California’s 100-mile-long SONOMA MARIN CHEESE TRAIL is a dairy lover’s dream.
The road winds through impossibly green hillsides creased with folds, much like an emerald quilt thrown haphazardly across a bed. Trees crowd the furrows, allowing the vast landscape to be a bare canvas for a scattering of dairy cows. These cows are part of the reason I’ve packed my mother, a cooler and a map in the car for the day. We’ve come to California’s Sonoma and Marin counties not for the wine (although I wouldn’t turn a glass away if it were offered) but for the cheese.
From gloriously gooey to surprisingly sharp, cheese oozes its way onto every menu and into many culinary hearts — not to mention plenty of comfort-food favorites. Just a short drive from the San Francisco and Mineta San José international airports, Sonoma and Marin counties are becoming known as the Normandy of Northern California, after the French cheese-producing region. The heart of California’s artisan cheesemaking includes family farms and working ranches that specialize in cheese from cows, sheep, goats and even water buffalos.
For more information on California’s Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail or to download a map, visit www.cheesetrail.org
The map (available in mobile-app and paper form) helping us navigate our journey lists the creameries, cheese companies and tasting rooms along the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail. With 29 cheesemakers (21 of which are open for tours and tastings or visits by appointment), the region is an ideal place for dairy lovers to create self-guided tours to meet cheesemakers, learn about the animals, see cheese being made and, above all, get a taste or two.
The cheese-trail map features two driving-tour suggestions that offer a sampling of a few stops. Mom and I decide to freewheel it, choosing from the list of locations regularly open to the public. We arrive soon at our first stop: the Petaluma Creamery. Coming through the doors for our tour, we receive long white coats, hairnets and helmets. Cheese made here is for Spring Hill Jersey Cheese (an organic line) and Petaluma Creamery (from the milk contributions of local dairies in Sonoma County).
We walk alongside metal containers into which robotic arms push heaps of curd. I want to reach in and grab a handful, but I restrain myself. The light, slightly creamy scent surrounds us, and I hope the tour speeds along to the tasting portion. After viewing the packing and storage operations, we emerge in the shop, where we get a sample of absolutely every cheesy thing under the roof. I leave with a blend of curds known as Organic Mike’s Firehouse Curds — so called because it’s spiced with red pepper. Mom falls under the spell of the Organic Lemon Quark.