photos by John Rockwell -  The western-town look of Bravo Farms is the headquarters of Vintage Cheese. The souvenirs were cute, but I was really after the cheese.

No, the title is not a reference to the viral story that floats around the internet—the one that claims a peer-reviewed study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that casein content in cheese is actually as addictive as a hard drug—but to my recent summer adventure to visit my sister in Coos Bay, Oregon (about 90 miles south of Newport, for you Rogue Ales fans). Making good use of my limited time, I decided to hit some bike trails, breweries, university tours (for the edification of my high school daughter), and of course, any cheesemakers I could find along the path.

A favorite among cheese junkies, curds are Cheddar or Jack that never came to be. Instead, they are salted and served fresh. Good curds squeak on your teeth when you chew them.

My journey began along State Route 99, the end of the trail for the Joad family in Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath. For me, SR-99 was the beginning of an adventure. Between Bakersfield and Sacramento, the California Cheese Trail Map (cheesetrail.org) shows 18 cheese-producing creameries, and another eight if you include coastal creameries. Along the central valley, there are countless dairies, orchards, vineyards and produce farms within its robust 25,000-square-mile area. Wikipedia tells me that California’s central valley produces more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the United States. Any time I drive north in California, the more aware I become of how disconnected Southern Californians are from the production of our food. Maybe that’s why I like making cheese: because it reminds me that good food always begins with good raw materials and a little bit of hard work.

 

Flavored Cheddars are crowd-pleasing and make for pretty cheese—the veins happen because the flavoring is mixed with the cut curds before pressing.

Embarking on this mission to find cheese, I made no specific appointments with creameries because I had a large geographic area to cover in a relatively short period of time. I was aware of the fact that for health department regulations, the production facilities of most creameries are closed to the public, and that when tours are granted, they occur on special occasions and need to be scheduled in advance. Mine was the trip of a tourist and not of an insider. 

Bravo Farms Vintage Cheese Factory — Traver, CA. After passing Tulare, there is ample freeway signage along SR 99 urging travelers to visit their cheese shop—so I did. The stop is well worth it if you’re in need of barbecue, or if you’re just a traveler in need of snacks, gifts and souvenirs. The gift shop is filled with typical farmstead fare—arts and crafts, yard art, olives, oils, jams and jellies, and of course cheese made by their very own Vintage Cheese Company.

Vintage Cheese’s specialty cheeses using various kinds of milk and increased aging times make for some fantastic international-style cheeses like Manchebo and Gouda. The best part: customers are allowed to sample.
Vintage Cheese’s specialty cheeses using various kinds of milk and increased aging times make for some fantastic international-style cheeses like Manchebo and Gouda. The best part: customers are allowed to sample.

Despite the kitsch, Vintage Cheese has some interesting offerings for the cheese curious. They have the standard crowd-pleasing fare: plain curds, Cheddar, Jack and Derby. For those who like flavor mixed into their Cheddars and Jacks, there were variations with sage, chipotle, habañero, jalapeño and Cabernet wine. While I admit to enjoying these flavored cheeses—what SoCal native can resist habañero and jalapeño?—at that point, you’re not really tasting the cheese. Never fear, because Vintage has some really fine specialty-style cheeses that I found to be excellent and well worth the trip. Their sharp and floral cow’s milk Aged Cheddar, mild Sheep Gouda, Spanish Manchego and farmhouse-style goat’s milk Classico were each delightful and different. The next time I stop by, I will probably grab a chunk of their Romano and sheep’s milk Blue; and a bigger chunk of the Sheep Gouda, which disappeared too quickly from a cheese plate I made for my family.

While you’re not likely to find Vintage Cheese in Southern California, if you frequent California’s major arteries, the stop is worth it. In addition to the shop in Traver, there are additional operations at the Tulare Outlets off SR-99, and at the ever-popular I-5 Kettleman City exit. There are usually sampling containers in the store, so you can narrow down your favorite cheese.

Continued in the November issue.