As the domestic cheese market rapidly grows and improves, California is right there at the forefront, home to many creameries working on thoughtful cheese innovations.
The California Cheese Trail maps cheesemakers along the coast from the Los Angeles area to Crescent City near the state's northern end (with many creameries clustered in Sonoma and Marin counties). From an artisan cheesemaker who is part scientist, part musician to a soft cheese inspired by fog, California’s cheese world is full of interesting stories and beautiful landscapes, all of which plays a role in the taste of our curds.
To sample this bounty, try these five impressive California-made cheeses. Inquire at your nearest cheese shop for availability — if they don't have them currently in stock, many will place an order for you.
Teleeka from Tomales Farmstead Creamery
Teleeka is a soft-ripened cheese made with a blend of cow, goat and sheep's milk inspired by Italy’s La Tur cheese. The rind is papery thin and gives way to an oozy cream line around the perimeter and a soft paste in the center. The three milks blend in harmony, bringing out characteristics of each. (Teleeka means “three” in Miwok, the area's native language.) The cheese is produced near Tomales Bay by Tomales Farmstead Creamery, which started operating in 2013. The goat and sheep's milks come from the family’s own herds, and the cow’s milk is from a neighbor’s farm, so none of the milk has far to travel. The result is a decadent but not overbearing cheese, rich but immanently eatable (it's hard to stop).
Here in L.A., Teleeka was featured in Curtis Stone’s walnut tasting menu at Maude last month, served with charred bread and preserved walnut. Teleeka was recently in stock at Milkfarm in Eagle Rock and Cheese Cave in Claremont.
Crottin from Andante Dairy
Cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan has charmed food lovers with her cheeses and her personal story. A former biochemist and dairy scientist with a musical background, she has an exacting passion for her craft, eschewing shortcuts. Thomas Keller helped bring her work to wider attention when he featured Andante cheeses at the French Laundry (and they’ve since graced tables at Chez Panisse and others). She names her cheeses after musical terms that reflect her vision — e.g., Pianoforte, a soft cheese with a strong flavor — except for her Crottin.
Crottin is the only Andante product made to replicate a traditional cheese: the French style of crottin de chèvre, a small, round, molded goat cheese. This cheese can be enjoyed young and soft, when it can be spread; or aged and firm, when it can be shaved. Andante's Crottin is made in small batches (only 20 per month), from raw goat's milk from the farm on which Andante is located in Petaluma, and aged for about nine weeks. The small cylinder resembles a hard, moldy paperweight; when sliced it reveals a pale, smooth center with a goaty, nutty flavor — the fresh goat's milk leads the way. It’s lovely plain, and pairs well with chocolate and white wine. The raw-milk Crottin is currently in stock in limited quantities at the Cheese Store of Silverlake.
Burrata from Gioia Cheese Co.
Burrata — a mozzarella pouch filled with loose, creamy cheese curds — is a bit like a richer, melted version of fresh mozzarella. Produced here in Los Angeles County, Gioia burrata is made by hand daily. You can get this cheese directly from the factory in El Monte; if you do, you’ll get it the day it’s made and for the bargain price of $6 per pound. (At local cheese shops it’s more like $5 per quarter-pound.) The factory doesn’t look attractive, nor is it open to the public, but if you bring cash, you can indeed get your cheese from the cashier inside.
Gioia is run by Vito Girardi, who is from the region of Italy where burrata originated and is a third-generation cheesemaker credited with helping to introduce burrata to the States. His burrata is popular at L.A. restaurants and tastes like sweet cream with hints of grass and sour yogurt tang.
Let this cheese get to room temperature (take a tip from Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune cookbook and carefully submerge burrata in warm water for 10 minutes before eating — you want to lose any refrigeration chill — then drain on a towel). Enjoy with grilled bread, a drizzle of olive oil, perhaps a side of fresh tomatoes.
Big Rock Blue from Central Coast Creamery
Approachable and mild might sound like faint praise for a cheese, but even though Big Rock Blue from Central Coast Creamery was designed to be mellow, this cheese can appeal to both die-hard blue cheese fans and those who usually shy away from stronger blues. Made in small batches with organic cow’s milk from neighboring dairies in Paso Robles, Big Rock Blue is only lightly pressed, so it has a moist, gently crumbly texture. Veins of vivid blue break up the dense, creamy cheese. The producers nail the description of the flavor as a mild blue with “hints of fresh butter and salty bacon." Try it paired with green olives or on a simple salad. Many local cheese shops regularly carry Central Coast cheeses (including Holey Cow, a similarly approachable version of a creamy Swiss), and you can also find Big Rock Blue online at GrubMarket.
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Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove
Perhaps California’s most famous cheese, Humboldt Fog was released in 1992 by Cypress Grove, a company that was instrumental in bringing commercial fresh goat cheese production to the United States; it grew out of founder Mary Keehn's interest in providing fresh goat's milk to her children. With a surplus of milk, she started making cheese. The idea for Humboldt Fog came to her in a dream and is a tribute to the morning fog that settles over Humboldt County, where the cheese is made. Vegetable ash in the rind and in a thin ribbon down the center of the cheese evokes the quality of fog along a horizon line and contributes to the cheese’s elegant, layer-cake look. Humboldt Fog is a soft-ripened goat cheese, so it ripens from the outside in: bright and friendly when young, stronger flavored and with a thicker cream line around the edge as it ages. The riper edges start to get pungent and nutty; the center is a little tart and has a luscious texture, with hints of flowers and white wine.
Although you can find Humboldt Fog in most cheese cases, it’s worth getting a slice freshly cut at a cheese shop instead of a piece that’s been sitting in plastic wrap or on a premade cheese tray. If you do store this cheese, wrapping it in wax or parchment paper allows it to breathe better than plastic.