- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

HANFORD, Calif. — California finally is producing artisanal cheeses that mix Old World expertise with bold local flavors that are worthy of sharing the table with the state’s world-class wines.

A combination of factors fueled by the economic boom of the 1990s has helped those who dreamed of exploring the world beyond mozzarella increase the number of cheeses produced in California from 70 to 250 since 1995.

Travelers meandering through the Northern California wine country or shooting along State Route 99 between Sacramento and Los Angeles frequently pass within minutes of dairies where farmers add new twists to old traditions or create California originals with local flavors. Many welcome visitors for a tasting, sometimes within view of the cows that produced the milk.

“California cheese is where wine was in the 1970s,” says Nancy Fletcher of the California Milk Advisory Board. “It’s really gaining recognition for its quality.”

Slowly, the public has been convinced that good cheese — like good wine — can be found close to home.

“American tastes became really homogenized over the last few decades — you could have the same food here and two states away,” says Matteo Watkins, chef-owner of Acequia on Main in Visalia. “But this is booming. Lodi, Modesto, Madera are like Napa was 20 years ago, and people who aren’t afraid to try what’s new know something really interesting is going on.”

The state’s specialty cheeses, born of its year-round sunny pastures, are molded by its immigrants and encouraged by California’s novelty-hungry food culture.

Like wine, cheese came to California with the Spanish missionaries. By 1882, one of the old mission recipes was adapted by Monterey businessman David Jacks into one of the state’s best-known originals: Monterey Jack.

Today, Monterey Jack, both fresh and aged, is still the pride of cheese makers such as Ignacio Vella. His grandfather, Tom Vella, had been making cheese since he arrived from Sicily. In 1931, prohibition had closed a turn-of-the-century brewery, and the Vellas set up their company in the cool, roomy building.

Ignacio Vella grew up around cheese vats, and he knows Jack. His buttery wheels soften at room temperature, unlocking the sweetness of the cream and accentuating added flavors, such as fresh rosemary or the basil in pesto Jack.

The family name, though, was made on dry Jack. Pale yellow, sweet and nutty, the Vellas’ version is rubbed in cocoa and pepper, then aged up to four years. Vella’s Special Select is the result of patient tweaking of an old recipe over many years — and the discerning palates of Mr. Vella’s wife and daughter, the first and harshest judges of his experiments, he says.

Visitors who wander into the old stone building are rewarded by the variety of cheese — and the friendly help in choosing the right one.

“With a pear or a fig, this is instant gratification,” says Chris Elms, who has stopped by while on a bike ride around Sonoma and takes a block of Vella’s Old Sport — a sharp, raw milk cheese — and a new blue, also Mr. Vella’s recipe.

Farther down the state, dairies acquire a Portuguese flair. More than 330,000 people of Portuguese descent live in California. Bullfights draw crowds in the summer months, and even the cheese harks back to the Azores — small, rocky islands hundreds of miles from the Iberian coast, the ancestral home of most of California’s Portuguese.

In small farming towns such as Hanford, families such as the Fagundes, Azorean immigrants who settled in the Central Valley nearly a century ago, handcraft Old World specialties such as their crumbly, piquant St. Jorge — a traditional recipe with a “dangerous” bite, according to Mr. Watkins.

California’s gift to good eating isn’t just about carrying on traditions. This is a place where Swiss immigrants can join with a Paraguayan affineur, an aged-cheese specialist, and use the strictest English tradition to produce a cheddar that wins a continentwide prize for best farmhouse cheese two years in a row.

Mariano Gonzalez hand-cuts, stacks and restacks the curds from raw, unpasteurized milk. The 60-pound wheels are bandage-wrapped, turned every day for a month and aged for two years. Over time, the cheddar becomes crumbly, darkens into a buttery color and settles into nutty, caramel flavors that fill the palate without losing their edge. All this takes place on the 1914 Modesto farm where John Fiscalini grew up tending his family’s herd.

Like many other fledgling specialty cheese makers, the Fiscalinis say they have yet to see a profit as they try to establish themselves in a state that produces 1.83 billion pounds of cheese annually.

“We’re farmers, cheese makers, not salesmen,” Mr. Fiscalini says. “but I wouldn’t be in this business if I weren’t making something really special.”

California’s rich variety of local cheese makers

California cheese makers vary in what they offer visitors. Some give tours, some have picnic areas, some have retail stores attached to a plant, and some are just dairy farms. Many do not make cheese daily, so call or check Web sites for details. Most welcome visitors for free tastings and also sell their products.

Many of these cheese makers are in Northern California wine country; others are in the Central Valley or the south, often within minutes of State Route 99 between Sacramento and Los Angeles. They are listed roughly north to south.

Crescent City; 866/EAT-CHEESE or www.rumianocheese.com. Cheddar, dry Jack, longhorn, longhorn calico, Monterey Jack, reduced-fat cheddar and Jack, raw-milk Monterey Jack and cheddar varieties.

@Text.normal:Loleta Cheese Co.: Loleta; 707/733-5470. Cheddar, fontina, havarti, Monterey Jack and flavored varieties.

Queseria Michoacan Cheese Co.: Redwood Valley; 707/485-0579. Queso fresco and requeson.

Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Co.: Orland; 530/865-9548.

Black Butte: Mount Lassen. Northern Gold, Tipsy Cow and flavored varieties.

Sierra Nevada Cheese Co.: Willows; 530/934-8660 or www.sierranevadacheese.com. Cream cheese and flavored varieties, Monterey Jack and flavored varieties.

Sonoma Cheese Co.: Sonoma; 707/996-1931 or www.sonomajack.com.

Vella Cheese Co.: Sonoma; 800/848-0505 or www.vellacheese.com. Asiago, raw-milk cheddar, dry Jack, Italian table cheese, mezzo secco, Romanello, Monterey Jack and flavored varieties.

Marin French Cheese Co.: Petaluma; 800/292-6001 or www.marinfrenchcheese.com. Breakfast cheese, brie, Camembert, Le Petit Bleu and flavored varieties.

Spring Hill Jersey Cheese: Petaluma; 707/762-3446 or www.springhillcheese.com. Breeze, cheddar, cream cheese, dry Jack, Gianna, quark, mozzarella fresh curd, Teleme and flavored varieties.

Cowgirl Creamery: Point Reyes Station; 415/663-9335 or www.cowgirlcreamery.com. Cottage cheese, Fromage Blanc, Mount Tam, St. Pat, Pierce Point and Red Hawk.

Straus Family Creamery: Marshall; 415/663-5464 or www.strausmilk.com. Cheddar and Monterey Jack.

Oakdale Cheese & Specialties: Oakdale; 209/848-3139 or www.oakdalecheese.com. Gouda, quark and flavored varieties.

Fiscalini Cheese Co.: Modesto; 209/545-6844 or www.fiscalinicheese.com. San Joaquin Gold, cheddar and flavored varieties.

Hilmar Cheese Co.: Hilmar; 209/667-6076 or www.hilmarcheese.com. Cheddar, Monterey Jack and flavored varieties.

Fagundes Old World Cheese: Hanford; 559/582-2000 or www.oldworldcheese.com. Cheddar, Monterey Jack, St. John and St. Jorge.

Bravo Farms: Visalia; 559/627-3525. Raw-milk cheddar and flavored varieties.

Three Sisters Farmstead Cheese: Lindsay; 559/562-2132 or www.threesisterscheese.com. Serena.

Cal Poly Creamery: California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; 805/756-6644 or www.calpolycheese.com. Baby Swiss, cheddar, Gouda, Monterey Jack and flavored varieties.

Karoun Dairies Inc.: Los Angeles; 818/767-7000 or www.karouncheese.com. Mediterranean-style cheeses: Ackawi, Ani, Baladi, feta, string cheese and sweet cheese.

Tutto Latte Mozzarella Cheese Factory: Baldwin Park; 626/337-8154. Burrate, mozzarella, ricotta, mascarpone and scamorza.

Winchester Cheese Co.: Winchester; 909/926-4239 or www.winchestercheese.com. Gouda and flavored varieties.

Cantare foods Inc.: San Diego; 858/578-8490. Mascarpone, mozzarella, ricotta.

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