Where The Cheese Nerds Play

The opening advice at the fourth annual California Artisan Cheese Festival last Saturday was “Pace yourself.” I knew it to be true when I sat down to my first seminar at 10:30 in the morning and was faced with three wines and six cheeses, all for me. The festival, held at the Petaluma Sheraton about 45 minutes north of San Francisco, draws cheese fans and artisanal cheese makers for tastings, talks, and cheese, cheese, and more cheese. Here’s what I picked up at seminars like the one led by Kate Arding, one of Culture's cofounders, pictured here.

* At cheese tastings, there will always be one person who eats all their samples right away, rather than waiting until the person leading the tasting has gotten to each respective cheese. I guess some people just have no self control in the face of great cheese.

* The crunchy bits sometimes found in good, aged cheeses are amino acids that have crystallized.

* The rind is usually the main identifier for cheeses. The marks left by the cloth the cheesemaker wraps a cloth-wrapped cheese in, for instance, and of course the mold development, are all ways of telling them apart.

* Real cheese nerds buy entire wheels of cheese rather than cut pieces, and then cut as they go. The cheese tastes better that way.

* Cheese ripens from the outside in, so the part that’s near the rind will taste differently than the inside. When cutting a piece to eat, try to take some from each part of the cheese to get the full effect.

* The margins of opening up a cheese shop are really slim. Financially, you’re better off opening up a grilled cheese stand where office workers can go during lunch hour.

* When should you not eat old cheese? Cheese is pretty much okay to eat any time, unless you don’t think it tastes good, in which case you shouldn’t eat it. And unless there is bright red mold on it, which is poisonous.

* Making cheese at home is easy, even aged cheese. You just need a somewhat cool sealed off environment, like an old garage fridge. Anya Fernald, founder of sustainable food events company, Live Culture Company, (and a panel moderator) made cheese in college in her dorm room closet, hanging it from the curtain rod.

* Blue cheeses pair nicely with strong beers: Barley wines, imperial stouts, etc. Cheddars are good with lighter, malty ales.

* Real cheese nerds don’t smear their cheese on bread, they use the bread as a palate cleanser between eating different cheeses, straight.

Some really good cheeses I tried:

ST PAT from Sonoma County-based Cowgirl Creamery: a mellow, mushroomy triple-cream wrapped in nettles that comes out only in the spring for St. Patrick's day. It’s achieved a kind of cult status in the Bay Area.

Battenkill Brebis, a tangy, buttery, Basque-style sheep's milk cheese from 3-Corner Field Farm in upstate New York. The farm and cheesemaking operation was started by two former Manhattanites who decided to get back to the land. They’re profiled in Culture magazine this month and sell at New York City’s Greenmarket.

Two Faced Blue from Willapa Hills Cheese in Doty, Washington, brand new sheep’s milk cheese from a husband and wife team that makes only blue cheeses. It was way milder than I expected, but fresh and delicate tasting.

Hyku from Goat's Leap in St. Helena, California: A silky, fine-grained, six-weeks-aged soft goat cheese with a rind dotted with toasted Bay Laurel leaves. As Goat's Leap only has 14 working goats, and makes about 12 cheeses a week the only place you’ll probably ever try it is at the French Laundry.

Image by Galen Krumel.