Mar./Apr. 2007 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Happy cows, inspired cheese makers partner for gourmet results.
Happy cows, inspired cheese makers partner for gourmet results
What was "udderly" unthinkable years ago now appears imminent. California, land of abundant sunshine and an unrivaled customer base, is on the cusp of passing Wisconsin, with its cheeseheads and frozen tundra, for the coveted title as the nation's No. 1 cheese source.
The Golden State has made a habit in recent years of breaking records for cheese production. 2005 marked the first year the state cracked the 2-billion-pound mark, while last year's total soared well beyond that to more than 2.2 billion pounds.
From dairy farms to processors, California is delivering a mountain of cheese featuring quality as well as quantity.
"The future looks great for California dairy producers," said University of California Agricultural Economist Leslie J. Butler. "What's really growing here is the specialty cheese market. Now you can go to a lot of places and have a huge selection of flavorful cheeses that are produced locally."
All across the state, small, handcrafted cheese companies are popping up. From Winchester Cheese Co. in Riverside County to Loleta Cheese Co. in Humboldt County, this culinary trend has reached virtually all regions of California. The majority of specialty cheese makers are in the San Joaquin Valley and Sonoma and Marin counties.
The proliferation of top-quality, locally made cheeses is an exciting prospect for many consumers and chefs, including Michael Clark, owner and executive chef of the restaurant Michael's on Main in Soquel, Santa Cruz County.
"California cheeses are as good if not better than European cheeses," said Clark, who was brought up in Europe and studied at The Savoy luxury hotel in London. "They are where wines were in the 1970s. People are just starting to recognize them."
Clark opened his Santa Cruz County restaurant more than five years ago and said one of his most popular menu items since day one has been a cheese board, featuring handcrafted California cheeses paired with dried cranberries and candied pecans.
"Once my customers have tasted the cheese, they want to know where I got it," he said.
Clark features several California cheeses on his menu, including some from Bill Boersma's Bravo Farms, one of the pioneers of this trend.
Located in Traver, population 732, Bravo is appropriately situated in the heart of Tulare County, the world's top dairy area.
Tulare, a county where cows outnumber people, epitomizes California's emergence as the nation's mootopia--a powerhouse for all things dairy.
Dairy farms in the county churn out more than 1 billion gallons of milk a year, with a value of more than $1.3 billion--figures that have nearly doubled in the last decade.
Boersma and his wife, Patt, started Bravo Farms in 1995 and have found the road to success long and sometimes rocky. One pothole happened as the popularity of high-quality cheese and recognition of their brand grew. Their original location in Visalia didn't have the capacity to keep up with increased demand, and environmental considerations stymied their efforts to expand the business.
They found the perfect fit by teaming up with Jonathan Van Ryn, whose family owns the Valley Farms gift shop, a popular tourist area off Highway 99 and less than 10 miles away.
The two families joined forces about a year ago, becoming equal partners in a growing business with a customer base throughout the United States. Their 4,800-square-foot building features gourmet foods from dozens of California companies, nostalgic and one-of-a-kind signs, knickknacks and a front-row seat to watch cheese being made--something hundreds of visitors do daily.
Van Ryn recently graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, with a degree in dairy processing, and said his education taught him the basics of cheese making, although Boersma has helped him learn the finer details of the art.
"Bill always preaches quality," Van Ryn said. "That's what I have learned the most from him, is that if you make a quality product, when you go into the marketplace, it will sell itself."
Today, the duo and four other employees make 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of cheese a week and have the capacity to quadruple that amount.
They receive milk from Jer-Z-Boyz Ranch in nearby Pixley.
Farmer Gary de Graaf, Van Ryn's uncle, said he and his sons, Dustin and Daniel, focus on keeping their Jersey cows happy. The result is milk that's high in healthful proteins and butterfat, making it well suited for cheese making.
"We've seen the trends over the last 20 years, with domestic cheese production and consumption increasing every year," de Graaf said. "We have to remain focused on what the consumer is looking for."
It takes about 1 gallon of milk to make 1 pound of Bravo Farms cheese.
Bravo Farms starts with raw milk, which is tested on-site to make sure it's antibiotic-free. It's piped into one of three 500-gallon vats, where culture and rennet are added to coagulate the milk. After a metal harp cuts it, it becomes curds and whey. The product is heated slightly to 102 degrees, which coincidentally is about the average temperature of a cow.
Once fluids are drained, the curds are formed into blocks. Salt is added to the curds, which go through hoops where they are pressed into shape. The blocks are aged at 50 degrees for up to nine months before being ready for customers.
Boersma acknowledges that, just like making cheese, finding their niche has taken an ample amount of patience and perseverance.
"My wife and I were the people that laid across the barbed wire as others drove their way into the business," he said.
Boersma said he began making cheese as a financial move, but he's also motivated by a chance to try his hand at producing a gourmet food.
"When I was young and my mom bought one of my favorite cheeses, there came a day when the flavor of it changed dramatically," he said. "That upset me. Modernization, the cost of food and production processes have changed quite dramatically. Food is more abundant and affordable, which has helped the American pocketbook, but the mass production hasn't helped the American palate.
"I'm just happy that people are looking for more flavorful products today," Boersma said. "As small as specialty cheeses are, all we need is 2 percent of the population and we wouldn't be able to make enough to keep up with demand."
Bravo Farms cheese is sold in select markets across the country, including a five-star restaurant in Chicago, Safeway stores and Whole Foods, where it's available pre-sliced. Mail order business (www.bravofarms.com) is also brisk.
From pizzas to pasta and a plethora of other products, more Americans than ever have cheese on their plate. Americans eat more than 31 pounds of cheese per year, which is nearly triple the figure in 1970. Per-capita consumption is expected to rise another 5 pounds by 2015, still well shy of the 50-pound-per-person average in France.
California produced 70 varieties of cheese a decade ago. Today, the list numbers 250.
Boersma makes six kinds of cheese, including Original Chipotle Cheddar, Western Sage Cheddar and Silver Mountain, an old-fashioned Cheddar that he believes will be his flagship variety in the future. The cheese has won numerous awards, including a silver medal from the World Cheese Awards in London last summer, one of 13 honors for California--more than any other state.
His favorite is clear.
"If I had to move to a deserted island and could only take one cheese, it would be the Tulare Cannonball," he mused. "It has a nice nutty, buttery flavor. You can have it for breakfast with your eggs and still taste your eggs."
Tulare Cannonball is so named because it is made in 4-pound orbs that resemble its namesake. Besides its savory flavor, the cheese has an intriguing history. Boersma follows a 500-year-old recipe for the Edam variety. A friend found the recipe, written in old-style Dutch, while visiting an agricultural library in London.
Those new to the world of specialty cheeses will find a new world of flavor and ways to enjoy them. Discriminating cheese lovers understand the value of doing something that's hard for many consumers--taking a slower pace and savoring its taste.
"Specialty cheese isn't something you bite one time and then swallow," Boersma said. "It's something you want to roll around the palate and appreciate."
He said he doesn't consider himself an artist, although the results can be worthy of prose by Byron, Tennyson or Keats.
"Handcrafted cheese goes well with wine, a piece of bread, crackers and friends," Boersma said. "It's one of those things that you would have at sunset when you're sitting on a glider."
As Boersma and colleagues continue to expand into new and exciting areas, indications are that finding a home for the cheese may be the easiest step of all.
"The best time to eat cheese is for breakfast, lunch and dinner," Clark said. "I can't imagine life without it."
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.