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Farm visits are always exciting to me. After a certain point, cheese alone doesn’t satisfy me, and I really begin to hunger for the history behind the plate. My recent visit to Achadinha Cheese Company/Pacheco Family Dairy in Petaluma, California, was richly rewarding. Joined today by my friend Gavin (wedding photographer by day, cheese photographer 1-2 times a year), we wound our way along Chileno Valley Road, past rolling green hills, up to the wagon wheels gracing the Pacheco Dairy entrance. Along the driveway, we could see grazing goats, but nearly 30 cows, some chickens, a dog, and a cat. There are also pigs on the property, but I think they kept out of sight that day.
We stepped into the front entrance of the creamery, where freshly-made curds were being shoveled by two workers into a variety of large molds. Any artisanal cheesemaker who says it’s not hard, physical labor is joking. You probably develop great back and arm muscles from lifting and shoveling at this job! Donna Pacheco, Achadinha’s owner, cheesemaker, mother, and farmer extraordinaire, floated out of the back of the creamery and greeted us warmly. I wonder how she’s kept her good humor, seeing that she’s making cheese at 6:30-7am on most mornings! We walked past their cheese press—essentially consisting of plastic planks and buckets (this is truly handmade cheese!), to the aging room. There, we saw stacks of the popular goat-milk cheese Capricious and mixed-milk Broncha at different stages of aging.
As we walked among different batches of aging cheeses, Donna described her philosophy on working with her 1,000+ goats. To sum it up, you could say she is highly attuned to the seasonal nature of food—not just her cheese, but all food. She is very careful to work with her goats’ natural cycles, so when milk supplies are low, during winter, she simply reduces production. The characteristics of her goats’ milk are affected by a number of elements (food, weather, health, etc.), and she accounts for these changes by modifying her recipes as needed. Her “textbook” for accommodating these fluctuations is in the form of copious notes written by Donna herself, detailing everything about the goats and their living conditions. She knows them all, and loves sharing stories of their personalities with the curious.
Donna educated us a bit about the process of making her renowned Capricious cheese, an aged goat’s milk formed by bundling the curd into cheese cloth. She handles her milk delicately, using gravity to transfer it as much as possible, because small goat milk molecules are more fragile than the larger cow milk molecules. When it ages, the cheese first sits flat atop cypress planks for one month. Donna then transfers the wheels to slots where they stand upright, and washes them in olive oil once a month for 14-15 months.
When the cheese wheels are aged and ready to go, Donna takes great pride that Achadinha sell to customers itself. Apart from making and selling cheese, Donna sees one of her principle roles is that of educator. It is vitally important for her that her customers understand how her cheese is made, how the animals are raised, and what their personalities are. Moreover, she hopes that her customers will come away with the understanding of the seasonal characteristics of her product, and seasonal food in general. Her team of 12 salespeople attend approximately 50 farmers markets a week, and that number is growing consistently. Donna herself attends about 4 markets each week.
As Donna shared this information with us, standing amidst her cheeses, it was easy to see why she feel so strongly about the seasons, food education, and her product. She wakes up every morning bright and early to make cheese and care for her animals. Her house is in the center of the property, so she hears the goats, cows, and other animals when she goes to bed at night. Her children play an enormous role in caring for the animals and keeping the farm functional. Her husband, third generation dairy farmer Jim, plays a critical operational role in the farm. This cheese and these animals are her way of life; why shouldn’t she want to share more with her customers than a simple piece of cheese? Her cheese company is much more than that. It is literally her home.
Donna referred to her eldest son, whom all of the cows on the property regard as a mother cow, with nearly as much affection as the boisterous billy goat, Pete, who once escaped and rammed a farm truck. Cheese and home life merge seamlessly into one. She is extremely careful about food safety because any threat to her company is a very real threat to her family. That said, she does enjoy making cheese—she has been doing this professionally for over 12 years now—and her work allows her to finish cheesemaking in time to pick up her children from school every day and spend time with them. Many city dwellers I know don’t have that luxury.
Next post: Tasting cheese!