The big cheese in Valley Ford
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Karen Bianchi-Moreda, 47, and her son Joe Moreda, 24, have found a new way to earn a living on their family’s dairy farm near Valley Ford.
Using the rich creamy milk of the Grossi/Bianchi family’s Jersey cows and building on the growing appetite for artisanal cheese, they have spent the past three years building the Valley Ford Cheese Company.
The two hard cheeses they produce — Estero Gold and Highway 1 — have caught on so quickly that they now make 65,000 pounds a year and work with three distributors and supply 60 outlets including Whole Foods. They also sell their cheeses at five local farmers markets (Healdsburg, Windsor, Occidental, Petaluma and Santa Rosa on Wednesday nights).
Their reputation is growing, thanks to double gold medals for both cheeses
and a Best of Show for Estero Gold at the 2011 Sonoma County Harvest Fair. The company will also take part in the Artisan Cheese Festival Mar. 23-25 in Petaluma.
The dairy was started in Novato by Swiss-Italian emigrants Dominico and Teresa Grossi, Karen’s great-grandparents and Joe’s great-great-grandparents. It was moved to Valley Ford after one of their descendants married into the Bianchi family.
Today Paul and Steve Bianchi, Karen’s father and brother, run Mountain View Jerseys on the 640-acre farm, raising a herd of 400 and selling most of their milk to Clover Stornetta.
“They used to hand-milk 150 cows twice a day,” said Karen. “Today my dad and brother milk 400 Jerseys twice a day, but not by hand.”
Karen grew up doing farm chores and caring for the calves. She also taught fitness classes and was the athletic director at Tomales High School after graduating from Empire College, but “cows are in my blood,” she said.
Unable to resist the family herd, she followed her sons Joe and Jim to Cal Poly, where she took a class in cheesemaking. Then she and Joe began experimenting until they developed two unique cheeses — Estero Gold, which is a montassio in the asiago family, and a fontina named Highway 1.
“We began with just 20 gallons twice a week, hauling it in five gallon cans,” she said. Now they pipe in 240 gallons a week of the extra creamy milk Jerseys are famous. Their facility has been carved into a barn, and they have invested in four “cheese rooms” in which they age their products at least six months.
The mother-son team is up at 5 a.m. to heat the fresh milk, stir in the culture, cut the curds and then press them into cheese molds. After five hours of pressing, the cheeses are ready to be brined for 48 hours. Then they are sent to the aging rooms, where the tedious work begins.
Every wheel is flipped and rotated daily, and washed by hand, each type in its own cheese room so bacteria can’t fraternize and change the flavors.
“It’s all part of growing the business,” Joe said. “In the summer when the farmers markets are running, I sometimes don’t finish my day until 9 p.m. I figure I had my fun in college. It’s time to work now.”
He takes a day off every other weekend, but sees a lot of potential.
“Right now we are using just a small percentage of the milk from the dairy. Someday I’d like to see us using 100 percent of it.”
The business has grown so much that they hired Karen’s sister-in-law and niece to help them while they develop a soft cheese that will ripen faster.
They also believe in educating a new generation of customers. Last year Karen hosted 300 school children at the dairy, 50 at a time.
“They were from Sebastopol, just 15 minutes away from here, and all but one of them had never seen a dairy,” she said. “I want to do more of that so kids can learn where their food comes from.”
The Bianchis’ farm has been certified by the national Humane Farm Animal Care program, which demands that animals are not given hormones or antibiotics, have a healthy diet, have shelter and sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors.
Shelter at the Bianchi dairy means a cozy, heated calf barn for the youngest animals, a favorite with the visiting children. As the calves grow and head out to pasture, they can warm themselves at domed “calf houses.”
“The calves are our future milk supply,” Karen said as she stooped to pet and nuzzle one. “Joe and I can only take about 10 percent of the credit for our cheese. It’s all in the wonderful milk.”
She gestured toward the herd of Jerseys waiting to be milked. “They get 90 percent of the credit.”