FEAST 2012 It is a trip ill-suited for vegans and anyone with a phobia of fossil fuel. But no one said that the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail was an endeavor for everyone. Certainly not the faint of belly — even our truncated voyage of five cheesemakers and 61 miles in a day is a lot, lactophilia notwithstanding.
To navigate the trail, we cut off a slice off the map of 27 cheeseries put together by kindly Marin and Sonoma curdmakers. (Check out www.cheesetrail.org for a SMCT map of your own.) Cheese trailing is the perfect excuse to traverse the backroads up north of the Bay Area. And with many producers within forty five minutes of the Golden Gate Bridge, it wasn't long until we were filling our bellies with goat, sheep, cow, even water buffalo-made wheels.
Cheaply, too! Most producers on the map do tastings, and buying directly from the farm means you cut out the middle man price (Monterey) jack.
Tips before you begin: split samples with your co-pilots. Yes, that generous slice of pesto jack will look sensible when the day is young, but by the road's end you won't be able to countenance another slab — devastating.
Truck along a cooler for the ride. We will never forget the 80-degree day that saw us refusing Marin French Cheese Company's two pounds of brie for $5 deal, for fear of curdle-skunk wafting from our Zipcar's trunk.
And please: multiple cheeseheads told us that trail pioneers have the tendency to be free food hounds. Settle children, and ask nicely to be fed if samples aren't forthcoming.
You may well arrive on a foggy morning at this easy-to-miss, munch-sized tasting room in the rolling hills of Marin County. All the better — Nicasio Valley Cheese Company (5300 Nicasio Valley Road, Nicasio. (415) 662-6200, www.nicasiocheese.com) earns rave reviews for its the spreadable, fresh Foggy Morning cheese. It is blessed with versatility (suggested serving methodologies include balsamic-dressed salads, sandwiches, even a baking pan full of pasta shells) and tang. The Swiss family's cheeses are made from the organic milk of its organic Holsteins, whose herd it has been cultivating for 30 years.
The side yard at Marin French Cheese Company (7500 Red Hill Road, Petaluma. (707) 762-6001, www.marinfrenchcheese.com) is archetypal picnic territory. In the middle of yellowed fields of Marin farmland, its patch of green oasis has a lake, a lush lawn dotted with wooden tables, squawking Canadian geese.
Luckily, inside MFCC's charming country store you have all the makings of a ur-nosh. Of course, there's cheese — triple cream bries made on premise (although tours were paused for renovations when we visited, we could still peep hairnetted workers stacking and packing wheels through glass windows at the back of the store.) There are pre-made sandwiches, breads, and a wall of preserves from pineapple to jalapeño and back again. It is here we first learned of the magic of quark, or fresh, soft cheese made from curds that this shop stocks in flavors like strawberry
After sampling a pungent schloss cheese (made on-site since 1901), we were intrigued by the air-pocketed breakfast cheese, one of the first quesos to make its way to the City By the Bay. Marin French's small wine cellar provides another glimpse into history, its glass case filled with sexy cheesemaker photos from the company's 147-years.