Fantastic handmade cheese, bacon from backyard pigs and homemade jam made from farm fruit aren't exactly the typical Jane and Michael Stern road-trip finds. If you've tried any of the cheeses crafted by Christine Maguire of Rinconada Dairy, a visit to the 92-acre ranch that she and her husband, Jim, manage in Santa Margarita should be on your must-do list. When it comes to showing your support for small local businesses, a farm stay is a heck of a lot more fun than tossing those dollars over to another online Kickstarter campaign.
Should you be inclined to make the morning milking rounds -- and really, who isn't; those sheep and goats are so damn cute -- you're in luck. The season begins in just a few weeks. Get more, and our interview with Maguire, who has some new cheeses on the horizon, after the jump.
Travel tip: You're going to want to hang around for breakfast (or make your own breakfast, if you stay in the converted barn-turned-private guest cottage). Christine, who attended the Natural Gourmet Culinary Institute in New York, also happens to be a great cook. "We try to make everything from ingredients here on the ranch, bacon and all," she says. "Well, I haven't gotten into growing whole grains yet."
Squid Ink: For those of us who like to get our hands dirty on vacation, when does the milking season begin?
Christine Maguire: The sheep lactate for 6 or 7 months, it starts in early spring and goes through early fall. We started lambing and kidding [a few weeks ago]. We time it so we know when we will be milking -- or really, when we want to go on vacation in the fall! In about 5 or 6 weeks, we'll get started. Right now we've got about 120 sheep and 40 Nubian goats.
SI: That's a lot of animals to milk daily.
CM: Yes, but we have help on the ranch of course, as we're a commercial operation. You can get as involved as you want to -- or not.
SI: Milk a goat or two, go hiking, read a book, make ourselves terribly un-useful when you're making cheese by asking a zillion questions. Sounds pretty great to us. You probably know the farm tourist drill by now.
CM: This is actually going to be an interesting year for us. I'm bored. I'm making the same old three cheeses over and over.
SI: Bored? Well, we think your cheeses are hardly boring. They're pretty fantastic
CM: Oh thank you. You know, you've got to try the Pozzo Tome with fresh ground pepper, a little honey. Like they do in south of France [with aged cheeses]. I made a black chutney, too, that was great.
SI: Black chutney? Like with figs?
CM: [Laughs] Oh, I don't remember. Yes, there were probably figs in there. Plums, prunes, raisins, brandy.
SI: We'll have to try it. So back to the bored thing.
CM: Yes, well, I know a young woman up here who has a Jersey cow, so we're going to do some cheeses together, soft and mold-ripened cheese. Just experiment. Try some new things.
SI: What about that cheese, the "Koby," that you made for the chef at Artisan in Paso Robles, Chris Kobayashi? That sounds different.
CM: Oh yes, I made a cheese for him for an Outstanding in the Field dinner. It turned out great. Then the buyer for one of Mario Batali's restaurants in Manhattan found out about it -- I have no idea how he found out! -- and called me. He and [Kobayashi] bought all of it. [Laughs] I didn't have any to give anyone else. It was a goat cheese, kind of in shape of Camembert, washed, you know, with the stuff that makes Muenster and Limburger cheese stink. Really, this one was stinky. But on the inside, it was beautiful, just beautiful on the inside.
SI: Sounds like a lot of people we know. A bit rough around the edges, but pretty great when you get to know it. We hope you are planning to make it again?
CM: Oh yes, I am. Ok, so we're talking about Paso restaurants. When are you going to write about my [favorite] local restaurant?
SI: Right now. Sounds like a great place for dinner when you're staying at the ranch.
CM: It's called The Range. Here in this funky town of Santa Margarita, with a population all of [nothing], we've got this great restaurant. They just did a farm to table dinner with us. It was amazing. The chef [Jeff Jackson] had our La Panza Gold, our chickens, lardo from the pig he bought from us, and some pork in a ragu that was also from us. Pretty great, to see everything of ours, right there.
SI: Sort of like having your own private chef, on the cheap. Well, other than you've got that 90-acre ranch to pay for. That's what those farm stays are for, right?
CM: [Laughs] Right. Yeah, only the ranch to pay for.
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You can find Rinconada Dairy cheeses at the Windrose Farm stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmers Market and several specialty shops in the area, including Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City and Cookbook LA in Echo Park. For more details about staying at the ranch, see the Rinconada website.
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