The San Francisco Bay Area is truly a food lover’s paradise. From the vineyards of Napa Valley to the oyster farms of Tomales Bay, there’s a delicious adventure for every culinary appetite, including cheese lovers. To the north of San Francisco in Marin and Sonoma counties, there are more than 25 artisanal cheese makers producing everything from dry Jack to triple-crème Brie to pungent blues. Although not all of the creameries are open to the public, many of them are, and are worth exploring. With a little planning, you can enjoy a memorable cheese tour or informative class, along with plenty of tasting to top it all off. If you love cheese, hop in your car and take a tour of Marin’s most talked-about cheese makers. Read on for the agenda.
Nicasio Valley Cheese Company
For your first stop, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take the Sir Francis Drake exit toward the Nicasio Valley. The 45-minute drive is scenic with lush rolling hills followed by wide-open meadows, majestic redwood groves, and sprawling horse farms. Pass through the Nicasio town square and soon you’ll come to a small sheet metal structure that is home to the Nicasio Valley Cheese Company. Nicasio Valley is open daily (10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and allows visitors to taste all eight of its cow’s milk cheeses. Compared to other cheese makers in the region, the three-year old creamery is relatively young. The family owned dairy has been producing milk since 1919 and only recently did the founder’s grandson, Scott Lafranchi, decide to transform the old barn into a cheese-making facility. He invited Swiss cheese maker Maurizio Lorenzetti, from his grandfather’s hometown of Maggia, to teach the family how to make authentic Swiss-style cheese. Nicasio Valley currently produces seven bloomy rind varietals and two fromage blancs. The Foggy Morning fromage blanc is a creamy and smooth spreadable cheese that serves as an excellent addition to any picnic. The San Geronimo, a washed-rind cheese with an incredible nutty finish, is not to be missed, either.
Next up on your cheese tour? Perhaps the region’s most well-known producer, Cowgirl Creamery. Founded in 1997 by Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, Cowgirl Creamery makes award-winning cheese (recognition from the American Cheese Society and California State Fair, among others) and brings the local food community together in its large hay barn-turned-marketplace in Point Reyes Station. Located 15 minutes from Nicasio Valley, Cowgirl Creamery’s main outpost (the brand’s other shops include a spot inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building, as well as a location at 919 F Street NW in Washington D.C.) is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. At 11:30 a.m. on Fridays, you can partake in a special cheese class for just $5. The 60-minute talk includes a tabletop curd-making demo, an explanation of cheese making techniques, and a sampling of the cheese.
If you’re interested in watching the behind the scenes action that goes into making Cowgirl’s Red Hawk cheese, come between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. — that’s when the cheese makers are most active. Since it requires a special bacteria native to the area to bloom, the Point Reyes Station locale is where all of Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk is produced. Free tastes of all the company’s cheeses, including the super buttery, melt-in-your-mouth Mt. Tam (named after the Mt. Tamalpais peak in Marin County), are offered by knowledgeable mongers here, too. The marketplace is filled with local artisanal gems such as Frog Hollow fruit, Rustic Bakery crackers, and Wild Pear Co. jam, as well as more than 70 varieties of cheese. Plus, the shop’s onsite deli, The Cowgirl Cantina, offers a changing menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches all made with Cowgirl’s beloved cheese, making it the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or to pick up ingredients for a future meal.
The last, but certainly not least, stop on the tour is Marin French Cheese. The 148-year-old cheese producer is located just 20 minutes outside of downtown Petaluma and is known to locals as simply The Cheese Factory. Opened in 1865, Marin French produces an assortment of soft-ripened cheese using traditional French methods. Its creamy Bries and Camemberts are remarkable when paired with dried fruit, herbed crackers, and a glass of chilled white wine — all of which you can purchase at the bustling shop. If you’re lucky, you’ll also be able to sample its limited edition spreadable quark cheeses; the jalapeño flavor packs a spicy punch. The tasting room and shop is open daily (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and tours are offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. The best tours are on the days when the cheese is being produced, so call ahead to make sure you catch the cheese makers in the midst of the process. With its picturesque pond, grassy hills, and plethora of picnic tables, the lush grounds of Marin French make for a delightful afternoon, especially with the family.
Photos Courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery