Friday, March 28, 2014

Go for Goat! (On the California Cheese Trail: Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese)

I felt as though we were in an estranged place and time. A place perhaps forgotten by the reach of development I thought was inescapable; a time departed from the lure of a life the speed of a bullet train. I feel the clock slow. I rolled down a window and I breathe, my mundane worries quickly vanishing, carried away by the whipping wind like a weightless dandelion. I inhale and more than just clean air fills my lungs – I also breathe in the technicolor of the bright sunshine, blue skies, wild flowers, and free roaming cows. I am having a storybook moment, I guess. We drove through endless country roads where it is lush in every periphery filled with grazing spotted milk cows and sheep. Spring is definitely making a big presence here. The rolling hills are carpeted with thick grass in the most vivid green as if in a dream, and in some spots, with yellow mustard wildflowers, uncontrollable and free. I recall a similar experience on the road, only it was in Bouillon.

I was already captivated and little did I know that the stories told by people here who have built lives and livelihood, raised children and animals, would be just as riveting. It was such a noble way of life, and in a lot of ways, enviable.

I am on the furtive California Cheese Trail. I came here for stories of food. But what I got was a lot more. I got stories of passion.

Even to West Coasters as myself, the California Cheese Trail remains obscured, and I would argue that we should keep it that way. The trail spans Sonoma and Marin Counties in California, north of San Francisco.  This area is already made famous by its fantastic wine, but to also lay claim to some great, boutique cheese?  Remind me why I don't live here again.  The trail map could be downloaded here, and there is also an app available for both Apple and Android devices.  While some of the cheesemakers are open to the public, some are only available for tours/tastings by appointment only.

Right around March, there is also a festival for serious cheese nerds.  There are guided tours, workshops, tastings, and classes.  The 2014 annual event was last weekend, but you can pin this page for the 2015 schedule.

We were on the trail to meet two cheesemakers that day: Don and Bonnie of Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese and Craig Ramini of Ramini Mozzarella.  We were just whale-watching that morning at Bodega Head and would be wine tasting the next day, so an afternoon was all we had.  But carpe diem, we did!  We allowed two hours per cheesemaker and that was plenty for each place to leave an impression.


Bonnie meets us at the barn door.  "I've been expecting you."  She has a kind face and a nonna quality about her.  I thaw out instantly.  We entered the barn where she keeps the kids and some mothering ones, and instantly, the chorus of bleeping goats welcome her.  And us.  I didn't realize goats had that much personality!  They were like puppies clamoring to be petted!

She started the goat farm with just two goats as pets for grandkids.  Years later, it ballooned to over one hundred fifty.  They are already an organic cow milk dairy (supplying Organic Valley) so it was not too much of a transition to start milking the goats.  

Outside, there were more goats and it was interesting to see how some goats were more personable than others. There is one particular “show” goat who enjoyed the limelight too much that she started bleating relentlessly when she realized there was a tour happening without her.  She had wanted to be part of the action and she let everyone know.

And what to do with all that goat’s milk? Well, make cheese, of course.

Mass produced goat cheese has a distinct flavor. It is musky and some people would describe a tangible and unique bitterness to say, chevre and gruyere. As our tour wrapped to the pens outside, we smelled that familiar goat cheese smell.  It turns out that that musky scent emanates from the stud.  The trick to making cheese without this taste is for the milking goats to be separated from the studs.  It works pretty well because all the cheeses we tried (except for the goat’s brie, which is a young cheese) had none of that musky flavor.

Meanwhile, Bonnie steps inside the house to fetch her husband, Don DeBernardi, the cheesemaker, who has spent time with family ties in the Alps to learn the art of making goat cheese.  He had a couple of temperature controlled trailers in the property where the wheels of cheese are being aged. Due to sanitation reasons, we couldn’t go inside, but he would bring the special ones out and you could tell, this is a man proud of this cheese.
And one could see – no, TASTE, why.  We tried four different kinds – each one older than the last.  In the US, it is illegal to sell “raw”cheese products so cheese has to be aged at least three months.  The older a cheese is, the harder it gets.  So a three-month old would be softer and suppler with more of a tang. A nine-month old cheese would be harder, the flavor subtler.  This would be your grating cheeses. 

I say this without being patronizing, but each cheese we tried was excellent.  I’ve never had brie as fresh as this one in my life before and it made all the difference.  In the small sun-filled tasting room at DeBernardi, with two DeBernardis, one the lactose-intolerant goat-lover, the other, the passionate cheesemaker, the world melts, like the most perfect grilled cheese.

This is it.  We've found gold.  

Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese is located at 7955 Valley Ford Road, Petaluma, CA. Check them out on Facebook here.  Some of their cheeses are available at Whole Foods. Don DeBernardi is also a mainstay at the local farmer's markets.

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