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!)

You’ve got to be tickled by this cheese’s name – L’Amuse. It’s almost as if it were created just to tease and entice us. I’m not sure if this was the cheesemaker’s intention, but I’ll tell you one thing – only one taste would definitely be a tease.

A cow’s-milk Gouda, L’Amuse is aged for at least two years on a small family farm in Holland, which gives it a few crunchy crystals and its wonderfully caramel-like taste. It’s sweeter than your typical supermarket Gouda and while its texture can’t accurately be called buttery since the cheese is fairly firm, it has a richness that any cheese lover would appreciate. L’Amuse is a perfect cheese for your autumnal cheeseboard. It’s hearty enough to stand up to the stronger flavors of fall and would be delightful when paired with pumpkin treats, like my favorite pumpkin muffin recipe from Cooking Light.

A rich, fruity red would be a fine match for L’Amuse – Wine Spectator recommends a Zinfandel or Amarone. Janet Fletcher, who writes the fabulous Cheese Course column for SFGate.com, suggests a Dios Baco Oloroso.

My cheese this week is one of the oldest artisanal American cheeses, from Vella Cheese Company which was founded in Sonoma in 1931. Tom Vella began aging his Monterey Jack cheeses to produce an alternative to parmigiano and pecorino during World War II, when Italian imports became unavailable. Tom’s son Ig took over the business in 1981, and has earned an “Ark of Taste” designation from Slow Food International as well as recognition for sustainability efforts such as installing solar panels on their historic creamery building. 

Dry Jack is aged 7 to 10 months, developing a smooth flavor and hard, flaky texture. It is creamy and a little sweet, slightly nutty like pecorino. While it is coated in cocoa and black pepper, giving it a unique brown exterior, those flavors are undetectable in the cheese. It would pair nicely with dark chocolate for dessert, though. It is also ideal for grating over pasta, in alfredo sauce or just snacking on its own. I enjoyed it with a Dashe 2006 Zinfandel from nearby Dry Creek Valley

My cheese of the week also hails from the mountains, but from the range on the opposite side of France – the Pyrenees. Ossau-Iraty is an raw, AOC sheep’s-milk cheese made in French Basque country, and its mellow, slighty oily flavor has become one of my favorites. Aged for 8-9 months, the cheese has a moldy rind that some eat, though I prefer to trim it away. I’d rather concentrate on the beige-colored paste inside the rind, which has a pleasing texture and firm bite.

My friend Ariela and I once included Ossau-Iraty as one of three cheeses in our picnic lunch, and it’s really the ideal picnic cheese because it can be paired with so many foods – fruit (especially apples), olives, cured meats, nuts and crusty bread. Bring along a bottle of a big red wine, like a Bordeaux or Zinfandel, and you’re all set for a lovely meal.