March 14-20, 2007

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Some Gouda Advice

By Cheryl Sternman Rule

IT'S NO SECRET that produce is seasonal, but it turns out that cheese is seasonal, too. Who knew? With the warmer weather upon us, Faun Skyles of Los Gatos Gourmet says our palates will begin craving lighter cheeses, particularly goat's milk cheeses paired with crisp sauvignon blancs. The goats, she says, are kidding (no, really) in Pescadero right now, and we'll begin seeing more of their products in local fromageries.

Skyles' little shop, both adjacent to and within the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, opened four months ago, and it's a cheese-lover's mecca. She also sells an impressive array of regional wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains, made-to-order sandwiches, teas, olives, fresh Acme bread and cured meats such as chorizo, lamb prosciutto and soppressata, an Italian salami. But the star of the show, as far as I'm concerned, is her cheese, and many of her varieties come from local dairies.

For spring, Skyles recommends Harley Farms' Monet, a visually stunning, soft and creamy goat's milk cheese covered with edible flowers and threaded with herbes de Provence. Because Harley Farms owner Dee Harley is a farmstead cheesemaker, she uses only milk from her own herds and turns it into cheese on the premises. (Nonfarmstead cheesemakers can use milk from a variety of sources.) This quality-control and emphasis on traditional techniques comes through in the cheese, which is worth seeking out and sampling. Skyles also recommends Sonoma-based Bellwether Farms for their "outrageous ricotta" and Andante Dairy's Rondo and Melange, which are made in Petaluma from "mixed milk" (both cow and goat).

So now you're all riled up about cheese and want to learn more. Fortunately, you live in the Bay Area, so you're in luck. Last year, former advertising executive Sara Vivenzio founded The Cheese School of San Francisco in Russian Hill. The school is dedicated to teaching cheese-o-philes everything they ever wanted to know. This is where I tasted Harley Farms' and other farmstead cheeses for the first time, and I was smitten. During another class, on Spanish cheeses, we students gorged ourselves on manchego, yes, but also mahon, garroxta, roncal and zamorano, cheeses most of us had never heard of. Paired with three types of Spanish wines and served with accompaniments from Marcona almonds to quince paste to wild oak honey, the cheeses became a decadent and satisfying meal. Plus, we were learning!

If you don't have time to take a class, you can still learn about cheese just by tasting around. In addition to Los Gatos Gourmet, several local shops offer a wide selection. Crowds fill the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, a 25-year-old store with nearly 600 varieties of cheese from across the world. Whole Foods stocks a good number of local cheeses and cheesemongers there know their stuff. Andrea Cummings of the Los Altos store highly recommends Fiscalini Farms' "San Joaquin Gold," a farmstead cheese out of Modesto which she describes as a cross between a cheddar and a gouda. "We've done a lot of sampling of this one," she says, "and we've gotten people hooked."

And rumor has it that Oakville Grocery in Palo Alto also offers a large variety. I haven't been yet, but trust me, I'll get there soon.

The Cheese School of San Francisco 1555 Pacific Ave., Second Floor, San Francisco. 415.346.7530.
Los Gatos Gourmet 109 W. Main St., Los Gatos. 408.354.5440.
The Milk Pail Market 2585 California St., Mountain View. 650.941.2505.
Oakville Grocery 715 Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto. 650.328.9000.
Whole Foods Market Various locations, including Campbell, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Gatos and Palo Alto.

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