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WEEKEND ESCAPE: NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

Cheesy Souvenirs

Driving country roads, strolling the Point Reyes shore and taking home an edible piece of Marin's agricultural tradition

October 08, 2000|CHRISTOPHER HALL

OLEMA, Calif. — Mention Marin County and any number of images of the suburban good life come to mind--sailboats bobbing at Sausalito moorings, or glass-and-redwood houses perched on hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.

But on a recent weekend I explored an entirely different aspect of the county just north of the Golden Gate. The reason for the trip? I can tell you in three words: It's the cheese.

Marin was California's first important dairy region, and in still-rural areas, that tradition is guarded zealously. One of the oldest cheese-making operations in the state is there, as is a newcomer that's been instrumental in promoting local specialty cheeses. Both operations are open to the public, and they made a fine centerpiece for a weekend of good food and country drives.

On a Saturday morning in July, my partner, Mac, and I headed north from San Francisco on U.S. 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge. Within 45 minutes we had passed through Marin suburbia into a countryside of rolling, wheat-colored hills dotted with oaks and small herds of black-and-white cows.

Our first stop was the Marin French Cheese Co. near the Sonoma County border by Petaluma. Founded in 1865, the company originally supplied hard cheeses like cheddar for the booming market of post-Gold Rush San Francisco. In 1900 it switched to the soft-ripened Camembert- and brie-style cheeses it still produces.

After trying free cheese samples in the gift shop, we joined eight visitors on a whirlwind 10-minute tour of the facility. I would have preferred more in-depth information, but clearly the guide was used to dealing with a public that's not terribly sophisticated when it comes to cheese. She reassured several members of our group that white mold on the outside of Camembert and brie is edible, and she managed only the weakest of smiles when another visitor referred to "stinky French cheese" and expressed a preference for the mild taste of American.

The tour did allow us to view the series of bare, squeaky-clean rooms where local milk is pasteurized, mixed with natural enzymes, poured into forms and left to solidify, and then cured in brine. We weren't able to visit the aging cellar, where cheese sits anywhere from three weeks to a couple of months depending on the variety, nor did we see the making of cheese, which can be viewed Thursdays and Fridays.

It was close to noon when we ended our tour, and although the thought of a picnic on the shady grounds was tempting (the gift shop is well stocked with supplies), we had plans for lunch in the nearby town of Nicasio.

We hopped into the car and followed the two-lane Point Reyes-Petaluma and Nicasio Valley roads, which wound through small canyons of rustling dry grass and past fields where the hay had been harvested and baled. We ate at Rancho Nicasio, a dark, woody old-time roadhouse outfitted with a wagon-wheel chandelier and all sorts of stuffed and mounted animal heads, including that of the elusive jackalope.

We sat on a shady side deck and enjoyed a tender tri-tip barbecue sandwich and a smoky, blackened prime rib sandwich topped with salsa fresca, both washed down with a hoppy Lagunitas IPA (India Pale Ale).

After lunch, we headed a half-hour west to Olema, the tiny town--more like a crossroads--adjacent to Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes once had 26 dairy ranches and produced high-quality butter. With the 1962 creation of the national seashore, however, the federal government purchased the properties and leased some back to the ranchers. Today seven dairy ranches operate on park land.

In Olema, we checked into the 21-room Point Reyes Seashore Lodge, a contemporary, two-story wood building whose broad porch, gabled roof and extensive gardens give it the feel of a place that's been around longer. (Rooms and suites are $95 to $295 per night, continental breakfast included.)

Our room was large and simple, with off-white walls, honey-colored wood trim and a large picture window that looked onto a wide lawn sloping toward a creek, beyond which I could see forested coastal hills with fingers of fog.

After a long walk and some bird-watching along Limantour Beach, about 20 minutes from Olema, we cleaned up at the lodge and headed across the street for dinner at the Olema Inn on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, a whitewashed Victorian that opened in 1876 and has been nicely renovated.

In a country-elegant dining room with soft lighting, a glowing pine floor and walls hung with small California Impressionist landscapes, we had a terrific meal: starters of local Hog Island oysters and grilled asparagus with shaved dry jack cheese, and main courses of roasted halibut on a bed of risotto and a tender Niman Ranch steak with green peppercorn butter. Portions were large, so we split a dessert of apricot-cherry crisp, and during our two-hour meal, we drank a bottle of 1998 Acacia Carneros Chardonnay.

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