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It's all about the cheese


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."

Achadinha Cheese Co. of Petaluma, located at a family dairy with a herd of 500 goats and 26cows, makes four farmstead cheeses.

Cheesemaker Donna Pacheco started making a feta-style cheese in 2000 with the help of an old friend, cheesemaker Howard Bunce of Marin-French Cheese Co.

In 2008, the Pacheco family sold development rights to the ranch in order to build a creamery on site.

Pacheco and her family like to eat the tangy feta on a piece of toast, with tomato and olive oil, or on top of strawberries in the summer.

Achadinha Cheese Co. will be a stop on two cheese festival tours this Friday. Their cheese will be paired at Saturday's tasting in a dish created by the culinary team at the Spinster Sisters restaurant in Santa Rosa.

The public can visit Achadinha by appointment and sign up for one of Pacheco's cheesemaking classes.

"We love to have people come out and really see who we are," she said. "The goats travel to the beat of their own drum. Right now, we are having babies like there's no tomorrow."

The following recipe is from Redwood Hill Farm of Sebastopol. This is a very simple, easy-to-prepare appetizer that you can make in minutes and serve either hot or cold.

Herb Roasted Raw Milk Feta

Makes 3-4 servings

6 ounces Redwood Hill Farm Raw Goat Milk Feta

1 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Greek)

11 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (adjust to taste)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

—Lemon zest

For a hot appetizer: Place one slice of the feta in a small baking dish or ovenproof serving dish. Crush the dried herbs between your fingers and sprinkle on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and curls of lemon zest.

Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil on top. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 12-15 minutes. Serve with crusty bread.

For a cold appetizer: Cube the feta and place in a small bowl. Crush the dried herbs and sprinkle on top of the cheese. Sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper and curls of lemon zest. Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over the cheese and gently stir.

Spoon into a dish and serve with toothpicks as an appetizer. Garnish with olives and roasted red peppers, if you wish.

This recipe is from the Ceres Project's "Nourishing Connections Cookbook." It uses the Redwood Hill Farm yogurt and feta and pairs well with crackers or raw vegetables.

Feta and Sun-Dried Tomato Spread with Basil

Makes 3 cups

8 ounces cream cheese (or Neufchatel, for less fat)

1/2 cup Redwood Hill Farm Goat Milk Yogurt

1/3 cup sun-dried tomato halves in oil, drained and chopped

3 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

6-8 ounces Redwood Hill Farm Raw Goat Milk Feta, crumbled

3 tablespoons walnuts (soaked, dehydrated and toasted — see note below)

Put the cream cheese, yogurt, sun-dried tomatoes, walnuts, basil and garlic in the food processor. Process until everything is incorporated and the mixture is smooth.

Add the crumbled feta and process just to mix it in. The texture should be a bit lumpy.

Put the feta spread in a bowl and chill until ready to serve.

Note: To soak and dehydrate walnuts, soak walnuts in warm filtered water to cover, with 1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt per 2 cups nuts, for 4-8 hours. Drain and rinse the nuts and spread them on a baking sheet in a warm oven set no higher than 150 degrees. Cook until they are completely dry and crisp, about 6-12 hours.

To toast: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the nuts in a small baking pan. Roast them until they are fragrant and starting to brown. This will take anywhere from 6 to 12 minutes, depending on the nuts. Watch carefully, as nuts can burn quickly.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.