Off the coast of Sonoma County, in a little town called Valley Ford, there stands a 640-acre farm that has been owned by the Bianchi family since 1918. Boasting lush, rolling pastures overlooking the wetlands of the Estero Americano, there is plenty of room for their 500 Jersey cows to roam. With the help of knowledge passed down by their Italian ancestors, this farm has been home to sustainable dairy and agricultural practices since the beginning. From building using recycled materials, to implementing a system that catches rainwater for use around the farm, earth-friendly practices continue to be a commitment for the Bianchi family many generations after.
With the passage of time, the Bianchi family saw the potential to evolve the business, taking a step from merely producing milk to producing cheese as well. Following the examples of their ancestors from the Ticino District of the Swiss-Italian border, they continue to grow their own crops to feed their own cows. Their healthy “closed herd” is what produces the top quality milk they use to make their awesome cheese. I realize that writing my intro this way makes it all sound like a fairytale, but it is the story of how Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery came to be.
The start of something special.
Much like Fiscalini Cheese, Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery is a family-owned business focused on making small-batch artisanal products. Making cheese was actually the idea of Karen Bianchi-Moreda, a fourth generation Bianchi and the president of Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery. Staying true to their Italian roots, Karen went into the business of cheese-making with a focus on Swiss-Italian cheeses.
Before this, Karen had handled the financial matters of the company. Inspired by her childhood memories of meals with her grandparents, she wanted to recreate the same kind of cheese she always enjoyed with them during those days. It took her many months of trial and error until she could come up with the recipe for her signature cheese, named after the stream that flows adjacent to the town of Valley Ford.
“Estero Gold” went on to win plenty of awards, and if Karen needed any more indication that she should start distributing her cheese to shops and restaurants all over California, I imagine that was the best she could ask for. She officially founded Valley Ford Cheese & Creamery in the year 2008, building a facility big enough to house all the cheese they make while also having a shop and cafe. It’s a pretty good cafe, by the way. They have a husband-and-wife chef duo handling all the food and pastries, and they even serve some great local coffee.
Years later, Karen’s son Joe decided to join the family business and try his own hand at cheese-making. Like his mom, he too created an award-winning cheese. It’s a gorgonzola which I will talk a bit more about a little later. Clearly, cheese-making powers runs in this family. Karen has another son planning to come into the family business after finishing his studies, and maybe by then they would’ve managed to create yet another award-winning cheese!
There’s always something more special about family-owned businesses creating these kinds of artisanal products. Usually, the pride to take care of the family legacy is so strong it translates well into passion. I can see this passion plainly in the faces of both Karen and Joe, and I was definitely able to taste it in their cheese as well.
Here comes the best part.
When they told us we were coming in for a cheese tasting, I did not expect this: One room, three brands, and A LOT of cheese. I’ve never been to a cheese show or cheese-tasting exhibit before (is that even what they’re called?), so those who have may say this isn’t a big deal. It is for me though, especially since the only brand I actually recognized from the lot is Point Reyes. Ya’ll know I love trying new things!
In the middle of the room was an impressive display of Nicasio Valley Cheese. Located at nearby Marin County, this brand is owned by the Lafranchi family. They even have a Swiss Master Cheesemaker in the fold to consult with just to make sure their cheese is at par with those made in Switzerland. Now this brand is new to me, but it introduced itself with a bang by virtue of its impressive lineup of cheeses during the tasting. From soft to hard cheeses, they had it all. I enjoyed the Nicasio Square, which is a washed-rind cheese with a striking flavor, as well as the Nicasio Reserve, which is their rich Swiss-Italian mountain cheese.
Moving to the other end of the room, we had the pleasure of meeting the girls from Point Reyes Farmstead Co. I have been a fan of this brand for a while now. Their Toma is addictive, and I happen to think they have the best Blue Cheese I’ve ever eaten. Still, it was nice to know a little bit more about them through this tasting.
The girls talked about their cheese, highlighting that the lovely weather where their farm is located contributes a lot to the kind of milk their cows produce. As opposed to most cheesemakers that use milk from Jersey cows, they raise Holstein cows in their farm. That may well be the secret to their delicious Original Blue, which is definitely not for everyone. (Blue cheese just isn’t everyone’s cup of tea!) However, I love the distinctive taste of this particular blue cheese. It’s also beautiful. They also have what they call a “blue cheese” for noobs, their Bay Blue. While also good, it’s the Original Blue that really takes first place. And literally, it just did during the recent US Championship Cheese Awards. We’re talking the whole US of A, mind you.
And finally we come to what to me was the highlight of the entire long table. Very fittingly too, since we were in their farm after all. I had already guessed from the lineup alone that I was likely going to pick their aged “Estero Gold” Reserve as my favorite, just because I prefer semi-hard, dry, aged cheeses, and I was so right.
Valley Ford Cheeses are made from raw jersey cow milk, which they milk from the cows on the daily to ensure freshness. Once they are made, they are aged anywhere from 3 to 18 months in a room where temperature and humidity is constantly monitored. The equipment they use is state of the art, rivaling even those you would find in Italy.
It’s no wonder all their cheeses are wonderful, but there’s something special about the Monastio-Style “Estero Gold” Reserve. Every bite surprises you with a hidden crunch reminiscent of biting into something with sugar crystals. These crystals are common in high-protein, extra-aged cheeses, but from the cheeses I’ve had, it was most obvious in this specific cheese from Valley Ford. You can bet I bought myself some of that!
Their “Grazin’ Girl” Gorgonzola is their newest cheese creation, developed by Joe Moreda. It was creamy and quite delicious, with a flavor and smell that to me doesn’t quite hit you as obnoxiously as most other gorgonzolas do. It also has sweeter notes than any gorgonzola I’ve ever tried, so I imagine this will be amazing with some honeyed nuts. It surprises me not even a little that it has won an award, and considering this is a relatively young entry to the Valley Ford cheese family, it’s a feat. And I am also sure it’s just the beginning.
I am so glad this family decided to go into cheese-making. Also, I LOVE THE PACKAGING. (The marketing side of me could not resist but comment on it.) I love the branding as well!
A warm & cozy lunch.
It took only a few minutes to convert the cheese-tasting table into a lunch table, and I must say this lunch is probably one of the most memorable parts of this entire trip for me. I mean, the entire trip was memorable enough, but there’s nothing quite like sharing a meal with a group of people who spend the entire meal talking and laughing together. It was as if we’ve known each other for years instead of mere days, and for some of us, mere hours. As much as the great food filled up my tummy, this meal just filled my heart with warmth. Add to that the thank you speeches served between the appetizer and the main dish.
I will talk more about the food in a separate article that focuses on my favorite Cali eats from this trip, but I will briefly go through what we ate for this luncheon. We started with two kinds of fresh salad, highlighted by none other than Valley Ford Cheese. The young “Estero Gold” topped one salad, while the other had cubes of “Grazin’ Girl” Gorgonzola in it. The main dish was the Kimchi Grilled Cheese, made with kimchi from one of Valley Ford’s neighbors, plus their very own ‘Highway 1’ Fontina Cheese. The sourdough bread they used for the sandwich is house-made and wonderful! We also had some Sprinkle Cookies and fabulous Black Oak Coffee for dessert.
Karen brought out a special treat for us, and I never thought I’d be this excited about the prospect of tasting extra-aged cheese. If I remember correctly, it’s their most aged “Estero Gold Reserve on hand. Whatever it was, it was TRULY delicious. The crystals inside the cheese were more pronounced, and I just loved he nutty, savory, slightly sweet sensations that played in my tongue as I chewed on the cheese. Wow.
What a pleasure it is to have your own cheese production line. You can readily take cheese from your storeroom and add it into your food and live gloriously. Every. Single. Day. What a dream.
Big thank you to Karen and Joe for hosting us and introducing us to their wonderful, wonderful cheeses! I am literally going through my “Estero Gold” Reserve at a snail’s pace right now. I just don’t want to finish it all too fast!
Full disclosure: This trip was part of the California Cheese Crawl organized by the California Milk Advisory Board. Facts and figures have been taken from the company’s website, but all opinions stated above are my own.