Happy days on the Marin-Sonoma Cheese Trail
Drive to Spring Hill Cheese (711 Western, Petaluma. (707) 762-9038, www.springhillcheese.com) and you will see lots of cows. This is a given on the cheese trail — between every sentence in this article there should be one that says "and then we saw cows," for accuracy's sake. The road also stocks a glimpse of downtown Petaluma, one of the Main Street-type towns that dot Sonoma County, and is blessed with big, tall trees lining quiet residential streets.
Spring Hill caters to wholesome tastes — in addition to a block of its veggie or pesto jack cheeses or a bag of the spicy Mike's Firehouse curd, you can grab a slice of Spring Hill-topped pizza, or an icecream cone. We went for a vanilla blend studded with pink Mother's animal cookies, which we've had as a fixin' before, but mixed in the icecream itself? Revolutionary! And cheap. Our kid's cup and a bottle of water ran a cool $2.50.
We sat outside the creamery contemplating Spring Hill's grim-looking mascot cow suspended over its factory across the street, before making a quick stop at Alphabet Shop Thrift Store (217 Western, Petaluma) on our way out of town.
Don't get to used to Americana simplicity on the trail, because after Petaluma -- we go past more cows and a little bit of prefab homeland and — arrive in the town of Sonoma, upper class wine country hub anchored by historic barracks and Spanish mission on a graceful, green center square. Sonoma's also home to a bakery that caters exclusively to dogs (www.threedog.com).
Here, Vella Cheese (315 Second St. East, Sonoma. (707) 938-3232, www.vellacheese.com) sits in a stone building, tucked away on a block that also hosts familial Sonoma houses and a dashing pair of Clydesdale horses. The edifice was built in 1904 to house a brewery that was unable to withstand Prohibition, for all its sturdy design. Gaetano "Tom" Vella moved in circa 1931. Today, Vella Cheese will sample you a flight of progressively-aged jack cheeses, proof that Gaetano's cheesemaking spirit still infuses the place.
We flipped for Vella's mezzo secco jack, pocketing a triangle while visions of red wine in the Sonoma heat traipsed through our dairy-crazed minds. Special kudos to the wink-cute design of the California Daisy cheddar for having the most adorable cheese packaging, ever.
Vella no longer offers tours of the cheesemaking floor, but cheery store staff will instruct you to spy on factory workers through the screen door off the parking lot.
We walked through Sonoma's shady plaza park to our last stop on the cheese trail: Epicurean Connection (122 West Napa, Sonoma. (707) 935-7960, www.sheanadavis.com). Proprietor Sheana Davis has created a general store worthy of her gourmand town, with cheesemaking classes on second Saturdays and Saturday morning bacon waffle breakfasts. Though the walls are lined with (mostly) locally-made foodstuffs like Rancho Gordo beans, you'll gravitate towards the refrigerator cases full of cheese and microbrews.
Davis herself makes a soft Delice de la Vallee spread made of goat's milk and triple cream cow milk. She also coordinated a stellar beer-cheese pairing dinner we attended at this year's SF Beer Week, so it came as no surprise that the suds offerings at her shop were superb.
What is also superlative is the lunchy dine-in menu at EC. To beat the heat, we made a perfect meal of a watermelon tomato gazpacho (served in a cute lil' jar) and a tomato-greens salad with a burrata cheese that made us crazy. In a good way.