California Cheese Crawl: What I Learned from Visiting Three of California’s Best Dairy Farms

Real California Milk
Last month, I was invited by Real California Milk Philippines and the California Milk Advisory Board to participate in a California Cheese Crawl—a 3-day tour across the Golden State’s dairy farms, cheese factories, wineries, and marketplaces. From the scenic northern region to the warmer central valley and to the chilly and bustling South, we dug deeper into the wonderful world of cheese—we learned and saw for ourselves how it is made; we heard the stories of amazing cheesemakers; we drank exquisite wines with our cheeses; we explored markets and bought all the cheeses we could carry; and we dined in fabulous restaurants utilizing the freshest ingredients. It was truly an incredible tour—one of the most memorable I’ve had.

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
But as excited as I am to tell you all about the most delicious things I’ve tasted in this trip, I am reserving that for later and I will be sharing in this blog post some insights I picked up from the cheese crawl. It’s not every day that you get to go to the places where your favorite things are made. To some extent, it feels like a dream come true. Three months back, I was nibbling on a piece of Fiscalini cheese, and it was so good that it quickly became my favorite. The next thing I know, I was walking into the room where this same cheese is aged. I must be dreaming—but the sweet, nutty, earthy scents wafting to my nose as I walked past shelves and shelves of cheese told me that I wasn’t.

Real California Milk
As in all my trips, I really value the new experiences and stories I take home, so below, I want to share with you a few things that really left an impression in my mind in this California trip. This is far from my usual travel guide or food list, but I do hope you pick up something from it.


1 | A delicious cheese is made from a happy cow.

No amount of processing, skill, or technology can fix a bad ingredient in the first place—in the case of cheeses, milk. In all the dairy farms we visited, owners, farmers, and cheesemakers make sure that their cows are well-fed and properly taken care of. At Fiscalini Farmstead in Modesto, for instance, they plant their own crops in order to supply food to the cows, and being self-sustaining, the farm is able to ensure that only the best feeds are consumed by their livestock. They even rotate the type of food given to the cows (these animals eat better than some of us humans, LOL) and consult nutritionists and veterinarians on a regular basis.

Real California Milk
And definitely no animal abuse as well. No overmilking. The animals live in spacious, comfortable shelters. After all, the entire cheese business relies upon healthy, happy cows, so it’s of utmost importance that they are guarded like gold.

Real California Milk


2 | Sustainability is more than just a buzzword.

Sustainability. Big word. We often hear it from companies and organizations—they give back to nature, they source products responsibly, they use eco-friendly products, et cetera—but hearing is one thing, and actually seeing it is another. All the farms we visited showed me what true sustainability means. They all have an understanding that their business relies on the environment, and consequently, every element of their business is interconnected and must work harmoniously with each other.

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
At Hilmar Cheese Company, one of the largest cheese manufacturers in the world, they utilize water waste in various forms: water from cheese is filtered and used daily to clean the cheese plant; reclaimed water is used as crop irrigation—some of it even ending up in the fountain situated at the entrance of their visitor center. Valley Ford Cheese and Creamery in Sonoma County recycles not only their waste from cheesemaking but also rainwater. Truth be told, these companies don’t really need to do these things, but in order to keep the business running (and also to help with the draught problems in California), they are doing it—and we should all be thankful. (That also means more delicious cheeses for us, guys!)

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk

You know what else I learned? The cows themselves are big contributors to minimizing waste from other food industries. Their anatomy allows them to digest things like almond hulls, grape pomace, millrun, and rice bran, all of which would otherwise be in the dump. The end result? The milk we're drinking.

Real California Milk

In all the farms we saw, they have everything on-site—end to end. They have crops that are harvested to feed their own cows, which produce milk and cheese, and whose manure are brought back to the land to make it more fertile. Their waste management is amazing (the Philippines could learn so much from this). Fiscalini Farmstead is able to power up their own farm and use the excess for 300 more homes. Kudos!

Real California Milk


3 | Passion is King.

A world-class product can truly only be made with passion and commitment. Fiscalini, which only started with 10 cows, is now a fully self-sustaining farm that produces the best farmhouse cheese in America. But make no mistake—they are still family-operated (now in the fourth generation!) and they still make cheese using traditional techniques. Everything is handcrafted. Their equipment is customized according to their needs—from the aging room shelves that can be manually rotated to their smoking room, which produces smoked cheddar.

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk
The award-winning Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar... I can’t even tell you enough how good it is. Firm, slightly smoky, earthy, this 14-month-old cheese starts with a crumbly texture in your mouth and then melts gloriously. Ever since I first tried it a few months ago, I kept looking for something similar, but it is incomparable. It’s the result of labor, experimentation, passion. I hope they make it available to the Philippines soon!

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
At Valley Ford Cheese and Creamery, on the other hand, Karen Bianchi and her sons Joe and Jim Bianchi spearhead the business—with Joe leading the cheesemaking and Jim taking care of the livestock. They aim to carry on their Italian cheesemaking heritage by offering people Italian-style cheeses, studied and perfected over time. Their signature cheese, the Estero Gold Preserve, is a hard, dry, 18-month old parmesan-style cheese that is just exquisite. And while I have a special affinity to aged cheeses, I really like their Grazin’ Girl Gorgonzola as well—it’s the newest addition to their cheese lineup and one that sprang from a lot of trial and error.

Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk
Real California Milk
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The California Milk Advisory Board is an agency of the California Department of Food and Agriculture—a group that aims to promote dairy products and educate people about their health benefits. In addition, the board also assesses the milk production of California's more than 1,300 family-owned dairy farms, the goal being to improve food safety, farm productivity, and quality assurance.

That's why when you go shopping for dairy products like milk, butter, yogurt, or cheese, it's important that you look for the Real California Milk seal to ensure that the product you're buying has been approved by the board—and therefore it is made with all-natural dairy through sustainable processes by dairy families.

Real California Milk
California is the number 1 producer of cheese in the US. The state produces around 41 billion pounds of milk and 2.5 billion pounds of cheese per year, making it a $65 billion industry that creates 189,000 jobsone of the biggest exporters of dairy. The good news is that some of their products are actually available in the Philippines (see list below)! I'm really hoping that soon I will find the most coveted ones (Fiscalini, Point Reyes, Valley Ford) in one of the grocery shelves here as well!

Real California Milk products are available in these stores: S&R Membership Shopping, Royal Duty Free, Landers Superstore, SM Hypermarket, Merkado/Puregold Price Club, Cash & Carry, Rustans Supermarket, Robinsons Supermarket, Unimart Supermarket, SM Supermarket, Makati Supermarket, and Landmark Supermarket.

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Read also:

Cheese and Beer Pairing: 6 Tips to Get You Started
Cheese and ... craft beers? HELL YEAH!

Cheesemaking Workshop in Boracay
My first time to make cheese!
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Do you love cheese? What did you think about the farms we visited? Which among the cheeses mentioned above intrigued you the most? 

If you like my posts and would love regular updates on travel photos, food finds, restaurant reviews, dance articles, and drunken tales, follow Pepe Samson on Facebook!

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