Say cheese: Small Northern California creamery makes cheese by hand

Say cheese.

Cheese is such a big part of the American diet that it’s used to make people smile.

We love cheese. We eat a lot of cheese (each American consumes nearly 37 pounds of cheese a year) and we’re expected to eat more cheese.

The Dallas Morning News recently published an article I wrote about five artisanal cheesemakers in western Marin County, Calif., about 35 miles north of San Francisco. They produce some of the nation’s best cheese — from cottage cheese to brie to blue.

During my reporting, one of the cheesemakers, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., let me observe its small production process unclose and take a tour of its creamery. I thought I’d share what I learned there.

Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery
Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s creamery is housed in a remodeled dairy barn. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The dairy run by the LaFranchi family, owners of Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. in the tiny town of Nicasio, will be 100 years old in 2019. Its cheese operation, however, will only be 10 years old next year.

The LaFranchi family uses 100 percent certified organic milk from cows on their 1,150-acre certified organic ranch to make eight farmstead cheeses at the on-site creamery. All production, aging and packaging is done on site. The creamery also has an attached retail shop and tasting room.

Following in the footsteps of their Swiss-Italian ancestors, the family’s first product was an aged mountain cheese thanks to help from Swiss mentor Maurizio Laurenzeti. He isn’t a family member, but makes cheese in the same Ticino region of Switzerland.

“Maurizio’s cheeses were the inspiration for the line of cheeses we make,” said Rick LaFranchi, part of the third generation that runs the dairy and creamery. “We went [to Switzerland] in 2007 to make cheeses with him.”

Here’s Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.’s cheesemaking process:

1. Workers milk 450 cows daily on the 1,150-acre certified organic ranch. Each morning, a tanker delivers 300 to 1,000 gallons of fresh milk from the dairy to the creamery, which is in a remodeled dairy barn.

2. The milk is quality tested before being pasteurized in a high-temperature, short-time process by high-tech machinery installed in May.

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Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. head cheesemaker, Aaron Langdon, currently follows a single-vat, single-batch production process to make one type of cheese a day. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)3. The pasteurized milk is pumped into a large vat and heated to a certain temperature (that’s confidential). Head cheesemaker Aaron Langdon adds cultures and then rennet (a coagulant) to help the cultured milk solidify it.

4. In a little while, curds start to form in the vat. Langdon stirs this curds and whey mixture and then drains it into molds for the desired cheese shape. It takes six hours from fluid milk to the finished cheese (before aging).

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5. Workers move the cheese molds to a nearby temperature-regulated room for a few hours or overnight, depending on the type of cheese.

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6. The cheese (all types except Foggy Morning, an award-winning fresh cheese that’s soft like formage blanc but a big tangy) is put into a brine solution for a few hours to 24 hours.

7. The cheese goes into a warm room called a “hastening room,” where it starts to form a rind. Here, the cheese is flipped daily so moisture doesn’t set in for inconsistency, Langdon said.

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8. The cheese goes into an aging room, which are recycled shipping containers, set at various temperatures. Aging can take a few days to months. Foggy Morning, for example, is left for just days. Its bold, washed-rind Raclette-style San Geronimo cheese is aged up to 6 months, Langdon said.

9. Some cheeses go into a washed-rind room for four to six weeks, where the rind is washed by hand in brine every day.

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“We focus on quality, and try to be as consistent as we can be from batch to batch,” said Langdon, who’s been making cheese for 13 years.

This summer, Northern California residents Annie and Peter Gommers paid their second visit to the creamery to buy some San Geronimo cheese.

“What we like about this place is that it’s most like European cheese,” said Annie, adding that Peter is Dutch. “It’s organic and it’s not outrageously expensive. Farmstead is very special and needs to be supported.”

If you visit, you may see some of the LaFranchi’s cows on nearby rolling, golden hills dotted with California oak trees.

Note: I didn’t duplicate much from my story in The News, so please read that for more information about Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., including staying on the ranch, and the other four cheesemakers.

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Road trip? California Highway 1 section in Big Sur set to reopen in September

California Journal

Visitors to California can look forward to the reopening of one of the most scenic parts of California Highway 1 that winds along the Big Sur coastline in September after being closed for more than a year.

Highway 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, is the state’s best-known scenic byway, starting near San Juan Capistrano and ending in Mendocino County.

California Highway 1 shield
(SPUI via Creative Commons)

Highway 1 winds for hundreds of miles along much of the state’s coastline, hugging cliff tops and passing through some of the state’s best tourist spots. Visitors will see California’s largest cities, many beaches, Redwood trees, Elephant seals, boardwalks, lighthouses, missions, wineries, Hearst Castle and spectacular coastal views.

Currently, however, you cannot drive along Highway 1 past Ragged Point just north of Hearst Castle to Big Sur. The detour route winds inland and adds about 30 minutes to the drive. The featured photo at top of California Highway 1 in Big Sur is about a mile north of Ragged Point looking south. (Fred Moore via Creative Commons)

Caltrans closed that section of road in April 2017 due to dangerous conditions. One month later, a massive landslide — one of the biggest in state history — occurred there at Mud Creek. (An earlier mudslide in March 2017 destroyed the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which is used to access Big Sur from the north, but it reopened in October 2017.)

 

Big Sur northward view
This view of California Highway 1 near Big Sur includes Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to the North. (Astronautilus via Creative Commons)

The treacherous stretch of Highway 1 around Big Sur has seen upwards of 60 road closures since 1935. A Caltrans report detailed 56 road closures from 1935 through mid-2000, but there have been many more  since then.

San Quentin Prison inmates and locals, like writer John Steinbeck, built Highway 1. It opened in 1934.

Taste of travel part 2: Cheers to brewery tours

When traveling, I try to taste as many local delicacies (I use that word loosely) as possible to get a real taste for a place and its culture.

Last week, I blogged here about trying iconic Scottish soft drink Irn‪ in its original form. It wasn’t for me, but I had to taste it to find out.

The frothy craft beer and distillery movements across the country and globally make it easier to find local products — made with locally grown hops, berries, flowers, and more. It’s all about supply and demand. For every $100, Americans spend $1 on alcoholic beverages, according to government data.

Travel mixed with beverage tours — whether it’s beer, wine or liquor — have become popular across the country and worldwide. Many breweries — big or small, mainstream or craft — offer free tours and samples. 

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You only get to see this at Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Wis., if you visit. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Here’s a flight of breweries to consider:

Old and new: Milwaukee is a city rich in beer history (Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schmitz), but it’s also big in craft beer. (See photo above and at top.) Read my article about some of Milwaukee’s craft breweries that was published in The Dallas Morning News.

Boulevard Brewing Co
The guided tour at Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., lasts an hour. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Fun learning: Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City, Mo., is a bit unusual in that it starts its free 1-hour tour with a small sample of its original pale ale. It also does an excellent education job: exhibits tell you about the history of beer in Mesopotamia as well as its owns product, which dates to 1989. My tour guide, Kelsi Pile, noted that 75 percent of Boulevard beer is sold locally. She also mentioned that Boulevard made 19 beers before it was bought by Belgian-owned Duvel Moortgat Brewery in 2013; now it brews 41 varieties. Boulevard also has a large beer hall, gift shop and hosts events, such as trivia and bingo nights.

Boulevard beer hall
The beer hall at Boulevard Brewing is reminiscent of the ones in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)


Brewery Goliath: Coors beer has been around since 1873. I’ve been on a tour of the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colo., which claims to be the world’s largest single-site brewery. On its 30-minute tour, you’ll learn how Coors beer is brewed and packaged and then try free beer samples in its “Hospitality Lounge.”

Go overseas: For a taste of something different, head to Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium. This small, family owned brewery has made Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek beer using the same tools and brewing process since 1900. If you like the sour beer trend, then you’ll love Cantillon. Lambic beer is fermented using wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Zenne valley. Gueuze, a blend of lambics produced during different years, has a slightly acidic, fruity taste. Kriek is a blend of lambics and sour cherries. Cantillon also blends lambics with grapes, raspberries, apricots, hops, elderberry flowers and rhubarb. Tours are not free, but include a tasting.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is worth the trek and the wait

California Journal

Being at the Point Bonita Lighthouse just north of San Francisco is like being at the end of the earth.

In a way, you are. It’s the western edge of the United States.

Point Bonita Lighthouse tunnel
Visitors must walk through this hand-hewn tunnel to reach the Point Bonita Lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

The 1885 lighthouse is still used today, so it’s open for only three hours a day three days a week: from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Mondays, Saturdays and Sundays. Visiting it is like being let in on a secret.

The U.S. Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse, which is on on the Marin Headlands and part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service provides access to visitors.

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After walking through a tunnel, and a narrow cliff-top path, visitors walk over this suspension bridge to reach the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

Be prepared to walk a half mile to the site, through a rough rock tunnel (open only during visiting hours) and over a suspension bridge to the lighthouse, which sits on a small patch of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean. My National Park guide said it took 3.5 months to dig the tunnel by hand.

You’ll be rewarded with spectacular coastal views and seeing nature at its wildest and windiest best.

View from Point Bonita
This is the view looking North from the lighthouse. (Sheryl Jean)

How it works

The 1885 lighthouse was the third one built on the West Coast to help lead ships through dangerous water and thick fog. The original lighthouse was 300 feet above sea level, but fog often obscured the light. It moved to Point Bonita in 1877.

The Point Bonita Lighthouse can shine its beam 18 miles across the ocean in clear conditions using a Fresnel lens, which is based on ground glass prisms arranged in rings around a light source.

In dense fog, sound is used. First, there was a cannon, then a fog bell and a steam siren. Today, an electric fog horn emits two blasts every 30 seconds.

To reach the Point Bonita, visitors must to drive up and down a narrow, steep, twisting road through the Marin Headlands. Parking is limited. A free Marin Headlands Shuttle operates on weekends through September along Bunker Road, Field Road and Fort Baker, stopping at the lighthouse.

Point Bonita
Point Bonita (Google Maps)

Mount Umunhum in Silicon Valley offers stunning vistas

California Journal

If you don’t equate California’s Silicon Valley with nature, then you’ll be in for quite a surprise at Mount Umunhum, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s newest open spaces.

The 3,486-foot summit provides stunning panoramic views (see my photo above) of San Jose, Santa Clara Valley and the Bay Area’s three other highest peaks — Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais to the North and Mount Hamilton (the tallest) in the South Bay. It was a clear day, so I also could see San Pablo Bay to the North and the Pacific Ocean to the West.

Map of Mount Umunhum in San Jose
Mount Umunhum is in Santa Clara County, just south of San Jose. (Google Maps)

The Mount Umunhum (the ‘h’ is silent) summit and trails just opened to the public six months ago, but they’re already popular with Sunday drivers, hikers and bicyclists. Mountain bikers are allowed on most of the trails and you’ll see road bikers on the steep and winding, 12-mile paved road to the summit.

I didn’t know anything about Mount Umunhum, but learned that it’s steeped in history.

Originally, the Ohlone Indian tribe inhabited the area.  The name “umunhum” comes from the Ohlone word for hummingbird. At the summit, a Ceremonial Circle honors the site’s American Indian heritage.

Mount Umunhum also was part of California’s first legal mining claim — the nearby New Almaden Quicksilver mine.

From 1957 to 1980, the summit was home to the Almaden Air Force Station. The early warning radar station was one of 23 in California and hundreds across the nation during the Cold War era. The radar tower still stands at the summit, but it’s closed.

Mount Umunhum radar tower
The old Almaden Air Force Station radar tower at the summit is closed. (Sheryl Jean)

You can download an audio tour app to your smartphone to learn about the site’s history.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District bought the 36-acre site in 1986 and received $3.2 million in federal funds to help clean it up. The Bay Area Ridge Trail Council and the California Coastal Conservancy also provided funds, and helped develop and restore trails.

Today, 3.7 miles of trails from the Bald mountain parking lot to the summit traverse stately, moss-covered Coast Live Oak trees (see photo below), Foothill Pine, Mountain Mahogany, Manzanita and Madrone. On a recent walk there, I could smell the spicy sent of California Bay trees.

Watch out for poison oak.

Moss-covered Coast Live Oak tree
Moss-covered Coast Live Oak trees dotting the 3.7 miles of trails at Mount Umunhum provide welcome color. (Sheryl Jean)

Spring brings more snow to the delight of skiers and snowboarders

California Journal

It may be the first day of spring today, but there’s still plenty of that white, fluffy stuff around to make skiers and snowboarders giddy with excitement.

Snow from late winter storms has piled up in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, making for some excellent spring shredding.

After last week’s storms, many Sierra ski resorts have accumulated hundreds of inches of snow. Last week, Tahoe’s Sugar Bowl resort and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows  received over 7 feet of snow at high altitude.

And there’s more snow coming to the mountains this week (rain at lower elevations).

Now is your chance to ski in the spring — and perhaps even into the summer. (See end.)

After a slow start to winter, this month’s unusually heavy snowfall in the Sierra mountains has spawned the label “March Miracle.” Tahoe Basin has received about half of its normal snowpack, up from 3 percent in January.

The National Weather Service expects another storm system to dump up to 4 feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada, possibly starting today through the weekend.

Playing hooky

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, take off a mid-week day to hit the slopes. If you’re visiting from out of town, grab a rare chance to ski or snowboard in spring or summer.

The OntheSnow website lists the amount of snow at dozens of ski resorts in California. Many ski resorts also put their webcams online so you can see the weather, the snow pack and trail conditions in real time.

You can buy discounted lift tickets online to several Sierra ski resorts at Liftopia and REI. And many ski resorts offer specials to attract customers, especially on weekdays. For example, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is offering two free lift tickets for each midweek night you stay in its lodging.

If you don’t want the hassle of a long drive or dealing with tire chains and closed roads, consider taking a ski bus. The price of transportation on the Bay Area Ski Bus or the Sports Basement ski bus includes breakfast as well as snacks and après-ski drinks on the way home. Both buses leave early in the morning to account for the four-hour drive.

Sports Basement’s ski bus has schedule trips to Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows through March 31 for pick up at its San Francisco Bryant Street and Sunnyvale athletic stores. It costs $75. Discounted lift tickets and rental gear packages are available.

The Bay Area Ski Bus, operated by Recreation Connection Inc., will pick you up at one of six Bay area locations and take you to one of six Tahoe ski resorts through April 8. A ride costs $69 or $159 with lift tickets. Equipment rentals and lessons are available.

Skiing in June

So far, five Sierra ski resorts in California have extended this year’s season because of the mountains of snow, according to Liftopia. Here they are:

  • Mammoth Mountain in the southern Sierras will stay open at least through July 4.
  • Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows plans to remain open until June and reopen on July 4 for the first time since 2011.
  • Heavenly Resort, Northstar California and Sierra-at-Tahoe will stay open through April 23. Heavenly also will open for the weekend of April 28-30. Sierra-At-Tahoe will throw a customer appreciation day April 24, with the proceeds from $35 lift tickets going toward local youth recreation and education.

Credit for the featured photo at top: Skiiers at Heavenly Resort get a view of Lake Tahoe about half way down from the 10,000-foot summit. (Hilton via Wikimedia Commons)