Happy days on the Marin-Sonoma Cheese Trail
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.
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.
Bonus points for the doorside stack of Culture magazines ("the word on cheese") we were able to browse as we ate, contemplating the end of the day's trail — and the ample dinner options that lay in every direction from Epicurean Connection's front door.