The month of March heralds two highly anticipated events: the arrival of Spring (which thankfully debuted with much-needed rain), and the annual California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma; a weekend-long gala of events and tastings showcasing our state’s rich artisan cheese community and their unique products.
Celebrating its eighth year, the festival offers cheese lovers a variety of experiences from “behind-the-scenes” farm tours and cheese making classes, to educational seminars and chef demonstrations–intermingled with a delicious dose of cheese tastings and pairings.
Festival goers can rub elbows with some of the brightest cheesemaking stars in the artisan cheese movement, and sample a variety of their award-winning hand crafted cow, goat, and sheep milk offerings. More than 10,000 attendees have flocked to past festivals, and organizers expect the event to draw larger crowds in the future.
A percentage of the ticket sale proceeds go to nonprofit organizations that work to protect and preserve farm land, encourage future generations of milk producers and cheesemakers, and support the artisan cheesemaking community in California. Previous festivals have raised more than $45,000 which benefitted the Sonoma Land Trust, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Petaluma Future Farmers of America, California Artisan Cheese Guild, and the Redwood Empire Food Bank.
This was my first year at the festival, and it did not disappoint. I kicked off the festivities at Friday evening’s Meet the Cheesemakers soiree, then returned Sunday for the afternoon Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace. If sampling world-class cheese paired with fine regional wine, beer, and cider is your idea of heaven, then this festival is nirvana.
Entering the exhibit hall, I immediately spotted the smiling face of cidermaker Jan Lee and wandered over to fill my glass with her delicious dry Applegarden Farm Cider. This distilled heirloom nectar perfectly compliments rich cheese. With glass in hand, I was ready to tackle the line-up of tasting tables.
I slowly made my way around the room, pausing often to sample beloved cheeses from favorite local artisan friends at Achadinha Cheese Company (aged goat “Capricious”), Valley Ford Cheese Company (Jersey milk “Estero Gold”), Tomales Farmstead Creamery (“Liwa” fresh goat cheese), Point Reyes Farmstead Creamery (cow’s milk “Bay Blue” and Toma), Cowgirl Creamery (all-time favorite cow’s milk “Mt. Tam”), Bohemian Creamery, and Nicasio Valley Cheese Company (“Foggy Morning” cow’s milk farmer’s cheese).
I also discovered the cheeses of several other stand-out North Bay cheesemakers like Pugs Leap in Petaluma (goat milk “Petit Marcel” and Chevre), Gypsy Cheese in Valley Ford (raw goat milk feta-style “Caravan”), Bleating Heart in Tomales (raw Jersey milk “Goldette Tommette”), and Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese Company west of Petaluma. Needless to say, it was a highly caloric weekend!
Strolling the crowded aisles, I was struck by the wealth and diversity of artisan cheese that is produced in our local milkshed. As part of California’s “cheese revolution,” our cheesemakers are building a new audience and crafting a profitable niche for their distinctive products. Bravo!