chef's table

CHEDDAR CHAMPIONS

A match made in heaven at Fiscalini Cheese Co.

WRITTEN BY VANESSA RICHARDSON
PHOTOS BY ANDREA THOMPSON

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There are famous duos such as Tracy and Hepburn and Hewlett and Packard, and in the cheesemaking world, there’s Fiscalini and Gonzalez. When John Fiscalini, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Modesto, hired Mariano Gonzalez to be his cheesemaker in 2001, it was a perfect match. Within a year, their Extra Mature Bandage Wrapped Cheddar was acclaimed as the Best Farmstead Cheese in North America by the American Cheese Society.

Better Cheddar

Gonzalez grew up in Paraguay and made his reputation as a cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. His next plan was to reintroduce an old-fashioned English Cheddar in the U.S. because he disliked the industrialized way it was created, sliced up, and shredded here. Checking out Northern California for a potential move, Gonzalez was courted by major cheese producers, but he agreed to meet with John Fiscalini, who only had been making cheese for a year after taking a class at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Gonzalez liked how Fiscalini Farms was a family-run operation, now with its fifth generation running operations, and how the cows received the utmost care (it’s the first dairy in the U.S. to apply for and pass an independent audit for animal welfare). After a few minutes of talking with Fiscalini, he knew he had met a kindred spirit.

“John wanted to have a product that was recognized as one of the best cheeses in the world,” Gonzalez says. “I shared that same goal, and I wanted to develop this particular type of cheese. When I saw how he wanted to make cheese in a truly artisan way, I knew this was the best place for me to do this.”

Their Bandage Wrapped Cheddar, bound in cheesecloth and hand turned daily for the first two months of aging, has been named the world’s best Cheddar at the World Cheese Awards three times in a row, the only American Cheddar so far to earn the honor.

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Big ideas

Fiscalini’s other acclaimed cheese, San Joaquin Gold, started as a mistake. Fiscalini wanted to make an Italian-style fontina, but he was unknowingly using the wrong techniques and equipment. He proudly showed off the 5,000 pounds he had made to Gonzalez, who tasted it and said, “This is good, but it’s not fontina.”

Batch by batch, Gonzalez refined the recipe and procedure, which included convincing Fiscalini to add Jersey and brown Swiss cows to his traditional herd of Holsteins, to improve the butterfat mix. While San Joaquin Gold still is not a fontina, the American original is praised for its darker gold hue and nutty flavor.

Fiscalini cheeses are sold at major supermarkets nationwide, and the pair regularly tests new flavors for its Cheddars. Its Purple Moon is soaked in cabernet sauvignon for a distinct purple color and creamy finish. For its smoked Cheddar, Fiscalini built an on-site smokehouse, using apple, cherry, and hickory wood chips to saturate the cheese. The environment-conscious owner doesn’t let any scraps go to waste — the Horsefeathers product combines misshapen Cheddar pieces with sour cream and horseradish for a spread perfect for crackers and on prime rib. Next up: California Craft Brew Cheddar, a beer-soaked cheese made with beer from Dust Bowl Brewing Co. in Turlock, which will be sold exclusively at Save Mart through September.

Fiscalini’s grandfather bought the original 160 acres in 1912. The dairy has grown to comprise 540 acres, 2,800 dairy cows (complete with a methane digester his son Brian secured, which turns cow patties into electricity that powers the site), and the homes of three generations on the property. Two of Fiscalini’s children manage operations — Brian oversees the dairy and cheese plant, and daughter Laura Genasci is office administrator and handles sales and marketing — and 11 children in the sixth generation are learning how to sweep floors, tend to cows, and eventually take the reins.

That leaves Fiscalini and Gonzalez to focus on the cheese, doing it in the artisan style they’ve created together over 15 years. Gonzalez’s next goal is to pass down that style to the prospective cheesemakers on their 11-person staff.

“Some came here with the idea that this is just a job, but I try to change that mindset,” Gonzalez says. “The people who are with me right now are the people who like to create, and want to create, something every day.”

Vanessa Richardson is a Sacramento-based writer who typically covers entrepreneurship, startups, and tech innovation, but now is writing more about the business of food and agriculture. She also makes great pasta sauces and a mean chocolate layer cake.

Fiscalini Farms Cheese Co.
7206 Kiernan Ave., Modesto • 800-610-3276 • Fiscalinicheese.com

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