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A world beyond cheddar

Jason Dobbs
special to the action
California produces some of the world's finest specialty cheeses.
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Living in Colorado in 1999, I remember large billboards along I-70 promoting Real California Cheese. “It’s the Cheese!” they proclaimed, as if the cheese was the reason people come to live and play in this great and diverse state.

Now, as the state’s industry has boomed ” as has the nation’s ” many of us have become familiar with RCC’s new slogan: “Great cheese comes from happy cows, and happy cows come from California.”

Of course they do.

The most populated state in the Union also offers warm beaches on over 1,000 miles of coastline; the Giant Sequoias which lay claim as the world’s largest trees (or living things, for that matter); the highest and lowest points in the Lower 48; bald eagles; a border with Mexico; heaps of fresh produce like artichokes, olives, nuts and strawberries; and nine National Parks.

Yes, California is host of all things, and so our cows are simply happier than those in Wisconsin, the only state that produces more cheese. The Badger State? C’mon, you’d be mad too.

California has a long history of cheese production, beginning in 1769 when Father Junipera Serra established 21 missions up and down the Pacific coast, introducing cows, dairy, and a tradition of cheesemaking.

Today, more than 50 cheesemakers in the state produce over 250 varieties of cheese, indicating broadened exploration by American palettes. Still, one-third of domestic production is comprised by Mozzarella (assumably mostly the factory-made kind used for blanketing pizzas), which just recently surpassed Cheddar as America’s most popular cheese.

However, to discover great cheeses, one must go beyond mac and cheese, stacks of nachos, schmeared bagels, and those 14″ pepperonis. And please don’t make me mention Cheez Whiz or anything that claims to be Parmesan, but comes unrefrigerated and in a cardboard container.

Great cheeses come not from factories, but from precise techniques beginning with top-quality milk. As cheese is a living and evolving creation of a complex fermentation, the various steps in creating it can be thought of as a sort of controlled spoiling.

Multiple variables including the type of milk, technique and aging contribute to the creation of different kinds of cheese, but nearly all processes include the following steps:

Milk is allowed to sour so that the curd (solids) can be separated from the whey (liquids). The ambient temperature at this point is essential, with lower temperatures yielding softer cheeses, and vice versa. This is because warmer temperatures expel more liquid, creating denser cheeses. The remaining curds are often heated or cut-and-pressed to further remove whey.

Next, a cheese is salted in order to dehydrate and slow the ripening rate of the bacteria that is now living in the cheese culture. Sometimes the salt may be added directly to the curd. Or, as is the case with Parmigiano-Reggiano and other firm-type examples, coarse salt granules are rubbed against the surface to create a hard, dry rind that allows ripening to occur slowly and from the inside out.

The final step is aging, which takes anywhere between a week and a few years, and allows the cheese to “ripen” to its crucial texture, flavor and aroma. This stage used to take place in musty caves where temperature and humidity are constant, but California cheesemakers are more likely to have rooms where these two factors can be controlled, with softer cheeses like Brie benefiting from lower temperatures, higher humidity levels and more rapid aging.

As with California wines, provincial cheeses offer consumers a staggering assortment of choices. Monterey Jack, a California original, is beautifully demonstrated by Vella Cheese Company’s Bear Flag brand in a slightly sweet and slightly peppery cheese. And Humboldt Fog is a mildly tangy and creamy classic chevre by Cypress Grove, which specializes in all goats’ milk cheeses.

There are hundreds of other options to list, but my favorite artisanal cheese must be the buttery Mt. Tam, a mellow, earthy and nutty triple-cream from rightfully renown Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, which also produces a number of other delectable molds.

Keen diners in North Tahoe are fortunate to find these and others handcrafted cheeses on menus of restaurants scattered about our mountain environs. While they are suitable as a meal or snack of their own, aside fruit, nuts and breads, or even used in some cooked dishes, my favorite time to eat cheese is the French way ” as dessert (and always at room temperature to allow fully released aromas and flavors).

Ron Florian, of Florian’s Fine Foods (in the Safeway Center, Truckee, 530-550-0828) has worked hard at constantly bringing new cheeses and other fine foods to North Tahoe’s ever-growing customer base. After six years in business, he carries over 200 cheeses ” all carefully labeled with taster’s notes and suggested wine pairings.

The friendly and knowledgeable proprietor offers this rule of thumb when selecting the right wine to match: Whatever region the cheese comes from, pair a wine from the same region. When asked to explain why, he answers with a French term, “terroir.”

Terroir is a concept without direct translation, but it comes from the root “terre,” meaning earth or soils. The term is more complex than that however, encompassing a combination of factors including sun, rain, altitude, wind, and so on, of a particular plot of land. The idea is that just as a particular terroir will lend its unique characteristics to the taste of a grape and the wine it will become, it will also contribute those flavors to the grasses that the cows eat, which ultimately provides milk for the cheese. By selecting wines to drink with cheeses from the same region, you are ensuring a complementary pairing for you and any guests to enjoy.

Recognizing that these concepts are vast and relatively unknown in our area, Florian is looking forward to putting together some cheese and wine tastings in April and May this year, hoping to further educate our Tahoe community. Until then, he invites you to come by Florian’s and try some exciting new cheeses and explore suitable accompaniments like his favorite LaBrea sourdough, or quince chutney.

The staff at Florian’s makes it easy to explore, but if that sounds too daunting, both Moody’s (in downtown Truckee) and Plumpjack (in Squaw Valley) offer thoughtful selections of artisan cheeses on their dessert menus.

As fortunate Californians, we simply live too close to 1.75 million happy cows to let their great cheeses go unappreciated.

For more information on the wide world of cheese, consult “Cheese Primer” by Stephen Jenkins, the American guru of all things cheese.


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