You know the joy that comes from eating cheese. Imagine how it feels to make it, from that first whiff of fresh milk to the slip of wet curds between your fingers.

Nearly 20 years after Cowgirl Creamery made its first mound of aged triple cream, three artisan cheesemakers -- the Salazars of Brentwood, the Schochs of Salinas, and Marcia Barinaga of Marshall -- are cutting their slice of a Northern California tradition as familiar as Dungeness crab.

Whether they're making chewy quesillo or aged sheep's milk cheese, most cheesemakers start with fresh milk. They heat it slowly, and cool it. Some add culture starters or enzymes. From there, they use time, touch and temperature to concentrate proteins and transform curds that are drained from whey and stretched, pressed and aged into savory beauties.

Beau Schoch, left, and his brother, Seth, with cheese wheels at their family’s dairy farm in Salinas Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (Patrick Tehan/Staff)
Beau Schoch, left, and his brother, Seth, with cheese wheels at their family's dairy farm in Salinas Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (Patrick Tehan/Staff) (Patrick Tehan)

The cheesemakers featured here are also greatly influenced by their heritage: Mexican, Swiss and Basque.

"American artisan cheesemakers are very in touch with the European traditions of making cheese but also excited to branch out and try new things," says Oakland cheese blogger Kirstin Jackson, author of "It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese" (Perigee, $19, 240 pages). "They have deep respect for the land, the animal and place. Like wine, cheese is one of those terroir-driven foods."

Schoch Family Farmstead


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Beau, Seth and Ty Schoch started making cheese on their parents' stove in 2006 after a Cal Poly cheese course opened their eyes to the art. But dairying goes back three generations. Their grandfather emigrated from Switzerland in the 1920s and started a dairy in Salinas. Today, it is owned by John and Mary Schoch, and half the milk goes into making their sons' aged artisan cheeses.

Twice a day, John and Seth milk 100 cows, mostly Holsteins, and within two hours transfer the raw milk into a vat. "If you have good clean milk, it's a shame to pasteurize it," Beau says. "It is still warm from the cow when I start making the cheese."

The Schochs make several cheeses, including the soft, nutty Alpine-style Gabilan, named after the Salinas Valley mountain range. Beau says Schoch is the only dairy making Monterey Jack where it originated, in Monterey County. He loves swirling it into his mother's Mexican zucchini soup.

According to cheese lore, Monterey Jack is named after David Jacks, a mid-1800s Monterey land baron who first marketed the area's cheeses to chefs in San Francisco. Beau achieves its sweet, moist character by draining only a portion of whey, replacing it with cold water, and aging the cheese for a minimum of 60 days.

Marcia Barinaga visits with her sheep on the Barinaga Ranch Farmstead Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 15, 2013 near Marshall, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Staff)
Marcia Barinaga visits with her sheep on the Barinaga Ranch Farmstead Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 15, 2013 near Marshall, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Staff) (Karl Mondon)

Much like grapes in the vineyard, cheese in a vat is at the mercy of the elements, be it temperature or humidity, and that keeps Beau on his toes. "They say it takes a week to learn how to make cheese but a lifetime to master it," he says.

Ty, the family "cave man," is able to control those variables in the aging room. He ages most of the cheeses for six to 12 months, coating their rinds with olive oil and honey for moisture and aromatics. The Schochs make about 16 wheels, or 100 pounds, of cheese per week, but a facilities expansion, currently under way, will allow them to make four times as much.

Barinaga Ranch

In 2006, Marcia Barinaga of Marshall studied alongside cheesemaking monks in her ancestral Basque region of Spain. Three years later, she began crafting one of California's most coveted cheeses. Today, the former science journalist shepherds a small flock of dairy sheep who graze year-round on the organically managed pastures of her 800-acre ranch on the east shore of Tomales Bay.

"They eat wild herbs, and you can taste it in the cheese," Barinaga says.

The ewes are currently pregnant. They begin having their lambs in March, and from April to October, Barinaga and assistant cheesemaker Anna Erickson will work long days delivering the lambs, milking the ewes and turning their milk into two Basque-style cheeses, the orange-rinded, grassy Baserri, which means "farmhouse" in Basque, and its "little" version, Txiki.

Estela Salazar, left, and her daughter Emilia Salazar, right, prepare Oaxaca Mexican cheese at their family business Queso Salazar in Brentwood, Calif., on
Estela Salazar, left, and her daughter Emilia Salazar, right, prepare Oaxaca Mexican cheese at their family business Queso Salazar in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday Jan. 18, 2013. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Staff) (DAN ROSENSTRAUCH)

Barinaga says making cheese is a sensual experience. Her favorite moment is unmolding the cheeses after the curds have been pressed together, before they head to the aging room.

"They look like wedding cakes or marshmallows," she says. "And the smell. It's amazing."

Equally amazing is Barinaga's success. In 2009, she took a sample of her first batch to fellow Marin cheese mavens, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, of Cowgirl Creamery. "They took one taste and told me, 'Don't change a thing,'" Barinaga recalls.

She sold those first 600 pounds in less than three months. Baserri currently fetches $35 to $40 a pound and is served at The French Laundry, Boulevard and Cyrus. Last February, Quince chef Mike Tusk used it in casoncelli verdi, a stuffed pasta he made for President Barack Obama.

"I was thrilled," Barinaga recalls.

Queso Salazar

After 54 years, little has changed in the way Moises and Estela Salazar make the traditional quesillo of their native Oaxaca. After they immigrated to California in 2004, their daughter, Emilia, and her husband, Rico, built a modest 400-square-foot dairy in Brentwood so the 70-something couple could continue the ancient craft of hand-stretching this mozzarellalike southern Mexican cheese.

Twice a week, Rico leaves his full-time job at the Contra Costa Crisis Center to pick up whole milk from a small, pasture-based family farm in Escalon. After they pasteurize the milk, they add cultures and rennet and wait for an hour or two for the curds to set.

Moises ambles to the 300-gallon cheese vat, cutting and scooping the curds with his hands. With Emilia at his side, they drain the yellow-tinged whey from the tank, letting the curds continue to drain. At any given time, a younger Salazar, including 12-year-old grandson, Moises, is there to lend a hand.

When the curds are ready, the Salazars use their fingers to break the curds into tiny pieces and warm them with hot water. Then, using the back of a Oaxacan spoon that looks like a prehistoric club, they press the curds into a single mass. The mass is massaged into an inch-wide strand that can stretch from five to 50 feet. The salted, stretched curds are wrapped into tight balls that Rico delivers to some of the Bay Area's best Latin American restaurants, including San Francisco's Nopalito, Sausalito's Copita and Oakland's Bocanova.

The Salazars make about 1,000 pounds of Queso Oaxaca a week, as well as queso fresco and cotija, an aged parmesanlike cheese.

Most artisan cheesemakers will tell you that making cheese is equal parts art and science. But Moises, who learned cheesemaking in Oaxaca half a century ago, doesn't agree. "It's all art," he says in Spanish. "Because all I use are my hands."

the abcs of cheese

Affinage: The art of aging cheese.
Curd: The result of milk fermenting, coagulating, and separating from the whey.
Natural rind: The outside shell of cheese that forms during the cheesemaking process.
Pasteurized: The process of heating milk to a specific temperature for a certain length of time, then cooling it after it is removed from the heat, to kill pathogenic microorganisms. Other bacteria are also killed in the process.
Raw milk: Unpasteurized milk straight from the cow or sheep.
Rennet: An enzyme found in the stomach lining of milk-producing animals used to coagulate milk.
Starter: A culture added to pasteurized milk to help bacterial growth.
Washed rind: Brine is washed over a rind to create a damp environment where edible molds like to grow. The aromas and flavors of the cheeses are typically stronger due to the brine.
Whey: Liquid protein that is drained from milk, after it is heated and forms curds.

artisan cheese festival

The country's premier cheese event, the California Artisan Cheese Festival, is slated for March 22 to 24 at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. The lineup includes top artisan cheese makers, authors, chefs and winemakers, who will conduct seminars, pairings, tastings, farm tours, cheese-making classes and cheese-focused demonstrations. Tickets: www.artisancheesefestival.com.

Where to find it

Schoch Family Farmstead: Find Schoch cheeses at New Leaf markets, the Carmel Cheese Shop, and farmers markets on Fridays in Monterey and Saturdays in Aptos.
Details: facebook.com/pages/Schoch-Family-Farmstead/
112675355466709;
831-214-6760.
Barinaga Ranch: This sheep's milk cheese can be found at Berkeley's Pasta Shop, San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market and Napa's Oxbow Cheese Merchant; www.barinagaranch.com.
Queso Salazar: Find this Mexican-style cheese at Berkeley's Country Cheese and the El Cerrito Natural Grocery; 925-206-6431.