Friday, February 17, 2006

Forever cheese

Why cheese?
Why not cheese? -- is a better question. I have been in love with food since I was in diapers. When I was a kid, Sundays were set aside for The Ride. My family would pile onto the bench seats Dad's big, green GMC Jimmy (called The Toad) and we'd drive. We didn't always have a specific destination, but it usually involved picking up fresh produce from farms within a 100 mile radius of our house. Since I grew up in Northern California, that meant we had pretty good farms to fill our larder. We didn't have terms like "seasonality" or "sustainable agriculture." Organic didn't exist -- though "natural" foods were usually nasty, heavy, pasty things that came from the health food store.

During cherry season, we drive to Suisun (pron: soo-soon') and visit the orchards up and down Suisun Valley Road. We'd usually stop at a "U-Pick" cherry orchard where the farmer would hand us a kidney shaped bucket on a rope to suspend around our necks. We'd climb the tall ladders and fill our buckets and our bellies. After an hour of picking, the heat of the sun in late May would get to us and we'd wander back to the wooden shed to weigh our harvest. The farmer would box the cherries and we'd take them away with sticky hands and stained chins. There was a lone winery amongst the orchards where we'd stop and buy a jug of red wine vinegar. This was fancy stuff, and Mom would only break it out on special occasions.
Every May we'd find few and fewer cherry orchards. It was my first experience with the plight of the family farmer. The farmers were getting old and the kids didn't want to continue to farm. The suburbs were rapidly growing and the land was more valuable as subdivisions. Vineyards began to replace orchards. The farms were disappearing before our eyes. We quit going to Suisun for cherries. A few years later we discovered Brentwood's cherry orchards.

Sonoma County was another great destination for fresh produce. The Harvest Trails map was our Bible. We'd drive to Sebastopol and pick Gravenstein apples in August. Mom would make apple cake, apple pie, applesauce, and apple crisp. We had a couple of farms off of Ross Station Road that were particular favorites. One farmer, Mr. King was a great storyteller. He'd worked all over the country, and finally settled in Sonoma County. He liked to play with fruit trees, coming up with new hybrids of white peaches and nectarines. He'd graft his own varieties that were probably the best peaches I'll ever eat. The white peach was so juicy and perfume-y that you could barely touch it without the skin splitting and juice would run down your arm. The first bite would explode in your mouth. The juice and flesh would mingle on your tongue, as you continued to slurp at the peach in your hand. It was sweet, and slightly tart, with a fragrance of blossoms and delicate sunshine. They were simply the best peaches in the world, and Mr. King couldn't remember the exact trees he grafted together. When he'd call us to tell us they were ready, we'd drop everything and rush up to his farm. He also grew potatoes, chard, lettuce and a wide variety of veggies. According to Mr. King the milk from freshly harvested lettuce will put a goose to sleep. How he knew that, I'll never know. Nor, how do you get a goose to drink the oozing white milk from the fresh-cut stem on the head of lettuce?

Cheese was something else we'd pull over for. The Marin French Cheese Company was a great place to go and have a picnic and be chased by angry geese. (I wish I had the fresh-cut lettuce close at hand.) I remember visiting the cheese factory and being overwhelmed by the stench. Damn! It smelled! And the trips to Sonoma were fun because we'd pick up a wedge of Sonoma Jack or Jack from the Vella Cheese Company. I loved those trips.
But when Grandma was coming to dinner, we'd pull out the special cheese: Teleme. This cheese is getting harder and harder to find these days. Teleme is a soft cheese, similar to Italian straccino. It's pale, white, creamy, like a very soft Jack, but with a bit more depth of flavor. It is dusted with rice flour and gets very gooey as it ages. As a kid, this was the fanciest cheese I knew. It is still quite popular and I'm saddened that most stores no longer carry it. Teleme should be declared the state cheese of California.

Update: I guess I should amend this. Teleme was being produced in Maine. Franklin Peluso moved from Los Banos, California to the cheese-friendly Rockport, Maine. He shared the facilities of the Mid-Coast Cheese Company. What does this mean to those of us that share a fondness for this silky, creamy treat? It's still being made and is still hard to find! Pester your local cheese shop and encourage your friends to eat more cheese.

Update to the Update 2007: Franklin Peluso has moved back to California. Guess the winter in Maine got to him. His cheese is now being produced at the cheese plant at Cal Poly. Look for Franklin's Teleme at your better cheese counters and at Whole Foods. Cowgirl does not carry it, usually. Janet Fletcher wrote about the move for the San Francisco Chronicle.