Through the 19th century, artisan cheeses were made only on small farms in America. Today they are made in almost every state. Our major artisan cheese states are Vermont, California, Wisconsin and now Oregon. While California leads the country in producing liquid milk, Wisconsin leads in cheese production tonnage due to its 40-pound cheddars. Venerable Vermont makes a variety of special farmstead cheeses, and Oregon has less artisan production, yet its cheesemakers are energized.

California’s history includes new cheeses

Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese began making artisan cheeses in the 1990s in Modesto.

California’s true cheese production began 100 years ago with soft jack-style cheeses Teleme and Jack, made in the mid-coastal areas and verdant hills of Marin and Sonoma counties and as far north as Crescent City. Produced on small farms and sold in local marketplaces, these cheeses didn’t travel far from their origins. Many of those family dairies are long gone, as farmlands were consumed by suburbs, yet the cheeses survive.

California produces the most liquid milk in the nation, mostly from the Central Valley. Making precious little artisan cheeses requires dairy animals to graze on pastures, so handcrafted cheeses can’t be produced in many counties. Most of our agricultural land is dominated by cattle and produce. Often the terrain or climate just isn’t suitable for dairy cows, goats or sheep. That’s the case in the foothills, where there’s nary a dairy cow to be seen. The coastal areas provide successful dairying with rich, grassy hills kissed by fog and cooling breezes.

In the 1860s, Marin County was the major dairy-producing region of California, and it birthed the Marin French Cheese Co. in 1875, which sent its unique Breakfast Cheese to San Francisco by ship daily. It’s our first artisan cheesemaker.

Something amazing happened in the 1980s, when California started a whole new era of producing artisan originals, thanks to energetic and innovative new cheesemakers.

In my 40 years as a cheese professional, I have been privileged to follow the history of this growth of cheese development in California in the ’80s. My years on the California Artisan Cheese Guild Board of Directors gave me access to these cheesemakers; it’s been a rewarding and exciting experience.

Artisans on the coast comprise a who’s who of craft cheese-making that started in the ’80s with Laura Chenel, who made a French-style chevre in Sebastopol. I remember the day she brought her little cheeses to our Sixth Avenue Cheese Shop in San Francisco; we loved them! Her cheeses caught the fancy of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and soon, New York chefs were using them.

Chenel was followed by Mary Keehn, who made Humboldt Fog at Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata. Other chevre producers in Sonoma followed, such as Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farms and SoYoung Scanlon at Andante Dairy. Then Liam Callahan at Bellwether Farms in Petaluma began making rare sheep’s milk tomes with his mother Cindy’s herd. These were the “original cheese startups.”

These pioneers inspired a new generation of artisan cheesemakers in the late 1990s: Cowgirl Creamery’s unique triple cream cheeses Mt. Tam and Red Hawk at Point Reyes Station; Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese made California’s first artisan blues cheeses; then Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese in Modesto brought its internationally award-winning English-style Bandage-Wrap Cheddar, and the race was on.

New cheesemakers everywhere were encouraged to use local pastures to create new cheeses. So we have been blessed with new creations across California: Central Coast Creamery in Paso Robles developed several new cheeses, like Big Rock Blue, Holey Swiss and Bishop’s Peak; Pedrozo Farmstead Cheese near Sacramento has big flavors of jersey raw-milk Gouda styles; and Nicasio Valley Cheese makes semisoft washed rinds and rich bloomy rinds. More recently, Nicolau Farmstead Cheese in Modesto created Italian-style goats’ and cows’ milk blends Casiago and fresh lavender chevre; Valley Ford Cheese specializes in raw-milk jersey cheeses; and Pennyroyal Farms in Boonville makes a farmstead cheese with sheep and goat herds on its winery property with clever names like Boont Corners and Velvet Sisters. Close to home, Stuyt Farmstead Cheese in Escalon makes impressive raw-milk Goudas, and its neighbor Oakdale Cheese has won awards for its aged Goudas. You’ll find all of these on the California Cheese Trail Map at cheesetrail.org/trail-map, and there’s an app.

California started the American artisan cheese-making experience, and it’s followed closely by other states, as the American Cheese Society’s annual competition attests. Cheese entries have more than tripled in the last 20 years, from 600 in 2003 to almost 2,000 cheeses in 2018. It’s a cheese adventure that started here and continues today. What a taste of history for all of us turophiles (cheese lovers).

Join Judy’s Best of Cheddars tasting from 2-3 p.m. June 9 or 6-7 p.m. June 11 for $25 at the Lavender Ridge Vineyard Tasting Room in Murphys. Reserve at 728-2441.

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