The handmade’s tale

Local artisan cheese makers show there’s more than one way to tip a cow

In Orland, 100 miles north of Sacramento, the Pedrozo family churns milk into solid gold.

In Orland, 100 miles north of Sacramento, the Pedrozo family churns milk into solid gold.

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It’s the ruin of dieters and vegans alike: cheese. The human palate loves it, and though our bowels often don’t, we may indulge, and the Californian artisan-cheese industry feeds our desires. Over the past decade, it has developed in a positive growth trend similar to that of the 1990s wine industry, and today some Central Valley cheese makers are hailed as equals to the best cheese champions of France and Italy.

In Modesto, 76 miles south of Sacramento, Fiscalini Farms, a medal-winning producer, began making cheese nine years ago. Previously and for a full 90 years, the farm had sold all its milk to Nestlé, but in 2000, owner John Fiscalini, with 1,500 cows—mostly Holsteins—at his disposal, decided to reserve a fraction of the milk for his experimental use. On brand new equipment, Fiscalini attempted a fontina. He goofed—but in a great way. The cheese did not bear the qualities that define a fontina, but it has become a star in its own right under the name San Joaquin Gold.

“I call that cheese my ‘gold-medal mistake,’” Fiscalini said unabashedly. “It was fortunately a reproducible error, and we’ve been intentionally making that error again and again now for nine years. It has an earthy, nutty flavor that people go crazy for. So do I.”

The San Joaquin Gold, aged 16 months and riddled with those delightful protein crystals familiar to any fancy-cheese junkie, constitutes a style unto its own and unique to California, explained Fiscalini. The two-year-old cheddar, meanwhile, is a successful imitation of an existing style. Another Fiscalini cheese—the Lionza—is also modeled after an obscure European style; it takes its name from the Swiss mountain village of John Fiscalini’s familial origins, where many local cheese makers produce an anonymous hard cheese which Fiscalini discovered on a pilgrimage to the village several years ago.

Today, Fiscalini oversees operations, but cheese maker Mariano Gonzalez, a Paraguay native, makes the magic happen. The cheese is available at Corti Brothers, other fine foods retailers and even Safeway.

Near Orland, 100 miles north of Sacramento, Pedrozo Dairy & Cheese Company produces 3,000 pounds of farmstead (meaning the milk is produced on-site) cheese per month. The Pedrozo family runs a herd of just 40 cows on 20 acres. Owner Tim Pedrozo is a third-generation dairier with roots in the Azores, and he sells three base cheeses: Black Butte Reserve, aged six-months and made of spring milk; Northern Gold, made of winter milk; and Blondie’s Best, also of winter milk. This latter cheese undergoes some delightful post-processing. Some of the 2-pound wheels are soaked in red wine. That’s the Tipsy Cow cheese. A portion is bathed in sparkling wine—called Bubbly Cow. And another portion soaks in a black ale from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company—the Stout Cow.

The Pedrozo family, which occupies a stand at the Sunday Sacramento farmers’ market and also sells at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, milks Holstein and Jersey heifers. The former is a bigger bovine, bearing those classic black-and-white happy-cow patches we all hold dear, while Jerseys are a small breed known for a high-fat milk. The cows are milked twice daily, and the end result is a two-cow blend. Pedrozo says that while wintertime milk is fattier, better flavor comes in the spring. Milking continues daily, year-round.

For me, the notion of artisanal farmstead cheese has long evoked the image of a stout-legged village woman busy at the milking stool, but my interviews last week with California’s cheese makers dashed my treasured vision on the rocks of reality. For even Pedrozo Dairy, among the smallest of local artisans, employs machines to milk its cows.

Yet we call these “handmade” cheeses, and why shouldn’t we? Compared to the ubiquitous mass-made factory jack, cheddar, feta and “whiz,” what else is a wheel of Tipsy Cow but a cheese made by hand?