Valley Ford Cheese opens a new café and market
What do you do when the family dairy farm has supported four generations, but a new generation is coming of age? You have to think outside the barn, and that’s what Karen Bianchi did when her sons reached college age.
Joe and Jim Moreda had set off for college at CalPoly, so Bianchi thought she’d go with her sons to take a cheese making class. Joe was passionate about cheese, and Karen suddenly saw a way to grow a new branch of the family milk business.
She and Joe experimented for months and came up with two artisan cheeses they began to sell at local farmers’ markets: Estero Gold a metasio-style cheese; Highway One, a fontina, which when enough time passed became Estero Gold Reserve, a cheese aged long enough it turns into a rich, hard cheese, like parmesan. They were immediately gobbled up by an appreciative public. Joe has gone on to create a gorgonzola and a soft farmers’ cheese, one with garlic and one without for making “amazing cheesecakes.”
The cheeses have moved out of their humble beginnings in Valley Ford to the world stage. First Estero Gold took the gold at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The cheeses began moving out to the California State Fair where the gorgonzola took the gold in its class. Recently the cheese took the world stage by winning the gold with its Estero Gold Reserve against 3,208 competitors at the World Cheese Championship in Italy.
Now more than 10 years after slowly growing Valley Ford Cheese Company, Karen has made another leap into the future by opening a café/market in Valley Ford: Valley Ford Creamery.
This newest iteration of the farm-to-table concept has proved as popular as the Bianchi-Moreda cheeses. The old barn-like building on Highway 1 in Valley Ford has housed many businesses through the years, including a wool factory, but Karen Bianchi has brought it into the 21st century while still managing to retain its rustic charm.
It was a big step. The mother-son enterprise went from three employees to 14 almost overnight.
Months and even years wrangling with bureaucrats have finally led to a sparkling but cozy breakfast and lunch place and a cheese market. The corrugated tin and rough-hewn wood of farm life make up the structure. A window looks out on an aging room for the Estero Gold Reserve cheese wheels proudly stacked on their shelves. Aging rooms have to be cheese specific – varieties cannot mix or their unique bacteria might get mixed up.
In one of the banquet rooms, where the family provides a venue for wine makers dinners and tastings, there is a cabinet with myriads of medals, ribbons, plaques and trophies the cheeses have earned.
Another window looks onto the cheese cutting and wrapping room. The creamery now houses the distribution center for the cheeses.
Valley Ford Cheese Company has relied on the Valley Ford family dairy with its 400 cow herd of Jerseys, known for their extra rich milk, perfect for cheese making.
Bianchi has hosted school children in the past, showing the kids the calves and the milking operation. She discovered very few had ever been up close to a cow or had learned where their milk came from.
Valley Ford Cheese Company uses 240 gallons of the milk a day to produce its 65,000 pounds of cheese a year.
The cheese business may have reason to expand in the future. Bianchi’s other son Jim Moreda has leased land and is about to start his own dairy ranch between Valley Ford and Tomales. Bianchi claims the entire family ever since her great-grandparents “have cows in the blood,” and is delighted with her son Jim’s decision.
In the meantime, the new cafe has claimed so much of her time that Bianchi has left the cheese making to Joe and his employees while she works to bring the new retail venture to a self-sustaining level. She wants to do it conscientiously and with the same patience it took to build the cheese business.
She closes the restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays and early on Sundays.
“I want my employees to have Sunday evening with their families and be able to relax,” she said.
For that same reason, she has kept the menu small for the time being. It’s small but includes such things as a “cheese flight” so someone can taste all the cheeses, and a very popular fried cheese curd dish in addition to soup, salads and sandwiches – and yes, a grilled cheese sandwich for the kids in addition to the gourmet offerings. The eatery offers wine and beer, and for kids and anyone’s inner child, a soft ice cream made with that famous Jersey milk.
Bianchi works hard as do both her sons.
“But we are doing what we love. It is so satisfying to see people here at The Creamery enjoying products we have made from start to finish,” she said.
The cheeses have found their way into gourmet stores but are still at farmers’ markets.
“That’s where we got started, and that’s where we still want to be. Our relationships with our long-time customers are what matter most to us.”