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Say “Cheese, Please” at the 17th Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival

Once again, we North Bay foodies are blessed with the opportunity to experience a three-day celebration of the beautiful art of cheesemaking. The 17th Annual California Artisan Cheese festival, slated for the Friday, Mar. 24 through Sunday, Mar. 26 at the Sonoma County Event Center, brings together the finest in artisan cheese to delight our senses and acquaints us with the creative and passionate makers of cheese along with the creations of artisans that complement cheese.

First created by Tom Birdsall to educate the public and to connect cheese makers with the community, it has become a regular event that keeps growing and supporting the artisan cheesemakers. This year, a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the California Artisan Cheese Guild to help the cheesemakers through all the nuances of owning and running this type of business.

As an event planner, Judy Groverman Walker has taken on the exhilarating task of managing and supporting the event for the last 12 years. She has been connected to Sonoma County her entire life and loves the fact that she can support local producers in such a memorable and fun way.

If you love the idea of getting up close and personal with the cheese producers, get in on one of the farm tours. Have you ever been curious about goat yoga? Now is your chance to try it out on one of the tours! Location* makes a nuanced difference in the final cheese product, so while you are at any of the various farms on the tours, use all your senses to take in the characteristics of the landscape --and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Saturday, Mar. 25, will feature seminars and demonstrations at various wineries in the area. We are all familiar with the concept of pairing wine with cheese, but how about pairing cheese with chocolate? Last year at the Cheese Festival, I had the delightful experience of trying a nibble of VOLO Chocolates and it was, I can honestly declare, one of the best chocolates I’ve ever tasted.

VOLO Chocolates will be a main vendor at the California Artisan Cheese Festival. The local chocolatier is expected to unveil a new chocolate at the event. Photo courtesy California Artisan Cheese Festival.
VOLO Chocolates will be a main vendor at the California Artisan Cheese Festival. The local chocolatier is expected to unveil a new chocolate at the event. Photo courtesy California Artisan Cheese Festival.

VOLO Chocolates, owned and operated by Susan and Jeff Mall, are truly two of the best chocolate makers around, in all they do to produce their chocolates. Both are experienced chefs who understand the importance of presenting a quality product from the inside out. They understand how to coax out flavors that a large producer of chocolate would not want to bother with. They understand when to add salt to take away any bitterness and how adding just a touch of cinnamon can nudge the flavor over the top. Additionally, to make their chocolate even more sustainable, all their packaging is fully compostable. They understand that creating the best chocolate involves careful attention every step of the way, from fermenting to roasting, winnowing, refining and tempering. As wine and cheese are an art in the way they are brought to their final stage, so chocolate also is an unforgettable art form.

Working with Uncommon Cacao to find environmentally sustainable and fair paid worker locations, VOLO acquires their organic cocoa beans from Guatemala, Haiti and Madagascar. While large chocolate companies, after harvesting the beans, bring the beans back to their locations in the United States to focus on the shortest road to making the final chocolate product, Jeff and Susan make sure the beans are fermented on the site where they are picked to keep quality control in the uniformity of the harvested beans. The four-to-seven-day fermentation process begins to happen naturally as the pods are harvested, destroying the seed coat, killing the germ and eventually enhancing the flavor of the cocoa.

Being sustainable means more than just integrating environmental, economic and social factors; it is about connection and support between individuals and businesses. When Nick of Wolf Coffee approached Susan and Jeff in 2019 to discuss his offer to grind their cacao beans as he had a grinding machine available, a budding relationship began. This relationship supports Nick’s interest in learning how to grind cacao beans and helps both businesses to grow and learn better ways to accomplish their goals (VOLO also uses Wolf Coffee beans in their Mocha bar).

Since 2020, VOLO Chocolates has gained international recognition with gold, bronze and silver medals for their mocha bar and others, with the latest award, a silver medal in 2022. Susan has mentioned that they were dumbstruck when found they had won that first award. Imagine creating a chocolate bar that judges, who have a passion for finding the best, decided that out of 1500 chocolate bars yours is one of the best they are tasting! Seeing what Susan and Jeff have put into their business, shows that it’s more about love and passion than even winning. They also will be at the pavilion on Sunday’s Marketplace, the last day of the Artisan Cheese festival, where they will release/introduce their brand-new chocolate confection, Hazelnut Mocha Melt– I’m normally a patient person, but waiting is, well, difficult.

Saturday evening brings the Barlow cheese crawl. “Cheese crawl?” you ask. “What is a cheese crawl?” Think, instead of alcohol, with cheese being the star of the show, paired up with the perfect libation. If you are signed up, you will receive a treasure map to all the participating businesses. Be sure to purchase a ticket ($25) in advance to be able to take part in the adventure.

Sunday, Mar. 26, 12 to 4 p.m. is the finale of the festival, gathering together artisan cheese makers, farmers, winemakers, distillers, chefs and cheese devotees in one glorious setting at the Grace Pavilion in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. It’s an excellent way to spend a Sunday as countless people have learned from their past experience at the Marketplace, so purchase a ticket ($65 per person, $30 for kids 12 and under) as soon as possible to make sure you can get in.

For all the California Artisan Cheese Festival info, go to:

Six cheese terms to show off your cheesy smarts:

  1. Turophile: A lover of cheese
  2. Affinage: A French word that describes the process of aging or ripening of cheese, occurring generally in a cheese cellar or cave.
  3. Casein: One of the major proteins found in milk that separates and coagulates during the cheesemaking process.
  4. Rennet: An enzyme that is a key part of the cheesemaking process, that is added to milk as it coagulates, helping separate the solid curds from the liquid whey.
  5. Annatto: A vegetable dye made from achiote seeds giving cheese, such as cheddar, its orange color.
  6. Terroir: AFrench word that refers to characteristics unique to the area where a cheese is made. This could involve the species of grass the animals graze on or even the season in which the animals graze.

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