Geneva Anderson digs into art

last call: this weekend’s 5th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival is sold-out except for Sunday’s all day marketplace

For a growing number of fine cheese lovers who are traveling to cheese gatherings across the country, this weekend’s 5th Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival (March 25-28, 2011), in Petaluma, holds the promise of glorious immersion in cheese.  From new small-batch cheeses to those that have already garnered international recognition, the spotlight is on the vibrant hues, bold aromas, and surprising flavors that make our region’s cheeses so unique, the local farmers who produce them and the industry that has emerged to promote them.  But unless you’ve already registered, this 3 day extravaganza Friday through Sunday (March 25-28, 2011) at Petaluma’s Sheraton Hotel is completely sold out, except for the Sunday’s big tent Artisan Cheese Marketplace from 11 AM to 4 PM. 

This year’s festival is going to be both enlightening and entertaining. (Full Schedule)  Friday’s day-long farm tours to Strauss Family Creamery, Toluma Farms, The Fork at Point Reyes, and Bellweather Farms sold out almost as soon as they were posted.  The opportunity to get the low-down on what makes our area’s cheese so special right from the farmers who produce it was too good to pass up, even at $145.  A number of Saturday’s 14 seminars covering all topics cheese by leading experts in the field sold out well over a month ago too.   Subjects range from making cheese (what does it actually take to become a cheese maker? a primer on essential molds, a lesson in curd stretching) to the politics of cheese (the transhumance movement, proposed legislation that seeks to regulate raw milk cheeses) to the nuances of evaluating cheese.  There are fabulous opportunities to eat some revamped classics too, like mac and cheese, and to try some new “hidden cheeses of California.”   You’ll learn that most of California’s elite cheeses don’t venture far from home and we in Petaluma are smack dab in cheese paradise for both producing and consuming.  

Capricious–its name evokes play and its taste sweet perfection. A very ungoaty goat cheese, Capricious is aged and then hand-rolled in old European style and its memorable sweetness is attributed to the very high quality goat’s milk that our region is known for. Jim and Donna Pacheco, Pacheco Family Dairy, Petaluma. Best in Show, American Cheese Society 2002 and named one of Saveur magazine’s 50 favorite cheeses in the U.S. 2005. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On Sunday, you can still meet over 73 artisan producers and try the finest local cheese, gourmet accompaniments, and wine and beer.  Throughout the day, acclaimed chefs Mary Karlin, Kristine Kidd, Boris Portnoy and Jacquelyn Buchanan will each be demonstrating an original recipe with artisan cheese and Clark Wolf will be both mc’ing and signing his own best-seller American Cheeses.  

$45 ticket includes Sunday admission, all sampling, access to chef demos and author book signings, a festival wine glass and an insulated cheese tote bag to hold your precious purchases. Tickets will be sold online through Friday evening and then 100 will be made available on a first come-first served basis at the door on Sunday, starting at 11AM.  There is no wait list for any of the sold-out events.  All events on Friday and Saturday are already sold out.

Book Signings on Sunday:

11:30 a.m. Gordon Edgar & Sasha Davies : Gordon Edgar Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge (2010) Sasha Davies West Coast Cheeses (2010)

12:30 p.m. Laura Werlin  (launching her fifth book at the festival Grilled Cheese, Please! 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes (2011) , and author of The New American Cheese Profiles of America’s Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking with Cheese, The All American Cheese and Wine Book: Pairings, Profiles and Recipe, Great Grilled Cheese 50 Recipes for Stovetop, Grill, and Sandwich Maker, Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials An Insider’s Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese

Point Reyes Cheese Company’s TOMA is an all-natural, semi hard, farmstead cheese made from pasteurized cows’ milk produced by the Giacomini family on their 3rd generation West Marin dairy farm. Introduced in 2010 as an alternative to their rockstar, Point Reyes Original Blue, TOMA became an instant hit too. Once you try a slice of TOMA, with its creamy texture, buttery flavor and unforgettable grassy-tangy finish, there’s no turning back…it’s a staple you won’t want to do without. Photo: Geneva Anderson

1:00 p.m. Maggie Foard   Goat Cheese (2008)

1:30 p.m. Mary Karlin Artisan Cheese Making at Home: Techniques & Recipes for Mastering World-Class Cheeses (2011), Wood-Fired Cooking: Techniques and Recipes for the Grill, Backyard Oven, Fireplace, and Campfire (2009)

2:00 p.m. Lenny Rice & Clark Wolf  Lenny Rice: Fondue (2007),  Clark Wolf: American Cheeses: The Best Regional, Artisan, and Farmhouse Cheeses, Who Makes Them, and Where to Find Them (2008)

2:30 p.m. Kristine Kidd, Weeknight Fresh + Fast (2011) Kristine Kidd has written a number of books for Williams Sonoma Kitchen Library.

3:00 p.m. Andrea Mugnaini The Art of Wood-Fired Cooking(2010)  Anna Mugnaini and the Mugnaini crew will be baking wood fired pizzas in a portable pizza oven on working the Pizza Patio on Sunday too. Enjoy artisan cheese and fresh wood fired pizza?

Cheese Wiz: in researching the various symposiums associated with the conference, I learned

  • The first cheese was made over 4000 years ago by nomadic peoples. It is believed that someone tried to store or transport fresh milk in a water bag made from an animal stomach. Later, when the milk was needed, the first cheese was discovered (the rennet in the lining of the bag would have caused the milk to separate into curds and whey).
  • Asian travelers likely brought cheese production to Europe where cheesemaking flourished among monks during the Middle Ages.
  • In 1620, cheese was on the Mayflower when the Pilgrims journeyed to America.
  • Spanish priests first made cheese from the milk of mission livestock in the early 1800s.  Later, during the Gold Rush, European immigrants built dairies on the Point Reyes peninsula to supply butter and cheese to gold miners in San Francisco.
  • Sonoma and Marin counties—the Normandy of Northern California—are home to the largest concentration of artisan cheesemakers in California, if not the country.  Our unique foggy, grassy terrain has roughly 22,000 acres of land dedicated to making cheese and fermented milk products. To celebrate this and educate, the Marin Economic Forum (MEF) just introduced the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail map [PDF], the first-ever map to local artisan cheesemakers.

 21 Artisan Cheese Producers will participate Sunday:

Achadinha Cheese Co.
Beehive Cheese Co.
Bellwether Farms
Bohemian Creamery
Central Coast Creamery
Cowgirl Creamery
Cypress Grove Chevre
Epicurean Connection
Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese
Laura Chenel’s Chevre
Mt. Townsend Creamery

Marin French Cheese
Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.
Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery
Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.
Shamrock Artisan Cheese
Sierra Nevada Cheese Co.
Tumalo Farms, Bend, OR
Valley Ford Cheese Co.
Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese
Winchester Cheese

March 24, 2011 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kendall-Jackson’s Heirloom Tomato Festival–Food, Fun, and TONS of TOMATOES

The festival is all about tomatoes and attendees could sample over 170 varieties freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson's organic sensory garden.

Last Saturday’s Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center turned out to be a hoot for ARThound and the weekend’s hottest gourmet ticket.  The event’s 3,000 tickets were sold out in early September.  The festival, now in its 14th year, was well worth the $65 donation, which went to the School Garden Network of Sonoma County, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable garden and nutrition-based learning programs for local students.   Considering there was ample opportunity to gorge yourself on as much food as you could eat in 5.5 hours, 5 complementary samplings of Kendall-Jackson wines, and loads of great entertainment, there was a lot of value in that ticket too.  True, this festival is all about heirloom tomatoes but it’s also a very well-run gourmet event, and by that I mean fairly high-end gourmet.  Fifty-five of the area’s top restaurants sampled incredible delicacies using heirloom tomatoes that came right from Kendall-Jackson’s own gardens, with attendees voting on whose dish was most delectable.   The event also included a number of timed cook-offs which pitted top chefs against each other, winners determined by audience applause.   

Tasting Tent: 170 varieties

Central to the annual event is a large tent with long tables holding dozens of plates of sliced heirloom

ARThound loved the sweet carrot-colored and orange-sized "Glory of Moldova" which makes an excellent juice.

tomatoes, organized by color/type which attendees are encouraged to taste with toothpicks and then rank.  This year, there were over 170 varieties that had been freshly picked from Kendall-Jackson’s organic culinary gardens, which were also available to tour.  I had come to try “Zogola,” a huge, deep-red beautifully fluted on the shoulders beefsteak.  Its taste was reportedly full-bodied, tangy, rich and sweet.  And like the fascinating and legendary first King of Albania, who I imagine is this tomato’s namesake, Zogola is noble and reliable.  While listed on the JK tasting sheet, there was no Zogola to be found, so I made my way down the tables and landed upon the luscious “Glory of Moldova,” which seduced me immediately with its rich carrot-orange color and sweet mild taste and that name, harkening to the Republic of Moldova’s independent status.  I had visited this remote rural area when it was still part of Romania.  A prolific late-season heirloom that yields 2 to 3 inch fruits, I was told that Glory of Moldova makes fantastic juice. 

Mia Brown of Lodi won 6 of 18 available awards, including the prestigious "Golden Trowel" in the annual tomato growing competition.

To be honest, I have to reveal my personal biases.  As a journalist who spent years in the former Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans, I am easily moved by any Siberian, Ukrainian, Black Sea or pre and post-glasnost names.  And with good reason, many of the exotic purple, dusky brown, bluish brown and mahogany skinned tomatoes that Northern Californians are currently so enamored with, hail from this part of the world.

Originally, black-purple tomatoes were native to the Southern Ukraine during the early 19th century and were found on a small Crimean peninsula.  They spread throughout the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and ultimately made their way here, where we marvel at their colors and bold complex taste. In tomato tastings all over, blacks are placing as high as reds or pinks.   Actually, “black” became the new red among tomatoes a few years ago in the haute food world and now it seems like almost everyone has tried them.  They are gorgeous sliced and served plain on a plate, sprucing up a salad or sandwich and they are robust enough for sauces.   This year’s festival offered—Black, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Paul Robeson, Purple Prince, Cherokee Purple. 

Mia Brown's "San Marzano Redorita," a Sonoma County favorite for sauces, won the Paste competition.

An heirloom that I grow in my own garden, the Japanese Black Trifele, produces pear-shaped globes with a rich flavor that can’t be beat. 

Growing Contest–Looks, Flavor, Weight 

Growers from far and wide entered the home-grown tomato-growing competition where judging was based on looks, flavor, and weight.  The “Golden Trowel Award” for best of show went to Mia Brown of Lodi for her “Green Doctor” tomatoes which won the Cherry and Currant Division.  Brown seems to have had the right tomato karma this year—she got 6 of 18 awards given, more than anyone else.  The Largest/Heaviest tomato was a 2lb 4.5 oz “Pineapple Stripe” tomato grown by Brad Agerter of Healdsburg.  Other categories included “White and Green,” “Yellow and Orange,” “Pink and Red,” “Purple, Brown and Black” and “Paste.”



Sonoma Cheesemaker Sheana Davis of Epicurean Connection paired a dallop of her creamy award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese with Kendall-Jackson heirloom tomoatoes and dresed it homemade balsamic vinegar and Kendall-Jackson Estate olive oil.

Gourmet Samples–GALORE!


The chance to try amazing tomato gourmet delicacies created right before your eyes by some of the area’s top chefs is what makes this festival so popular.  All of them use freshly picked heirloom tomatoes supplied by Kendall-Jackson and, in many cases, KJ olive oil and wine too.   Here are a few that caught my fancy—

Carrie Brown of Healdsburg's Jimtown Store was serving a romesco, a Spanish-inspired gourmet spread.

I started off with dessert, no breakfast.  Chef Rene Jakushak of Nectar Restaurant (Hilton Sonoma Wine Country) did tomato waffles (pureed Brandywine tomatoes are a staple in the pink batter), with heirloom tomato whipped butter, a sweet tomato syrup, topped with ground pistachios.  The amazing thing about this combo was its sweet taste, hinting at its prime ingredient. 

Cheesemaker Sheena Davis of Epicurean Connection, Sonoma, was sampling scoops of her award-winning Delice de la Vallee cheese, a sweet and creamy blend of fresh triple cream cow and fresh goat milk, over heirlooms with fresh homemade balsamic and Kendall-Jackson Estate extra virgin olive oils.  By 1:30 pm she and her beaming assistant Eva (manning the scoop) had served about 4,500 samples.  “We’re gonna keep going,” she said.  “People can’t get enough of this.”    Like many of the vendors I met, Davis’ acclaim in the highly competitive cheese world is hard-won and something she is very proud of.   She had a copy of cheese aficionado and author Juliet Harbut’s The World Cheese Book proudly displayed at her booth and told me that she had authored the American cheese section, quite an honor.  As it turns out, Davis’ section of this gorgeous cheese book is packed with wisdom about cheese making and pairings.

Just down the way, Carrie Brown, proprietress of Healdsburg’s charming Jimtown Store, was sampling more of Davis’ cheese with her own “Spicy Pepper Jam” and another delicacy–Spanish “romesco” sauce of roasted red pepper, toasted almonds, smoked paprika, garlic, and olive oil, topped with cucumber-fennel slaw on a hand-cut corn tortilla chip.  Brown proudly informed me that her spicy pepper jam is soon going to be sold in tubs in the refrigerated cheese sections of stores like Whole Foods so that it can be paired with the fresh cheeses it so wonderfully complements.  Coups like this are to be celebrated. In my enthusiasm, I forgot to inquire about the tomato component of her offerings….aheemmm.

Part of the fun is getting to vote by casting your chip into the bowl of your favorite vendor.  This year’s people choice Food Vendor Award went to Tolay, Sonoma County Cuisine (at the Sonoma Sheraton Petaluma) and executive chef Danny Mai for their “Sope de Tinga,” chicken sopes with tomato sauce.  Mai is well-known for appropriating ideas from several different regions and then recreating them in his own assimilated signature dishes.  He told me that his inspiration for cooking comes from chef Rick Bayless who has changed the image of Mexican food in America and yet remains a very humble and authentic person.   Mai’s sopes were essentially very thick homemade tostadas piled high with a perfect mix of simple ingredients—shredded chicken, cubed

The "People's Choice Award" went to Sonoma County Cusine's "Sope de Tinga," Chicken sopes with tomato sauce.

heirlooms and chiplote in a salsa called tingua, cilantro, fresh cream, sour cream and feta cheese.  At 4-inches in diameter (among the most generous servings offered), these chunky heavenly Cal-Mex treats, with their rainbow of bright colors, had everyone buzzing.   I had two.  Hats off to Tolay! 

Adam Mali, executive chef, Nick’s Cove in Point Reyes, offered up thousands of oysters simply topped with mild heirloom tomato varieties.  Sean Thomas, aka The Zinful Chef, offered another winning seafood-tomato combo– yellow heirloom tomato lobster bisque that looked mild but actually delivered a robust red tomato taste.  Thomas was one of these chefs who was really chatting it up with people, and was as interested in their opinions as he was in telling them about his innovative catering.  

I topped off my afternoon of tasting with a long wait in line for Anthony Bonviso’s Watermelon Tomato Mint gelato at Fiorello’s Italian Ice Cream stand.  Fiorello’s is a San Rafael institution and Anthony told me he is currently refining his popular basic wine sorbet into several spin-offs. 

Tomato Talks

Tomato guru Amy Goldman, from New York gave a fascinating, informative and humorous lecture on

Amy Goodman, author and chairman of the Seed Saver's Exchange, encouraged people to grab and save the seeds of the tomatoes that most impressed them.

 heirlooms to a standing room only audience.  As chairman of the Seed Savers Exchange (the largest organization of rare seed devotes in the world) she also had a lot to say about the  Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, the ultimate safety deposit box for biodiversity and global food supply preservation, storing duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of gene banks from around the world.  (ARThound will be devoting a special article to Goldman and her work later.)

 While the heirloom varieties that Seed Savers Exchange has contributed—for example, “Tomato German Pink”– make-up only a small portion of the total “deposits” at Svalbard, she mentioned that these are from seeds conserved

Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills produced a unique and gorgeous Tomato calendar that tracks the tomato-growing season with photos, tasks, recipes.

by its members who are largely home gardeners.  Goldman encouraged people to snatch and save the seeds of those heirloom tomatoes that catch their fancy.  For those interested in germinating and starting their own heirlooms, her book The Heirloom Tomato, has everything a novice needs to know on the topic. 

After Goldman’s lecture, I ran into gardener Laura Taylor of Woodland Hills, who gave me a copy of her tomato calendar, a gorgeous month-by-month guide to growing tomatoes that begins in March and runs through February.   Taylor represents the pioneering attitude that, along with the climate, has established Northern California as a Mecca for gardeners.  While yet to start her own heirloom tomatoes from seeds, she has an unbridled passion for tasty tomatoes and a knack for gardening that she has turned into a business.  She has branded herself  “Laura Taylor at Home in the Garden,” teaches  tomato growing and cooking classes, blogs about tomatoes, and has numerous media appearances.  She came to this year’s KJ festival with a dream and mission—to be a featured tomato author/lecturer in the future.


TICKETS– The festival is a perennial sell-out.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and are available online at, or the Kendall Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.   Inquire about May, 2011.

September 18, 2010 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment