Goat milk cheese is one of the oldest dairy products in the world and Laura Chenel’s Chèvre is one of the oldest goat milk cheeses in the United States. Now Sonoma County enjoys several artisinal goat cheese producers, with a few springing forth in Marin and Napa as well.
At the risk of losing you instantly, goat’s milk and its cheese are good for you. Goat’s milk is said to have more protein, less cholesterol, and less fat than cow’s milk, while closer resembling mother’s milk (human, that is).
The Moors brought goats to France’s Loire Valley from the Eastern Mediterranean during 8 A.D., along with their milking and cheesemaking methods. Legends have it that Bacchus, Dionysus and the Romans all ate goat cheese, dipping it into olive oil, one of our newest and hottest foodie fads. Apparently the Moors didn’t cross the Loire River, keeping goat milk cheesemaking within the Loire’s valley bounds, thus creating a regional specialty.
Having spent several years as a chèvre apprentice in France, Laura Chenel returned in 1979 to make the first artisinal domestically-produced goat cheese in America. She eventually leased the old Stornetta Gold Medal Dairy Building at Napa Road and Highway 121 (Fremont Drive) in Sonoma and utilized some of the same equipment the Stornetta family used for cow’s milk more than half a century ago, with her herd of goats traversing the surrounding cool-climate hillsides.
And then she struck gold after panning and sifting, and changing and perfecting, Chenel talked Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse into trying her cheese. Waters liked it so much that she coached Chenel on how to make it better and then made it an instant culinary hit by slicing a Laura Chenel Log (her original cheese) into rounds, breading it, baking it and creating the iconic California green salad with goat cheese.
Chenel pioneered goat milk cheese making in this country and created a prototype that many other cheesemakers have followed successfully.
In 2006 Laura Chenel sold her operation to the highly regarded Rians Group, a family of 12 cheesemaking concerns in France, many in that original Loire Valley where goats first arrived in the western world.
Marie Lesoudier, a brilliant young French woman with an MA in international food quality management who worked for years with the Rians’ small plants in the Loire Valley, arrived as general manager, and kept all of the employees whom Laura Chenel had trained.
Laura Chenel Chevre still uses the more than 50-year-old pasteurizer machine that Stornetta Gold Medal Dairy used and a tiny aging closet, and combines traditional hand-hewn methods with new devices developed by the Rians Group.
Laura Chenel trucks pick up goat’s milk daily at 12 ranches around California and two in Nevada, with the drivers checking for antibiotics and other matter at each farm before even loading the milk. When the milk arrives at the creamery across the road from Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma, it has been mingled in the truck and is again checked for anything that shouldn’t be there. They are so careful because one bad batch could ruin a whole load.
Staffers tenderly sprinkle pepper on some logs, use scissors to cut between “Blossoms” that may have fig and olive, basil olive oil, or sun-dried tomato centers, to be cut like a pie piece so every taste includes both the cheese and the center, hand press, and seal some cheeses. Keep in mind that only 15 percent of each gallon of goat’s milk ends up as cheese.
Former chef at The General’s Daughter and Culinary Director at COPIA, Jacquelyn Buchanan, serves as Director of Culinary Development for Laura Chenel, traveling through the country teaching professional and home chefs how best to use Laura Chenel cheeses, as well as developing recipes to simply use their cheeses.
Having outgrown their old Stornetta facility, Laura Chenel leaders plan to break ground for a new plant on Eighth Street East in Sonoma, facing a vineyard and creating another tranquil home for goat’s milk and cheese. And maybe even a new pasteurizer.
The hugely popular Marin French Cheese Company, best known for its Rouge et Noir bries and camemberts, also makes three chèvre cheeses with milk from West Marin goats, including Yellow Buck, Le Petit, and a blue chèvre.
It seems as if locals forget to visit Marin French Cheese, partly because it is so popular with visitors. The last time we were there, a Scotland-like horizontal rain storm prevent us from enjoying the picnic tables, large pond, ducks, flowers and west Marin beauty. If you are so inclined, Marin French is the only company that makes goat cheese that actually has a retail shop and allows viewing into the packaging room.
Regulations now require strict sanitation practices to enter into a goat cheese plant, including changes out of street clothes and walking through “foot baths.”
Marin French, formerly called Rouge et Noir, has a full deli and sells wine, beer, sodas, coffee, and loads of “Yellow Buck Stops Here” t-shirts and aprons. Check out the case of old photos in the wine room from about 1919. Buy your goat or other cheese and a loaf or baguette of Mezzaluna bread and go sit on the lawn.
If you follow Spring Hill Road toward Petaluma or Two Rock you will come upon Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Farm. While Spring Hill only makes cow’s milk cheeses, they do make some interesting cheeses that resemble quark, ricotta, cheddars, jacks, mozzarella, Taleggio, Dry Jack, Old World Portuguese, a sort of brie and a firm dry brie.
Take a moment to drive up the long driveway to see if their shop is open.
West of Spring Hill Road on Bodega Avenue is a huge dairy farm owned by the Don DeBernardi family.
Bonnie and Don DeBernardi chatted in their blue-hued kitchen, recently remodeled in an old farm house set way off the road in the midst of what looks like a small village, but is actually a gathering of barns, houses, planted mobile homes, milking barns, and cooling trailers.
The DeBernardis care for 800 cows on their 475-acre pasture, much of which is planted in fava beans and other soil and cattle enriching organic feeds. Producing both organic and conventional cow’s milk here and near Marin County’s Dillon Beach, the family’s goats are sort of a hobby turning into something more serious.
Bonnie DeBernardi initially bought two baby Nubian goats for their granddaughters for fun but, like most little girls, they grew up and led to “what do we do with the milk?”
A former president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Don suggested they breed “the girls.” Neighbor Michelle Wheeler (a few miles away) provided the buck, and has since led Bonnie through every part of her growing goat enterprise, now at 120 goats and counting.
“Our neighbor does the de-horning. I don’t think it hurts, but it is controversial. We had a big buck who actually got stuck in a tree hanging by his horns and Don had to get him down,” Bonnie explained.
Now Don makes the cheese, actually three cheese rounds per day, following old Swiss practices from his family’s native Alpe Canaa area above Lodano.
Wearing her favorite blue sweatshirt that illuminates her bright blue eyes and high and slightly mucky rubber boots on a rainy day, Bonnie explained, “I think females make better pets for kids, and I think women make better goat farmers because we understand them better somehow. They are sensitive and like a healthy diet. We feed ‘Complete Goat’ with hay, alfalfa and oats,” which is why their hard cheeses are so nutty and flavorful.
The DeBernardis’ daughters, Monique Moretti and Nicole, are partners with Bonnie and Don, who bought Monique and her husband the Marin farm for a wedding present.
Sheana Davis, chef and proprietor of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, puts on an annual professional artisan cheese conference and has created Délice de la Valée cheese blend made from cow’s and goat’s milk. “Delice” is incorporated into menus around the San Francisco Bay Area, while Davis’ tiny gourmet shop features artisinal cheeses and attracts chefs either buying for the day’s menu or hunkering down at her one indoor table for lunch. Outdoor tables show up in spring. Davis’ Délice de la Vallée shows up in handmade ravioli from the Depot Hotel to specialties made by cookbook author Paula Wolfert.