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FOR THE LOVE OF CHEESE

Area cheesemongers weigh in on Greater Sac’s cheese culture.

WRITTEN BY STEPH RODRIGUEZ
PHOTOS BY MIMI GIBOIN

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For Greater Sacramento’s resident cheesemongers, every cheese tells a story. From its funky flavor profiles to the creameries and farmers who spend decades perfecting their cheese recipes, every detail is essential. Amid an abundance of well-stocked cheese collections throughout the region, edible Sacramento stepped behind the counter to turn to three cheese experts for tips, tricks, and tales. These pros not only carry great respect for cheesemakers, but they also aspire to eliminate the intimidation factor that naturally follows such boundless selections … no matter how you slice it.

A homegrown devotion

Growing up on a small, organic pear farm in Mendocino County, Calif., allowed Rebekah Baker to see the personal connection between produce and its cultivator from a young age. With these experiences at her core, Baker believes the best part about having worked in the cheese industry for the past decade is the variety of narratives that follow every decadent wedge she tastes.

“Behind every incredibly delicious cheese, there is a story. There’s a cheesemaker. There’s a company. There’s a family. There’s a town. There’s a dairy animal that made that milk,” Baker says. “When you taste a really excellent cheese, you know there was someone somewhere along the line who has an intense passion about what they’re doing.”

Baker’s worn many hats within the cheese business, from cheese buyer and specialty associate at Whole Foods Market in Santa Rosa, Folsom, and Roseville, Calif., to Nugget Markets, where she was the corporate director of specialty cheese for three years. Now, she works for Tony’s Fine Foods in West Sacramento as the category manager for cheese. Baker’s dedication to the world of cheese is measured in both years and the countless hours she studied to earn the elite certified cheese professional title from the American Cheese Society.

For Baker, the only wrong way to enjoy cheese is to not eat it. From her experience, tasting cheese is the quickest way to find the one that tickles all the senses. A turning point in her career was when she sampled a five-year-aged Gouda that gave Baker her wow moment.

“It was just the craziest dark, caramel color, and it had these lighter flecks of crystals throughout, and the texture was very firm,” Baker says. “The flavor just blew me away with its burnt caramel, whisky, and cherry notes. When I first tried it, I stopped talking and just tasted for like five minutes. The flavor lingered and kept evolving and changing.”

Although she’s a firm believer that cheese is classic and strong enough to stand on its own, Baker also sees accompaniments as edible extras that simply accent the unique flavors in cheese. She creatively compares cheese to the little black dress, and its pairings — whether bread, crackers, fruit, or jams — are the accessories that take it from a casual brunch to a late-night party.

As a seasonal eater, Baker enjoys lemony goat cheeses in the spring, and during the hot summer months, she looks forward to hand-pulled mozzarella and burrata.

“[Burrata] is mozzarella’s sexier cousin,” she says. “It’s very, very decadent and can be served as a dessert with fig jam or honey, or it can be eaten in the same way you eat fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil and balsamic, or just with bread. It’s just really good.”

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Committed to the culture

A few weeks into his job as a new Nugget Markets’ cheesemonger, Jeremy Patin recalls, it was Humboldt Fog, a bloomy-rind goat’s milk chèvre from Cypress Grove, that changed his outlook on cheese from being a commodity that merely tops salads and burgers to a food that’s bold enough to be appreciated on its own.

That moment was in 2006. Now, Patin not only is an ACS-certified cheese professional, but he’s also the director of specialty cheese operations for all Nugget Markets’ locations.

“I like to say, I never got into cheese, cheese got into me,” Patin says. “I instantly fell in love. It’s been something I’ve been passionate about for the last decade.”

He recommends small pieces of cheese eaten frequently, enjoyed with friends and tasted with beer or wine. Patin also encourages tasting with friends to inspire conversation on how each cut tastes or differs from palate to palate.

Nugget carries up to 400 varieties of cheese, and Patin believes the secret to any reputable brand is clean ingredients: milk, salt, cultures, and enzymes. Even with his soft spot for blue cheeses, there’s one variety he’d choose to eat for the rest of his life with no regrets.

“Depending on the season, I like different things, but if I were stuck on an island with one cheese to eat for the rest of my life, it would probably be a smoked Manchego,” Patin says. “I love the richness of Manchego. I love the grassiness, the earthiness. It’s simple. It reminds me of simple food with layers and layers of complexity.”

Although Nugget Markets carries mass quantities of cheese, it’s important for Patin and his fellow cheesemongers at all its locations to source what’s seasonal, to pay attention to what customers crave, and also to share the stories behind the cheesemaking process.

“I think one of the most important parts of this business is the relationships. To me, I’m not just selling a food; I’m selling someone’s lifestyle, someone’s culture, and someone’s history,” Patin says. “I want to know exactly what went into that cheese because as I tell that story, it becomes more than just a source of nutrition; you become a part of that family and that culture.”

Raising the bar

Warm lighting and lively chatter welcome guests barside or tableside at The Rind, a quaint, cheese-centric restaurant located in Midtown Sacramento. Once inside this popular cheese haven, the hustle and bustle of the city streets are instantly silenced. A wall studded with wooden cheeseboards highlights the assortment of cheeses sourced from local creameries and beyond to explore.

The cheesemongers who help guests pick out their new favorite cheeses at The Rind are trained by co-owner and overall cheese lover Sara Arbabian. For her, whatever new cheese she has yet to try always is her next choice, but she also admits that she will never say no to Robiola Bosina.

“It’s not fancy, but it’s incredibly lovely,” Arbabian says. “It’s square shaped, and the sheep’s milk makes it super buttery with a hint of gamey, and the cow’s milk is slightly grassy and tangy with a hint of mushroom … When you eat it at room temperature, it’s so amazing, and I just want to spread it everywhere.”

On a visit to Sutter Creek, Calif., Arbabian says, she walked into a small cheese shop, and it was there that she realized her love for cheese — and pairing it with wine — was truly significant. Two years later, she opened The Rind with her husband, Steve Tatterson. The couple celebrated their four-year anniversary in the cheese business in May.

When she’s not sampling or plating cheese at The Rind, Arbabian spends her time volunteering at classes at The Cheese School of San Francisco. She’s also known to travel great distances to learn more about her passion, such as the time she flew to North Carolina just to attend a conference focused on cheese. What’s more, at the end of July, Arbabian looks forward to taking the three- to four-hour exam with the ACS to earn her title as a certified cheese professional.

One of the many perks to Arbabian’s role at The Rind is putting together cheeseboards for her guests that will invite them to discover something new that also hits the familiar notes of their comfort zones. 

“It’s hard to experience small portions of a lot of different cheese, and you can do that with us,” Arbabian says. “Our goal always is to eliminate that intimidation with cheese, wine, and beer. We want it to be inviting.”

The ideal cheeseboard for Arbabian would be three to five cheeses that highlight a range of diverse qualities. So, a washed rind cheese; a blue cheese; something creamy; a goat’s milk cheese, such as a chèvre from Laura Chenel; and a hard cheese that hits the popular profile of Cheddar, but instead she might add a Bethmale from France.

“I’m always mixing it up with texture, style, milk, and age,” Arbabian says. “There’s a lot of artistry in cheese. Cheesemaking really wows me, and I’m always impressed with [cheesemakers]. They’re like the rock stars of the cheese industry.”

Steph Rodriguez is an award-winning freelance journalist who keeps a close eye on the food and music scene in Sacramento. With more than 10 years’ experience as a writer, she crafts stories that mirror the vast and diverse culture of the region. From entertainment and lifestyle features, to profiles with a farm-to-fork interest, she aims to capture the best of Sacramento.

Recipe

Pasta with Marinated Goat Cheese

(courtesy of Rebekah Baker, cheese category manager, Tony’s Fine Foods in West Sacramento. Serves 6 to 8)

Note: Baker recommends using any pasta with ridges to catch the sauce. She enjoys serving the finished dish with a vegetable side and fresh, crusty bread to soak up any extra sauce.

1 7.1-ounce jar Chevoo

1 pound farfalle or fusilli pasta

1 tablespoon olive oil

Bring pot of salted water to boil and add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Cook pasta al dente and drain, but do not rinse as residual starchy water left on pasta helps to bind sauce.

Toss pasta back into same pot; add Chevoo. The jar of Chevoo contains 1-ounce cubes fresh goat cheese marinated in olive oil infusion with pink peppercorns. When mixed with pasta, cubes of cheese will break down and combine with oil to form a rustic sauce.

Tip: You also can stir cheese and oil together in jar to break down before adding to pasta.

Resources

Local specialty cheese shop guide

Davis Food Co-op

620 G St., Davis • 530-758-2667 • Davisfood.coop

Owned and operated by 9,000 different households, the Davis Food Co-op is known for its selection of raw milk cheeses, including Gourmino Gruyère AOP from Western Switzerland and Coppinger, a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese from Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee, among others.

Corti Brothers

5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento • 916-736-3800 • Cortibrothers.com

Opened in 1947, this East Sacramento neighborhood market started with a mission to introduce new, culinary challenges to its guests in the form of the specialty cheeses, meats, and its large wine selection.

Nugget Markets

Nuggetmarket.com

This family-owned operation graced the pages of Forbes magazine once again, ranking No. 30 on its 100 Best Companies to Work For list in 2017. With nine locations in and around the Sacramento Valley, Nugget Markets’ cheese departments carry up to 400 varieties at any given time.

The Rind

1801 L St., Ste. 40, Sacramento • 916-441-7463 • Therindsacramento.com

This downtown cheese haven is run by Sara Arbabian and her husband, Steve Tatterson, and carries more than 40 varieties of cheese that are plated with seasonal accompaniments such as stone fruit or enjoyed in a comforting bowl of mac ’n’ cheese.

Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op

2820 R St., Sacramento • 916-455-2667 • Sacfood.coop

Since 1972, this locally owned co-op has specialized in regionally sourced, specialty goods for its customers, and in the cheese department it’s no different. Cheesemongers at the new R Street location showcase the best in small-batch chèvres, farmstead cheeses, and other seasonal delicacies.

Taylor’s Market

2900 Freeport Blvd., Sacramento • 916-443-6881 • Taylorsmarket.com

Serving the Curtis Park neighborhood, this charming little corner market carries dozens of varieties from regions in Switzerland, Spain, and Italy to specialty cheeses such as Central Formaggi’s Moliterno al Tartufo, a sheep’s milk cheese slowly infused with black truffle.

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