Since 1865, the 700-acre Hicks Valley Ranch, home to Marin French Cheese, has been privately owned and protected. The scenic expanse, originally part of a Spanish land grant, encompasses grassy meadows, plunging ravines, shady ponds and native Live Oak woods with the 1,400-foot peak of Hicks Mountain to the west and cool coastal breezes cascading over the land from the Pacific Ocean, just ten miles away.
From the arrival of Spanish and Mexican settlers in early 1820s, Marin County has always featured a rich agricultural landscape, gaining fame in the late 19th century as “cow heaven” for its abundance of grazing cows and the production of sublime butter, cheese and milk sent by train or schooner to be enjoyed by lucky San Franciscans.
Where Past Meets Present– and Future
The 20th and 21st centuries brought changes to the farming landscape in Marin County and challenges to our company. Water became more precious – the gold of the era – and the means to farming survival. Marin French Cheese took the lead in responsibly managing the water sources and other natural resources essential to the cheesemaking business. In the midst of the Great Depression, the Thompsons sold their herd of dairy cows, purchasing milk for cheese from neighbors, creating a dependable market for their milk and helping sustain their farms and families. That same philosophy of community partnership guides Marin French Cheese to this day.
The land is certified organic and is dedicated to pasture and crop lands.
The future looks bright – and bountiful!
How We Make Our Cheese:
Milk & Cows:
We receive milk daily from neighboring Marin and Sonoma county dairies in a 15 mile radius, ensuring the milk is never more than 24 hours from the milking parlor to reception. The milk we use is rich with balanced protein, fat, and flavor. The milk is rBST-free, it has a creaminess that comes from a blend of 3 dairy breeds: Jersey, Holstein, and Guernsey. One gallon of milk is equal to 1.2 pounds of cheese.
Pasteurization & Cultures:
After receiving milk we pasteurize it and it flows through pipes and HTST into maturation tanks. The milk needs to reach the proper temperature and pH level before cultures can be added. We use traditional Brie and Camembert cultures, which are woken up when mixed with warm milk and added into the maturation tanks. Lactic cultures are essential to making cheese. They convert the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid, raising the acidity in the milk. Acidity allows the proteins in the milk to move and combine. Aging cultures are also added at this time but don’t start their work until later when the cheeses are in the aging rooms.
Once the milk acidity starts to change, it is gently pumped into buckets that have been set up in the make room. At this stage it still looks like milk. The buckets are arranged in rows by type of cheese being made.
We make cheese in small batches (20 gallon buckets) to give our cheesemakers meticulous control over the process, which is the same way our founders made cheese. Small batches allowed us to produce small quantity for specific cheese as the Schloss or our flavored cheeses. 1 bucket = 1 mold = 1 rack, so the amount of milk into the bucket will depend of the cheese we are making.
Microbial rennet (non-animal) is added to each bucket just before the milk is added. After a certain time the rennet causes the milk to form a milk gel, like Jello. It’s very fragile but a structure begins to form in what has been liquid. The gel rests in the buckets. The make room is humid and warm to keep the cultures active during this slow coagulation process.
A special cutter is used that fits neatly into the buckets and gently cuts the milk gel into precise-sized cubes. Curds will be gently stirred 1 or 2 times depending on the variety of cheese being made.
At the right time for each cheese, the buckets of curd are poured into molds stacked on draining tables. During draining, the molds are flipped and left to drain overnight. The room stays warm and moist ensuring the cultures are alive and working. Flipping allows consistent moisture inside the cheese. During this time, the curds knit together starting to form cheese while the whey continues to drain.
In the morning the cheeses are unmolded, set on racks and submerged in salted water where they soak for various times. ‘Brining’ is how the cheese is salted – by soaking in a salt water bath. Salt is also a protection for our cheese until the mold is growing
After being removed from the brine bath, it’s time to begin drying the outside surface of the cheese. The drying room is a bit cooler with precisely managed humidity and air flow.
Stacks are tilde to help the brine to drain, but too much brine won’t allow the rind to grow.
The cheese dries for 1 day.
The cheese is moved through 3 aging rooms over the course of 9-11 days with managed temperatures, and with controlled humidity. During this time the aging cultures start to work. It’s a race between 2 cultures: GEO (Geotrichum candidum) and PC (Penicillium candidum). The cheeses are flipped once or twice while in the aging rooms to have a consistent shape and humidity. The PC continues to bloom and flavors are developing slowly. The last aging room is a ventilated room, and is the last stage where cheeses stay one day to dry outside and cool down for packaging.
Schloss is called “washed rind” because it is washed at least 4 times with a salt water solution to have a moist and salty surface who permits the development of the bacteria called b. linens that give the cheese a rusty orange hue. It is special to Marin French Cheese because this bacteria is naturally present in our area, which also helps give it its distinct flavor.
After the making, aging, and drying process, our cheese is packed in a special plastic paper to insure a perfect exchange between air and cheeses. Our 8 oz cheeses are wrapped in paper and put in our signature wooden cups, which also helps protect them during shipment.