While bucolic Sonoma County is undoubtably a draw to visitors, foodies and wine lovers, during the summer and fall, the winter has always been a different matter. With that in mind, a number of events have sprung up, designed to seduce visitors during the off-season. One such event is the California Artisan Cheese Festival, now in its 10th year, which took place in Petaluma last weekend.
Of course, nothing goes better with cheese than wine, and over three days, farm tours, demos, tastings and contests happen in and around the Petaluma Sheraton and throughout Sonoma, in celebration of the state’s finest.
Monkey and I were lucky enough to taste the entrants of the Cheesemongers’ Duel – where local cheesemongers put forth their best bite. Here are my top five picks to tickle your tastebuds and get you wishing you were eating cheese right about now.
First, my personal favorite, which I came across on the “fantasy table” – a nicely rounded slightly “stinky” cheese from local cheesemaker Cowgirl Creamery. I hadn’t tried it before – it’s called Nicasio Square – and features just a hint of ammonia, nice creaminess and overall is not too overpowering, I’ll be looking out for this in the future.
Next, my favorite cheesemongers were a group of high schoolers from Casa Grande High School. It’s great to see teenagers getting involved in food and pitting their creations against professionals. Their offering featured Barely Buzzed cheese from Beehive Cheese company. Check out the lavender to complement the lavender and espresso in the rind of the cheese.
One of the great pleasures of living in this part of the world and attending an event like this, is that many of the products featured are made locally. Another favorite from the fantasy table was Valley Ford Cheese Company’s Estero Gold. Now, Mr Bianchi likely won’t remember this, but about four and half years ago, as we were making our decision to move to Petaluma, Monkey and I chatted with him at the local farmer’s market in town. He extended an invitation for us to visit the ranch, and one of these days, we will take him up on that. A word about this cheese. We love aged cheese, and this is the grand-daddy of them all. So strong, full of umami and salt that it almost takes the roof off your mouth. Go sparingly and appreciate its intensity and that amazing gold color.
Another cheesemonger, Robin Luke of Nugget Market in Woodland, CA, put together a lovely bite of meat and Quatro Pepe Capream cheese from Nicolau Farms. I’m a fan of meat and cheese – hard not to be – especially when paired so nicely.
And finally, a sweet bite to chase down all the savory delights. My pick was this creation from Michael Gau Cunningham at Oliver’s Market. Featuring Pug’s Leap goat cheese with a fruit purée and a nut and chocolate crust, it pulled together all the right elements into one crunchy, creamy bite.
In case you’re curious who won the popular vote on the night, Noreen Guizar of The Cheese School of San Francisco was the People’s Choice winner, while Sara Payne of Whole Foods Market scored first place with the judges panel.