SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Cheese used to be as good as money in Sylvia Tucker's family. They paid handymen with it, and even had a small round, called a visita, to exchange for doctors' visits. But that was in the Azores.
Tucker is Sylvia's married name; she was born Matos. Her grandfather had a fabrica de queijo (cheese factory) in So Jorges, one of a small spangle of Azorean islands strung so far out in the Atlantic that they are a third of the way from Lisbon to the United States.
That a modern American form of the visita is now one of California's most distinctive cheeses is due to Tucker's parents, Jose and Mary Matos. They immigrated to California in the 1960s--separately, at first. Mary Matos came in 1960. She leaves most of the talking to reporters to Tucker, her grown-up American daughter, but she finds the English to describe the courtship with her husband.
"My father worked for his father," she says. "I never thought I was going to marry him. But I got a letter from him and went back and married him. It was a goofy thing. There were plenty of men here."
In Petaluma, Jose Matos, or "Joe," worked milking cows while his wife worked for a poultry processor in Petaluma.
"They always had a family milk cow," says Tucker. "So Dad and Mom decided to make a little cheese for home use and it actually turned out pretty good. So that's when they decided to buy a bigger place."
This was a farm of 25 acres (now 88) in Sonoma. Here, since 1979, they have been making St. George, an aged cow's milk cheese named after their home island, So Jorge. It is made much the way Jose's father and grandfather made the visita cheeses before them. They even call the business the same thing as the Matos dairy in the Azores: the Cheese Factory.
However, anyone expecting industrial scale is in for a surprise. After a modest driveway, one approaches a courtyard with cheese rooms on one side, cow shed and milking parlor on another and a small piggery on a third.
Over in the shed, most of the 36 cows are the black-and-white Holstein types. About 25 will be giving milk at any one time. The family is slowly adding more of the relatively dainty brown Jerseys to the herd. Says Tucker, "It's for the increased butterfat in their milk."
At this her mother jokes, "Sylvia likes them from 4-H."
Tucker does, indeed, love cows. "I've always been an animal lover," she says. "I did the afternoon milkings after school." Her own three children now participate in 4-H Clubs.
Whereas most milk travels hundreds of miles 'twixt modern cow and cheese maker, at the Cheese Factory, it goes about 200 yards through a pipe to cheese-making rooms. Here, barnyard grit gives way to an immaculate room protected by foot baths, screens and bug lights and furnished mainly in stainless steel.
In Portugal, the cheese Tucker's grandfather made was from raw milk. Her parents did it the same way in California until about 10 years ago, when they began heat-treating the milk to kill most bacteria. Then it is decanted into a vat about the size of a deep bathtub.
The cheese-making itself is started by the dipping of rennet, which comes from the lining of a stomach of a slaughtered calf. It carries rennin, an enzyme that starts the milk curdling. As the curd begins to form, the Matos family constantly breaks or "cuts" it and gently cooks the curds. "It is for the whey to separate and so the curd will be easy to cook. If we don't do that, it would be like Jell-O," says Mary Matos.
The whey, or watery portion of the milk, is drained. A "real" cheese factory would pipe it into a centrifuge where it would be reduced to skim-milk powder. At the Matos farm, whey is pumped out across the courtyard to a small sty, where it is dinner for perhaps six pigs.
Keeping pigs to dispose of whey is as old as cheese-making itself. Traditional European farmhouse cheese makers usually also made pork charcuterie. The Matos family, says Tucker, simply sells their pigs to market.
Back in the cheese room, the curd is salted, put into hoops and topped with weights. Hoops vary in size to produce cheeses anywhere from 10 to 25 pounds. After a day on a press, a cheese is flipped and pressed for 24 more hours. Formed cheeses are then moved to an aging room where they are turned each day as they mature for 90 days. During this time, moisture continues to evaporate and flavor intensify.
The result is unique, at least for those who have never encountered the Portuguese answer to Cheddar before. The first thing that strikes you about St. George is its pristine state. The rind is thin and clean. The pale blond curd is soft and flawless. It is neither dry and crumbly like farmhouse English Cheddar, nor wet and rubbery like some of the new industrial versions. It's simply smooth. The flavor is rich with subtle grassy and flowery notes and a slightly tangy finish.
Part of this inimitable virgin character, it seems, is owing to superstition. "When Portuguese people see mold, they think it's bad," Tucker says.