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Cheese Lover? Your Ultimate Cheese weekend awaits at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival, Friday-Sunday, in and around Petaluma

Cheese royals Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (L & R), co-founders of Cowgirl Creamery, will join sisters Jill Giacomini Basch and Lynn Giacomini Stray of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese to share their cheese stories in a “Cream of the Crop” seminar Saturday morning at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival.  Participants will savor artfully composed bites of cheese paired with local craft rums while learning about the unique terroir of the picturesque Point Reyes area. They will also receive a comp subscription to “Culture” magazine. This is just 1 of 6 exciting seminars offered at this year’s festival, which includes farm tours, curated wine and cheese evening tastings, gourmet competitions, cheese-centric dinners and a brunch prepared by celebrity chefs and Sunday’s legendary tasting tent and market. Photo: Books, Inc.

From newly-released small-batch artisan cheeses to those that have an international following, the focus of the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival is on our region’s artisan cheese and the inside track on haute pairings and pours.  This wonderful event, which kicks off Friday, is held in and around Petaluma’s Sheraton Sonoma County and is considered one of the country’s top, if not the best, artisan cheese festivals.  Friday is always devoted to day-long farm tours which get more creative every year.  These are so popular they sell out within days of being announced in January.  The opportunity to meet the farm animals and to get the low-down on what makes our area’s cheese so special straight from the farmers who produce it always proves too good to pass up.  Each tour also includes a gourmet lunch with wine in a bucolic setting and an informative talk by a leading cheese educator.  Don’t despair, there are still two full days (Sat and Sun) of fascinating activities that are not yet sold out.

Saturday’s Seminars and Pairings Demos

A good number of spaces are still available in the seminars listed below, all which are held in or within a few steps of the hotel (click here for full descriptions and pricing).  Show up early to purchase your tickets in person at festival headquarters in the lobby of the Sheraton.

Saturday morning: 10 to 11:30 AM:

Cheese & Charcuterie (Vanessa Chang and author, educator Laura Werlin) Foolproof pairings of artisan cheese, old world meats and rosé.

Mighty Morphing Milk (author, educator Janet Fletcher, Liam Callahan (Bellwether Farms), Jennifer Bice (Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery) Explore the magical transformation of exceptional goat, sheep and cow milk into yogurt, fresh cheese and aged cheese with an emphasis on cultures, techniques and timing decisions.  Plentiful tastings.

Cream of the Crop (Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, co-founders Cowgirl Creamery and Jill Giacomini Stray and Lynn Giacomini Stray, co-founders of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese) A lively conversation about cheese, politics and preserving family farms with tastings and cheese pairings with local craft rums.

Petaluma’s Achadinha Cheese Company (Osh-a-deen-a), renowned for its blended goat and cow milk cheese, participates regularly in the festival’s popular farm tours.  The Pachecho family’s third generation run both Achadinha Cheese Company and the Pacheco Family Dairy but will swear that it’s the animals that run everything.   Their 250 goats and 60 cows are pastured on 230 sprawling acres on Chileno Valley Road.  Achadinha is the creator of the famous mold-ripened aged goat’s milk cheese, “Capricious,” whose memorable sweetness is directly related to the farm’s terroir.  The family also produces a mean feta.  Photo: Achadinha

Saturday Afternoon: 1:30 to 3 PM:

Cheese and Chocolate (Vanessa Chang and author, educator Laura Werlin)  An indulgent exploration of two of life’s pleasures: cheese and chocolate with an emphasis on great pairings and how to heighten the pleasure even more with beer and port.

California Cheese: Past, Present, and Future (Kiri Fisher, The Cheese School) Taste your way through the history of cheese as you learn more about the special roots of our local dairy industry, the cheese-making renaissance of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the challenges the industry currently faces and what cheeses are on the horizon.

Saturday evening Cheese & Cocktails, 5 to 7 PM:

A new two hour event, event under the Big Top at the Sheraton featuring cheesemakers showcasing their favorite cheeses while local craft distilleries sample their best spirits both as straight pours and mixed cocktails.  The mood is celebratory and this is great place to meet friends for drinks.

Sunday Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace, 12 to 4 PM:

Say “hello” to the makers as you gather under the big top Sunday for a final cheesy soirée with over 90 artisan producers of local cheeses, wines, beers, ciders and other specialty foods.  Discover the next wave of interesting cheese accompaniments, cheesemaking products, books and the new innovative cheese vaults that let you preserve your expensive cheeses.

Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace is the festival’s bustling grand finale. New this year is Volo Chocolate of Healdsburg—small-batch handmade chocolates with beans sourced from Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca regions and stone ground and fire-roasted in traditional Mexican style. Each bar comes in an earthy expressionist wrapper, just as artful as the contents. Photo: Volo

Don’t miss the demos!  Pick up new recipes, tips and tricks from cheese twins, Charlie and Michael Kalish, winners of Season 7 of “The Great Food Truck Race” and hosts of their own Food network Show “Big Cheese,” who will give a “Grilled Cheese Two Ways” demo at 12:30 PM.

Award winning local food writer and author, Michele Anna Jordan will demonstrate Butter Making at 1:45 PM, teaching everyone how they can churn their own butter at home in just minutes. There will ample samples of organic goat, sheep and cow milk butters and attendees can take a hand at the churn.

Aside from eating well and to your heart’s content, the tasting tent is an exciting launch pad for gourmet products which are just getting their start.  This year’s “gotta have it” find is Volo Chocolate, the love child of Healdsburg chefs, Jeff and Susan Mall.  In 2015, the couple sold their beloved Zin restaurant and moved to Baja to embark on a quiet life as resort chefs.  Soon, they found themselves enamored with Mexican cacao and they embraced the traditional Mexican method of fire-roasting the cacao beans to create their own chocolate.  Now, they are back in Healdsburg creating small-batch handmade bean-to-bar chocolates with beans sourced from Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca regions.  These delectable bars are available mainly through their website, so this is your chance to sample and pounce.

Other newcomers to this year’s tent include:  Chico Honey Co., Dick Taylor Chocolates, Firebrand Artisan Breads, Hensley Hard Goods, Joseph Jewel Winery, Lemonbird Preserves, Moonside Creamery, and Seismic Brewing.

Details:  California’s 11th Artisan Cheese Festival is March 24-26, 2017 at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma and various cheese country locations.  Tickets for all festival events are sold separately online until March 23 (Thursday) and then will be available at the event itself.  All events take place, rain or shine.

Click here for full information. Chick here to go to Eventbrite to purchase tickets.

March 23, 2017 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Justin Wangler, K-J’s top chef, talks tomatoes on the eve of the 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival

Justin Wangler, Kendall's-Jackson's executive chef, will be heading the K-J culinary team at the 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival on Saturday, September 10, 2011. Wangler has "at least" 12 festivals under his belt and helped choose the chefs for the popular Chefs Challenge competition. He is responsible for the fabulous food and wine pairings at Kendall-Jackson. His go-to heirloom is Cherokee Purple, which he also grows at his Santa Rosa home. Photo: courtesy Kendall-Jackson

Tomorrow, Kendall-Jackson celebrates all things tomato with their 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, a 5-hour gourmet and sensory extravaganza with samples galore. Kendall-Jackson’s executive chef Justin Wangler will head a culinary team of twenty chefs and a large group of volunteers in preparing for the biggest annual event at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. Before joining the Kendall-Jackson Culinary Team in 2003, Justin worked at Syrah in Santa Rosa, at Saddleback Cellars and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley.  He attended culinary school in his home state of North Carolina.

I spoke with Justin on Thursday, just before the Chef’s Challenge contenders were slated to arrive at the center to begin preparations for Saturday.  This year’s three visiting contenders—Jen Carroll (10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric in Philadelphia), Chris Jacobsen (“CJ”) (The Yard in Santa Monica) and Kevin Gillespie (Woodfire Grill in Atlanta) —have all competed on Bravo’s hit TV show “Top Chef.” Justin was responsible for choosing all of them as well as for inviting the five local chefs—Douglas Keane (executive chef and owner of the two-Michelin-Star Cyrus in Healdsburg, serving from Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg), Paul Monti (Monti’s in Santa Rosa), Josh Silver (Petite Syrah and Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa), Jeff Mall (executive chef at Zin in Healdsburg, and John Ash in Santa Rosa).

First on their activities list was a trip up to Healdsburg to visit K-J’s 5-acre tomato garden, on which over 175 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown.  The evening would be spent dining at some of Northern California’s finest restaurants including Syrah, in Santa Rosa, where Justin had previously cooked before K-J lured him away.  On Friday, each of the guest chefs would be paired up with a sous-chef from Kendall-Jackson’s staff and together they would strategize for the Chef’s Challenge competition.  The challenge, which is enormously popular, entails cooking three tomato-based dishes in 25 minutes, also incorporating the contents of a “mystery basket” of local meats and fish.  Here’s what Justin had to say on the eve of the big event:   

In your opinion, what are the best techniques to capture robust heirloom tomato flavor in cooking?

Justin Wangler:  We use lots of different techniques for lots of different tomatoes and I think there are great flavors to be had from all techniques.  This year we’ve had a lot of green tomatoes because they haven’t gotten ripe yet, so we’ve been making fried green tomatoes all summer.  Also for this event we do some oven-roasted ones where we just toss the tomatoes, kind of like a plum tomato, we slice it in half lengthwise and we toss it with garlic, olive oil, thyme, and rosemary and just put it the oven cut side up and turn the oven on to about 95 degrees and we just leave it overnight and then we come in the next morning and they’re oven-dried tomatoes, which intensifies the sugars.  It’s a good technique if you don’t have the best tomatoes.

But my personal favorite way is just raw tomatoes with really nice salt.  I like Malden sea salt flakes from Essex: it’s very flaky and looks like snowflakes and has a really crunchy texture.  I would imagine any high-end food purveyor would have it.

What are your favorite tomatoes just for eating with some good salt?

Justin Wangler:  I’m a big fan of the Cherokee Purple.  It’s so sweet and the color is so beautiful.  Usually at my house I try to be growing about five different tomato varieties at any given time.  I try to do one or two little cherry tomatoes, red or yellow, just for salads or snacking.  I try and mix it up.  We have so many seeds here, I try and change it up each year.  But I always like Yellow Sun Gold, and then we have one called Orange Currant which is super-sweet.  Usually I try and do a couple of big tomatoes like the Cherokee Purple, which is good for BLTs.  And then every year I try one I’ve never heard of, just for fun.  One of my favorites is the Big White Pink Stripe, a yellow tomato that almost looks like it’s tie-dyed inside with pink colors.  That’s a fun one.  We have 400 seeds on hand, so we try to do new stuff each year.

Which heirloom tomatoes do you prefer for sauces?

Justin Wangler:  Definitely the plum and Italian tomato varieties.  But what we do is as soon as we start slicing tomatoes we put a nice big container in the fridge and we save all the scraps and we just pile them in there.  Then usually about once a week we just toss it with garlic and some herbs and we roast it in the oven and caramelize it and then we puree that in a blender, strain it, put it in a pot and cook it down, and then we can it at the end of each season.  So we don’t waste anything.  All the tops and bottoms of our tomatoes we save, skin and everything.  We just remove the stems with what we call a tomato shark, like a melon baller, because the stems can make it a little bitter.

Justin Wangler's "go-to" heirloom for eating is Cherokee Purple, a delicious sweet fruit over 100 years old that has captured the hearts of many, especially food-writers who have embellished its history with all sorts of lore. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What are the most unusual or creative uses of heirloom tomatoes you’ve encountered—both successes and failures?

Justin Wangler:  Every year for our Chefs Competition I try to make a dessert.  One of my favorites was a cherry tomato clafouti–like a pancake batter with cherry tomatoes that’s baked.  I served it with a little whipped cream.  Actually it’s almost sweeter than with cherries, which are sweet and tart, but tomatoes are just sweet.  Also, one year Carrie Brown from Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley made a sweet tomato shortcake.  She made these little biscuits and put whipped cream on them and just marinated some really sweet tomatoes with a little bit of sugar and mint and it was really good.  And then the John Ash restaurant a couple of years ago did a tomato cheesecake and I think they won that year.  Then one year somebody peeled tomatoes, then blanched them, and then took little petals out and dipped them in chocolate, like tomato roses dipped in chocolate.  So there’s always fun and really exciting stuff.  Every year brings some new items and new things we haven’t seen before so we always look forward to the Tomato Festival to see what people are doing.

A highlight of every K-J Tomato Festival is the pairing of locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes with Kendall-Jackson wines.  What do you have planned for this year?

Justin Wangler:  We try to create dishes to match the flavors in the wine.  This year some of my favorites are Sauvignon Blanc with our fried green tomatoes and then we have a beautiful pasta that we’re pairing with our new Avant Chardonnay.

This year’s dishes prepared by our Culinary team:

Smoked Fennel & Paul Robeson Tomato Soup
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Pinot Noir

Fried Green Tomatoes with Delice de la Vallee
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc

Farfalle with Marinated Yellow Marble Tomatoes & Point Reyes Mozzarella
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay

Fresh Baguette with Indian Moon Yellow Tomatoes, Bacon & Beehive Cheese
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay

Herb Roasted Boxcar Willie Tomatoes with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Bruschetta
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Syrah

Smoked Kobe Beef on Fresh Baguette with Bearnaise Aioli & Black From Tula Tomato
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon

What’s the best way to care for heirloom tomatoes once you buy or pick them?

Justin Wangler:  At my house usually I set them with core side down in a cool dark place.  You can put them in a paper bag but you don’t want them touching too close together, you want a little air to circulate so they don’t get moldy. 

We’re often told it’s not good to refrigerate them.  Is that true, and if so, why?

Justin Wangler:  It changes the texture a little bit.  If you’re taking the time to grow or buy really good tomatoes, you might as well just leave them out and eat them as soon as possible.

What are you most looking forward to this weekend?

Justin Wangler:  The Heirloom Tomato Festival is one of those events where you get to see all your friends from around the county and also meet new chefs from all around the country.  I like the interaction with all the guests, and to see how much people enjoy themselves drinking great wine and eating lots of tomatoes.

Any cool tomato tips?

Justin Wangler:  We’ve got a slicing technique that you’re going to love.

Details:  Saturday, September 10, 2011 • 11am – 4pm, Kendall-Jackson Wine Center

5007 Fulton Road, Fulton, California 95439, information: 707.571.7500

TICKETS– This year’s festival is completely sold out, but make sure to check Kendall-Jackson’s webpage in May 2012 for information and tickets for the 16th Annual Festival in September 2012.  Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and will be available online at www.kj.com, or at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.  

Directions:  From Highway 101 going NORTH, take River Road exit.  Come to stop light and turn LEFT going over the freeway.  Travel approximately 1 1/4 mile to first stoplight, which is Fulton Road.  Turn RIGHT at Fulton Road.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Center is less than 1/2 mile on the LEFT side of the road.  (If you go over the Hwy 101 overpass on Fulton, you’ve gone too far.)

From Highway 101 going SOUTH, take Fulton Road exit.  The FIRST driveway on the right is the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center.

September 9, 2011 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment