Cheese Please! Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma

Artisan Cheese FestivalCreamy, fresh fromage blanc; tangy silken chévre; bracing blues, each fascinatingly different from its brothers; tastebud-waking, complex aged triple-crèmes…are you hungry yet?  I am almost always hungry – for cheese. Last weekend, I was among the fortunate attendees at California’s 7th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma, one of the hubs of California’s booming cheese industry.

The festival is a celebratory showcase for handcrafted cheeses, providing support, education and wonderful tasting opportunities to cheese-makers and cheese-consumers alike. Following are some outstanding examples that made me say: “Cheese?  Please!” I’ve long admired the herb- and citrus-noted Humbolt Fog from Cypress Grove, with its characteristic stripe of melancholy grey.  As lovely to look at as it is to eat.  But on this occasion, it was their nutty Midnight Moon that knocked my socks off.  Grate-able, melt-able, imminently edible, this is a great cheese for cooking.  The cheesemaker enthusiastically recommends it for grilled sandwiches and mac & cheese.  Perhaps paired with a dark, fruity Belgian beer, like Chimay’s Red Cap.

The round-up from Cowgirl Creamery continues to impress.  Featured at the show alongside old favorite gouda-style Mt. Tam was the seasonal St. Pat, a handsome semi-firm cheese wrapped with Spring’s bountiful nettle leaves (sans stingers, of course!).  Subtle smoke and artichoke flavors speak for themselves, but would also pair well with some pickled vegetables and a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc. Nicasio’s Foggy Morning is a versatile fresh cheese with a bright finish.  I admit to a previous bias, since I buy it almost every week at my local farmer’s market.  Feature it on your next cheese platter, or use for a rustic tart with rosemary, figs & a drizzle of honey.  Nicasio Square is another notable cheese, with a rich distinctive roundness.  I can’t wait to try it again with some crusty rustic bread and fresh peaches.

The first producer of classic blue cheese in California, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese continues its tradition with Bay Blue.  Released last fall, this pasteurized-milk cheese is more mellow and Stilton-like than its older & more pungent cousin, Original Blue, and threatens to garner as many awards.  And how can I neglect a mention of Toma?  Another multi-prize-winner, this table cheese is tangy and buttery.  It’s one of my favorite cheeses for cooking – I particularly like in on a burger. Other standouts at the show were Orland Creamery Farmstead, with its grassy, fresh-flavored Artichoke Lemon Fromage Blanc and light, luscious Ricottage.  Called a “bakers cheese” by cheesemaker Valerie Sutton, it’s dryer than cottage cheese but still very creamy on the tongue, and without the acetic roof-of-mouth feel of some ricottas.  I also particularly liked the Mélange Brie from Marin French Cheese.  A blend of cow and goat milk, it has a sweet, rich flavor with just enough sharpness to distinguish it from other less unique Brie-style offerings. Sample one (or several!) of these fantastic offerings and I promise you’ll smile as you say, “Cheese!”

Guru Tips:

  • Store cheese wrapped in waxed or parchment paper in the fridge.  If you’re allowing it to age, re-wrap in new paper every 1-2 weeks.
  • Get to know the cheesemonger at your favorite grocery or specialty food store.  These folks know their cheeses, and they’d love to share their knowledge with you.
  • Try using your favorite fresh cheese in a sweet or savory cheesecake recipe.  Surround it with dried and fresh fruit, candied or salted nuts, and some crunchy crackers or cookies, and you’ll find you’ve made a sophisticated and unexpected addition to the table for your next special occasion.


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