Achadinha Capricious

Achadinha Cheese Company

Hooked on Cheese: California Prizewinners: Cheeses to Explore

Some excellent cheeses are coming out of the Golden State

A few weeks ago I traveled to San Francisco, a city I called home for over 13 years. For someone who works the specialty food world, the San Francisco Bay Area is a mecca: fresh produce, amazing restaurants, small artisanal producers of every known specialty – you name it, they’ve got it. Plus, there’s the guarantee of perfect weather and, for me, the added bonus of many old friends to hang out with while I’m in town.

I started my food wanderings in SF with a Saturday morning trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It’s early in the year for most produce, but the diversity of fresh and farm-produced products was still vast. As you’d expect, there were all kinds of great vegetables, fruits, olive oils, local meats and fresh seafood, but naturally I was drawn to the local cheeses.

I was happy to see Achadinha Cheese Company sampling their always-stellar Capricious, a 7-pound goat milk wheel, aged for up to eleven months on wood planks. In 2002 it won the Best of Show at the American Cheese Society Judging and, for my money, it’s even better now than it was then.

Rediscovering this cheese set me off on a mission to taste as many best-of-the-best California cheeses as possible while on the West Coast. Over the next few days, I visited twelve cheese shops in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, plus some restaurants with great cheese programs.

I sampled the cheeses of Soyoung Scanlon from Andante Dairy; her cheeses are precious small wonders all handmade by Soyoung, who has a degree in microbiology and and precisely calibrates the cheese cultures and aging process of her cheeses depending on season. These beauties are hard to find, but they’re worth the extra effort; just ask Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, who supplies Scanlon with about 40% of her business.

I had a taste of St. George, the Portuguese-style cheese from the Matos Cheese Factory, helmed by Joe and Mary Matos. It’s made in the fashion of the cheese of their home in the Azores region of Portugal. A firm cow’s milk cheese with a hint of sharpness, this American take on a classic is as good as the original.

Vella Dry Jack, an old favorite of mine, was even better than I remembered. Produced by the Vella Family in Sonoma, it’s a super firm cheese with a distinctive brown rind and has received countless awards over the years. Do yourself a favor and knock this celebrated cheese off your bucket list!

Another creamery I’ve always appreciated is Bellwether Farms (of delicious sheep’s milk yogurt fame), and I loved my first bite of their newest offering, Blackstone. It’s Bellwether’s first cow-and-sheep’s milk blend; the interior is studded with black peppercorns, like their Pepato, and the rind is crusted with ground black pepper and rosemary. This cheese would be perfect to shave over pasta, crumble in a savory salad, serve with melon – I could go on and on.

I gathered a collection of these cheeses and went to visit Rock Wall Winery while CEO Kent Rosenblum was having an open house and we had quite a decadent party. I fell in love with his 2015 Kristen’s Cuvee Viognier – the perfect all-purpose white wine to serve with cheese.

*                      *                      *

All in all, this was a great trip to California and a best-of-the-best cheese mission definitely accomplished. While I do love living on the East Coast now, a big part of my heart – and much of my palate – will always call Northern California home.

You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and his websiteAdditional reporting by Madeleine James.

Related Links
Hooked on Cheese: L’Etivaz: Cheese of the AlpsHooked on Cheese: Nettle Meadow's KunikHooked on Cheese: Capriole Dairy's O'BanonHooked on Cheese: Mexican QuesoHooked on Cheese: 3 English Cheeses Everyone Should Know