Where is your cheese grown?

Paying attention to the terroir

Cheese and beer, a still life.

Cheese and beer, a still life.

Photo By Bryce Allemann

For many Chicoans, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s beer tastes like home. A lot of the reason for that is a combination of familiarity and local pride, but also because many of the styles the brewery releases literally do taste like Chico. The organic hops being grown alongside the brewery go into many of its beers, and each fall Sierra Nevada releases its Estate Homegrown Ale, which is completely local, produced using the hops as well as its organic homegrown barley.

Of course, wine aficionados will note that the unique character that the locally grown ingredients impart on the beverage is referred to as its terroir, a term making its way into the conscience of Americans who are increasingly paying attention to exactly where their food is coming from. But even though the craft brewers and localvores are all over the term, for now it’s still largely the domain of the makers of wine, coffee and tea, as well as cheese.

A French term, terroir (pronounced “tear-wah”) roughly means “of the land,” and is used to refer to the specific taste of a place and how the land, soil, climate and geography of a region factor in. Although cheese is not grown like a crop, all of these factors can be equally important to its taste because of a livestock’s milk. The terroir of where the cows, sheep or goats graze and live has a direct affect on the taste of the milk they produce. The breed of the animal, the conditions and landscape and time of year of where it lives, what it eats, whether it has been dry or wet before milking, even the time of day when an animal is milked all determine the flavor of the milk.

Then there are the environmental influences at play once the cheese has been made. Salt in the air in coastal regions and different naturally occurring bacteria in the air have a direct affect on the taste of cheese as it ages. In Point Reyes, Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk triple-cream cheese gets much of its flavor from b-linen bacteria, while its coastal neighbors at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. produce a tangy Original Blue Cheese that has a discernible extra tang from the salt air.

At the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, Cottonwood’s North Valley Farms (northvalleyfarms. com) sells single-herd, organic goat-milk cheeses, including chèvre, fresh Greek-style feta, and a very popular raw-milk aged Tomme style cheese. Its goat herd feeds on the farm’s own pastures and hay. Owner and Chico State alumna Deneane Ashcraft said “there is a clean taste to the cheese due to the terroir, with nutty backtones.” She also points out that it is possible to taste differences in the cheese produced during different phases of the pasture rotation. Cheese-making is often seasonal, and by the new year Ashcraft’s goats will not be producing milk.

There is a great divide in flavor between artisan cheeses that are typically made from raw milk and confined to a specific region (occasionally only single-herd), and larger commodity cheese manufactures. For very large cheese production, milk is blended from hundreds of dairies. Since much of the milk is transported great distances and then blended, it is pasteurized at high temperatures before being used to produce the cheese. Blending many milk sources and/or pasteurization alone does not equate to bad-quality cheese, but it does remove any ability for the unique character of a region to play a factor in the final result.

Thankfully there are many cheese makers in the area (most available at the farmers’ market and/or specialty grocery stores like Chico Natural Food and S&S Produce), and plenty of North State terroir to enjoy. Along with North Valley, there’s Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co. in Orland (www.realfarmsteadcheese.com), which produces single-herd cow-milk cheeses similar to aged Gouda. And Sierra Nevada Cheese Co. (unrelated to the brewery— www.sierranevadacheese.com) in Willows puts out a variety of goat-milk cheeses that are all single-herd offerings.

For an intense California terroir pairing, track down some Point Reyes Original Blue and try it alongside Sierra Nevada’s Estate Homegrown Ale.