“This is it!” I said to Rich, wafting the sample under his nose. “This cheese actually smells like the feet of angels.”
We’d adopted this new benchmark for gloriously overripe cheese while watching a TED Talk by travel guru Rick Steves. In France, he says, “you step into a cheese shop and it’s just a festival of mold. I love going shopping with my Parisian friends. They’ll take me into a cheese shop, put up a moldy wad of goat cheese, take a deep whiff: ‘Oh Rick! Smell this cheese. It smells like the feet of angels!’”
The sample I held under my husband’s nose didn’t happen to be moldy or made from goat’s milk, but something about its profound earthiness made me think, paradoxically, of heaven.
“I’m not entirely sure what angels’ feet smell like,” Rich said. “But this has to be close.”
We were in the tasting room of an organic dairy farm in the section of northern California that has such perfect grazing land that nineteenth century immigrants dubbed it “cow heaven.” Today, farmers from Italy, France, Switzerland, the Azores, Argentina, and various parts of the USA work the land; some are descendants of the original settlers, others are entrepreneurs who arrived more recently seeking a fresh start. Together they are producing some of the finest artisan cheeses in the world.
In 2012, it occurred to these innovative dairy farmers that being situated in and around Northern California’s wine country, which attracts 23.6 million visitors a year, they might be able to cash in on the boom. After all, what goes better with wine than cheese? And so the California Cheese Trail was born — essentially a marketing campaign and a map showing 42 artisan creameries that welcome visitors. When a friend showed me the map, I found it included farms making some of my personal favorites: Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog, for instance, and the Marin French Cheese Company’s Petite Breakfast. I knew I liked this stuff, but I had no idea that judges of some of the most prestigious state, national, and international competitions were fans, too.
“Rich,” I said, “I think I owe it to my readers to check out more of these cheeses.”
“I am willing to help with the research,” he declared nobly.
The California Cheese Trail meanders for hundreds of miles, but luckily there was one well-known creamery just twenty minutes away in Nicasio Valley. This once-busting pioneer town is now a sleepy village that prides itself on being “a place where change is slow and predictable,” according to the website of the old roadhouse, Rancho Nicasio. “The town gradually drifts through time, at an unnoticeable rate.” Amen to that!
The town probably didn’t look much different back in 1910, when seventeen-year-old Fredolino Lafranchi arrived from Switzerland with little money and big dreams of becoming a dairy farmer. Today his family ranch includes 1150 acres of organic farmland and is home to 400 cows and 3000 pasture-raised chickens. It wasn’t until 2010 that his grandchildren decided to try their hand at artisan cheeses in the style of the alpine village Fredolino once called home.
I had bought a few Nicasio Valley Cheese Company products at my local market but was delighted to have an excuse to visit their farmstead shop and try the entire line. Grazing contentedly among the platters on the sample table, I came across the San Geronimo which brought to mind the fragrance of angels’ feet. But when it came to making a purchase, I headed directly to the Nicasio Reserve. I had a purpose for that one. The day before, as I was on the creamery’s website looking for fun facts, I’d stumbled across a recipe for Baked Risotto with Nicasio Reserve, Asparagus, and Spinach. It sounded simple enough for our culinary skills and delicious enough to be worth a try. Rich and I bought a wedge of the Reserve and headed home to our kitchen to give the recipe a test run.
The verdict? The risotto was simple to make with gorgeously rich, complex flavor — in short, it was divinely inspired and has already earned a permanent place in my repertoire. I was delighted to discover that some of the larger California Cheese Trail creameries are selling their top cheeses in grocery stores and even (gasp!) Costco, so I have no excuse for settling for less in the future; I have vowed to up my game.
I grew up an era that revered processed food for being modern and convenient. “For me,” says Rick Steves, “cheese was always just orange and in the shape of the bread. There you go: cheese sandwich.” Back then, it never occurred to us that there might be anything unhealthy about consuming a “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” stuff that can’t legally be labeled cheese because it’s less than 51% real cheese. What makes up the rest, you ask? Dairy by-products, saturated vegetable oils, sodium, sugar, food coloring, preservatives, and emulsifiers. Not precisely what a body needs.
In this age of giant agribusiness and corporate ranching, I am astonished and deeply grateful that small dairy farmers have carved out this niche market in California and around the country. I’ve always said there are some things in life — chocolate, wine, your partner’s sense of humor — where you simply can’t compromise on quality, and I’ve now added cheese to the short list. I’ve only just begun exploring the California Cheese Trail, and with 41 other creameries on the map, I will clearly need to keep visiting and sampling until the cows come home.
“I’m with you all the way,” says Rich. “Pass me more of that risotto, would you please?”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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