It’s a year to celebrate artisan cheese

For Bay Area cheese enthusiasts, the past year brought even more reasons to celebrate where we live.

Yes, Paris has better French cheese, including the many raw-milk selections that Americans can’t import. You can get better mozzarella and ricotta in Italy. But can you get Red Hawk in Milan? Or Rogue River Blue? Or Vella Dry Jack?

Bay Area cheese counters stock the finest available cheeses from around the world. And despite the challenging economy, independent cheese shops appear to be thriving here, or at least surviving.

Not to diminish the good efforts of multiunit operators like Whole Foods and Draeger’s, but our independent merchants set the bar, taking risks on unfamiliar cheeses that need to be hand sold.

How satisfying it is to see relatively young shops like Cheese Plus in San Francisco, Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda and Montclair, Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa, and the Cheese Shop of Healdsburg draw loyal and appreciative customers.

American artisan cheese

Would you have bet that San Francisco was ready for a restaurant/cheese counter devoted to American artisan cheese? I would not have put my money on its chances, but Mission Cheese opened last year on Valencia Street and looks like a winner. Customers are responding to the purity and focus of the concept: flights of carefully curated domestic cheeses, California craft beers, and a few hot pressed sandwiches.

Last year also saw a boom in Bay Area cheese making. In addition to welcoming new creations from established enterprises like Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese (the award-winning Toma) and Cowgirl Creamery (Wagon Wheel), we witnessed the birth or first steps of creameries like Nicasio Valley, Valley Ford, Bohemian Creamery and Bleating Heart. Next summer, we can expect the first mozzarella from Craig Ramini, who is establishing a herd of water buffalo in Tomales.

Home cheese making

Serious home cheese making is on the rise, too, judging by the publication of well-researched books like “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” (Ten Speed Press).

Louella Hill, who bills herself as The Milk Maid, launched her San Francisco-based business last year, teaching small private groups how to make mozzarella, ricotta and other simple cheeses. Sheana Davis’ home cheese making classes in Sonoma also sell well. And on the professional path, College of Marin awarded its first diplomas in its new Artisan Cheese Certificate Program, a terrific effort to train the state’s future cheese makers.

Swiss making their move

As for imports, Switzerland is coming on strong. Some of the most impressive cheeses I have tasted all year have been Swiss, reflecting changes to the subsidy structure in Switzerland that have encouraged innovation and enterprise. I’m loving Challerhocker, Heublumen, Montagne du Jura, Andeerer Gourmet and Scharfe Maxx.

Given the excitement and energy in both the domestic and import worlds, it’s a golden age for artisan cheese. With prices continuing to climb, affordability may threaten growth, but for now, consumers seem willing to spring for a treat. And there are lots of them.

Next up: Coupole, a French-style goat’s milk cheese from Vermont.

Janet Fletcher teaches cheese-appreciation classes and is the author of “Cheese & Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing, and Enjoying” and “The Cheese Course,” both from Chronicle Books. Visit for a class schedule, or contact her at

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