I’d like to take a moment to talk about my relationship with cheese. It is different from, say, how I feel about dark chocolate or fresh basil or smoked salmon, all of which have prominent but separate places in my culinary heart.
Cheese is an early sensory memory for me, from when my dad would take us into Zabar’s a couple of blocks away in New York City and we’d pick from a bazillion different kinds of cheese. We’d always bring home Jarlsberg and Brie wrapped in stiff white paper. Hold on a sec, I think I suddenly smell sawdust and whitefish salad … aah … OK, I’m over it. Anyway.
So, I am on a mission: to eat one of my favorite things (artisanal cheese) as I wend my way up my favorite road (Highway 101).
Cheese Log: Loleta Cheese Factory, California
Bob Laffranchi never set out to be the big cheese of Humboldt County. A fourth-generation dairyman, he was happy with his life teaching agriculture at a local high school.
But one day in 1978, a student looking to lure Laffranchi off the subject of the moment asked him how to make cheese. He gave the kid $15 to buy a book, and then the class turned the exploration into a project. For five years, his classes made cheese in the school’s concession-booth steam table, until Laffranchi decided to give the business a go.
“It’s easier to make 5,000 pounds of cheese than it is to make cheese from one-and-a-half gallons of milk on a stove,” he said.
Now he puts out more than 34 varieties of cheese, totaling 2.6 million pounds a year. (A big producer like Hilmar might put out a million pounds a day.) “It’s not our goal to be the largest cheese factory, because that doesn’t make sense for who we are,” he said. “We want it to be fun when you buy our cheeses.”
Inside the Loleta Cheese Factory store, I watched through plate-glass windows as men churned and turned long troughs of cheese. You can try every kind of cheese Laffranchi makes, even the special editions sold to raise money for local fundraising efforts. Flavors included:
Cheddar-cheese curds: They call these lumpy wads “squeakers,” because when they’re still hot, they squeak off your teeth. They’re kind of springy, and harder than you’d expect. Curds are kind of a pre-cheese, the last step before the cheese is compressed and finishes what it needs to do to get all creamified. Laffranchi says people eat them like popcorn.
Smoked-salmon cheddar: The strong tastes of cheddar and salmon compete for your attention here. You might enjoy it, however, if you are the kind of person who wears fake eyelashes during the daytime, or if you are a belt-and-suspenders-at-the-same-time kind of guy.
Garlic jalapeño Jack: The flavors here are having a hoedown in your mouth, all dancing and having fun — but not so much fun that you have to kick ‘em out.
After the blissful Zabar Days came the late ‘70s, otherwise known as The Dark Years. My dad co-authored The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise, and suddenly things like cheese and Oreos and Trix were relegated to a “secret” place for “company.” They were replaced by apple-juice-sweetened oatmeal-raisin lumps, Shredded Wheat (the big, unsweetened chunks that get soggy the second the skim milk hits them), and something the dairy gods certainly didn’t create called Hoop Cheese, with zero fat content, low salt, and no flavor. Might as well be eating wet cotton balls. Hoop Cheese. Jesus.
Cheese Log: Rumiano Fine Natural Cheese, California
The Rumiano family founded this business in 1921. They used to have 15 stores, until the 1940s (something about a world war); now they’re down to just one. They are still a small but mighty force, offering cheese accessories (crackers, bread, knives, etc.) and imported cheeses in addition to their own cheeses, which include:
Dry Monterey Jack: A happy accident that’s considered the poor man’s Parmesan. It seems some hapless fool left a brick of jack in a cooler for, like, two years, and it turned hard but aged deliciously. The Rumianos have spent the past 60 years perfecting this art.
Peppato: Cheese dotted with peppercorns. If there were a cheese that could rescue you from kidnappers or stop a nuclear attack, this would be it.
Being more of a slave to his cravings than most of us, my dad eventually returned to his regular gourmand ways, even as the years wore on and doctors told him to quit the copious quantities of cheese, butter, sugar, and other things that were bad for his hardening arteries. He even risked being busted by Interpol when he smuggled in raw-milk goat cheese from France — where he’d just gotten stents put in his arteries to combat his years of milk-fat abuse.
Cheese Log: Bandon Cheese, Oregon
I am sorry to report that the lovely Bandon Cheese company is defunct. The story goes that one day, the workers showed up and the factory was locked. Sales were going well, but the building needed so many repairs that the owners decided they were in whey over their heads.
However, if you do go through Bandon, stop by the Cobbler’s Bench, a cool boot-and-shoe store that welcomes dogs, and talk to Wolf Daniel Braun, the owner. He’s like Santa with his big belly and white beard, and he tried really hard to find me a pair of pink or orange Tony Lamas. He could not, but I know they are out there somewhere.
Contributions from farmers, cooks, and others who are tasting the many meanings of food.
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