Artisan Cheese Festival Returns March 22-24

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Artisan Cheese Festival Returns March 22-24

It'll be a zoo when the seventh annual California's Artisan Cheese Festival kicks off March 22 in Petaluma. Not just because of the crowds that faithfully snatch up nearly every last ticket to each event in the festival that runs through March 24, but because opening day activities feature visits to the creameries and ranches, where sheep, cows, and goats offer up their milk live and in-the-fur.

Already, 'Tour A: Goats, Sheep & Cows, Oh My!' is sold out, for visits to Two Rock Valley Goat Cheese, Bleating Heart Dairy, and Pug's Leap Cheese at White Whale Farm.

Yet there is still so much more delightful cheesiness to explore in this three-day event that brings world-class cheese experts to Sonoma County for a showcase of California-made varietals in an array of flavors, colors, aromas, and fanciful names.

Friday night, for example, you can chat with the cheesemakers outside of their farms, seeing them all dressed up in shiny streets clothes instead of muck boots and overalls, at the inaugural Meet the Cheesemakers and Their Cheeses reception at the Sheraton Sonoma County – Petaluma (5 to 7 p.m.; $35). Dozens of cheeses will be on display for sampling, along with artisan beers and wines plus snacky things like crackers, breads, charcuterie, and pastries.

On Saturday, the mood turns more educational, with seminars such as 'New Kids on the Cheese Block,' a panel of six artisan cheesemakers discussing their latest creations (9:30-11:30 a.m.; $65), and a 'Simple, Fresh, Same Day Cheeses' cheesemaking class ($95).

Lunch is a highlight, included in the seminar cost and catered by Petaluma Market, and then it's on to more classes such as Cheese Meets Beer: Strategies for Harmony (1:30-3:30 p.m.; $65).

It's also still possible to get tickets to the grand tasting events. In previous years, more than 6,000 attendees have converged to learn how to taste, buy, serve, and perhaps even make distinctive artisan cheeses, as told directly from the award-winning experts like Achadinha Cheese Co., Bellwether Farms, Central Coast Creamery, Cowgirl Creamery, and Cypress Grove Chèvre.

A 'must' is Saturday night's Grand Cheese Tasting & Best in Cheese Competition (6-9 p.m.; $75), a roaming feast showcasing some two dozen top local chefs using artisan cheeses in a variety of dishes from sweet to savory. You vote for your favorite, from soufflés to sandwiches, and the winning chefs gets to carry home the gouda, um, gold.

On Sunday, the really big cheeses roll out, starting with a cheese-inspired brunch from chef Mark Stark (9:30 a.m.-noon; $115), then the enormously popular Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace (noon–4 p.m.; $45). Here's where the crowds really come out, to take in the wares of more than 70 artisan producers and explore the best of local cheese, wine, beer and other specialty foods, plus cheese accompaniments, cheesemaking products and books.

What a wonderful whey to spend a weekend!

Details: www.artisancheesefestival.com.

Carey Sweet
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