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Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma marks 10 years of cheese heaven

A crowd of about 1,500 cheese lovers gathered under a massive tent outside of the Sheraton in Petaluma on Sunday to celebrate the 10th annual Artisan Cheese Festival with a tasting of some of the best cheeses from the North Bay and beyond.

Many of the tasters had started the day at a bubbly brunch featuring Wine Country Chef John Ash, a longtime supporter of the festival, who demonstrated dishes such as cheddar scones, cheese blintzes and lemon olive oil cake with creme fraiche.

“I always go to the Bubbles Brunch so I can get into the tasting early,” said Mary Ferrar of Santa Rosa, a self-described “cheese vixen” who had already bought $40 of cheese by noon. “With the ultimate selection of cheese, you can be really selective.”

Judy Groverman Walker, executive director of the festival, said that this year’s festival, which kicked off on Friday with a series of 10 farm tours, featured more than 30 cheese makers, mostly from Marin and Sonoma counties. These were joined at the marketplace by about 60 vendors of cheese accoutrements, from honey and jam to beer and wine.

“We’ve seen an increase in new cheese makers, and I think this event has had something to do with it,” Walker said. “We’re in a perfect location for people to become artisan cheese makers.”

This year, the event added a couple of farm tours north and south of Sacramento, showcasing cheese makers outside of the North Bay region for the first time. They also sprinkled in a discussions and seminars as part of the tours, along with the usual lunches.

Ellie Mitchell of Petaluma, who has attended the festival for nine out of the past 10 years, went on a tour of west Marin and Sonoma counties on Friday that stopped by a few of the “Legends and Legacies” of the North Bay, from the 150-year-old Marin French Cheese Co. in Petaluma to the DeBernardi Dairy in Two Rock.

“I’ve learned a lot about cheese by coming,” said Mitchell, who also attended the brunch, the tasting and three cooking demos on Sunday. “I’ve learned to do a lot of new things.”

Other highlights of the weekend included a Cheesemongers’ Duel on Friday night and a Saturday night gala, where chefs were paired with cheesemongers to create original dishes. There was also a band, a bubble lounge and a photo booth.

“We’re trying to make it more approachable and more fun,” Walker said. “It’s a play with your food kind of thing.”

Tom Birdsall, founder and president of California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, remained upbeat Sunday despite the steady rain showers, since the tasting and marketplace was held inside a 40,000-square-foot tent with plenty of elbow room.

“We have 90 vendors today,” he said. “But now there’s plenty of room for people to sit down and walk around.”

By midday Friday, there were only 250 tickets left for Sunday’s tasting and marketplace, Walker said. In what could become a trend, she noted an uptick in kids’ tickets this year.

“People whose children have great taste buds love cheese,” she said. “My kids love artisan cheese, too.”

Five-year-old Evan Wright of Sonoma eagerly tasted through a wide selection of fresh and aged goat cheese from Redwood Hill Farm of Sebastopol with his parents by his side.

“He’s always liked the blue cheese, gorgonzola and goat cheese,” said his mother, Sadie Wright. “His favorite pizza is the goat cheese pizza at the Red Grape.”

Several new cheeses made their debut at the tasting, including Blackstone, a mixed-milk cheese (cow and sheep) with a peppery, edible rind that comes from the 30-year-old Bellwether Farms of Petaluma.

“As we started doing test batches, we enjoyed the character of both milks,” said Liam Callahan, cheese maker for Bellwether. “The Jersey cow milk gave it the mouthfeel and caramel notes, and the sheep’s milk brought complexity and minerality.”

Valley Ford Cheese Co. offered tastes of its creamy, new gorgonzola, and Nicasio Valley Cheese handed out bites of Tomino, a new, cow’s-milk, soft-ripening cheese with a lightly washed rind.

Lynn Giacomini, partner-owner of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., brought samples of Cornelia, a 1-pound version of the company’s popular Toma cheese, which is aged for a couple of months at the famous Murray’s Cheese of New York.

“They put it in their washed-rind cave,” she said. “It’s really a library cheese for us, because it’s only sold at our creamery, at Murray’s or the farmers market.”

Another new trend at the festival this year was the broadening of cheese pairings to include sake, coffee and even cookies.

“It’s great exposure to folks who like good food,” said Tracy Mattson of Cookie ... Take a Bite, who created a Parmesan Shortbread and a Ginger Honey Snap Sandwich with Pennyroyal Laychee cheese for the tasting. “It’s really to prove that cookies go with everything.”

Because the event has grown bigger every year, Walker said they would need to look for a bigger space in the future.

“Each year we’ve added more cheesemakers,” she said. “Nobody is going to stop eating cheese.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.