California’s Artisan Cheese Festival’s fine funk

It stinks.

I’m in a dark, cold room with more than 500 wheels of cheddar weighing 60 pounds each. They’re aging, emitting an intense perfume and sprouting green mold in the process.

I follow the crowd into another dark, cold room. There’s even more cheese. The same kind of cheese, actually. But it’s older, stinkier. Wheels look as if they’re caked with brown dust. Only it’s not dust. It’s a herd of mites.

Gross. I decide cheese is totally gross.

And delicious, obviously. One of my favorite things ever.

California’s Artisan Cheese Festival took place last weekend, and for the first time, it included some activities outside the usual cheese bubble of Marin and Sonoma counties. Specifically, two different “Capitol area” farm tours took place north and south of Sacramento.

I ventured south to Modesto, specifically to gawk at Fiscalini Cheese Co.’s bandage-wrapped cheddar. This is the stinky stuff.

This is also the cheddar deemed the World’s Best Cheddar at the World Cheese Awards in London. Not just once, but three times. It’s the only American cheddar to ever win, in fact. Aged 14 months, it’s nutty, earthy, crumbly and wonderful.

Sliding on the sanitized floor, wearing a hairnet, surrounded by men in hairnets and beardnets, I felt like I got very close to Fiscalini’s cheese. I smelled its sweat and I still couldn’t wait to eat it.

I also met a room full of Fiscalini’s famous original San Joaquin Gold, and some of the 1,500 cows that help make it.

Why does good cheese taste so good? Brian Fiscalini, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, said there are a lot of different factors, but the main thing is the milk. Clean milk with a super-low white blood cell count leads to great cheese. And in the case of the Fiscalini family, the cows also provide the farm—and some of Modesto—with electricity.

Everything you just saw is powered by poop,” Fiscalini said.

With that, our tour bus took off for Nicolau Farms, a self-sustaining farmstead in Modesto. Surrounded by almond orchards, Nicolau looked shockingly pristine, with a manicured lawn, idyllic backyard and palm trees. It’s also on 30 acres, with 200 goats inadvertently contributing to creamy chevre and a variety of flavored cheeses.

Walter Nicolau, another fourth-generation dairy farmer, started the family’s cheesemaking enterprise. None of his stories, however, got visitors as excited as when he uttered the words “baby goat.”

Nicolau jumped into the spacious goat pen and pulled out an adorable white goat, born just that morning. The blue-eyed, pink-nosed baby got passed around, always with an audible gasp at its remarkable lightness. A photo shoot ensued.

When the goat got to me, I was overcome with cuteness, but also, with cheese thoughts. This goat was going to make such awesome cheese one day soon.

Cheese is life.