In northern California, the image of “happy cows” is a reality, with dairy animals roaming free across verdant pastures throughout Sonoma and Marin counties. The same joy holds true for milk-producing sheep, and goats.
Over this past weekend, the public had the chance to get up-close-and-personal with the experience, through the 5th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival, and its collection of cheese farm tours. Plenty of people apparently have a great taste for the education; more tours were added over last year’s line-up, and still, all sold out within 48 hours.
At Giacomini Dairy in Point Reyes, the family’s 300-plus Holstein cows roam over 700 acres overlooking Tomales Bay. For more than 50 years, the gentle beasts have contributed their milk for humans to drink, but with decreasing milk prices over the past decade, the Giacominis transformed operations to a creamery in 2000. Under the label of Farmstead Cheese Company, the dairy now crafts artisan Point Reyes Original Blue bleu cheese, plus Point Reyes Toma table cheese, from a state-of-the-art facility that sits just steps from the cow barns.
More recently, the Giacomini family turned the property into something a bit more surprising: a tourism destination, with a plush new barn-style event center called Fork. It sits right next to the dairy buildings, yet is designed for formal dinners and parties, with a full-scale kitchen and high-definition video display capabilities for meetings.
Showing just how far the transformation from dairy to destination has come, this past Friday, several dozen guests rode Pure Luxury charter buses up the hillside, for an Artisan Cheese Festival farm tour and sit-down dinner. Dairy owner Robert Giacomini led the group through his property, meeting-and-greeting the cows (contented bovines, indeed, beautifully spotted in black-and-white), displaying the milking procedures (which the cows seem to enjoy, lining up eagerly for their turn), and sharing the sustainable practices the dairy has adopted over the years (from feeding harvested almond hulls, to powering the property via the cows’ own methane).
After the several-hour tour, guests convened to the Fork dining room, where legendary Sonoma chef John Ash prepared a four-course feast focusing on Farmstead Cheese.
As guests nibbled on fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella and sipped sparkling wine, chef Ash previewed the evening’s menu with a mini cooking class, showing how cheese can transform even the most simple dishes. Stuffing a bit of blue into a fried olive adds excitement, while a melted core of buttery Toma makes a gooey marvel of potato croquettes. A nubbin of mozzarella adds texture and zest to a rustic radicchio soup brightened with garlic, tomatoes, red wine, chicken stock and croutons, while a hearty shaving of semi-hard Toma cheese makes an exquisite finishing accent to grilled beef tagliata sprinkled with fried capers, and garnished with rosemary, arugula and a spritz of lemon.
For dessert, Ash and Giacomini’s head cheesemaker Kuba Hemmerling led the group through a detailed cheese tasting and wine pairing tutorial (hint: white wine is the best default for most cheeses, rather than the common conception that red matches). And then guests got a reminder of another joy that comes from a dairy farm: ice cream.
As the visitors relaxed on the bus ride back down the hill, with the sun setting, and the nighttime fog creeping in, a herd of cows wandered lazily around the edges of the driveway, munching emerald grass and gazing at the visitors with dewy-eyed interest.
Happy cows, curious cows, it all equals delicious cheese.
Tip: Many of Northern California’s cheese farms are now opening for tours. You can see some locations here, and if you have a favorite cheese, contact the creamery to see if they can schedule a visit. Make an event of it, too, by chartering a Town Car or limousine from Pure Luxury Transportation.