Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Happy Birthday to Me! – 3rd Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival

This past December my birthday present from Patrick and Alex was a ticket to the full-day Saturday seminar program at the 3rd Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. Even better, they were coming with me.

The Festival was held this past Saturday with the Opening General Session starting at 9:00AM. So bright and early the three of us got up, made a quick pit stop at Starbucks, and headed north.

This was the first time we had attended the Festival and we were not sure quite what to expect. In particular, we were not sure how much cheese we would have the chance to sample during the course of the day – as it turned out we had nothing at all to fear!!

Through our many (20 and counting) classes at
The Cheese School of San Francisco over the last couple of years, we have had the chance to sample many cheeses and to meet many individuals active in the cheese world in Northern California. The Festival gave us the opportunity to see many of them again, including Sara Vivenzio and Ariel Clute from the Cheese School, Sheana Davis, Lynne Devereux (who helped to coordinate the Festival), Wil Edwards, and Laura Werlin.

Cheese Heads with Festival Swag

Opening Session: Preserving and Advancing the Artisan Foods Movement

The Opening Session featured a panel discussing “how producers and consumers work in concert to grow the artisan food landscape.” It was led by a food consultant
Clark Wolf and featured three panelists:

~ Nathan Boone –
First Light Farm
~ Sue Conley – Cowgirl Creamery
~ Duskie Estes –
Zazu/ Bovolo

I had never seen Sue Conley before and it was especially interesting to hear her presentation given her experience as well as the prominence Cowgirl Creamery has achieved both with its own products and as a supporter of other cheese producers in the area.

I also enjoyed the presentation by Duskie Estes – a former vegetarian who spoke about her return to the meat world after a transcendent encounter with a well-prepared piece of pork a few years back - and the following extract from her bio:

“Restaurant visionary Duskie Estes was once a contestant on Food Network Challenge where she wowed the judges with her Laura Chenel Goat Cheese Macaroni and Cheese Stuffed in a Roasted Artichoke. Her husband, John Stewart, a rock star salumist, is known for producing their Black Pig salami and bacon.”

Goat Cheese Macaroni and, not to digress from the cheese topic, bacon!!? How soon can we plan a trip to Zazu!! I also found very appealing the following photo of Duskie and John from the Zazu website (hmm, that reminds me of the upcoming Head to Tail Dinner at Incanto!).

At the end of the session, we were served a small plate of raddiccio and radishes from Nathan’s First Light Farm, asparagus wrapped with some Black Pig bacon, and Cowgirl Creamery’s Clabbered Cottage Cheese. A very nice start to the day.

Seminar One: Pairing Beyond Beverages – “Pair artisan cheese with irresistible combinations of sweet and savory delights”

Following the Opening Session the group broke up for a series of individual seminars for the balance of the day. This was the tough part since we had had to decide in advance which ones we would go to, and obviously in many cases there was more than one which appealed!

The first seminar we picked was presented by Juliana Uruburu, the Cheese Director at the Market Hall Pasta Shop in Oakland who had taught the Cheeses of Spain class we took in February 2008 at the Cheese School.

Juliana had arranged five cheeses and five foods to pair for the seminar:

The Cheeses:

Redwood Hill Farm - fresh chevre (goat)
Cowgirl Creamery - Red Hawk (cow)
Bellweather Farms – San Andreas (sheep)
Vella Cheese Co. – Dry Monterey Jack Reserve (cow)
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. – Original Blue (cow)

The Pairings:

~ Fresh strawberries
Freddy Guys - roasted hazelnuts
Fra’Mani Sopressata
McEvoy Ranch – mixture of Tuscan olive varieties
Katz & Co. – varietal honey

We sampled each cheese with each pairing in turn (25 combinations – a tough job but....). Juliana recommended that at the beginning of a meal it is best to serve cheeses which are higher in acidity with foods that are fresh and less complex, and later in the meal to reverse that – more aged/complex food with lower acid/more aged cheeses. I think our favorite pairing was the Cowgirl Red Hawk with the honey – as Juliana succinctly put it, “mold loves sugar”! In my view Fra’Mani’s Salame Gentile and some Castelvetrano olives would have made for better pairings on the salumi and olive fronts.

Seminar Two - Go Local-Global with the Cowgirls – “Join our favorite cheese cowgirls - Peggy Smith and Sue Conley - for a taste of what’s happening in cheese making regions of the U.S. and around the globe”

The second seminar of the day featured
Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, who founded Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station in 1997, with a presentation of eight cheeses, mostly from the US but including a couple from France:

Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc (cow)
~ Cowgirl Creamery – Mt. Tam (cow)
Marcel PetiteComtè des Granges (cow)
La Clarine Farm – Sierra Mountain Tomme (goat)
~ Jean d’Alos
Tome de Bordeaux/ Herbillette (goat)
Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Coop – Dante (sheep)
Cabot Creamery – Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (cow)
Bohemian CreameryCapriago (goat)

Removing a Plug from the Comtè

The cheeses were paired with two very nice wines - 2004 Chardonnay and a 2005 Pinot Noir - from Copeland Creek, a winery in the Petaluma Gap area not far from the seminar location. The winemaker, Don Baumhefner, was also there and described the qualities of the wines that are related to the cooler growing conditions in that area, most notably a lower alcohol level. I thought that the Pinot was exceptional with very good balance and went well with several of the cheeses.


Lunch was in a tent in the hotel parking lot. Nothing too special there. We then retired to the bar to catch a bit of March Madness and to take advantage of some other fermentation technology to do some cleansing of our systems between seminars.

Seminar Three: Traveling the Oregon Cheese Trail – “Taste the distinctive flavors and award-winning cheeses that define this burgeoning region to the north.”

This seminar was presented by three panelists, Tami Parr, a writer and President of the
Oregon Cheese Guild, David Gremmels, the co-owner of Rogue Creamery and current President of the American Cheese Society, and Flavio DeCastilhos, the owner of Tumalo Farms.

Flavio, David and Tami

We were served the following cheeses:

Rivers’s Edge/ Three Ring Farm – Sunset Bay (goat)
Tumalo Farms Classico (goat)
Willamette Valley Cheese Co. - Brindisi Fontina (cow)
Oregon Gourmet Cheeses – Sublimity (cow)
Rogue Creamery – Rogue River Blue (cow)

And the following beverages:

~ Wandering Aengus Ciderworks – Dry Cider
Kokomo – 2008 Sauvignon Blanc
Paul Mathews – 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir

It may just have been the fact that it was the last seminar of the day and a bit of cheese stupor was setting in (the cleansing effort at the bar did not seem to have had much positive effect), but this seemed to be the lowest energy program of the day. We did think that the Tumalo Farms “Classico” was a great cheese, and I particularly enjoyed the Kokomo wine. I also appreciated the chance to try the cider, and have now had a chance to go back and read “
The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats which I learned is the basis for the Ciderworks’ name.

It was a great day and a wonderful Christmas present. The only disappointment is that we were so full by the end of the day that we had to abort our plans to try Cucina Paradiso in Petaluma for dinner, a place we have heard quite a bit about. The full program included a “Artisan Gala Dinner” that evening – “A special dinner prepared by award-winning and cheese-loving chefs, creating an elegant five-course dinner including appetizer, seafood, meat and dessert courses, with each course carefully paired with select boutique wines and cheese.”

I can only admire those who would have been able to go to that dinner after the day we had!

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