I recently got to spend 48 hours in the wonderful foodie mecca of San Francisco. Unfortunately, I failed to consult the event calendar at the Cheese School of San Francisco until after booking my flight, an oversight I’ll be sure not to repeat in the future. It turned out that that very evening, as my flight was due to arrive, the School would be hosting a fundraiser for the California Artisan Cheese Guild. Needless to say I was determined to hightail it to the event. While I arrived too late to meet the cheesemaker behind the @BellwetherFarms Twitter handle, I did luck out and meet Mariano Gonzalez, the cheesemaker from Fiscalini Cheese Co., whose bandaged cheddar was one of the few cheddars we hadn’t yet secured from the 100 cheeses list. I had a lengthy discussion with Mariano about the challenges of doing business in California. With the added problems in the dairy industry, Califonia’s happy cows are not as happy as they used to be. 

There were several other California cheesemakers represented whose names might ring a bell… Cowgirl of course, Redwood Hill, Cypress Grove, Bellwether as mentioned (oh, their creme fraiche is delightful) and a brand new producer, Barinaga Ranch. I enjoyed sampling Marcia Barinaga’s wonderful Basque-style sheeps-milk cheeses and chatting about her small start-up farm in Marin. (Check out her website and try not to be jealous of those sheeps’ gorgeous home!) And of course it was a privilege to chat with Jennifer Bice of Redwood, founder of the Cheese Guild and one of California’s artisan cheese pioneers. (In good company with Mary Keehn at Cypress Grove, Laura Chenel, and the Cowgirls …. hmm, see a theme here? Not that men don’t make good cheese, but there are quite a few notable women in the cheese world.)

 

Fiscalini cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez

Fiscalini cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez

And the Who’s Who of cheese didn’t stop at the cheesemakers. I picked the brain of Canyon of Cheese blogger Bryce about his favorite California cheeses, and met Gordon Edgar, S.F. cheesemonger and author of Gordonzola and an upcoming book. Before leaving San Francisco I paid homage to the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building, naturally, and brought home some more California treats. Here’s a sneak peak.

 

Now to the Cheese-of-the-Day: Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar. Fiscalini’s cheese making began in 2000, when John Fiscalini, a third generation dairy farmer, was inspired by a visit to his ancestral home in Lionza in the Swiss Alps. He added a cheese plant to the Modesto, CA, farm,  hired master cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez away from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and quickly began winning awards for their farmstead cheeses. The bandaged (a.k.a. clothbound) cheddar, like their other cheeses, is made in small batches from their raw cows’ milk. Click here for a slide show of the cheesemaking process.

Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar (photo courtesy of Bryce Allemann, Canyon of Cheese)

Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar (photo courtesy of Bryce Allemann, Canyon of Cheese)

 Having tasted Vermont cheddars in a relatively short amount of time before my western trek, I was amazed at the difference between the two. Fiscalini’s has a creamy, dense, granular texture, sweet yet salty, with a bright flavor that makes the cheese dance on your tongue. I’m not going to make judgments about the relative happiness of cows in California vs. Vermont, but I swear you can taste the sunshine in this cheese. It goes wonderfully with a red wine, like Zinfandel (from California, naturally). 

Fiscalini also makes the unique San Joaquin Gold — following the European tradition of naming cheeses after the place where they’re made — which is excellent. Do give either of these Fiscalini cheeses a try if you happen upon them, and let us know what you think!

 

with Bryce of Canyon of Cheese

with Bryce of Canyon of Cheese

 

(A big thank you to Bryce for allowing me to use his picture of Fiscalini’s cheddar, above — in my haste to sample every bit of cheese before closing time, my meager iPhone pictures turned out even blurrier than usual. And thank you to Mariano, who generously sent me home with a doggy bag full of cheddar, which was my breakfast and midnight snack for the weekend!)

Oh, my cheese padawan learners, the funk is strong with this one. Red Hawk, one of Cowgirl Creamery‘s signature aged, organic cow’s-milk cheeses, is not for the funk-phobic. Though it shares the gooey consistency of its sister triple-cream cheese, Mt. Tam, Red Hawk’s earthy aroma is what you’ll remember.

A washed-rind cheese, Red Hawk gets its name from its reddish-orange exterior. My piece was sprinkled with small white particles, almost like yeast, and the yellow paste was dotted with small holes. The taste was pleasing enough, but the smell was overpowering even for this stinky-cheese lover. I felt I had to cleanse my palate with a few plain crackers after tasting so my breath wouldn’t kill my cat.

I can’t say I’d ever turn down a piece of Red Hawk, but my preference lies with Mt. Tam. But if you’re feeling adventurous, buy a round (or a half – your cheesemonger will gladly cut it for you) and pair it with a sweet dessert wine.  Just make sure your date tastes it, too, or you won’t be getting a good-night kiss.

I’m sure someone has put together a list of classic American cheeses by now, but if that person was me, I’d put my cheese of the week, Cowgirl Creamery‘s Mt. Tam, at the top of the list. (Humboldt Fog, of course, would be there, too). I got my first taste of this California-made triple-cream cheese back in 2006 when Cowgirl Creamery opened its Washington, D.C., store just a few blocks from my office. A cruel twist of fate moved me to Minneapolis mere weeks after the store opened, but thankfully I can get my Mt. Tam fix at Surdyk’s.

Named after Mt. Tamalpais in Northern California, Mt. Tam is an aged cow’s-milk cheese that is similar to Chaource. Upon reaching room temperature, the cheese’s interior achieves the ooey-gooey consistency that tastes like heaven on a cracker. It doesn’t have the same after-bite tang as the Chaource does, but you’ll be so busy swooning over Mt. Tam’s rich, buttery flavor that you won’t miss it at all. You’ll often hear Mt. Tam described as “mushroomy,” but I didn’t detect a strong mushroom flavor in the wheel I bought (which is fine with me because I’m not a huge mushroom fan).

Mt. Tam pairs beautifully with sparkling wine, and a California variety would be most appropriate. I like Trader Joe’s almond champagne, which probably doesn’t make me all that sophisticated among the wine-loving crowd, but it tastes good to me. A sparkling rosé would also be a good match, and Food & Wine magazine also recommends a “moderately oaked Chardonnay.”

If you’re visiting the San Francisco Bay area, be sure to allow some time on your schedule for a visit to Cowgirl Creamery – it offers tours at its original creamery in Point Reyes Station and its new creamery in Petaluma. Cowgirl Creamery also offers its delectable cheeses by mail through its artisan cheese clubs. You know, Valentine’s Day is coming up. Is there a better way to say “I love you” than with cheese?