after getting a slew of good suggestions from the chowhound message board we headed north for an abridged cheese tour last Monday. We started by calling every farm we heard about, and discovering that most are not set up for visitors.
we started off at the Marin Cheese Factory, nine miles south of Petaluma. This place certainly is set up for visitors, with a big "FREE TASTINGS" sign visible as you drive past, a pretty picnic ground with a lake and geese, and large speakers shoved up against open windows on the second floor of the factory that were blaring classical music's greatest hits into the parking lot and towards the entrance to the store.
The store sells snacks, packaged lunchables, and bottles of wine in addition to the factory's cheese selection, which comprised (from right to left on the tasting counter, and in order of increasing flavor) quark, brie, camembert, and schloss. The brie comes in several varieties -- we tried the pesto version which was out when we arrived. Of these the schloss was the best, although not worth a long trip. The softer cheeses lacked charisma (among other things), and the quark was okay.
Tours are given several times a day, at 10am, 11am, and 12pm, I think. This involved a trip downstairs to see some of the equipment and learn about the various stages in the cheese-making process. It turns out that Monday is cleaning day, so there wasn't that much to see, but it seems like the Wednesday tour would be especially interesting.
From the Cheese Factory we headed over to Redwood Hill Farms, just north of Sebastopol. Here the woman to talk to is Linda, at 707.823.8250. They're not equipped to have a steady stream of visitors, but she takes about one group per day on a quick tour of the grounds if you call ahead. What you can see in terms of cheese-making depends on the day and how busy they are, but at the very least you can peek through the windows and see the various molds and processes. You can also meet the goats, the kids, and some of the people who work at the farm. After chatting with us and showing us the goats, Linda took us to the room where they age the cheeses and then let us wander around for a while.
We left with a small crottin which had such a fresh and perfect layer of mold--if mold can be fresh--that we started taking bites out of it like we were eating an apple. The cheese was flavorful and fluffy and absolutely delicious. I can't think of a time I've had fluffier cheese, but then again I don't know that I ever considered that goat cheese could be fluffy.
From Redwood Hill we went to the Matos Cheese Factory in Santa Rosa. The place seemed deserted when we arrived, even after we accidently set off an alarm by leaving the door to the office open. Finally an old woman emerged from the darkness in the back, and without turning on the light she said only the following:
"Portugese cheese. Five dollars a pound. Keeps very well."
She handed each of us a large, wedge-sized sample.
After completing our business we headed out and on in search of Goat's Leap Farm in St. Helena. We hadn't been able to get in touch with them by telephone, and even with the address in hand we were unable to locate the farm off St. Helena Highway (#3321). By this time it was already six o'clock so we headed over to Terra where we got an early table for dinner. It was very satisfying to hear about the cheese plate--featuring Matos St. George and Redwood Hill Crottin--and to think about the goodies waiting in the car.