Chico cheese party!

Thanks to a variety of cheese makers and sellers, Chico is moving past its Velveeta stigma

Photo By Bryce Allemann

When talking to acquaintances in the Bay Area, if I mention my ties to Chico I typically get one of two immediate reactions: “Oh, Chico! Party school! Woo!” or, “The Velveeta capital?” Local or not, you’ve probably heard these two outsider impressions time and time again.

The cheese reference comes from the SF Chronicle’s beloved three-dot columnist, the late Herb Caen, who once quipped how Chico was the sort of town where Velveeta could be found in the gourmet section of a grocery store and subsequently tacked “Velveeta capital of the world” onto all mentions of Chico from that point forward. Whether the Velveeta story is true or not, Chico has evolved to become a fairly sophisticated cheese city, one fortunately lacking in Bay Area pretension. No longer limited to basic yellow and white commodity cheeses like those sold on plastic platters for Super Bowl parties, Chico has a wide variety of quality cheeses available from many local sources.

Yes, Safeway and other large supermarkets carry some specialized and foreign cheeses, but to that end many of the same cheeses can be found at Trader Joe’s, and often for about one-third of the cost. However, if you are ready to taste cheeses that are new to you before you buy, you’ll need a true cheese counter with an informed cheese monger, and Chico now has three from which to choose.

Zucchini & Vine, the downtown Chico home-and-kitchen boutique and specialty-foods market, has historically been Chico’s only cut-to-order cheese counter, and it still features both seasonally selected cheeses plus a great selection from the Northwest including Cypress Grove’s popular Humboldt Fog.

Joining Zucchini & Vine are The Galley gourmet kitchen supply store (551 Country Drive, near intersection of Skyway and Highway 99), and the well-stocked counter at Creekside Cellars wine shop (250 Vallombrosa Ave.). The Galley is proud to typically have 80 to 90 cheeses on hand, and is the type of place where you might find seven different blue cheeses to select from. Creekside Cellars naturally has a great knowledge for pairing its many cheeses to wine, and often hosts cheese-tasting events.

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Chico is also distinguished by world-class, award-winning cheeses that are being produced in the surrounding North Valley and are available at Chico’s Saturday Farmers Market as well as Chico Natural Foods and S&S Produce. Two nearby farmstead cheese makers (farmstead cheeses are those made on a farm from milk produced on that farm) selling their wares at the market are Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co. out of neighboring Orland, with its semi-hard cow-milk cheeses (the seasonal Black Butte Reserve and “soaked” cheeses—Tipsy Cow and Stout Cow), as well as North Valley Farms Chèvre from Cottonwood, whose goats-milk product is fairly new to the market (their first chèvre production was in 2007).

Also in the area (both in Willows) are the Sierra Nevada Cheese Co., a member of California’s Artisan Cheese Guild, and long-time local producer Rumiano Cheese Co.

As someone who eats enough cheese to necessitate writing a blog on the topic (, I am often asked what my favorite type is. I typically answer: “With so many to choose from, why should I have to have just one?” For others, however, so many choices can be fairly daunting. Charles de Gaulle, for example, once mused, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” Whereas the North State’s cheese production might not be as prolific as France’s, the opportunity to buy cheeses in Chico from around the world presents itself readily.

Here are a few basic tried-and-true guidelines to help in buying and trying new cheeses:

• Buy only enough that you know you can finish within a few days to a week.

• Don’t overwhelm yourself by buying too many different types of cheeses at one time.

• A knowledgeable cheese monger can help guide your choices.

• Try the cheese on its own before accompanying it with crackers, bread or with beverages.

• Most cheeses are best when served at room temperature.

• Many cheese rinds are edible, and are meant to be eaten. Ask your cheese monger when you buy.

Now, when a Bay Area resident makes the Velveeta comment about my former home, I merely smirk, hand him or her a Sierra Nevada ale, and pair it perfectly with a hand-crafted cheese from the North State. “Woo!” indeed.