Artisan Cheese Festival expands into Sonoma County restaurants, inns, wineries

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California Artisan Cheese Festival

What: The 13th annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, including farm/producer tours, seminars, cheese tastings, pairings, a culinary competition and a marketplace.

When: Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24

Where: Saturday farm/producer tours go to various locations; Saturday seminars will be held at the Flamingo Hotel; Cheese, Bites & Booze — a tasting and the Best Bites competition — will be held at the JFW hangar at Sonoma County Airport; Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace will be held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ Grace Pavilion. Bubbles & Brunch is sold out.

Tickets: $25 to $150 per person.

To reserve:

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.

California Artisan Cheese Festival

What: The 13th annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, including farm/producer tours, seminars, cheese tastings, pairings, a culinary competition and a marketplace.

When: Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24

Where: Saturday farm/producer tours go to various locations; Saturday seminars will be held at the Flamingo Hotel; Cheese, Bites & Booze — a tasting and the Best Bites competition — will be held at the JFW hangar at Sonoma County Airport; Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace will be held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ Grace Pavilion. Bubbles & Brunch is sold out.

Tickets: $25 to $150 per person.

To reserve:

“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.

For the inn’s breakfast, Willis makes a baked egg dish that incorporates the Fiscalini Lionza cheese — a complex, semi-soft cheese with flavors ranging from nutty and fruity to herbal and butter — and he throws the Fiscalini Cheddar in an elegant soufflé.

“We moved here from St. Louis, Missouri, seven years ago, and there wasn’t a lot of ‘buy local’ movement there,” he said. “We like to highlight the fact that what you get here is not mass produced. It’s locally made, and it’s relatively small production.”

The new Mercato restaurant in downtown Santa Rosa will partner with Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. for the Best Bite competition this weekend, where they will serve up bites of Farmstead Mac’n’Cheese made with fresh, house-made rigatoni and two cheeses from the award-winning cheesemakers of Nicasio

“We’re making a dish that combines their Formagella, which is like a brie, and the Nicasio Reserve, an Alpine-style cheese,” said David Asher, director of retail at Mercato Pasta and Produce, an Italian market located within the restaurant. “We wanted to highlight rigatoni, which is a thicker noodle ... our Italian pasta machine has the bronze-cut that create the ridges on the rigatoni, so it holds cheese well.”

The Farmstead Mac’n’Cheese will also be served at the restaurant this week, and Asher has tripled the size of the imported Italian cheeses in the market, including big chunks of Grana Padano and a Pecorino Romano studded with black truffles. There may be other cheesy items added as well, such as a cheese bread from Gougette bakery, Asher said.

At Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, Chef Richard Whipple and owner Carrie Brown will partner with Valley Ford Cheese Co. for the Cheese Bites competition, where they will serve up a salad of spring greens, blossoms, beets, Valley Ford Grazin’ Girl blue cheese, fennel, spicy pecans and Jimtown Fig & Olive Vinaigrette,.

At the cafe this week, Whipple will be highlighting the Valley Ford Highway 1 cheese in a grilled sandwich with housemade tomato chutney on a Redbird batard. He will serve the Fontina-style cheese sandwich with a healthy dollop of farro salad with shaved fennel, pea shoots and Romesco sauce.

At Petaluma Pie, owner Angelo Sacerdota often sources gouda from the Central Coast Creamery or his savory pies with mushrooms, and he adds Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc to his ever- popular Elvis Peanut Butter, Banana and Chocolate Pie.

“You can use fromage blanc in place of cream cheese, and it takes to different flavors very well,” he said. “It’s very versatile.”

For California Artisan Cheese Week, Sacerdote plans to serve a Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake Pie made with Bellwether Jersey Ricotta, a pillowy, award-winning cheese that is easy to find at markets such as Oliver’s .

“It’s kind of fun because you make a lemon cookie for the crust and then you crumble the cookie,” he said. “But it’s not particularly difficult.”

For a complete list of participating eateries, go to


The following recipe is from Larry Willis of The Gables Wine Country Inn in Santa Rosa.

Cloud Soufflé

Makes 1 serving

— Butter, for lining ramekin

2 eggs, room temperature and separated

— Sea salt or coarse salt

1 tablespoon cream

1 tablespoon butter

2 cherry tomatoes, cut into quarter

1/2 small shallot, minced

3 tablespoons grated Fiscalini Cheddar cheese

— Fresh ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 6-inch ramekin then add 1 tablespoon of flour to coat. Shake out any excess.

Using your electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they just start to become stiff. Add salt and continue beating the egg whites until they form stiff peaks.

Sauté the tomato and shallot in a teaspoon of olive oil until just wilted.

Spoon the egg whites into the ramekin, reserving some for the tops. With the back of a soup spoon, make a well in the middle of the egg whites, pushing the egg whites up the sides of the ramekin. Spoon in the tomato/shallot mixture. Carefully drop the two egg yolks into the hole. Cover with the cheese then a grind of black pepper, and the cream and butter. Smooth the remaining egg whites over the hole top.

Bake about 12 minutes. The top should be lightly golden. When you break the crust, the yolks and cream should be soft and hot.

Serve with some crusty bread to dip into the yolks and cream.


The following recipe is from Chef Bob Simontacchi of Gravenstein Grill in Sebastopol, which will be serving this tomato soup with its Ham & Cheese Melt this week.

Classic Tomato Soup

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 small fennel bulb, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 cup dry white wine

— Pinch saffron

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

2 (28-ounce) cans San Marzano Tomato

2 cups vegetable stock (or water)

In a large pot over medium heat, heat oil. Add onion and fennel and cook until soft (5 minutes). Add garlic, red pepper flakes and tomato paste and cook until garlic is fragrant and tomato paste is lightly caramelized (3-4 minutes). Add white wine and saffron and bring to a simmer. Simmer until wine is reduced by half.

Add thyme, both cans of tomatoes, vegetables stock (or water) and return to a simmer. Simmer for 20-30 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Blend with an immersion blender or transfer to a tabletop blender and blend in batches until smooth.

Ladle into bowls and serve with a drizzle of olive oil, croutons and chives. Optionally, add fresh grated Parmesan or fresh basil pesto.


Chef Simontacci serves this recipe for Pickled Red Grapes on the Artisan Cheese Plate at Gravenstein Grill. For this recipe, you’ll need a 1-quart Mason jar with lid.

Pickled Red Grapes

Makes 1 pound

1 pound red seedless grapes

1 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

2 pieces whole star anise

4 pieces whole cloves

1/2 teaspoon whole mustard seeds

1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Remove grapes from stem, wash well and cut in half. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, water and sugar. Place over high heat and bring to a boil.

Place spices on the bottom of the Mason jar and place the grapes on top of them.

Pour hot vinegar mixture into the jar on top of the grapes. Let sit until cool. Place lid on jar and allow grapes to refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.


The following two recipes are from Richard Whipple, chef at the Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, which is serving the sandwich and salad for California Artisan Restaurant Week. He recommends the sourdough from Red Bird Bakery in Santa Rosa.

Highway 1 Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Makes 1 serving

1 tablespoon softened butter

2 slices thick sourdough bread

2 ounces sliced or grated Highway 1 (Fontina-style) cheese from Valley Ford Cheese

2 tablespoons Jimtown tomato chutney (or tomato chutney of your choice)


Spread room temperature butter on two slices of the bread, then spread the tomato chutney inside on one of the slices. Layer the Highway 1 cheese (sliced or grated) on top of the chutney and place the other slice of bread on top, with both buttered slices on the outside.

Using a cast-iron pan or griddle pan, heat on medium (350 degrees works best) and grill the sandwich on one side until the bread is golden brown. Flip the sandwich over, press down with the spatula, and grill the other side until golden brown and the cheese is melted.

Shaved Asparagus Salad with Farro and Romesco

Makes 1 to 2 servings as side dish

1/4 cup farro

1 small bunch asparagus (about 8 ounces)

1/2 cup pea or sunflower shoots

1/4 cup Jimtown Romesco (or Romesco sauce of your choice)

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

— Pinch of salt and pepper

To cook farro, bring 1 cup of salted water to a boil and add 1/4 cup farro. Cook until the farro plumps and is tender.

Using a mandolin, shave the asparagus paper thin, place in ice water for a couple of minutes and drain.

Place the asparagus, pea shoots and farro in a bowl and mix together. Add the Romesco, olive oil and lemon juice and mix together until everything is evenly coated. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.


The recipe is from Angelo Sacerdote of the Petaluma Pie Company. The Lemon Sugar Cookies are used for the crust.

Lemon Sugar Cookies

Makes 1 crust

8 ounces butter, room temperature

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

11/2 tablespoons lemon juice

11/2 tablespoons lemon zest

3 cups flour

11/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soada

1/2 teaspoon salt


In a mixer, cream together butter and sugar for about 5 minutes or until fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla, lemon juice and zest and mix to combine. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Stir flour mixture into butter and egg mixture just enough to combine.

Let dough chill for about 20 minutes, then form into small balls and place on a baking sheet, flattening each cookie as you go. Bake for about 11 minutes. These cookies will not spread out like chocolate chip cookies.

When the cookies have cooled, then can be smooshed into the pie tin or a springform pan. Since they are soft, there is no need to add melted butter. Bake the lemon cookie crust for about 7 minutes.

Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake Pie

Makes 1 pie

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

7 1/2 ounces Bellwether Jersey Ricotta

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 eggs

1/2 cup half & half

1/2 cup whipping cream

1/4 cup lemon juice

3/4 tablespoons lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons lemon curd

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In the mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat cream cheese and ricotta until fluffy and smooth. In a separate bowl, mix the cornstarch and sugar. Add to cheese mixture and beat well.

On low speed, add eggs, half & half and cream until just combined. Beat in lemon juice and zest and vanilla. Pour into lemon cookie crust and bake for 20 minutes. If it browns too quickly, turn down to 300 degrees. Check that it is set.

When pie is done, let cool. Mix 1 cup of sour cream with 2 tablespoons lemon curd and top the pie. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes more, let cool and chill overnight. If you don’t have lemon curd handy, you can substitute 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar and a little lemon zest.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or On Twitter @dianepete56.

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