Sonoma County's goat nannies are busy giving birth this spring, providing a bonanza of fresh milk for North Coast's many cheese plants.
For cheesemakers, it's time to transform all that liquid goodness into tasty, aged cheeses, such as the venerable and versatile feta.
"Starting in May, we make some of our hard, long-aged cheeses, so that we can use up the surplus," said Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm, who has been making a raw-milk, feta-style cheese in Sebastopol since the 1980s.
In its native Greece, where feta is protected with an AOC designation of origin label, the cheese is traditionally made from goat or sheep's milk, or a mixture of both. After being cured and stored in a salty brine, it offers a distinctive tang and a creamy, crumbly texture.
At one time, the shepherds of the Balkan Peninsula would take their animals to the mountain pastures in the spring and summer to graze, then milk them and make feta once a day, over an open fire.
"There was no refrigeration, so they would pack it in wooden containers, and put in water and heavy salt," Bice said. "That would preserve it until they came down out of the mountains."
Because of modern-day refrigeration, Bice makes a lower-salt feta that still boasts a salty tang to balance the grassy flavor of the milk.
"Even today, a lot of the fetas from Turkey or Bulgaria or Greece are 20 percent salt content," she said.
Along with Achadinha Cheese Co. of Petaluma, which makes a pasteurized goat's milk feta, Redwood Hill Farm will be showcasing its fabulous feta at California's Artisan Cheese Festival this weekend at the Sheraton Sonoma County hotel in Petaluma.
Bice will be serving slices of cheese at Zazu Kitchen + Farm during a Friday farm tour and at a Friday night reception. The Redwood Hill cheeses will be paired with Paul Mathew Vineyard of Graton at Saturday's Grand Tasting and sampled at Sunday's marketplace.
While feta is often crumbled on top of a Greek salad, the cheese also melts nicely and holds its shape under fire.
"When Wolfgang Puck first made the California pizzas, it would be dotted with a little chevre and feta," Bice said.
For an easy appetizer, Bice likes to bake a slice of feta with a drizzle of olive oil, black pepper and oregano, then set the bubbling cheese out with crusty bread.
She also likes to roast asparagus, then crumble the cheese on top with a splash of lemon juice. Feta can also be substituted for queso fresco, on top of tacos.
"You don't have to use a lot," Bice said. "But it gives a lot of flavor and packs a punch."
Jon and Lauren Bowne of Gypsy Cheese Co. in Valley Ford make a raw, goat's-milk feta cheese called Caravan. The lawyers-turned-food-entrepreneurs started with feta, because it's an easy cheese to age.
"You take the curds, put them in a brine, and leave it there for a couple of months," Jon Bowne said. "So it was a great beginner cheese for us."
The couple, who moved up from San Francisco two years ago, eat feta every day, at most meals.
"It's got salt, it's got tang," he said. "It's got all that you want to put in a dish."