BLUE BY THE BAY
A favorite food, blue cheese, became a financial salvation for a Point Reyes dairy farming family
Karola Saekel Sunday, April 8, 2001
Chauvinistic San Franciscans insist that nobody anywhere can duplicate San Francisco sourdough because no other place has the climate that helps produce the bread's incomparable taste and texture.
Bob Giacomini makes a similar claim about his Point Reyes Original Blueä, the only classic farmstead blue cheese produced in California. The pale, creamy cheese has only recently come to market and is already the darling of white tablecloth restaurants and upscale retailers.
The unique fog and moisture-laden breezes off Tomales Bay create the ideal microclimate for growing the mold and aging the cheese at the company's barns, just over the ridge from the bay.
Making Point Reyes Original Blue takes 21 days of intensive handling and another three to four months of storage in a 42-degree room. The result is a pale, blue-veined cheese, more creamy than crumbly, mildly salty, with deep flavors and aroma, reminiscent of France's Roquefort or Denmark's Danablu.
The product is one of California's very few true farmstead cheeses, meaning it's made strictly from milk produced by Giacomini's own herd. Farmstead cheeses are also free of artificial color and bleach. Only eight California cheesemakers produce cheeses that qualify as farmstead. The only other blue-style farmstead cheese produced in California is not a true blue, but is a blue-veined triple cream cheese, made by Bravo Farms of Visalia.
The Point Reyes blue, which retails for $12.95 to $14.95 a pound, is crafted from fresh, unpasteurized milk taken from a herd of handsome Holsteins that graze the lush Marin hills. Fresh is the watchword here. On cheese-making days, milk taken from the 2 a.m. milking is pumped into processing tanks in the cheese barn at 5:30 a.m. The progression from milking machine to fledgling cheese takes barely four hours.
The ranch is home to 250 to 300 milking cows at a time, all born and raised on the 700-acre spread. In farm talk, this is called a closed herd, which makes for healthy ranching, according to Bob and Dean Giacomini's youngest daughter, Jill Giacomini Basch, who helps market the cheese. "By not buying heifers from outside, our cows aren't exposed to bacteria or viruses from elsewhere," she says. She points out that consumers like the fact that the cheese is free of added hormones, even though the farm is not certified organic.
In an age when agriculture is increasingly automated, at this farm nothing but the pumping of milk from the milking barn to the nearby cheese facility depends on machines. House-made starter culture and mold powder are added to the milk by hand; cheesemaker Monte McIntyre tests the curds by hand, then tastes and adjusts each batch. His crew fills the French forms in which the curds drain, and then turns and salts them one by one. Even the packaging of the finished 6-pound wheels is done manually.
Even though the cheese venture has only been three years in the making, Giacomini builds on a long tradition. His northern Italian grandfather, Tobias, arrived in Petaluma in 1905. "Eighty or 100 years ago," he says, "all Marin County dairy ranchers made butter and cheese - mostly cheddar." Before refrigeration and speedy transportation, the distance from San Francisco, the major market, was just too great to transport fresh milk.
Still, the Giacominis branched out from traditional milk production to blue cheese partly because of economic reasons. Though Giacomini and the 30 or so other Marin dairy ranchers have been in the forefront of conservation - he was a director of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust - they are also under pressure to reduce their herds. Many, including nearby oyster growers, see cows as the source of potentially harmful agricultural runoff into Tomales Bay and its ecologically sensitive oyster beds.
"To keep up our cash flow," Giacomini says, "we had to come up with a way to make more money from fewer cattle." He, his wife and his four grown daughters put their heads together and came up with blue cheese.
The daughters bring different expertise to the venture. Oldest daughter Karen Giacomini Howard and third daughter Lynn Giacomini Stray both worked in marketing; second daughter Diana Giacomini works in commercial real estate; and youngest daughter Jill ran her own advertising business.
The family settled on blue cheese because there is no other classic blue being produced in California. They also were told by retailers and chefs that there is a shortage of high-quality, creamy, French/Danish style blue cheese nationwide. Besides, says Jill Basch, "We wanted something we ourselves would love to eat - we're a family of foodies."
Before starting the company, Mom and Dad Giacomini went off to the University of Minnesota for a crash course from Howard Morris, professor emeritus of food science and nutrition, and the grand old man of blue cheese in this country. Still teaching in his 80s, Morris attributes his longevity to the consumption of blue cheese. To do the hands-on work, the Giacominis hired McIntyre and his assistant, Terry Roll, both veterans of famed Iowa blue cheesemaker Maytag.
Three or four days a week are devoted to cheese making. On those days, 1,500 of the 2,100 gallons of milk produced go to the product. The rest of the milk is sold fresh to a Petaluma cooperative.
The farm can produce 250 wheels of cheese a day, adding up to a weekly total of 750 to 1,000 wheels - enough to supply an already impressive list of Bay Area restaurants and retail stores. Restaurant customers include Scala's Bistro, Jardiniere, Rose Pistola, One Market, Restaurant Lulu, JohnFrank and Eos in San Francisco; French Laundry, Auberge du Soleil and Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley; Cafe Rouge and Citron in the East Bay. Grocery customers include Real Food Co., Rainbow Grocery and Leonards 2001 in San Francisco; Draeger's and Roberts of Woodside on the Peninsula; Whole Foods markets throughout the Bay Area; and the Cheese Shop in Carmel.
The Giacominis plan to increase distribution, but Bob Giacomini points out that it's difficult to judge how much cheese will be needed five months from now, which is the average manufacturing and ripening time for the cheese. The company hasn't been through a complete year's cycle yet. "We're just a startup, " Jill Basch jokes.
Still, the diversification to cheese making will keep his family ranch afloat, Bob Giacomini says. "And besides, it brought my girls back home."
EATING THE PROFITS
Point Reyes Original Blue, the only classic farmstead blue cheese produced in California, is similar in style to creamy French and Danish blue cheeses rather than the saltier domestic American products.
The cheese makers, self-described foodies Bob and Dean Giacomini and their family, like it best as a table cheese, especially served in a simple dessert of room-temperature cheese with crisp apple slices and a drizzling of honey.
Daughter Jill Giacomini Basch's favorite uses include a composed butter - blue cheese blended into softened butter with Dijon mustard, chilled, then sliced into patties - to be served atop grilled steaks or burgers, or blue cheese crumbled over a green salad tossed with balsamic vinaigrette.
The cheese is versatile, taking particularly well to a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon - although Basch likes it in a shrimp-avocado salad complemented by a lively Chardonnay.
And after dinner, she reports, "My parents like nothing better than a bit of blue with a glass of port."
Karola Saekel is a Chronicle staff writer.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle Page 36 Chronicle SectionsMagazineSportsTravelCareer SearchSunday ChronicleReal EstateBusinessBook ReviewsDatebookCommentaryNewsPink