Artisan Cheese Festival expands into Sonoma County restaurants, inns, wineries
Cheese is the ultimate crowd-pleaser, each bite offering comfort and warm memories of home, whether it's grilled between artisanal slices of bread or melted over pasta and smothered with a béchamel sauce.
As part of this year's California Artisan Cheese Festival, local cheeses will be oozing out of the menus of dozens of restaurants, markets and inns across the county during the inaugural California Artisan Cheese Week through Sunday, March 24.
So if you can't get to the festival itself - Saturday and Sunday in Santa Rosa - you can still get your share of local cheeses and chefs' cheesy concoctions, ranging from a Farmstead Mac'n'Cheese at Santa Rosa's Mercato to Ricotta Lemon Cheesecake at the Petaluma Pie Co.
“We're always trying to find ways for people to engage more,” said Judy Walker, executive director of the non-profit California Artisan Cheese Festival. “We want both the public to learn about these different cheeses and the local businesses to be able to experience new cheeses ... and of course, we want to spur cheese sales.”
After putting out the word this year, Walker said that 19 cheesemakers signed up to participate in California Artisan Cheese Week, each one offering three cheeses from their diverse product lines.
“We have almost 60 cheeses on the list, and the distributor information,” Walker said. “We wanted it to be a no-brainer: Here are the cheeses, and here's how easy it is to participate in cheese week.”
Chefs at dozens of local restaurants, inns, wineries and markets are highlighting the cheeses on cheese plates and melting them into special dishes that are available this week only. The new program offers an easy way for chefs to participate if they are too busy to take part in the two-day festival and its array of tours, workshops and tasting events. (see sidebar for details.)
For consumers, it's a good opportunity to learn about some of the exciting, new cheeses being made in their own back yard.
“There are so many great cheeses made around here - really some of the best in the world,” said Brandon Parkhurst, a partner and manager of Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol. “Since we opened, we've featured local cheeses from Bohemian Creamery and Wm. Cofield, Point Reyes (Original) Blue and Toma ... this is where people are able to try these cheeses if they are not able to make it to the cheese tasting rooms.”
During cheese week, Gravenstein Grill is showcasing a cow's milk cheese from Jennifer Kirkham's Moonside Creamery on their cheese board.
“Her Companion is kind of like a brie, but it's a six-week aged cheese with a washed rind,” Parkhurst said. “We feature the cheese plate as an appetizer all day or as a happy hour bar snack.”
Kirkham, a relative newcomer to the cheese scene who launched Moonside in 2016, has a long-term lease on a creamery in Valley Ford where she makes a variety of pasteurized cheeses from organic, Jersey cow milk.
Her Halo is a soft, French-style cheese that looks like a classic goat cheese, but it's a cow's milk cheese made in a distinctive donut shape, which makes it stand out.
“The flavors are mild and milky with a bit of a bite from the rind,” she said of Halo. “There's donut shaped cheese in France, but nobody else has done that here.”
Kirkham also makes semi-soft, washed-rind cheeses - Companion weighs less than a pound and offers flavors of beef broth and unsweetened chocolate, while the Ebibias weighs about 3 pounds and offers savory notes of bacon, butter and nuttiness.
The Moonside cheeses are distributed by Tomales Bay Foods and currently carried by Petaluma Market, but Kirkham is working on getting them into more markets. Because she lives in Sebastopol, she delivers her cheeses herself to the Gravenstein Grill.
As a special this week, Gravenstein Grill Chef Bob Simontacchi will melt the St. George from Joe Matos in a grilled cheese and ham sandwich served on house-made brioche with a side of tomato soup.
“We're planning on using the Sonoma County Meat Co.'s Hamlette, a small ham made with local, humanely raised pork that's smoked,” Parkhurst said. “The sandwich will be served for lunch and dinner.”
At the Gables Wine Country Inn in south Santa Rosa, owner/innkeeper Larry Willis will team up with Pennyroyal Farm of Boonville for the cheese festival's popular Saturday night event - Cheese, Bites & Booze! - held this year in the Jackson Family Wines Hangar at the Sonoma County Airport.
Meanwhile, back at the inn, Willis plans to greet guests this week with a cheese plate that highlights a power trio: Pennyroyal's Blueberry Laychee, Fiscalini Cheddar and the iconic Laura Chenel Chèvre.