Minister of cheese

Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op

1900 Alhambra Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 455-2667

Lori Friedli eats a lot of cheese. Anywhere from 2 to 3 ounces a day, or 45 to 68 pounds a year. Like most people, the daily ritual of cheese consumption is driven by her love of the dairy-derived goodness. But unlike most, Friedli eats cheese because she has to.

Come again?

It’s not every day that you meet someone who eats cheese for a living. Officially, Friedli is the wine and cheese buyer for Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, a member-owned natural foods store. But she might more aptly be dubbed a cheese evangelist. As she bounds to and fro between her office and the cheese case, her curly red mane and white smock a blur, Friedli is a bundle of energy and passion, spreading the gospel of good cheese.

About two years ago, Friedli started bringing the cheese. As the Co-op’s wine buyer since 1993, Friedli had been lamenting the lack of places to buy great cheeses, short of going to San Franciso. Bay Area distributors wouldn’t come to Sacramento, says Friedli, because there was little demand. She asked to take over the cheese department so she could bring to Sacramento the great cheeses of the world—many of which, it turns out, are right in our backyard.

Northern California is home to several specialty cheesemakers. There’s the Belfiore Cheese Company in Berkeley, Bravo Farms in Visalia, the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, Cypress Grove in McKinleyville—the list goes on. What’s appealing about specialty cheeses is that they are not mass-produced and are often handmade or “artisanal.” Many are farmstead, which means that the milk used to make the cheese comes from a cheesemaker’s own animals. Many use only organic milk, and some use raw unpasteurized milk to make their cheese, which is considered more flavorful and easier to digest by some. (Currently, raw milk cheeses must be aged at least 60 days before the public can consume them.) By and large, these specialty cheeses have a unique flavor because of the selective ingredients and conditions that go into their crafting.

Although the Co-op’s cheese selection includes a healthy assortment of local cheese—both specialty and non-specialty, it’s not all Friedli buys. After all, a serious cheese evangelist simply can’t ignore the beautiful cheeses of Europe.

Friedli is in her “office,” a narrow 3-by-7-foot strip, where she cuts and wraps cheese. She brings out a cardboard box from the walk-in filled with beautiful, creamy, undulating masses of cheese. The Robiola Di Mondovi is a raw-milk cheese from Italy. Each mass, smaller than an adult-size hand, is unwrapped, and tied with a straw ribbon.

Before she cuts and wraps the cheese, she checks it for freshness, which means taking into account a minimum three-week store shelf life. Otherwise, it passes its prime before it gets to the customer, or lasts only for a few days in the crisper. The Robiola Di Mondovi is ripe and runny now, which means it is at its prime, but too ripe to be put on the shelf. She’ll return this cheese and get a credit. Another cheese, already on the shelf, she points to and says, “This one I’d ripen for another month before I ate it.” It’s a Chaource Lincet—a soft-ripened raw goat cheese that is one of her favorites. It’s perfectly good now, but when you know so much about cheese, you know exactly the optimal time to consume it, like a mature wine. With the Chaource Lincet, which is completely enclosed in a white brie-like rind, cutting into the cheese would disturb the bacteria that ripen it, so the cheese must remain uncut to ripen to its prime.

Getting this kind of cheese lesson highlights how delicate and variable the process of cheesemaking is. Everything—from the kind of grass, flowers and herbs the animals eat, to the pasteurization of the milk, to the starter and rennet (a coagulant that curdles the milk)—affects the outcome of the cheese. One regional cheese in particular, the Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese’s Northern Gold, has an entirely different taste depending on the season, according to Friedli. “If you think about it, grass is greener in the summer than winter,” she explains.

Educating the public about cheese is Friedli’s passion. She creates little “shelf talkers”—miniature placards that sit in front of a cheese to inform and entice customers. She holds cheese classes at the Co-op, writes a column in the Co-op Reporter, and offers a daily selection of cheese samples. All of this, no doubt, piques the interest of an audience already enamored of cheese. And her efforts are paying off. Whereas the Co-op sold about $2,000 of cheese per week a couple of years ago, the volume has quadrupled since.

For a cheese aficionado such as Friedli, she is done with the mass-produced cheeses that are consumed by the block. A little cheese goes a long way, she says, holding up a candy-sized packet of cheese—not much bigger than a chocolate gold coin. “It’s really all you need,” says Friedli.

In order to become acquainted with the region’s specialty cheeses, we asked Friedli to select seven from Northern California for a taste test. We also recruited six cheese enthusiasts, who combined had more than 200 years of cheese-eating experience, albeit of the amateur kind. Our tasting results follow:

The Bravo Farms’ White Cheddar Cheese was voted the best among five of six tasters. “Sharp, but not biting, with a smooth, crumbly texture.” This cheese was truly marvelous in its mouth-feel and tang.

Both the Point Reyes’ Original Blue and the Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog (a soft goat cheese) were well liked by all, with great melt-in-your-mouth mouth-feel. The Humboldt Fog had a different taste in the center than it did near the rind, which Friedli explained was a result of the ripening process—the cheese ripens from the outside in.

The Vella Cheese Co.’s Whole Milk Dry Jack was voted as the best sandwich cheese, with its creamy cheddar-like flavor. The Northern Gold was the most controversial cheese. A few thought it “skunky,” while others appreciated the uniqueness of its “musty” flavor. The Redwood Hill Farm’s Camellia was voted the most beautiful cheese, with its white rind and creamy runniness. Almost no one liked Belfiore’s smoked mozzarella, which did not come as a surprise, considering that smoked cheeses do not go well with other kinds of cheeses.

The cheese tasting was a huge success. The experience left us feeling educated and emboldened to buy strange and beautiful new cheeses. If Northern California’s history is any indication, mark my words, cheese is the new wine.