Healdsburg, Calif. — RACKS of goat's milk cheese are lined up in a tiny aging room: little rounds of a tangy young cheese called Petit Marcel; log-shaped buches that in another week or so will have bloomy crusts surrounding their mild, luxurious interiors; and rows of paves, rather majestic blocks of cheese with slightly rumpled rinds and swathed traceries of white bloom -- four-sided truncated pyramids that look like a classic Valencay from the Loire Valley.
But these aren't cheeses from Sainte-Maure or Berry in France -- they're distinctly Californian. And unfettered by tradition, the latest wave of California cheese makers are creating exactly what they want how they want, to bold and great effect -- whether mold-ripened goat cheeses with surprisingly complex character or mixed-milk cheeses custom-made for chefs that are much like works of art.
The benchmark for California cheese is higher than ever in a market that finally has caught up with a few pioneers who were way ahead of the curve. Both the flavors and types of cheeses are constantly evolving. From the highest end (an elegant triple creme made with cow's milk creme fraiche stirred into fresh goat's milk curds) to the more accessible (a creamy farmhouse sheep's milk cheese drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and cracked black pepper or a buttery, rich, handmade cheddar) -- cheese-wise, probably no other state has as much to offer. California now has the most artisan cheese producers in the country, according to the recently published "Atlas of American Cheese."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheese: In an article about California cheese makers in Wednesday's Food section, the toll-free number for Cowgirl Creamery was listed incorrectly. The number is (866) 433-7834.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 18, 2007 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheese: In a July 11 article about California cheese makers, the toll-free number for Cowgirl Creamery was listed incorrectly. The number is (866) 433-7834.
And though European cheese may be the standard by which all else is measured, innovation is one of the hallmarks of California cheese makers.
Not three full seasons into cheese-making and the handmade small-batch goat's milk cheeses of Pugs Leap Farm in Sonoma County -- the Petit Marcel, buche and pave -- already have made their way onto a number of impressive menus. "It's remarkable what they've accomplished in a relatively little amount of time," says Nick Peyton, maitre d' and partner at Cyrus, the Michelin-rated two-star restaurant in Healdsburg.
Two cerulean blue doors lead to the small cheese-making quarters at Pugs Leap, squeaky clean and filled with the lactic perfume of fresh goat's milk. Cheese maker Pascal Destandau might have a bit of mad scientist in him. "He has endless envelopes of cultures," says his partner, Eric Smith, referring to the lactic bacteria, yeasts and molds that are added to the curds to promote ripening, or aging.
Like most artisan cheese makers, Destandau grumbles about the law that requires milk for cheese aged less than 60 days to be pasteurized. There's a depth of flavor that many say is lost during pasteurization, but Destandau says he makes up for it in the cheese-making process -- from coagulation of the curd to the molds that are applied to the exterior of the cheese to promote ripening from the outside in.
He's working on a new goat cheese called Sotoyome. "I want a really, really original flavor," Destandau says. "I'm using different starter cultures, different ripening cultures, promoting slightly faster coagulation. I'm still experimenting."
As far as experimenting goes, "we have a lot of freedom," says Barbara Backus of Goat's Leap outside of St. Helena. She has been making and selling some of the country's best farmstead mold-ripened goat's milk cheeses since the early '90s, such as her Sumi or Hyku. "There's no A.O.C.," she says, referring to the appellation d'origine controlee, the French government's designation for regional food and wine produced under certain historical requirements. "I make what I want, and I call it what I want. Tradition is a resource, but you can't let it inhibit your creativity." Nor is the latest generation of cheese makers letting it damp their originality.
Tasting its origins
ON a recent afternoon at Andante Dairy, not far from Petaluma, Soyoung Scanlan (who had experimented with goat's milk alongside Backus) was packing her first shipment of a new cheese she developed exclusively for chef Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant in New York -- 20 thick disks of a mixed-milk triple creme for which she stirs cow's milk creme fraiche into the goat's milk curds. Although she hews to tradition ("there's no invention in cheese," she says, "just tweaking"), her cheeses stand on their own. This latest one is a little richer and creamier than another of her mixed-milk triple cremes, she says -- unctuous and voluptuous when ripe but still gorgeous on a composed plate.
"Cheese is beautiful -- it shows so many aspects of careful production," she says. "In it I can taste good milk from healthy animals, the dairy farmer's care, the cheese maker's dexterity and integrity as a craftsman, the distribution -- when it's finely carried, and how it is handled."