“Cheese is a food, not a status symbol. Push your boundaries, but buy the cheese that makes you happy.”

This sentiment doesn’t appear until the very end of Gordon Edgar‘s new book, “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge,” but its importance can’t be overstated. In our modern foodie culture, it’s easy to become a snob about the types of food you enjoy, but Gordon, the cheese buyer at San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery Cooperative, takes the snobbiness out of cheese with his really enjoyable memoir/cheese manifesto. Colleen had the pleasure of meeting Gordon when she visited San Francisco last October, and now I am totally jealous because after reading this book he seems like he’d be a fun conversationalist.

I’m not going to write a book report here because I’m 31 years old and stopped writing book reports in middle school, but I will urge you to pick up a copy of “Cheesemonger” at the book store or library. You don’t have to be a cheese lover to read it, though it’s fun if you are because you can knowledgeably nod your head when Gordon talks about the virtues or pitfalls of specific cheeses, but it’s accessible enough for anyone who enjoys an intelligent discussion about food. It’s fascinating to read how Gordon’s background in the Bay Area’s punk activist scene actually prepared him well for his unintended but ultimately successful career as a cheesemonger, and he does an excellent job of educating readers about the basic components of cheese (i.e. milk, rennet, mold, salt, bacteria) while weaving in colorful stories from his travels to domestic and foreign cheesemakers, cheese conferences and trade shows, and days behind the cheese counter at Rainbow. For those of us who romanticize the life of the cheesemonger, the book will leave you with a better impression of the work that goes into building and maintaining retail cheese department or store and make you appreciate your local cheesemonger even more!

If nothing else, read this book to get gems like this line: “A good cheese person can steer you to the right gateway goat cheese that won’t make you feel like you stuck your nose in a goat’s crotch.” If only we could all be so eloquent!

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!)