From Behind the Cheese Counter

If you are an Oliver's shopper, you are very familiar with our GoLocal drumbeat.  It's pretty obvious why we keep pounding this particular instrument – we all like our jobs and want to continue to live in a beautiful place where great food matters; where people understand that reducing environmental impacts translates into green land, blue skies, clean air and water; where dollars that go into community banks STAY in those same communities.  

What does this have to do with cheese?  Well, we recently read a report from UC Davis that summarized the growth of artisan cheese making in the North Bay counties of Marin and Sonoma and it was exciting, to say the least.

Of California's 43 artisan cheese companies, over half of them are located in Sonoma and Marin.  What is the definition of artisan?  “As defined by the American Cheese Society, the word “artisan” or “artisanal” implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheese maker’s art, using as little mechanization as possible.”

With that definition in hand, the statistics are impressive: $119 million in sales, 332 jobs, and 8 million pounds of cheese produced annually.  The majority produce cow's milk cheese.  Almost half farm all or part organic and 70 percent own their dairy, with 37 percent leasing their land.  The oldest company, Marin French Cheese Company, is 135 years old and is the longest continually operating cheese plant in the US.

While statistics are useful in an economic-snapshot-sort of way, what we find REALLY useful is how utterly delicious these artisanal products are.  After all, without deliciousness, there would be no growth! 

When I scan the local cheeses in our stores, I glimpse wonderful, varied selections: bloomy triple creams and pungent washed-rinds from Cowgirl Creamery and Marin French Cheese Company.  I spy tangy fresh and aged goat cheeses from Laura Chenel and Redwood Hill, savory blue from Pt. Reyes, nutty sheep wheels from Barinaga Ranch in Marshall and creamy, mild ricottas from Bellwether Farm in Valley Ford. 

What I also picture in my mind's eye are the stories behind these products: the cows, goats and sheep, the landscapes changing from green to brown, the ranchers, cheese makers, distributors and cooks.

Sonoma and Marin's open space is beautiful and productive; the rolling hills with their winter and spring grasses produce food for these animals, the ultimate food processors!  They take grass, flowers and weeds and turn them into milk.  Amazing. 

Laura Chenel's fresh goat cheese confused local eaters 30 years ago, but her success was assured when Alice Waters put a goat cheese salad on the menu at Chez Panisse and placed a standing order for 50 pounds per week. 

Marcia Barinaga, who raises sheep in Marshall, told of helping one of her ewes through a breech birth and less than two hours later, was sampling her raw-milk sheep cheese, Baserri, to eager folks at the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. 

The Giacomini sisters spoke excitedly of how their parents' Point Reyes land has been certified organic, of their methane digester that turns animal waste into electric power and about their new culinary center, The Fork, where classes on local, seasonal cooking are offered.  Oh, and their cheeses, Original Blue and Toma, are fantastic, too!

The Bice siblings at Redwood Hill in Sebastopol raise goats, make really good cheese, win national awards for humane animal husbandry practices, are genuinely grateful when you are excited by their products and thank you for helping farmers.  Talk about keeping it real! 

Karen Bianchi-Moreda, down to earth and girl-next-door-genuine, is flummoxed at the idea that she's some kind of “cheese authority” when she hands out samples of her raw-milk Jersey cheeses from Valley Ford Dairy.  Her “make room” where she crafts Estero Gold and Highway 1, is the oldest building on the ranch, now home to its 5th generation of family.  One of Karen's sons, a recent Cal Poly graduate, is now making cheese there alongside her. 

So, if each of the 736,237 residents of Sonoma and Marin counties eats about 11 pounds annually or about a half ounce of local cheese per day, we won't have to ship ANY of the products made on these farms and ranches anywhere else.  We will have further reduced our environmental impacts AND done our part for the local economy.  Do your part today.  Burp.

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