Tripping with Cheese: Part 1
No, the title is not a reference to the viral story that floats around the internet—the one that claims a peer-reviewed study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that casein content in cheese is actually as addictive as a hard drug—but to my recent summer adventure to visit my sister in Coos Bay, Oregon about 90 miles south of Newport, for you Rogue Ales fans. Making good use of my limited time, I decided to hit some bike trails, breweries, university tours for the edification of my high school daughter, and of course, any cheesemakers I could find along the path.
My journey began along State Route 99, the end of the trail for the Joad family in Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath. For me, SR-99 was the beginning of an adventure. Between Bakersfield and Sacramento, the California Cheese Trail Map cheesetrail.org shows 18 cheese-producing creameries, and another eight if you include coastal creameries. Along the central valley, there are countless dairies, orchards, vineyards and produce farms within its robust 25,000-square-mile area. Wikipedia tells me that California’s central valley produces more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the United States. Any time I drive north in California, the more aware I become of how disconnected Southern Californians are from the production of our food. Maybe that’s why I like making cheese: because it reminds me that good food always begins with good raw materials and a little bit of hard work.
Embarking on this mission to find cheese, I made no specific appointments with creameries because I had a large geographic area to cover in a relatively short period of time. I was aware of the fact that for health department regulations, the production facilities of most creameries are closed to the public, and that when tours are granted, they occur on special occasions and need to be scheduled in advance. Mine was the trip of a tourist and not of an insider.
Bravo Farms Vintage Cheese Factory — Traver, CA. After passing Tulare, there is ample freeway signage along SR 99 urging travelers to visit their cheese shop—so I did. The stop is well worth it if you’re in need of barbecue, or if you’re just a traveler in need of snacks, gifts and souvenirs. The gift shop is filled with typical farmstead fare—arts and crafts, yard art, olives, oils, jams and jellies, and of course cheese made by their very own Vintage Cheese Company.
Despite the kitsch, Vintage Cheese has some interesting offerings for the cheese curious. They have the standard crowd-pleasing fare: plain curds, Cheddar, Jack and Derby. For those who like flavor mixed into their Cheddars and Jacks, there were variations with sage, chipotle, habañero, jalapeño and Cabernet wine. While I admit to enjoying these flavored cheeses—what SoCal native can resist habañero and jalapeño?—at that point, you’re not really tasting the cheese. Never fear, because Vintage has some really fine specialty-style cheeses that I found to be excellent and well worth the trip. Their sharp and floral cow’s milk Aged Cheddar, mild Sheep Gouda, Spanish Manchego and farmhouse-style goat’s milk Classico were each delightful and different. The next time I stop by, I will probably grab a chunk of their Romano and sheep’s milk Blue; and a bigger chunk of the Sheep Gouda, which disappeared too quickly from a cheese plate I made for my family.
While you’re not likely to find Vintage Cheese in Southern California, if you frequent California’s major arteries, the stop is worth it. In addition to the shop in Traver, there are additional operations at the Tulare Outlets off SR-99, and at the ever-popular I-5 Kettleman City exit. There are usually sampling containers in the store, so you can narrow down your favorite cheese.
Loleta Cheese Factory—Loleta, CA. Just a few miles south of Eureka, this sleepy little seaside town is home to Loleta Cheese Factory, a small operation in a historical landmark wood-paneled building. Bob Laffranchi, who owns the business with his wife Carol, was once a high school teacher teaching dairy farming, so this place resonated with me in a special way. Laffranchi turned his classroom lessons on cheesemaking into reality in 1982 when he formed his company. The focus of Loleta Cheese is mainly plain and flavored Jack, Cheddar, Havarti and Fontina—no bloomy rinds here, and no evidence of natural-rind aged cheeses or sheep and goat milk-based cheeses. Some cheeses are sent away to be cold-smoked and then are returned to the shop to be sold. High quality annatto-colored Cheddars and Jacks each hold their own and are what you’d expect of mass-produced style cheeses done on a much smaller scale—better quality, with some nuance. The Orange Peel Cheddar I bought was strangely addictive and popular with my family. At first, the flavor is difficult to categorize, but it definitely grows on you. If you want Loleta Cheese, you can visit the shop which also sells jellies, jams and nuts, or you can have their cheese shipped to you during non-summer months.
Cypress Grove Chèvre—Arcata, CA. For me, this was one of a couple of “holy grail” stops on my tourist tour. This creamery is home to the famous and award-winning Humboldt Fog, Bermuda Triangle, Truffle Tremor and various soft and flavored goat’s milk soft-spread cheeses. If you haven’t tried Humboldt Fog—an ash-ripened goat’s milk Brie—then go out and buy a chunk right now. There’s really nothing quite like it, and it is difficult for me to describe or put into any particular category. It is sublime, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. In the California State Fair this year, Cypress Grove took thirteen medals—eight golds and two best-in-category, which included first-place wins for Humboldt Fog mini and Truffle Tremor.
Even though they don’t offer a full tour of their facility, I just had to walk onto the property to see it for myself. Visitors to the factory are shown into the employee breakroom, which opens up to the final-stage affinage for Humboldt Fog and Truffle Tremor a truffle-flavored goat’s milk Brie. One cool thing about the breakroom is that they keep a platter of very expensive cheese out for tasting and sampling for employees. At the end of my short walk to the breakroom and back, I was handed a couple of soft flavored chèvres as a souvenir!
In Southern California, Cypress Grove cheese can be found at finer cheese retail outlets—I have seen it at Sprouts, Ralph’s, Gelsons, and Whole Foods.
These creameries were only a glimpse into the wonderland of craft cheese. Coastal Oregon and Marin County proved to me that there is a renaissance in cheese, and they will be the subject of my next installment.
Vintage Cheese Factory
Traver, CA 93673
Loleta Cheese Factory
252 Loleta Dr
Loleta, CA 95551
Cypress Grove Chèvre
1330 Q St, Arcata, CA 95521