When mature, they are firm in texture, with a clean, mild flavor and a tangy finish; you can taste the full flavor of the Friesian milk in the finished product. Though softer than pecorino, they have a similar bite.


Bellwether makes a Tuscan-style cheese studded with peppercorns, called Pepato, and a cow's milk version of San Andreas called Carmody, after a nearby road, as well as impossibly unctuous crème fraîche.

The prize-winning ricotta is a byproduct of San Andreas and Carmody. Once the curds have been separated from the whey and poured into molds, the whey is pumped into another vat, topped up with whole milk and heated rapidly, to 180 degrees for sheep's milk, 192 for cow's milk. When vinegar is poured into the tank, soft curds form in less than two minutes.

This is tough, repetitive physical labor, from which there is no shirking. Liam Callahan said with a sigh of resignation, "It sure gets you into a rhythm."

But the rural life has never lost its allure for his mother.

"We had a professor at Sarah Lawrence named Joseph Campbell," she said. "He was a famous guy, a philosopher. He used to tell us, `Follow your bliss.' Well, I'd say it's pretty blissful out here."

Crottins From Sebastopol


Jennifer Bice, a gentle but determined woman, sometimes wears a silver goat pin on the lapel of her sweater. She dotes on the 400 goats she keeps at Redwood Hill, giving each a name. She breeds Alpines and Nubians, LaManchas, Saanens and Toggenburgs — the five major types of dairy goats in the United States. And she serves regularly as a judge at major goat shows.


Her parents started the dairy, located among towering trees just south of the Russian River, in 1968, and young Ms. Bice worked with the goats as 4-H projects. She and her husband, Steven Shack, took it over in 1978 and built it into one of the best of its kind in the country, producing cheeses of remarkable delicacy with traditional methods. Mr. Shack died of cancer in 1999.

Ms. Bice said that she found it difficult to attract American workers to the area because of the high cost of living. So much of the work at Redwood Hill is carried out by foreigners, recruited at agricultural colleges abroad and brought here on special 18- month work visas. At the moment, she has several Bulgarians, a Danish woman and a young Tanzanian on the payroll.

The goats, fed on hay and grains, are milked twice every day, at 6 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Their milk is cooled from 103 degrees to 38 degrees in five to seven minutes to retard the development of bacteria, then pasteurized. A starter culture is added to form a soft curd, a process that takes much longer than using rennet, a substance taken from animals' stomachs. The cheese takes 16 to 18 hours to coagulate and two days to drain; with rennet it takes no more than 24 hours. The advantage is a smoother and more delicate texture.


"Can't make good cheese from bad ingredients," Ms. Bice admonished me as she showed me around her tiny "factory" — actually, one big room where the cheese is made and packaged, with a minilaboratory tucked into a corner. The cheeses are matured in a pair of adjacent rooms where they are first dried and then aged, the delectably edgy Camembert-style Camellia for as much as four weeks.


Of the 30,000 pounds of cheese Redwood Hill makes every year, one of the most successful styles is called California Crottin, in homage to the white disks so popular in France. With a pale yellow rind and a robust, earthy taste, it is an ounce and a half of pure joy. But unlike the French, who offer crottin in fresh, medium and mature versions, Ms. Bice sells it only fresh.

A lover of goat cheese when it is old and chalky, I asked why.

"When we started, we sold a well-aged crottin," Ms. Bice said, "but people complained. Americans want it fresh, so that's what we give them."

A Rich Original Blue

Redwood Hill stands on a hilltop just above Iron Horse Vineyards, and my friend Joy Sterling, a member of the family that owns the winery, jokes that Ms. Bice's cheeses taste so good "because her goats spend their whole lives looking at my vines." Maybe she's on to something there. Maybe visually soothed animals give sweeter-tasting milk. Certainly Bob Giacomini's herd of Holstein cows, from whose milk his family produces Point Reyes Original Blue, the hottest new handmade California cheese in many years, have a view to die for.


"Brigadoon," Betsey said when she saw the landscape. Its verdant moors, punctuated here and there with yellow gorse, slope down to firthlike Tomales Bay, and on most mornings horizontal stripes of low-lying fog cling to the hillsides beyond. No wonder there are villages and roads with names like Argyll and Aberdeen and Inverness.

Mr. Giacomini has run a dairy in the area since 1959, but the cheese has been on the market only since January. It came into being because he wanted to reduce the size of his 500-head herd, whose manure was threatening to pollute the oyster beds in the bay, without reducing his income. And because he wanted to lure at least some of his four accomplished daughters back home.


Three of them, all with business degrees, are here now: Karen Giacomini Howard, 41; Lynn Giacomini Stray, 35; and Jill Giacomini Basch, 31. They work with Monte McIntyre, the cheese maker, who was born on a dairy farm in South Dakota and perfected his craft making Maytag, which many experts consider the nation's finest blue cheese, in Newton, Iowa.

"We've always been a family of foodies anyway," Ms. Basch said.


The succulent new cheese has caught on quickly, gaining a place in stores across the country (including Murray's Cheese Shop in New York) and restaurants all over California (at Miramonte, the comfort-food genius Cindy Pawlcyn's sparkling new place in St. Helena, it appears on the Super Supper Burger). The only question is whether it can build a sufficiently large following to justify the Giacominis' investment.


Two 1,500-gallon vats give their shiny new plant a capacity of 250,000 pounds a year; they are producing 15 percent of that, making cheese only a day or two a week.

The milk is not pasteurized, but it is homogenized, which breaks up fat globules and encourages the formation of holes in the curd, so air can penetrate to the interior and help mold to grow. (Later, more are mechanically punched into the cheese.) A liquid mold, penicillium roquefortii, is added to the milk, along with rennet, and the resulting curd goes into round forms. After draining overnight, the nascent cheeses are taken into a cold, humid room — "a kind of artificial cave, since we don't have real ones here," Mr. McIntyre explained — where they are sprinkled once a day for three days with kosher salt.


Encased in Cryovac bags, the cheeses age for six to eight months. It is this technique, I suspect, that makes them so much moister than Stilton. They are less pungent than Roquefort because they are made with cow's milk, not sheep's milk. Their remarkable richness, reminiscent of Gorgonzola, is a family secret, at least for now.

A Cowgirl's Sweet Dream

Cowgirl Creamery is something different, a glass-enclosed room inside Tomales Bay Foods, a hangarlike store in the hamlet of Point Reyes Station (population 350). It was started five years ago by Ms. Smith, 48, a former co-chef at Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley, and Ms. Conley, 49, who developed what must be the creamery's greatest treasure — a rich, creamy, subtly tart, triumphantly cheesy cottage cheese that puts soupy commercial rivals to shame.

The store sells oils, wines, prepared food to go and cheeses made by others, in the United States and abroad, whom the cowgirls admire. It is where I first tasted Mr. Wesselink's and Dr. Elliott's cheeses, and it stocks the wonderful English cheeses from Neal's Yard in London. (One of the cowgirls, Kate Arding, who manages the cheese counter, used to work there.)


But the main feature is the Cowgirl cheeses, made from the phenomenally rich, thick Straus milk, which comes from a single herd of Holsteins, the first herd of any breed west of the Mississippi to be certified organic. They graze along Tomales Bay near Marshall, about 10 miles north of Point Reyes Station.

"It's the milk that makes the difference," said Ms. Smith, an earnest, engaging woman with steel-gray streaks in her dark hair. "The herd has an individual character. You can taste the changes of the grasses and the seasons in the milk."

Straus milk is an unlikely byproduct of Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe. Ellen Straus, born in the Netherlands, and her husband, Bill, born in Germany, are both refugees, who met in the United States. Their son, Albert, helps run the family farm.

In addition to cottage cheese, Cowgirl makes fromage blanc, crme fra”che and mascarpone — all velvety, all delicious, all tantalizingly unavailable outside the Bay Area. They need to be eaten quickly, Ms. Conley said, preferably within three days, so they are not well adapted to shipping.

But the creamery's soft-ripened cheeses can be ordered by mail, and they are every bit as beguiling. The triple-cream Mt. Tam (after Mount Tamalpais, just down the coast) is available all year long; buttery yet not cloying, it has an earthy flavor reminiscent of mushrooms. Three others are available seasonally — St. Pat, wrapped in nettle leaves, in the spring; Pierce Point, washed in Quady Essencia, a muscat-based sweet wine, and rolled in dried herbs, in the fall; and my pick of the litter, Red Hawk, a more pungent washed-rind triple-cream, ideal for winter, best when aged for six weeks.

Oh, yes, the name. When Ms. Smith and Ms. Conley were setting up shop, Mrs. Straus said to them, "Remember, girls, this is the Wild West."