Friday, September 28, 2007

A Field Trip, a Book and a Soap Box

Jim and I are taking a trip down the coast of San Mateo tomorrow. We're getting together with our friends Jim and Ali and we're touring Harley Farms, a goat cheese producer in Pescadero. Dee Harley is from Yorkshire, England. She came to the Bay Area years ago and stayed. She's makes beautiful, fresh goat cheese and is winning awards for it. Her signature cheeses are little discs covered with edible flowers and dried fruit. She makes a tasty, goat milk ricotta, too.

I can't wait to hang out with some goats again. Harley Farm milks American Alpine does. Oh boy! Jim and I wandered into Dee's farmstore about a year ago. We spent an hour talking to her about cheese and getting started in the business. Dee was really supportive and encouraging. I love meeting folks like her. I'm always nervous about telling other cheesemakers what I want to do. Sometimes I get a very cold reception. Dee was the exact opposite. I'm eager to go and see her place again.

After the tour, we're going to eat at our favorite roadhouse: Duarte's Tavern. (Pronounced DOO-arts) I can't wait to get a big bowl full of their cream of artichoke soup. Creamy, silky, and slightly tangy. AAA's VIA magazine published a recipe for the soup several years ago. It is close but not the same. You can tell it is full of cream and artichokes. Lots of artichokes grow in the area. They like the coastal breezes and sandy soil. Duarte's seafood is local and super fresh. Right of the boats in Half Moon Bay. They also make great ollalieberry pies. Second only to Linn's pies in Cambria. BTW, an ollalieberry is a delectable cross between a blackberry and a raspberry. They make excellent pies and preserves.

Tomorrow is going to be a fun day.

Book tip: I picked up a copy of The Vermont Cheese Book by Ellen Ecker Ogden. It is a book documenting the artisan and farmstead cheesemaking explosion happening in the hills of Vermont. She writes profiles of each cheesemaker, their cheeses, where you can buy them, and if and how you can visit them. She covers thirty-three cheesemakers along the Vermont Cheese Trail. I'm looking forward to sinking my teeth into this tome. I see a good road trip in my future with this book as my guide.

Stepping onto my soap box:

Raw milk cheeses are under scrutiny by the Feds: Janet Fletcher wrote a very informative article in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle about the government seeking to redefine the rules of manufacturing raw milk cheeses and the response by cheesemakers. As someone who loves flavorful cheese, this threat is not good. How can hundreds of years of traditional cheesemakers be wrong? The government seeks to minimize risk of exposure to pathogens like listeria. That's great. But sometimes their actions do more harm than good. Plus science can't always explain why food is good when it should be lethal. Just look at the ducks hanging in the windows of Asian markets. The ducks hang without refrigeration. They hang all day long in the open air. They should be rank by the time you eat them. But they're not! The skin is crispy and delicious. It is a cultural thing. The Chinese have eaten like this for centuries. They're not getting food poisoning. I have not been poisoned. Eating shellfish or cold cuts are far more dangerous than raw milk cheese, in my opinion.

I just don't get it. If you look at the recent cases of listeria that have been documented, they usually come from cheese made from PASTEURIZED milk . Often, an uncleaned valve is to blame, letting bacteria build up in the sterilized milk. Raw milk still has the natural pathogen fighting micro-organisms still in it, so it can deal with exposure to bad bugs better than pasteurized milk. The feds are looking at how long listeria lingers in raw milk cheese when raw milk cheese is intentionally exposed to the bad bugs. Right now the law states that raw milk cheese is safe to consume after 60 days of aging. The government is re-examining this time frame. The implication is that cheese must be aged longer, or all cheese must be pasteurized, effectively killing traditional, European style cheeses. The depth of flavor is lost in pasteurization. In fresh cheeses, the flavors as pronounced, but in harder, aged cheeses, you can tell the difference. Just compare cheddars. Raw milk cheddars have a flavor that lingers on the palate for minutes after eating. Cheddar made from pasteurized milk is blah. No staying power.

Somehow the government's premise seems faulty to me. I am totally for maintaining standards for public health and safety. I just want sensible oversight. If cheese wasn't safe, humans would have never made it this far. Nomads in the desert would have food poisoning from their traditional cheese. Cheesemaking is a form of food preservation. You get sick when things are dirty or not preserved properly. Dirty valves, dirty spoons, dirty hands. We don't get sick when we honor the traditional methods of production.

-Stepping off my soap box again.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Who, what, where, how, why when?

Who am I?
I'm Sarah. I'm following my dreams. I'm a cheesemaker. Do I have a farming background? No. I grew up in the suburbs: San Rafael, California. My dad owned a men's clothing store and my mom is/was a food & travel writer/poet/English teacher. I've been a cheesemonger, an land conservation operations guru, an art school fundraising flunky, a music business geek, an independent record store taste maven (read the book High Fidelity for more details,) a radio station promotions and production wizard, a concert usher, and a music and travel writer. I also like to cook, bake, and make stained glass windows. You don't have to grow up on a farm. All it takes is having a vision and the desire to do something in order to make it happen. In this case I'm making cheese. I've been blazing my own path for most of my life.

If you tell me not to do something, that's EXACTLY what I will want to do, just to see if I can do it. In high school a radio disc jockey came and talked to my class for an afternoon. Her advise: don't work in radio. If you're a woman, it is a terrible career. No job security. I didn't listen. I had to learn that lesson for myself. She was right. I have been told that if I want to earn money, don't go into cheesemaking. Cheesemaking is a "lifestyle" career. If I want to have a day off, don't go into cheesemaking. I'm not listening to the Greek Chorus. I'm making cheese. I guess the life lesson I'm learning is this: if you dream it you can do it.

What do I want to do?
I want to make my own cheese. I want to make all kinds of cheese. Fresh cheese, soft cheese, aged (firm) cheese, wash-rind (stinky) cheese, blue cheese. I will use the best milk I can buy from local cows and goats. I'd be happy to make sheep's milk cheese, too. Some cheese will be pasteurized. Some will be made with raw milk. I want a life, so I will let others milk the cows, goats, and sheep. Making cheese is enough work for several people. I have my hands full taking care of my three cats. I want to craft a product for which I am proud. I want it to be the best cheese that I can possibly coax out of the vat of milk. I want to share this cheese with those who want to eat it.

Why do I want to do it?
Because I love to make cheese. I can't see myself doing anything else anymore. Is it a calling? Perhaps. Cheesemaking has been a passion I've been harboring for years. I'm finally doing something about it. This is a very scary journey. I've been pretty comfy, enjoying my life in San Francisco, eating out, walking to the bank, riding public transportation, living in vibrant city. I'm trading this life for something more rural. We'll be moving to a small town. A place where your neighbors make eye contact with you. I can come up with all kinds of reasons why I should stay. Most of them are meaningless. The restaurants I patronize don't make me a better person. I'm not really giving up that much. I'm gaining a whole lot more. What makes me nervous is my future's uncertainty. It will always be uncertain. Why should I let my fears stop me from doing what I want to do? I've got a dream, dammit. I'm going for it. I want to live life to the fullest by doing what I love.

do I want to do it?

I want to make a hand-crafted cheese in the Oregon wine country, using the techniques that I've learned from those willing to teach me in California, North Carolina, and England. I want to produce my own cheeses for as long as I can. I want to have a cave to age my cheese. A real cave, nestled in the earth, nurturing the young, firm cheese into delicate, rich morsels, The atmosphere of the cave bathes the cheese with the scent of the land, permeating it with its signature. My cheese will be a part of me and my land.

Where do I want to this?
I want to make cheese in Oregon, south of Portland in the wine country. We like it there. We've wanted to live there for years. We're selling our house. Anybody want to buy a beautiful, three bedroom, two bath house with a view of Mt. Tamalpias, the Marin Headlands, and a kick-ass, recently remodeled kitchen in the Inner Sunset of San Francisco? We are going to buy a house on several acres in Yamhill County, Oregon. We're still looking for that house. I know it's out there somewhere.

When will I do it?
Now, yesterday, tomorrow, as soon as possible. I'm ready to go! I want to make my own mistakes. I've got so much more to learn, and I want to learn in my own space. My business has a name. Now it needs a form. I've already got the website and I'm just taking care of the legal stuff. It's going to be an LLC. I'll post the name and the link to the proto-website once the paperwork has been completed.

Ready! Set! Go! I feel like I've been pregnant for years and I am ready to give birth to this cheese dairy NOW!

In the words of a contestant on Wheel of Fortune:

Pat, I'd like to buy a vat and solve the puzzle....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Meet Dolores

Oh my goodness! I have been so negligent! I have not been ignoring my life with cheese, but I have been taking care of many loose ends as we prepare to make a move to the Pacific Northwest. We just had our house painted. It is a beautiful blue-gray with cream trim. Once we have a place to move to, we'll paint the interior. The problem is, we haven't found a place that we like, yet.

Perhaps this weekend. We'll be back on the prowl this Friday, Sept. 21-Sunday, Sept. 23. Keep your fingers crossed. Maybe the right place is ready for us this time. I'm growing weary of the search. It is disheartening to see so many places that haven't been taken care of nor updated since the Carter administration. We'll be looking at places with 5 - 20 acres in the towns of Newberg, Yamhill, Carlton, and Amity. Some have barns. Some are on gravel roads. We'll have a lot to see and do this weekend. We've arranged a meeting with a lawyer to see if we want to work with him while we set up our small business. We also want to open a bank account and rent a mail box. We're getting serious!

This past weekend was my husband's birthday. We spent some time exploring West Marin, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. The farmer's market at Point Reyes Station was hopping on Saturday morning. We picked up some apples, lettuce, lamb, and a dozen oysters from Marin farmers. Drakes Bay Oyster Company's oysters are some of our favorites, too. We were happy to see their booth. Saved us a drive out to their oyster farm on Drakes Bay.

After stashing our oysters, fruits and veggies in our cooler, we walked across the street to the barn of Tomales Bay Foods. Naturally we had to pay a visit to Cowgirl's "factory" and cheese counter. We took a peek to see who was working in the cheese room and there was Maureen, turning a fresh batch of Mt. Tams. She gave us a big smile and waved. A few minutes later she popped out of the make room and we filled her in on our goings-on.

Michael, the manager of Cowgirl Creamery's Pt. Reyes cheese counter gave us a warm hello. I introduced him to Jim. We talked for a little bit and he helped customers as they approached the counter. When things quieted down he asked, "Do you want to pick anything up?" I had spied a cheese that looked kind of like a Mount Tam hiding in the cheese cage. It had a white, bloomy rind with a grape leaf draped across the top part of the cheese. "It's Dolores," he explained. Cowgirl Creamery makes it only once a year for a special event. It is a lactic cheese, meaning they use less rennet to set it and it sets up more slowly. Inverness, the small thimble-shaped cheese that Cowgirl produces is also a lactic cheese. Dolores, being a special cheese made for a special event isn't a cheese that one finds for sale. I've never heard of it nor seen it at the counter during my stint at the Ferry Building. I was surprised and excited to see this new cheese. It is even rarer than the rarely seen Sir Francis Drake! There were two Dolores' hiding in the cheese gage. "Is it ripe?" I asked Michael. He gave one a gentle squeeze on the sides and nods. "Oh yeah. This one is perfect!" Sold! We walked away with a Dolores and a washed rind goat cheese called Soft Wheel from Twig Farm in Vermont. I haven't tried the goat cheese. We devoured the Dolores first.

So how was Dolores? Delicious! Perhaps the best cheese in the Cowgirl Creamery repertoire. When I cut into it, my knife glides right through as if I am cutting softened butter. There is a nice, gooey breakdown around a firmer center. The firmer part is light and velvety in texture, like a mousse. The smell: milky straw that's been blown around by the beach. There's a touch of salt air. And the taste is just as nice. It just pools onto my tongue. Coating it in rich butterfat. The bloomy rind give it a chewiness and adds strong mushroomy notes. The center part of the cheese body has a nice lactic tang. This is a very nice cheese. It lingers on the palette. Oh, it is making me crave a nice amber ale. Hmmm. What's in the fridge?