Friday, February 29, 2008

Be True To Your School

Photo: Valdeon, a Spanish blue cheese.

In my fridge right now: a hunk of La Tur, half a wheel of Winnemere, a small wedge of Tarentaise, and a few small bits of Fiscalini's Bandage Wrapped Cheddar. This is in addition to the cheese Jim and I picked up last weekend at The Cheese Shop in Healdsburg. We grabbed some Essex Street Comte, a firm sheep's milk Ovejo Romao, a semi-soft washed rind goat cheese Cacio di Capra, and sheep's milk Tomme Brulee. Most of the comte is gone and we'll be devouring the Tomme Brulee this weekend.

Photo: Cheese School owner Sara Vivenzio and baby Mila

Staying busy is a good thing for me, particularly while I'm sitting on my heels, waiting for our creamery property to appear. Working at the Cheese School of San Francisco has given me a great opportunity to expand my horizons. I get to continue to work with cheese, interact with eager cheese lovers hungry for knowledge, and gain exposure to cheeses that I haven't worked with behind the counter at Cowgirl Creamery. What a great place to work!

Photo: Cheese and Wine Pairing with Janet Fletcher, Michael refilling glasses.

Two or three times a week, the classroom is a buzz with up to 30 people, ready and eager to learn how to appreciate cheese. Most classes sell out quickly. Clearly there is a huge demand for cheese education. While working at Cowgirl, customers asked for classes on cheeses of the world and cheesemaking all the time. Cheese is an ancient and mysterious food. Cheese classes help demystify a trip to the cheese counter.

Photo: The Cheese School's Ariel and the Pasta Shop's Juliana prep for the class - The Cheeses of Spain.

Here in the Bay Area, we are fortunate enough to have some very good cheese educators. Collectively our local cheese experts have owned cheese shops, worked in the cheese industry, published books and articles on cheese, and worked at creameries, cheese-aging facilities, and cheese counters around the world. Lots of them teach at The Cheese School of San Francisco. Also you can find the experts at wineries, hosting cheese and wine pairing classes. Wineries are great venues for cheese classes. So are brewpubs. I have a friend who will go to your house and bring the cheese and wine class to you.

Of course, classes are offered everywhere if you take the time to look. The cheese shops of New York City have some nice class offerings, too. Murray's as well as Artisanal both offer classes throughout the year.

Photo: Cheese plates ready to go for a Wine and Cheese Pairing.

Christine Hyatt, a.k.a. The Cheese Chick, offers cheese education classes at wineries as well as other venues in Oregon. She's even launched Cheese TV, web-based videos with a cheese focus. With all of my trips to Portland and the Oregon Wine Country, I have no idea how I haven't met her, but I hope to run into her soon. If she works with cheese, she's probably a kindred spirit. Not to mention that we both lived in Austin, Texas for a while. --Side note-- In what seems like a past life, I was in Austin in 1992-1993, living the slacker life, working behind the counter at Waterloo Records and as a production intern at KGSR. It took me a year to realize that no matter how cool and funky Austin can be, it is still Texas and that's not for me. I packed up and moved back to San Francisco, another wacky place and the land of my birth. But I digress....

Photo: Valentine's Day at the Cheese School of San Francisco, XOX Chocolate Truffles and Grandin Sparkling Wine.

The Cheese School offers classes two or three times per week. The class size is usually 25-30 people. For two hours, students get to enjoy 8 - 12 cheeses as well as 2-4 wines. The numbers vary with the class offered. The class called Basic Cheese Primer covers 12 cheeses and two wines. Cheeses of Spain had nine different cheeses. The extremely popular Cheese and Wine Pairings cover eight cheeses and four, sometimes five wines. In addition to cheese and wine, we put out a nice array of accompaniments: honey, jam, frest fruit, dried fruit, almonds, candied walnuts, as well a basked of bread (fresh baked Acme sweet baguette and walnut levain) are set out on each table for students to try with their cheese. Sara Vivienzio, the director of the school is meticulous and has a great eye for detail. When students walk into the classroom, they are always impressed.

Photo: Judy Creighton leading a Basic Cheese Primer class.

Each class takes several hours of prep work. We've got to set the table, go pick up fresh fruit and bread, cut the cheese, slice the bread, make accompaniment plates, fill water jugs, chill the wine, and then we're ready for the students. I like being a part of this enterprise.

Besides having some nice left-overs, I've gotten to meet some really wonderful people.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cheese rolls - a recipe for disaster

Should you be in England over the bank holiday weekend at the end of May, I highly recommend stopping in Gloucestershire to check out the Cheese Rolling Contest. BTW, they are chasing a real wheel of cheese that the winner gets to keep.

These guys redefine break-neck speed.

Jim and I caught it in 2006. We were stupefied.


Photo: Sierra Mountain Tomme, made by my friend Caroline Hoel at La Clarine Farm in Somerset, El Dorado County, California.

Festival after festival. March seems to be a month of getting together and strutting your stuff on the West Coast.

Here in the Bay Area, we have not one, but TWO cheese festivals occurring back to back in Sonoma County. The first takes place in the scenic town of Sonoma from March 4-6, "The Food Chain - From the Farm to the Table, Opportunities and Challenges Conference at the Sonoma Valley Inn in Sonoma, CA. " The sixth annual cheese conference is geared more at the cheese professional, with workshops and gatherings focused on issues facing the cheese industry today. The focus this year is on agri-tourism. My definition of agri-tourism: visit the farm, meet and/or watch the cheesemakers/farmers/artisans work their magic, and buy some locally produced products while you're there. I plan on doing something like that on my own farm (once we find it.) I'm signed up for this conference and I am looking forward to spending two and a half days immersed in deep discussions about the state of cheese today. Sheana Davis is the organizer. She's an enthusiastic chef, educator, and a big promoter of local food, especially cheese. I've worked with her at the Cheese School of San Francisco. She's a lot of fun.

Immediately following the conference in Sonoma, is another gathering just down the road in Petaluma, California. The second annual California Artisan Cheese Festival is March 7-9.

This get-together is geared more at the cheese enthusiast. There will be workshops and cooking demos, even field trips to local cheesemakers. It is organized by Lynne Devereaux. She also teaches classes at the cheese school, but I have not had the opportunity to work with her. (She'll be teaching cheese and wine pairing classes later in March and April.) I'm sad I cannot attend this festival. Jim and I are heading to Portland to continue our property search. Perhaps by next year I'll have cheese of my own to feature at these gatherings! I truly hope so. Lots of cheesemakers will be there, letting folks sample and buy their cheese. Some are very small producers like my friend Caroline Hoel, owner of La Clarine Farm, who makes cheese from her herd of 30+ goats. Her goats are very luck and get to live on her oak dappled farm adjacent to their biodynamic vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. I love her Sierra Mountain Tomme, a mouthwatering, semi-firm goat cheese, with a beautiful, natural rind. Janet Fletcher of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about Caroline's cheese recently in her Cheese Course column.

The following weekend is the Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point, Oregon (near Medford.)
March 14th and 15th Rogue Creamery hosts every licensed cheesemaker in Oregon and the public can celebrate their greatness. The event features a dinner, a wine, cheese, and chocolate marketplace, and the world's best cheese plate featuring all Oregon cheeses. This is something I should see! Don't think I'll be at this one, unless Jim wants to jump in the car and drive to southern Oregon Friday night (highly unlikely.) NEXT YEAR. Mark your calendars.

Moving north on the map, the festive atmosphere continues with the Seattle Cheese Festival. The fourth annual event will be May 16 -18 at Pike Place. Wine tastings, food demos, and a cheese showcase will be happening all weekend. There is even a scavenger hunt. I haven't had the good fortune to check this one out, either. It might be a good excuse to go to Seattle. Seattle is only four hours from Yamhill County, Oregon. That sound you hear are the gears turning in my head, trying to figure out a way I can attend these events.

Should you be in Chicago at the end of July, the American Cheese Society will be hosting its annual conference at the Chicago Hilton. The highlight is the Festival of Cheese, featuring all of the cheeses entered into the yearly competition. Anyone can buy a ticket to attend the festival and gorge themselves on 1200+ cheeses from all across America. Nirvana.
This is an event not to be missed. I am still mad I could not make it last year when it was in Vermont.

Are these cheese festivals a growing trend? It sure looks like it. I'm sure there will be a few more popping up in a town near you if not this year, than next.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Winter at Willow Hill Farm

Pam and I drove up to Milton, Vermont to go say hello to Willow Smart and see her cheesemaking establishment. Well, Pam drove, I got to look out the window. The weather was great, with the sun peeking out from behind a wall of clouds, occasionally flooding the snowy landscape with bright sunlight. We drove north from Burlington, heading into a more hilly region of Vermont. Bare trees, rocky slopes and frozen ponds and streams whirled past the car as we found our way to Milton.

As its turns out, Milton is only about 15 miles north of Burlington, but it took longer than expected to find Willow's place. Her directions were great. We just took our time, and stopped in town to check out an old church. The town was chartered in 1763, and the church dated back to shortly after the town's founding. It was a classic New England protestant church, with a tall steeple and large assembly hall. The pews were clearly hand built, with carvings on the ends.
We ducked out of the building and drove onwards to Willow's place on Hardscrabble Road.

Willow Hill Farm was just up the road. The driveway was snowy but passable. We passed some hardy looking sheep, standing in a snow covered pasture near a barn. They looked at us with puzzled looks on their faces. We followed the signs and pulled up to the cheese room and visitor's gallery as Willow and her husband David.

They were just wrapping up a meeting and came out to say hello. Our boots made nice crunching sounds as we walked cross the compacted snow. Willow led us into her new visitor's room while David went off to work on the exterior of the cheese room.

photo: the exterior of the cheese room at Willow Hill Farm

The cheese room is new. Willow and David began construction in 2005 and finished the project themselves. 2o07 was a rough year, as they were finishing this project and they had a lot of equipment "issues." Her cheese production was down, because she couldn't make cheese as often as not. Her cheese cave, dug out of the rocky slope adjacent to the building where we were standing was bare on our visit.

photo: the make room of Willow Hill Farm

Willow gave us a tour of her facility. Both Pam and I peppered her with question. Pam with a professional cheesemaker's point of view, and me from a start-up, DIY perspective. Willow answered everything and gave me some good ideas for building materials, and how her layout works well for her workflow. With every place I visit, I pick up something new. I liked her visitor's viewing gallery. Since her place is built on a slope, visitors pull up to the top part of the building and can view everything from above. The business goes on below the viewer. Milk trucks pull up on the other side to deliver fresh milk for cheesemaking. The viewing room is lined with the may awards that Willow has received for her cheesemaking efforts. Numerous ribbons, certificates, and plaques cover the walls, a tribute to her hard work and great skill.

photo: the cheese fridge

Willow raises sheep on her diverse, certified organic farm. She buys cow's milk from a neighboring farm as well for her cheesemaking. During the fall and winter, her production focuses on cow's milk cheese because the sheep dry (not being milked.) Her visitor's gallery has a self-serve refrigerator in it. A price list is on the side of the fridge and inside reveals two different cheeses available on this brisk December afternoon. La Fleurie, a rich and buttery, bloomy rind cow's milk cheese in a camembert style, as well as Paniolo, a meaty and custardy washed rind cow's milk cheese with a bright orange rind. Paniolo means cowboy in Hawaiian. (Willow grew up on a cattle farm on the Big Island.) I eagerly took some cheese to try to transport home safely in my luggage. I'm told she also makes some amazing sheep's milk yogurt, but you can't get it in the winter. Darn!

I've tried a couple of her cheeses before. Alderbrook is her aged sheep's milk cheese, similar to a Basque cheese like Abbaye de Belloc or Ossau Iraty. From my tasting notes: Nutty, slightly sweet, and mushroomy. Tasted great with beer! I also tried her Vermont Brebis, a rich and creamy, soft ripened cheese made from sheep's milk. The one I had was a bit over-ripe, so it was extra gooey and a bit gamey. Still delicious.

photo: the cheesemakers of Willow Hill Farm

Willow's farm has been certified organic since 1992. Not only do they make cheese, but you can buy grass-fed lamb, wool blankets, and in the summer time you can pick your own blueberries. My kind of farm! She showed us some of her potatoes that were in a box in the visitor's gallery, ready to put into her cellar. I don't know when Willow and David have time to sleep, they seem to have so many endeavors going on.

photo: Pam and Willow

I really enjoyed meeting Willow and look forward to seeing her again, hopefully at the American Cheese Society's annual conference in Chicago this summer. By the way, Willow keeps a blog as well. You can keep up on her farm's goings-on here:

I just get all warm and fuzzy thinking about the three farms I got to visit during my time in Vermont. The Kehlers of Jasper Hill Farm, Michael and Emily of Twig Farm, as well as Willow and David of Willow Hill Farm. They're all really nice people who opened their doors to me and shared their vision as well as their cheese. They are all different in their approaches to their business, but they all shared a unifying vision of creating a hand crafted product from their own animals, and offering it to the public so that they might be able to taste their art, their land, their passion, as well as their toil. As many folks have told me, cheesemaking is not just a job, it is a lifestyle career. As I said before, I could live in Vermont, especially with neighbors like these. Too bad I can't stand living with months and months of ice and snow. That's while I'm looking at Oregon. We'll continue the search on March 8th.