California Cheese Making History
Cheese-making came to California in the 1750s, when Spanish Missionary, Father Junipero Serra introduced dairy cows and cheese-making to the few settlers and natives. California’s population exploded as the gold rush drew new settlers from across the nation. In the fallout of this population boom, many ended up in the dairy and cheese-making industry. In 1860, California boasted 100,000 head of dairy cattle. Only three years later, the first commercial dairy opened. This history of cheese-making has continued to the present day. In 1993, California’s milk production reached an astonishing 25 billion pounds, making California the United State’s leading milk producer. As we have heard from the numerous TV campaigns, California indeed has "Happy Cows."
Thanks to its diverse terrain and climates, cows, goats, and sheep all flourish in California and this allows cheese-makers to produce a wide range of different cheese styles. The state produces almost a quarter of all the cheese produced in the U.S., using up 47% of the state's milk production. There is no shortage of award-winning cheeses and with more than 50 cheese-makers producing 250 different varieties and styles of cheese, those accolades show no sign of slowing down anytime soon. California has a rich cheese-making heritage reaching back more than 200 years. We have included here, some of the milestones in California’s development as the leading milk producing and second largest cheese producing state in America.
California Cheese Facts
In the 1750s, Father Junipero Serra began to establish the 21 missions that still dot the California coastline. He introduced many varieties of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, and laid the foundation for the agriculture industry in California. He also introduced dairy cows and cheese-making.
California exported its first cheese when Ivan Kuskov, a commander at the Russian trading post in Fort Ross, California, shipped his Sonoma-made cheese to Russia’s Alaska settlements. Then in the wake of the Gold Rush, pioneers rushed into California, many with dairy cows tied behind covered wagons that would provide milk for infants and children. California’s milk cow population swelled to 100,000 by 1860. That growing milk supply stimulated cheese production, which totaled 1.3 million pounds that year.
Instrumental in the formation of an actual cheese industry, the Steele family began operating what is arguably the country’s first commercial dairy. Clara Steele, a pioneer woman whose family settled near San Francisco, was hungry for the Cheddar she enjoyed in her native New England. She obtained milk from wild cattle and began to make cheese, using recipes from her grandmother’s old cookbook. Within a year, her husband and relatives started selling “Steele Brothers” Cheddar in San Francisco and other nearby markets. They started a 6,000-acre dairy farm on Point Reyes. Their 1861 production of 45 tons of cheese made them the highest producers of cheese in the state that year. A bizarre twist here is the story of the family pooling milk from all of their dairies and producing the biggest wheel of cheese ever seen in California – a 21,800-pound Cheddar, 20 feet in circumference and 18 inches thick. Pieces were sold at the Mechanics Fair in San Francisco for a dollar per pound, all to raise money for charity.
The Shafter and Howard families owned the entire Point Reyes peninsula, and began leasing individual plots to European immigrants to run dairies. Their empire grew to 31 dairy ranches, and is known for producing the highest quality dairy products, even to this day. They were the first to trademark and stamp their butter in an attempt to combat counterfeit imitations being sold. This may have been the first attempt in California to brand a product.
At this point in time, the cheese that has become the 'poster cheese' for California, "Monteray Jack" was born. David Jacks, a businessman in Monterey County, was the first to market Monterey Jack, which his Swiss and Portuguese dairymen developed from old mission recipes. It has become one of the most popular cheeses in the country. In an effort to raise production standards for California cheese-makers, the California legislature passed a cheese grading law requiring that all cheese manufactured in the state be graded and labeled according to new butterfat content standards set by the State Dairy Bureau. As a result, California cheese reached higher quality levels over the next decade. The Bureau also began issuing brand names to manufacturers.
Dry Jack was created when a San Francisco cheese wholesaler, D.F. DeBernardi, left an order of fresh Monterey Jack in storage for too long. Later, when World War I interrupted shipments of Parmesan and Romano from Italy, he discovered that aging had caused the Jack to harden and acquire a sweet, nutty flavor. Italian-American families quickly adopted this delicious alternative to the Italian hard cheeses they were not able to get. By the 1930s, an estimated 60 California cheese-makers were producing Dry Jack.
In an attempt to recreate Teleme, a Feta-like cheese found in Greece and nearby countries, Greek immigrants near San Francisco created an entirely new cheese from fresh cow’s milk – California Teleme. This unique semi-soft cheese has a distinctive rice flour rind.
To ensure consumers receive the highest quality cheese, California became the first state to establish cheese standards of identity where USDA standards did not exist. The California dairy industry created the Real California Cheese seal to certify that the consumer is purchasing a natural cheese, made in California, exclusively from California milk. The state’s milk production then reached 25 billion pounds, making California the leading milk producer in the country. Nearly 4 out of every 10 gallons of milk produced goes to California cheese-makers. Under the direction of the California Milk Advisory Board, (CMAB) the state dairy industry then undertook the largest promotional program to that date to promote Real California Cheese to consumers. Highlighting the campaign were a series of humorous television spots claiming California’s cheese is the real reason people have come to the state to live and visit.
The CMAB launched a new television advertising campaign based around the theme, “Great Cheese Comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows Come from California.” The CMAB became a national marketer when the “Happy Cows” campaign appeared on network TV for the first time, encouraging requests for Real California Cheese as far away as the East Coast. California cow’s milk cheese producers took home 31 awards from the prestigious national American Cheese Society competition, including “Best in Show.” California cheese-makers also won six awards at the World Cheese Awards in London.
I was surprised to discover that California is the leading dairy state in the U. S. The state produced 2.11 billion pounds of cheese in 2008 and is the second-largest cheese-producing state in the America accounting for nearly a quarter of all the cheese produced in the U.S. They also are the country’s largest milk producer and in 2008 produced 41.2 billion pounds and 43% of all California cow’s milk goes to make California cheese. While most Americans assume that Vermont and Wisconsin are the 'cheese states' of the U.S., Californians would certainly challenge that theory. Again I will remind you all that space and time preclude me from including all the wonderful cheeses available from each state, so I will cover the most well known and the most popular. I hope this gives you the inspiration to explore California cheeses for yourself.
Soyoung Scanlan's bloomy-rind cow's milk cheese comes to market at less than 3 weeks old and needs to be consumed within a couple of weeks. It is buttery, spreadable, runny, with aromas of mushroom and creme fraiche.
This is a full bodied cheese with a nutty flavor and smooth texture. The cheese is hand rubbed with a Turkish grind of Colorado Legacy Coffee Company's (The Cheesemakers brother) "Beehive Blend." The blend consists of a mix of South American, Central American, and Indonesian beans roasted to different styles. French Superior Lavendar buds are ground with the coffee and the mixture is diluted with oil to suspend the dry ingredients in the rub. The rub imparts notes of butterscotch and caramel which are prevalent near the rind, but find their way to the center of the cheese. The cheese is aged on Utah Blue Spruce aging racks in their humidity controlled caves, and moved to a different temperature during the aging process to develop texture and flavor. The name "Barely Buzzed" comes from Andrea at Deluxe Foods in California. She was the winner of the name this cheese contest.
Bravo Farms Silver Mountain
This large 9-month-old wheel from a Central Valley producer resembles a cross between an English Cheddar and a French Cantal. It offers plentiful brown-butter aromas, Cheddar-like acidity and mouth-filling, long-lasting flavors.
Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk
Made with cream-enriched organic cow's milk from Marin County's Straus Family Creamery, Red Hawk belongs to the category of smelly cheeses known as washed rinds. Several times during the cheese's six weeks at the dairy, workers bathe the surface with brine to attract flavor-producing bacteria. A ripe Red Hawk has the luscious texture characteristic of triple-cream cheeses and aromas of mushroom, earth and spice.
Cypress Grove Chevre Humboldt Fog
Tall and majestic redwood trees and scenic rocky northern California coastline lured Mary Keehn to Humboldt County where she established Cypress Grove Chevre in 1984. From the very beginning, Cypress Grove has been recognized for its superior quality; winning more than 30 Gold Medals and Best of Show in national competitions. With a central layer and outer covering of ash, this goat's milk tome ripens with a soft, white interior. When cut, it is reminiscent of the early morning fog. Humboldt Fog is made by mother and daughter team, Mary Keehn and Malorie McCurdy, in Humboldt County, California, among the towering redwood trees. These amazing women have an enviable passion for their work that has been rewarded by national awards, reputation, and a steadily growing business. American farmstead cheeses often command a hefty price due to their limited production, but one bite will convince you that the luxury is worth the cost.
Born to be mild, this sheep's milk cheese is buttery in color and flavor with a long, complex finish. The texture is smooth and soft-firm, making Lamb Chopper an enchanting table or cooking cheese. The wheel is finished in natural wax. This cheese is made in Europe exclusively for Cypress Grove Chevre.
Cypress Grove Purple Haze Chevre
Lavender buds mixed with wild harvested fennel pollen give Purple Haze its addicting flavor. Its sweet flavor is wonderful as a dessert with honey and almonds or in a main dish with lamb.
Fiscalini 18 Month Bandage Wrapped Cheddar
Point Reyes Original Blue
Rouge et Noir Triple Creme Brie
For the first time ever, an American cheese company beat the French in an International Competition for Brie Cheese! Marin French Cheese Factory took top honors at the 2005 World Cheese Awards in a blind International tasting competition with Brie cheese factories from around the world. This was a dramatic follow up to being awarded the winner of Best Soft Ripened Cheese in North America in 2003 by the American Cheese Society. Delicious flavor and luscious texture is why the Rouge et Noir Triple Crème Brie beat the French. Marin French Triple Crème is luxurious and slightly sweet with an irresistibly creamy texture.
San Joaquin Gold
This is a new artisan cheese made by Fiscalini Farms of Modesto, California. It is semi-hard with a natural rind and a sweet, salty, buttery taste. The uniqueness of San Joaquin Gold impressed us in both its flavor and texture. Made from unpasteurized milk form Fiscalini's own herd of 1400 Holstein cows, it is a wonderful cheese for snacking, but can also be used as a topping for soups or salads. In addition, it grates well and melts easliy. Use it on hot or cold sandwiches or as a Caesar salad garnish.
Schlosskranz by Rouge et Noir
SeaHive is hand rubbed with Beehive wildflower honey and local Redmond RealSalt. The honey is harvested from a local farm where the bees visit wildflowers and fruit orchards. The salt is from an ancient sea bed near Redmond, Utah and contains unique flecks of color that are the result of more than 50 natural trace minerals. This cheese is shaping up to be one of their best experiments yet and is a true expression of the local flavors.
Serena by Three Sisters Farmstead
The product of generations of California dairy family tradition, Serena turns all natural ingredients into a delicious flavorful treat. Made from rBST-free jersey cow's milk, this one has a unique savory taste from its raw milk and has won several national and international awards. Serena has an intense, nutty flavor with smooth tight texture, achieved by 12-18 months of aging. Use as a table cheese, grated into pasta, shredded on salads or pizza, or stirred into soups.
Vella Special Select Dry Monterey Jack
Vella Cheese is an old timer in the world of making great American cheeses. Tom Vella began making cheese in 1931 in the Sonoma Valley of California. The company is now run by his son, Ig Vella, and is famous for its Jack cheeses. This Special Select Jack has all the same characteristics as Vella's regular Dry Jack, with its hard, pale yellow interior and sweet, nutty flavor. It is aged for a full year (as opposed to seven months) to develop an even harder texture and more intense flavor, making it similar to a Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese goes well with fruit and wine and is excellent shaved over pasta.
Yellow Buck Camembert by Rouge et Noir
The Yellow Buck label was brought back by Rouge et Noir to commemorate 100 years of making Camembert. Since 1904, all of their Camembert's have been made with traditional, authentic Old World cultures. Made from cow's milk this one is thicker than the rest and offers a creamy richness that is combined with the traditional nutty and earthy flavors of European-style Camembert. It is fuller in flavor than Brie, soft and creamy to buttery in texture, with a nutty tanginess unlike any other soft ripened cheese. It was awarded 1st Place in the 2006 American Cheese Society's category of Camembert.
I hope you have enjoyed this latest in the Artisanal Cheeses Of The U.S. Series. Next up, we will be exploring the rest of the country and I bet you're going to be surprised by some of the places great cheeses are being produced.
Image Sources: www.vellacheese.com, www.marinfrenchcheese.com, www.threesisterscheese.com, www.beehivecheese.com, fiscalinicheese.com, pointreyescheese.com, www.cypressgrovechevre.com, www.cowgirlcreamery.com, www.bravofarms.com, www.andantedairy.com