By John Nava
Nestled in the valley of West Marin is Nicasio, Calif., home to the Nicasio Valley Cheese, Co., a new up-and-comer in the world of locally made fromage. Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. produces eight varieties of cheese, including Formagella and maggia.
All Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. cheeses are made from 100% organic farmstead cow’s milk (for a cheese to carry the title farmstead, it must be crafted on same property the milk is produced). In the Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. case, the milk and cheese are produced at the Lafranchi Ranch, a third-generation, family-run ranch founded in 1919 by Fredolino Lafranchi, a Swiss-Italian who immigrated to America at the age of 17.
The Lafranchi family owns and operates both the ranch and the Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. creamery. To the best of the Lafranchi family’s knowledge, Nicasio Valley Cheese Co., is the only certified organic farmstead cow’s milk cheese producer in the state of California.
Some of the best cheese comes from West Marin
West Marin, where the Lafranchi Ranch is located, has become a well known cheese region; it’s home to some big name producers, such as Marin French Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.
Rich Lafranchi, a ranch partner and director of sales and marketing for the cheese, explained that the area, years ago, was the original San Francisco “milk pail.” All dairies were based on sustainable grazing and produced phenomenal milk. Unfortunately, demand dropped for Marin milk with the arrival of milk from the Central Valley. Many dairies had to find alternate uses for milk.
“Our family talked about getting into the cheese business for years, and finally, with the help and guidance of a cheese maker from Switzerland, we produced our first batch just two years ago on February 18, 2010,” said Lafranchi.
Before production began, the Lafranchis spent a summer in Switzerland with Maurizio Lorenvetti, their Swiss cheese consultant, where they learned the Swiss-Italian way of cheese making.
“We make Swiss-Italian cheeses to stay true to our family ancestry,” said Lafranchi. “Our cheese is influenced by the traditions of the area where Switzerland meets Italy, it’s neither traditionally Swiss nor Italian. Our Foggy morning is based on a fromage blanc, our Formagella is a distant cousin of Camembert, Nicasio Square is similar to Taleggio, Loma Alta is a distant cousin of Brie and our Nicasio Reserve is an Alpine-style cheese.
“Frankly, all cheese develops the same way, but the different variances and nuances are based on terrior – the land from which the milk comes,” added Lafranchi. “It depends on what grasses the cows eat, what time of year it is and so on.”
Family is the name of the game on the farmstead. Rick Lafranchi’s brother Scott Lafranchi is the chief cheese maker and plant manager, while brother Andy operates the dairy. Their two sisters, Dee and Jan, help market and sell the cheese at a few Bay Area farmers’ markets.
With the decision to pursue cheesemaking, the family converted the old 3,700 sq. foot barn into the creamery and fashioned recycled shipping containers into an aging, or ripening, rooms (visit Nicasio Valley Cheese Co.).
While the majority of the fresh milk from Lafranchi Ranch is sent to Clover Stornetta in neighboring Petaluma, a bit of the fresh, pasteurized milk is delivered to the ranch creamery each day for cheese production.
Though Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. is a newcomer to the cheese scene, it has already earned second place for its Foggy Morning cheese at the American Cheese Society competition in Montreal, where it was up against cheeses from both Canada and the United States.
“We’re part of a great cheese making region, and we want our ranch and dairy to be a part of that,” said Lafranchi. “Our goal overall is to position ourselves as a viable contributor in the region, creating an opportunity for future generations to be a part of.”
In addition to the eight varieties Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. produces, it just released a garlic & basil Foggy Morning (available now at Sigona’s) and is working on another full-flavored cheese featuring characteristics of an Italian fontina and a Swiss raclette.
Formagella and Maggia soft-ripened cheeses are perfect for entertaining and like Brie, very versatile! Spread over crackers, melt into warm pasta or try it sliced on sandwiches such as this delicious Toasted Cheese Sandwich with Sigona’s Sweet Red Pepper Relish and Glazed Pecans recipe we’ve prepared specially for you.