Should anyone wonder at the distinct freshness of Dee Harley's goat cheese, they need only walk a few paces from the Harley Farms cheese shop to the goats feeding in the tall grass near the milking barn. It takes less than 48 hours for their milk to be pasteurized and made into cheese rounds.
Many of those cheeses now bear blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society, which oversees the most prestigious cheese competition in the nation.
Harley Farms, a charming Pescadero dairy farm that Harley founded 12 years ago, has earned plaudits from the judges for its fresh, pure-tasting goat cheeses every year it has entered the contest.
Last week, it won five major awards — including a first place award in an open category for all homemade cheeses produced on farms that host their own goats, cows or sheep.
"We're in a converted garage in Pescadero — it's ridiculous," laughed Harley with incredulous delight.
Harley's success is something of a surprise because she started making cheese as a hobby 17 years ago, when she and her husband Tim bought six goats from a friend in Davenport. They sold the milk back to their friend, who made cheese out of it.
Thus Harley, 41, began to learn about cheese production. Eventually she started making cheese on her own, adding more capacity to the goat barn and cheese production area as the herd grew.
Nearly 200 goats now live at Harley Farms, munching on grass so high it scrapes their bellies — and they are all related to the original six goats.
Depending on how it is produced, goat cheese can be made into ricotta, feta, fromage blanc (a savory cream) or more traditional chevre. All these Harley Farms cheeses won ribbons at the American Cheese Society Awards in Chicago last week, including the farm's signature "Monet," a classic goat cheese decorated with edible flowers. The competition included 1,149 entries from 30 states and three Canadian provinces.
"It means so much more now because there's so many more cheeses — particularly the fact that there are many more goat cheese farms out there now," Harley said.
The edible flowers certainly make the cheeses more attractive to contest judges, who add bonus points for aesthetics as well as considering the technical merits of a cheese. But Harley said it's the intangibles that make her cheeses what they are — something to do with the goats' happy existence and their picturesque surroundings in the Santa Cruz foothills, a mile from the Pacific Ocean. A rooster crows; hundreds of starlings chirp and twitter in a nearby eucalyptus tree. The garden of edible flowers next to Harley's modest, white family home is full of bright orange, yellow and purple blossoms, and Harley herself is beaming in the Sunday morning sun.
"When you do everything that connects to a sense of place, it makes a difference," she explained. "We absolutely do everything ourselves here. The baby goats are born into the ambiance of the farm. The process is done slowly, by traditional methods. We could do it more efficiently, but we don't want to rush any part of it.
"It's that foggy, moist, salty air," she added. "It's in the bones of the buildings, I do believe that. It's very subtle but it's all a part of the people who live around here, and it all touches the cheese."
Contest judge Janet Fletcher said Harley is right to be proud of winning the open category for farmstead cheeses — considered a prestigious distinction because it involves taking on the extra farmwork of animal husbandry rather than buying refrigerated milk from a supplier.
"It's generally assumed the shorter the route between the milking parlor and the cheese vat, the better," Fletcher said. "Milk loses quality for cheese-making when it's refrigerated."
Fletcher, a cheese columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, calls Harley a "pioneer" in decorating her cheeses with edible flower petals.
"She has been able to command a high price for her cheeses because they're so aesthetically pleasing," she said.
And indeed, Harley Farms ships crates of its brightly-decorated cheeses to caterers and stores across the U.S. They sell well in local gourmet stores and are a very popular gift with visitors browsing the cheese store after a tour.
The San Mateo County coast used to be studded with dairy farms, but most had disappeared by the end of the 1950s.
When Harley and her husband purchased the farm, it was "just a dump," she said. But she saw some possibility, and she was right.
"We can't make enough cheese right now," she said.
Harley Farms offers tours twice a day every Saturday and Sunday. For details, visit www.harleyfarms.com or call 650-879-0480. Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at email@example.com.