Everything You Need to Know About NorCal’s Artisan Cheese Festival

pretty cheese credit derrick storyNext weekend, California’s top dairy queens will descend on the quaint Northern California city of Petaluma to celebrate everything cheese at the 9th Annual Artisan Cheese Festival. The weekend long event, that starts on Friday, March 20, features over two dozen artisinal cheese makers, a handful of the areas most esteemed chefs, illustrious industry experts, local farmers, and in-the-know cheesemongers. Want the 411 on the festival? Keep reading.

The Basics
The festival was founded in 2007 with three missions: to educate the consumer about artisan cheese, to support the local cheese making community, and of course, to celebrate the delicious creations that the cheese makers are producing. In the past eight years, over 20,000 people have attended the event and each year, 10 percent of the entire ticket sales are donated to nonprofits that strive to better the cheese making community. These organizations protect the land where the farmers keep their cows, goats, and sheep; promote the next generation of milk producers and small cheese makers; and support the collective as whole.

Sheep credit Derrick StoryThe Farm Tours
One of the festivals most coveted tickets are those for Friday’s farm and creamery tours. The region’s top cheese farms open their doors to intimate groups allowing the guests to explore the farms, watch the cheese actually being made, learn about how the animal’s diet and environment affect the flavor of the cheese, and taste the difference between cow’s, goat’s, and sheep milk cheese. Transportation from the festival’s headquarters (at the Sheraton in Petaluma) to the farms is provided and there is a delectable stop for lunch — that’s a multi-course meal heavy on the cheese. There’s seven tours to choose from and each visits at least two farms, including incredibly well-known producers like Cowgirl Creamery and Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.

The Seminars
With 13 workshops, Saturday is all about cheese education. There are two sessions, a morning one that starts at 9:30 am and an afternoon one that begins at 1:30 pm. Each class is two hours long and students are encouraged to taste the featured cheese and participate by asking the experts (like Cowgirl Creamery’s founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith and cookbook author and cheese whiz, Laura Werlin) questions. Learn how to pair cheese and chocolate, stretch your own mozzarella, and make your own feta at these fascinating and informative classes.

Grand Tasting credit Derrick StoryThe Parties

No festival is complete without a couple of glitzy parties and cheese lovers are invited to attend Friday’s Cheesemonger’s Duel, Saturday’s Chef vs Chefs walk around tasting, and Sunday’s Bubbles and Brunch. At the duel, some of the top cheesemongers will face off in a battle to create the best bite. They will be presented with an unknown block of cheese and have a limited amount of time to prepare a scrumptious bite using that cheese. Chef Ryan Scott is the emcee and the audience is encouraged to participate. On Saturday night, local chefs (from Haven, La Condesa Napa Valley, and Nick’s Cove to name a few) team up with an artisinal cheese company to prepare a dish, either sweet or savory that highlights the cheese. Imagination abounds as the chefs melt the cheese into sandwiches, pasta, and soufflés. Plenty of wineries, breweries, and cider makers — such as Gloria Ferrer, Russian River Vineyards, and Lagunitas Brewery — will be on hand to quench the thirst of the tasters. Sunday morning at 9:30, J Vineyards & Winery’s executive chef Erik Johnson is serving up a three-course cheese-centric meal that pairs with J’s lovely sparkling wine. Tickets to the brunch include early access to the Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace.

The Cheese
From Cowgirl Creamery’s melt-in-your mouth Mt. Tam to Cypress Grove’s signature goat cheese, Humboldt Fog, to Beehive Cheese Co.’s espresso and lavender rubbed cow’s milk, Barely Buzzed, there’s plenty of amazing cheese on hand. The best place to taste it all is at Sunday’s tasting. Mix and mingle with the cheese makers as you bite into the cheese in its purest form. The tasting is also a marketplace, so if you love something that you’ve tried, you’ll be able to take it home with you.

Artisan Cheese Festival sign credit Derrick Story

Photo Credit: Derrick Story