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Cheese monged: Sonoma

April 12, 2010

Lauren and I spent a week on the left coast, and took a few days to drive up the coast to  the Russian River valley, where we stayed in the guesthouse on a little vineyard owned by the eminently charming and amenable Al and Virginia. Here’s the vineyard, followed by a shot of our palace:

To say that this place is tucked away would be an understatement. The road that gets you there looks like this: \

One of my big Sonoma plans was to hit the Cowgirl Creamery to witness some cheesemaking firsthand. Alas, I’m also an awful planner and the day we drove through Point Reyes Station they were closed. But, I’d been dying to try their Red Hawk cheese for a while, so we picked up a chunk when we stopped for oysters at a little roadside shack along US 1, which awesomely looked like this:

and:

Now I love me some oysters, but was highly skeptical of BBQ’d oysters. Raw or none at all is how I like them, but the counter guy persuaded us to try a few. So we got half a wheel of Red Hawk, a dozen fresh-as-can-be oysters that grew up a couple miles down the road, and a coupla ginger beers. Here’s the spread:

If you’re good at counting, you’ll notice that this is a pretty sweet “dozen.” Anyway, the three in the basket are the BBQ’d oysters, and my fears of rubbery cooked oyster awfulness were totally unfounded. They’re still somehow raw, but slightly heated with terrific smoky flavor and a nice tart sauce. Not better than raw, but I can fully endorse the BBQ oyster as a valid foodstuff. The Red Hawk is in the lower right–we had a bit of it, but didn’t make it all the way through, so later that afternoon we bought a couple more cheeses to eat in our secluded palace that night. All together now:

At top is a Dry Jack from Vella, on the right it the remaining Red Hawk, and the curiosity on the left is the Bermuda Triangle. In turn:

Vella Dry Jack

Critter: Cow. Place: Sonoma county, CA. Type: Hard. Rawness: Raw! Aged: minimum 9 months.

Another cheese I’ve been meaning to try, and I’m not ashamed to admit that this was almost entirely because I love the name of the cheesemaker: Ig Vella. I feel like if your name is Ig you don’t end up in finance or real estate. Igs are either cheesemakers or maybe cobblers. And sure enough, this Ig is considered the Godfather of the modern American cheese movement. In my mind his hands look like ancient tree roots and his face could stare down a hatchet. Anyway, the Dry Jack is basically a Monterey Jack that’s been rubbed in cocoa powder and aged until hard and, well, dry. The conceit comes from the 1930s when cheesemakers started aging cheeses to appeal to Italian immigrants used to hard cheeses. And sure enough, it was hard, but not as crumbly and stiff as a Parmigiano. I thought it was ok, miles more interesting than supermarket Monterey Jack, but maybe a bit too understated for me. I’d love to try it in a grilled cheese sammy.

Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk

Critter: Cow. Place: Marin county, CA. Type: Washed rind, triple cream. Rawness: Not raw. Aged: 4 weeks.

So yes, I’ve been wanting to get into some of this stuff since reading about it in Gordon Edgar’s excellent book, Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. It is supposedly the only washed rind, triple cream cheese in the world (washed rind usually means stinky, triple cream always means yum). The rind is runny with pools of reddish-orange goo, the stank was intense and deathy, and the texture was like sticky, slightly runny putty. Sounds like an ideal recipe for gross, right? But that’s pretty much what serious cheeseheads are looking for, I take it. Alas, ultimately this cheese humbled us, try as we might to enjoy it. Now, maybe this piece was a bit past its ideal ripeness, or maybe I’m just not down with the serious cheese-stink, but the best thing I can say about it was that it was “interesting,” certainly complex and earthy and powerful and memorable. But good? Can’t honestly say it was.

Cyprus Grove Bermuda Triangle

Critter: Goat. Place: Humboldt county, CA. Type: Soft. Rawness: Not raw. Aged: ???

Yup. Totally bought this one because it was a triangle. It’s made by the same folks who do the Humboldt Fog cheese with the line of ash down the middle. Apparently they’ve got plenty of ash sitting around, because this cheese has it on the outside. The winning cheese of the night, easily, mild but tangy with three distinct textures: the ashy, bloomy rind, then a layer of somewhat gooey-firm goodness, then a core that’s slightly grittier but no less pleasant. Really just a nice and interesting and delicious goat cheese. Also, it’s a triangle. Neato.

So, all in all we had an informative tour of Cali cheese. But, as you can see from this shot of them in their native habitat, out there pretty much everything gets amplified to amazing.

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