Nestled quietly in the picturesque Hicks Valley between Petaluma and Point Reyes lies a creamery that’s been a favorite pit-stop for picnickers, bicyclists and tourists on their way out to the coast for generations.
This month, the Marin French Cheese Company celebrates its 150th anniversary of churning out some of the world’s most noteworthy cheeses. Known as the oldest continuously running cheesemaking company in the U.S., Marin French Cheese celebrated the milestone with Marilyn and Robert Thompson, descendants of the creamery’s founder Jefferson Thompson, who were inducted on Jan. 10 into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers, Conferie de Saint-Uguzon, the International Guild of Cheesemakers, as Compagnon D’Honneur (companions of honor).
They were honored along with other auspicious local contributors to the making and promotion of cheese — Robert Giacomini of Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.; Sondra Bernstein, chef-owner of Glen Ellen’s Girl and the Fig; Santa Rosa chef-restauranteur John Ash; Sonoma Valley radio host and food ,wine and travel writer Kathleen Hill; Culture Magazine publisher Lassa Skinner; and Alex Borgo, Marin French Cheese’s own cheesemaker.
The awards were presented during a Jan. 10 ceremony led by Roland Barthelemy, president of the Guilde Internationale and himself a 2014 honoree of the World Cheese Awards for exceptional contributions to the promotion of excellence in cheese making and production.
Barthelemy traveled to Petaluma from his home in Provence, France to bestow the awards on these American cheesemakers and promoters in recognition of their history and work in the industry. Barthelemy travels the world to bring the Guilde’s knowledge to others and says that it is important for cheese mongers within the industry to share their processes and ideas.
Though the cultures, styles of cheese and processes around the world vary, they all find unity in the simple fact that, “they all speak cheese,” said Barthelemy.
He also works closely with the American Cheese Society, presided over this year by Peg Smith of Petaluma’s Cowgirl Creamery. The American Cheese Society, Barthelemy said, substantially raised the bar of quality in American cheeses, now providing much more distinction to domestic products before they come to market. And, he observed, Northern California’s long history with cheese and wine enables it to challenge the Gallic belief that France is “the best.”
Barthelemy added that Marin French Cheese’s long history of cheesemaking excellence has helped put Petaluma, and the North Bay, on the worldwide map of fine artisan cheeses.
Marin French Cheese was founded in 1865 as Thompson Brothers Creamery. It remained owned and managed by the Thompson Family until the 1990s under the brand name “Rouge et Noir,” making French style camembert, brie and neufchatels.
The company was sold in 1995 to rancher-entrepreneur Jim Boyce, who modernized the cheese plant and aggressively marketed the brand.
“He was competitive,” said Marin French Cheese marketing director Lynn Devereux. “His efforts led the company to win a number of awards and help attract international attention.”
In 2005, Rouge et Noir became the first U.S. cheese to be awarded gold at the prestigious World Cheese Awards. After Boyce passed away, his estate sold the business to the French Rians Group in 2011, which further modernized the plant with state of the art production equipment and aging rooms.