Since I am no longer working in a cheese shop, I have been thinking of how I can keep this blog alive and relevant to readers. Living in San Francisco has some huge advantages, since this city is known for its high level of food consciousness, and its proximity to the fine cheesemakers of Northern California! I decided that with this unique vantage point, I should try and go to the source, and meet with the people and animals who work so hard to bring us these fine cheeses. I visited Spring Hill Cheese Company in Petaluma on a Tuesday morning, during a break in the rainy weather we’d been having.
This time, I was joined by a helping hand, Gavin, a photographer who has long decried my amateur point and shoot photos. We pulled up to Petaluma Creamery, glanced over at the cheese shop the next block over, and stepped into the office waiting room. We were supposed to meet with owner Larry Peter, but he was in a meeting. However, we happened upon Salina Munoz, Spring Hill’s new and absolutely charming regional director. “Do you want to taste some cheese?” she asked with her gorgeous wide eyes when she found out that we were writing for this blog. “YES!”
Salina walked us over to the cheese shop, animatedly explaining why she chose to work here. “I love how nothing is perfect. Everything has its quirkiness. Everything is real.” This was easy to see. The structure we were visiting, the Petaluma Creamery, dates back to 1913, and was purchased by Larry in 2007. We walked past multi-colored picnic tables and vintage wooden wagons parked in front, and were directed to the ice cream cooler. “How about some ice cream?” Sure, why not, at 10:30am? One customer leaned in and knowingly declared, “They’ve got the best ice cream you’ll ever have.” We started with the more exotic flavors first (so much for my standard of always starting with vanilla!). The lavender ice cream was calling to me. It was absolutely perfect! The temperature was not too cold. The ice cream coated the tongue (I wonder how much cream they add). It reminded me of Milwaukee frozen custard, but when I try to explain that to these SFers, most times, I get a blank stare. Here was a bite of lavender heaven, reminding me of lavender-scented Provence. Next, we toured through the strawberry, espresso, caramel macchiato, and vanilla flavors. If I didn’t have so many other cheeses to taste after, I may well have gone for their cookies and cream, with whole Oreo-style cookies dotting the surface, mint-chocolate chip, or chocolate. I need to leave something for the next visit, right?
Afterward, we were able to taste cheeses from both Spring Hill Cheese and Petaluma Creamery. Salina animatedly explained that Petaluma Creamery is a co-op that includes about 90 dairies within a 20-mile radius. The Creamery, which has been in existence since 1913, was purchased by Larry Peter in 2007, an indication of Larry’s commitment to preserving the local history of dairy farming. On the plate was an assortment of jacks, cheddars, flavored jack cheeses, cheese curds, butter, and Spring Hill’s Old Portuguese cheese. I thought this semi-hard Old Portuguese was indeed very reminiscent of the Old World, with its hand-tied form. It was a little saltier than expected, with a hint of nuttiness and a smaller hint of sweetness. Its texture was also a bit more waxy than it looked. The other notable cheeses were the cheese curds (gotta love the squeakiness!), their wonderfully flavored two-year cheddar (although, if you are looking for a little crunchiness in your cheddar, this is not the one), and their goat cheddar (there was a little bit of “crunchiness” here, though!). If you’re looking for some good sandwich melt cheese or beer cheese, Mike’s Firehouse Jack, named to commemorate Larry Peter’s late nephew, offers a good cheese with jalapeno peppers, red peppers, cilantro, and parsley.
At this moment, owner Larry Peter himself joined us to say hello, almost nondescript in glasses, khaki pants, and pale grey button-down. After learning we wanted to visit his farm (we will have to come back another time to visit the Petaluma Creamery!), he said, “OK. Can you follow me in your car?” I didn’t realize it, but Spring Hill Cheese Co. is actually about 20 minutes away from Petaluma Creamery, outside of the town, and on a road flanked by rolling hills and other farms.
At one point, we stopped in front a field where hundreds of Jersey cows were grazing happily—300 of them. Arrived! We drove up the long driveway, past a motley assortment of broken-down trucks and old gas-station relics, and parked behind Larry’s house. Indeed, what a house! It was purchased from a Sear’s catalog in the 1870s—for $2,600. In 2000, Larry updated it by adding a wraparound porch. It’s just picture perfect.
Our first stop on the visit was a shed turned cheese-making facility. This is where Larry began his cheese business, with funds accumulated from operating a potato farm. Potatoes to cheese. Larry purchased the shed in 1987. Originally, the shed’s activities weren’t limited to cheese-making. Larry pointed out where he once canned fruit and butchered meat.
We picked among the large vat at the entrance, where curds and whey are separated, the pasteurizing machine to our left, the finishing table, where curds are transferred to be salted, flavored, formed, and tied by hand (in the case of the Portuguese cheese). There was a small vat in the corner (400 gallons) that is used to make Spring Hill Cheese’s delectable quark. There’s a cream separator. Behind the finishing table we came across three doors. The aging rooms. Larry wasn’t able to open the middle one, where their Spring Hill Breeze, a soft-ripened cheese, was aging, but he could open the two on either side. The left one was completely empty, having been recently cleared out and refitted with brand new pine aging racks. The door on the right yielded a prize—row upon row of aging Portuguese-style cheese. Larry wipes them down with whey, which is acidic, when they need to be cleaned. Signs along the rows marked these cheeses as dating from March 2011. They were about to be cleared out.
It was here I learned about what—or who—is purchasing Spring Hill Cheese at the moment. If you are a consumer or company who wants to buy, you need to contact Spring Hill directly. There are no distributors. Right now, Whole Foods and Chipotle (yes, THAT Chipotle) are Larry’s main customers. “Chipotle saved the creamery,” he states matter-of-factly. For anyone who thinks Chipotle is just another fast-food joint owned by the McDonald’s corporation, Larry is here to prove her wrong. While McDonald’s did indeed own Chipotle in the past, it is now owned by a gentleman named Steve Ells. The company is truly committed to sustainable and humane farming methods. Representatives from Chipotle visit the farm several times a year to ensure that the cows are being treated well. They want good-quality milk and milk products produced by happy cows, and are willing to pay a premium and bonus for grass-fed animals. I’m tucking that knowledge away for the next time I cross a Chipotle.
From the aging rooms, we moved onto another wing of the cheese-making facility. Another testament to Larry’s humble beginnings, Larry explained that this area, the cut and wrap room, was a former moveable classroom at Sonoma High School! As proof, he pointed to the white “21” on the red door. Larry expressed his vision for the future, where he hopes to get into agro-tourism. He hopes that one day soon, people will be able to visit his farm, tend to vegetables, pick vegetables on the farm, milk cows, and make their own cheese. He wants to expose more people to food’s life cycle, to educate them about the land and where good food comes from. Already, Larry opens his farm to the public all through the month of October to families and children so that children can dig up potatoes (he still devotes about 20-30 acres a year to potatoes!), pick pumpkins, learn about livestock, milk cows, and taste his delicious ice cream.
“Come on. Do you want to see some more?” he asked as we moved on. Cheese was tucked away in all corners of the property. We took a peek at the smoking room, where blocks of cheddar smoke for three days at a time. Another hidden aging room looked like it was a trailer in a former life. This one was a gift from Santa Rosa Junior College, which Larry picked up using two hay squeezes and his truck. Inside, we saw rows of jack doing their thing and aging, coated with olive oil, pepper, and cocoa powder.
The milking room was our next stop. Milking occurs twice daily at 12am and 12pm. The room can hold 10 cows at a time, and it takes about 6-7 minutes to milk each cow. Here, Larry shared with Miss Cheesemonger that all of his cows come from a small town called Ferndale in Humboldt County, California. Gavin, the photographer, lit up. “I’m from Ferndale!” The world is indeed small!
We climbed a small hill, where we could take a better look at the land. With a wave of his hand, he gestured to his property, saying that his approximately 400 cows have about four acres each to graze on. Other land is devoted to growing potatoes, pumpkins, or other produce. In total, Larry possesses about 2,100 acres, not counting the Petaluma Creamery. “Not bad for a guy who started growing potatoes.”
Our last visit was to the calves, some of whom were born the day before. As we approached, Larry began mooing to them in greeting. He explained that he learned cheese by just going for it. He ordered the supplies, and a representative from the supply company showed him what needed to be done. The rest is history. For a potato farmer, he’s doing quite well!
We would like to thank Larry Peter for sharing his home, his creamery, his farm, and his cheese with Miss Cheesemonger. We would also like to thank Salina Munoz for her warm welcome and tour of the cheese shop. If you will have us back, we would love to visit Petaluma Creamery as well!