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Joe Matos Cheese Factory

3669 Llano Road

Santa Rosa

Open daily to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

707-584-5283

Click here for the factory’s Facebook page

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

Serves 4

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

2 ounces young St. George cheese, in four slices

2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Put the egg yolks into a medium bowl, beat thoroughly with a whisk and fold in the corn, flour, milk and baking powder. Season with salt, pepper and the chile powder, if using, and set aside briefly.

Using a clean whisk or an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the corn mixture.

Set a small omelet pan over medium high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the butter, and when it is melted and quite hot, ladle a quarter of the batter into the pan, pooling it in the center of the pan and then agitating the pan slightly so that it forms a round cake. Cook for about 3 minutes, until golden brown. Flip the cake over, top with a piece of cheese and cook for another minute or two, until the bottom side of the cake is golden brown. Transfer to a warm plate and continue until all corn cakes have been cooked.

Enjoy right away.

Note: Green Chile Powder is dried and ground New Mexico chiles, and it packs quite a wallop of heat. It is hard to find locally but you can find it online. The brand a dear friend has given me is Chimayo Traditions. Feel free to leave it out or use another ground chile, such as chipotle power, instead.

***

There are countless version of queso fundido, some with 2 or 3 types of cheese, some with sautéed chorizo on top and some with pico de gallo — fresh tomato salsa — either on top or alongside. All are delicious. One word of caution is necessary, though: This is very filling so don’t serve it as an appetizer before a big meal.

Simple Queso Fundido

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds young St. George cheese, grated

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 serrano, minced

1/2 teaspoon green chile powder or chipotle powder

2-3 poblanos, roasted, seeded and cut into medium julienne

4 scallions, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds, or 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

12-18 small corn tortillas, hot but not crisp (or La Casa Foods of Sonoma brand tortilla chips)

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Set an ovenproof, earthenware dish on your work surface, add the cheese, garlic, serrano and chile powder and toss gently to distribute the ingredients evenly.

Set the dish on the middle rack of the oven and cook until the cheese is fully melted and bubbly, but not browned. Carefully remove from the oven and return to the work surface.

Scatter the poblanos and green onions or cilantro on top and season very lightly with salt and pepper.

Serve right away, with hot tortillas or chips alongside. If using tortillas, guests slather the cheese on a tortilla, roll it up and eat it. With chips, simply dip them into the melted cheese mixture.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The New Cook’s Tour of Sonoma.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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