In Northern California, March means Cheese Festival time! M. Cheesemonger and I decided to participate by volunteering on Saturday afternoon. We rolled up to the hotel venue, got our aprons, crept past Janet Fletcher’s morning session, and slid into the back kitchen, where a crew of cheesemongers, cheese lovers, and other cheese pros were already hard at work cutting up huge chunks of cheese for sessions on pinot & cheese pairing, bubbles & cheese, cheesemaking, rind studies, and then some. M. Cheesemonger and I were put in charge of one beer & cheese session.
I quickly realized I’ve lost a lot of my cheese cutting skills after these years away from the counter! It took M. Cheesemonger and me a few minutes of turning cheeses in our hands to calculate how we were going to break down each of the 7 cheeses of varying shapes and firmnesses into 30 pieces. Mucho respect for all you folks who have to do that on a regular basis! It was tough cutting some soft cheeses into uniform slivers, even with a cheese wire. The Bay Blue I had kept crumbling in my fingers. No human or cheese got too hurt during the process, though. We then wheeled all the cheeses downstairs and set them out for the various sessions. Our shift only lasted a few hours, and we were able to get free admittance to the marketplace the following day! Keep that in mind if you’re thinking of volunteering next year! The festival certainly needs as many hands as it can get. Plus, the people are fun, passionate, and ultra-knowledgeable.
Sunday morning, having seen the commendable Livermore Valley Opera production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella, by Rossini) the night before, we were ready to do battle in the marketplace! We roamed around, tasted a bit of cider, a bit of cheese, a bit of endive, a bit of toffee, and walked away with what I thought were some of the shining stars of the show: (1) Gypsy Cheese Company’s Gypsy Rose, a raw goat milk, washed-rind powerhouse with flavor the size of Mt. Tamalpais and a texture like melting butter; (2) Laychee from Pennyroal Farm, a marshmallowy, fresh ewe’sand goat’s milk cheese that makes me feel like I’m kissing a cloud; (3) Kenne from Toluma Farms, a soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese that reminds me of my lazy—erm, I mean industrious—student days in Provence. M. Cheesemonger bought a bottle of the refreshingly light Sonoma Valley Portworks Petite Sirah port and McClelland’s Dairy butter. I wanted to get so, so much more, but a girl’s gotta pace herself! We’re running the cheese marathon here.
The festival keeps getting better with each year. This year, they had two tents for a less cramped experience. Our little swag bags were lightly insulated and included ice packs. The organizers added as many farm tours and sessions as they could to accommodate the increasing numbers of devotees. California cheesemakers keep outdoing themselves with better cheeses. I’ve added a slide show below to show you all the photos!
Thanks for the weekend, California Artisan Cheese Festival! See you next year!