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.

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)