Home & Garden Columns

From Petaluma to Point Reyes: Cheese and So Much More, By: Marta Yamamoto

Friday March 17, 2006

“I hope this cheese comes from happy cows,” I overheard the customer ask at the Marin French Cheese Company. He’d just purchased pounds of Rouge and Noir in several varieties and was perhaps double-checking his investment. The cows and I were equally cont ent as I cruised country roads, tasting locally produced cheeses, gathering picnic goodies and basking in nature’s bounty. 

The mood for my day was set as I left Highway 101, driving west along Novato Boulevard. Gently undulating hills were tinged with gr een, dotted with gnarled oaks awaiting spring’s foliage, and outcrops of rocks. Holsteins enjoyed the recent rains’ harvest, several poking their heads through fencing, reaching for the choicest bits. White barns and rail fences shared this working landsc ape with those of weathered-silver corrugated metal. Passing the gentle waters of Stafford Lake Park, I gazed at flocks of Canada geese along the shores, sharing pasture with cows. 

The grounds of the Marin French Cheese Company blend harmoniously with the bucolic landscape. Enticing picnic grounds with wide lawns, tables and duck ponds occupy five acres of land along with the cheese factory, deli and retail shop. 

In operation for more than 100 years, on land purchased by Jefferson Thomas in 1865, Marin French produces authentic French cheese using traditional recipes and cultures. Beginning with the creation of granular cheese in 1900, the family turned their talents to soft ripened cheese. As the saying goes, the rest is history. 

Today, tours are give n on cheese-producing days of the multi-step process that begins with Jersey milk from 100 percent BST free cows. A secret blend of living cultures is mixed with the curd, and later rinsed with collected rainwater. Over several weeks, cheeses mature, deve lop their distinctive flavor, are hand-packed and, voilà, ready for tasting. 

From the traditional buttery brie and tangy camembert, more than 20 choices now beckon, including Brie flavored with pesto and jalapeno. Though it was difficult, I restrained my self from feasting on every one. After generous tasting, a sample pack of traditional and flavored cheeses satisfied my taste buds.  

Of course, cheese doesn’t stand alone. The farmhouse-like shop of buttery walls, with wood plank floor and ceramic cookie jars on parade below the ceiling, is well stocked. Wines, attractively displayed in their own wood-paneled wine room, Tuscan crostini and Metropole Panne Di Grano Duro, Angelo’s olives and dried fig compote will easily fill your picnic basket. Stock up, but leave room for more cheese experiences in Point Reyes Station. 

Along the Petaluma-Pt. Reyes Road, the countryside continues its postcard display. Alternating the dark of wooded canyons with the bright light of open expanse, the road is dotted with ar dent cyclists. I crossed a purple bridge over the shimmering waters of Nicasio Reservoir and made my way through lichen-cloaked woods to Point Reyes Station. Population: 350, plus cows. 

At Cowgirl Creamery inside Tomales Bay Foods, the bon appetit of Fra nce is replaced by the terroir of West Marin. Here, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith have turned to the richness of the land outside their doors to produce unique  

soft-ripened cheeses. Eight years ago an old hay barn was transformed into an airy rustic food wa rehouse with trussed ceiling, cement floors and walls painted rich earth colors reminiscent of Tuscany. 

“Cheese is only as good as the milk from which it’s made,” affirmed Michael Zilber, cheesemonger and manager, as he led me through a delicious mini-co urse on Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses produced on site. Making the cheeses begins with pure, natural, organic Strauss Family Dairy milk, whose dairy cows can be seen grazing on West Marin land. The signature cheese, Mt. Tam, a buttery triple creme, stands al one with its slight bloomy white rind. Another cheese, Red Hawk, is coated with a washed rind, with a pungent flavor created by the indigenous bacteria present in the environment. Pierce Point cheese takes terroir one-step further; its rind is coated with local herbs like chamomile and wild grasses. One taste transports you to the local hillsides. These unique products could not be created anywhere else. 

Hungry hikers stop for fresh cheese and everything else attractively displayed within Tomales Bay Foo ds. The Cowgirl Cantina provides smoked trout and fatted calf salami from the charcuterie; Grab and Go Sandwiches feature Marin Sun Farms Skirt Steak with roasted red pepper and arugula; a couscous salad with cranberries, mint and feta cheese and Della Fa ttoria pumpkin seed campagne. Little Shorty’s Golden Point Produce, all organic, fills out the broadest section of the new food pyramid with local apples, oranges, and a tasty variety of vegetables. 

Save time to watch the cheese making process and eye th e plump bundles resting in the cold room. Enjoy the tree slab table inside or partake of outdoor picnic areas if you can’t wait to sample your wares, but make sure to wander around Point Reyes Station before you head off. There are still more goodies to a dd to your basket. 

You may have come to the realization that this outing is best enjoyed after fasting for several days. Bovine Bakery is so popular that the sidewalk outside its door is usually bun-to-bun seating. Scones the size of cow-patties, succule nt with berries and ricotta; huge slices of streusel-topped coffee cake; fruit muffins sweet from pear and apple; dessert-like raspberry almond marzipan torte and their famous chocolate chip cookies will have you wishing you had a bovine multi-stomach dig estive system. Don’t forget to pick up Brickmaiden Breads; their wood-fired brick oven crust and chewy texture are perfect platforms for cheese. 

Toby’s Feed Barn combines art and food wares for humans and animals. Local produce on wooden tables and insid e farm barrels decorates the front. Within its wood walls, you can pick up the labors of Pt. Reyes Preserves—pickled brussel sprouts, beets and garlic as well as delicious fruit jams. Toby’s packages their own dried fruits, nuts and trail mix to encourage reluctant hikers. 

Non-edible merchandise includes a zany collection of T-shirts like the ones offering advice from horse and dog, world music CDs, and, in the back gallery, the work of local artists. On my visit I enjoyed the photographs of Elaine Straub, offering multiple images of favorite scenes. Banana’s Red Dodge Pick-up Truck and Moore’s White Barn, among others, evoked a warm sense of place in this unique area. 

Even if your picnic basket is overflowing, don’t head back home. The options for an al fresco feast are also overflowing. Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Tomales Bay State Park, Samuel P. Taylor State Park—all have landscape, trails and tables to put the cap on a bountiful day. Carpe diem!ôo