Hooked on Cheese: Tomales Farmstead Creamery's Assa
The unique name of this recent offering from Tomales Farmstead Creamery is derived from the Miwok Native American word for "woman," but I'm pretty sure that's only because there is no Miwok term for “wow, that is some good cheese." In all seriousness though, the Miwok tribespeople were the original inhabitants of coastal California where this cheese is made. The folks at Tomales chose the name Assa because - as is the case on most dairy farms - all of their animals are female. At this particular dairy, so are most of the humans.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery is the new, primarily woman-helmed creamery at Toluma Farms, an organic farm and dairy located in scenic West Marin County. Northern California is home to many great cheeses, but Tomales is the only goat dairy in Marin.
The Assa is one of the newest cheeses to be made at Tomales, which began producing cheese just over a year ago. I was lucky enough to taste a cheese from the fifth batch of Assa; these guys are really just getting started. Now most cheesemakers have to make many, many batches of cheese just to get the feel of the plant, understand their milk, be comfortable with the make room, get the aging room temperature and humidity right, etc. Tomales Farmstead Creamery's confidence in this early batch shows they're way ahead of the learning curve.
A firm, aged farmstead pasteurized goat’s milk cheese, the Assa is washed in locally made Chardonnay wine and infused with thyme that is grown right on the farm. It is aged for at least four months, and has a pure white interior and a brownish rind from the naturally occurring molds in moist-rinded cheeses. The dairy describes Assa's flavor as nutty with a hint of caramel and a slightly sweet flavor due to the lush pastures on which the goats graze. Their animals are rotationally grazed on twelve different fields on 160 acres of organic pastures...those must be some happy goats!
After trying the cheese myself (yum!), I decided to taste it individually with a few of my jaded, hard-to-please cheesemonger friends in order to get an accurate assessment of the cheese’s quality. One friend said she loved the caramel sweetness; one thought it had hints of fresh grass, herbs and wild flowers; one ate it straight, small crumb by small crumb, and simply smiled a contented smile. They all said, without prompting, “Wow, that is some good cheese." Whoever liked it most of all apparently pilfered the last piece from my apartment when I wasn’t looking. Now I tend to keep an eagle eye on my good stuff; I’m not sure exactly where I slipped up this time, but I did.
Not only do they make spectacular cheese, but the folks at Toluma Farms have heart as well. The owners Tamera and David told me, “Fifteen years ago we decided we wanted to be a part of the slow and local food movement by stewarding a dilapidated old cow dairy that was no longer in the Bay Area food system. We now see these efforts having a local impact as well as a larger positive impact on climate change." They have been able to add eight jobs to a very small rural town and contribute significantly to agritourism, which is a boost to many local businesses. They have also placed the property in an agriculture trust (the Marin Agriculture Land Trust) ensuring that it remains in agriculture use in perpetuity. Additionally, everyone at Toluma Farms and Tomales Farmstead Creamery is highly committed to farm and food education - they have kids and adults on the farm each week to educate about what goes into making an artisan food product and why it is imperative to support local farmers and food producers.
A delicious new cheese from a quality new dairy committed to adding to our food culture - what's not to like? I'm so grateful I was introduced to Tomales and to the delicious Assa cheese, and next time I have some at my place, I'll make sure to keep it away from the bandits.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.