When was the last time you stopped by the Joe Matos Cheese Factory (3669 Llano Road, Sebastopol)?
Founded in the early 1980s, it remains one of Sonoma County’s still-hidden treasures, tucked away down a rutted country lane just south of Todd Road.
The little farmstead factory makes a single kind of cheese, St. George (Sao Jorge), named for the island in the Azores that is the Matos family’s ancestral home. It is sold both young and aged.
I began stopping by sometime in the mid 1980s, when the cheese sold for about $2.50 a pound. Then, most of it was purchased by the Portuguese community in Northern California, and it was typical to see stacks of cardboard boxes by the door, waiting for UPS pickup. Sometime in the late 1990s, Tomales Bay Foods began distributing it, making it widely available in markets throughout the Bay Area and as far away as New York City, where Murray’s Cheese Shop carries it.
In local markets, it now sells for between $15.99 and $24.99 a pound, but if you get it at the factory, you’ll pay $9 a pound for the young cheese and $13 a pound for the aged version. The atmosphere is free. The family sheep that you once had to move out of the way to open the door to the little shop and aging room is gone, but the warm, nut-like aromas, the farm equipment and the vast flatlands of the Laguna de Santa Rosa floodplain are nearly unchanged.
The semi-soft cow’s milk cheese has a rich, nutty flavor with whispers of the grass the cows feed upon. It grates easily and melts beautifully. It makes a delicious grilled cheese sandwich and is excellent on pizza, in galettes and in risotto. It also is delicious neat, served as a snack or at the end of a nice dinner and instead of or just before dessert. If you want to enjoy a local beverage alongside, I recommend one of the dry ciders from Sonoma County.
Recently, the farm began selling eggs, too, from their own flocks of both chickens and ducks. The duck eggs are just $5 a dozen. Two birds, one cheese, one stop without traffic. When people ask, “Where is the real Sonoma County?,” something I am asked frequently, I direct them here.
This recipe is inspired by one in Laura Chenel’s wonderful book, “American Country Cheese” (Aris Books: Addison Wesley Publishing, 1989). A photograph of the cakes, topped with pesto and garnished with colorful cherry tomatoes, is the cover image. The original recipe calls for Monterey Jack, but I love them with St. George cheese, too.
Fresh Corn Cakes with St. George Cheese & Cilantro
2 large eggs, preferably from backyard chickens, separated
2-3 fresh ears of corn, blanched, kernels cut from the cob (you should have 2 cups of corn)
1/4 cup corn flour or all-purpose unbleached white flour
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon baking powder
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
1/4 teaspoon New Mexico green chile powder, optional (see Note below)
4 tablespoons butter