October 12, 2007
Hear That Bell? It's Cheese Time

California's farmstead cheese movement has moved into the Sierra foothills. French native Caroline Hoël, trained in cheesemaking in the Alps, and her winemaker husband, Hank Beckmeyer, bought 10 acres of scrubland at Somerset in El Dorado County six years ago and have been tending grapes and goats ever since.

Now, after expanding their herd, mastering regulatory permits, and building their milking and processing plant, they've started to release their first cheese under the proprietary name "Sierra Mountain Tomme."

Tomme, pronounced "tum," generally is a cows' milk cheese identified with the Savoie region on the west slopes of the Italian Alps. In his book "Cheese Primer," Steven Jenkins calls it an "honest, unpretentious cheese...completely unrefined and perfectly delicious." In Europe, it commonly has a thick rind and is packed like motion-picture wheels in wooden crates.

Hoël, however, takes a somewhat different approach, starting with goat milk rather than cow or sheep. Her tomme, therefore, isn't as rich as French versions, though the flavor is pronounced. "Sierra Mountain Tomme" is firm and white, with a chalky texture and flavors somewhat herbal and nutty. The thin tan rind is edible.

The couple's 16-head herd, which bears names inspired by wine grapes (Grenache, Syrah and the like) and weather patterns (Rainy Day, Foggy and so forth), roams biodynamically farmed pastures "full of native herbs" that give their milk and cheese its distinctive flavor. No antibiotics, hormones or synthetic medications are given the goats, say the two. They call the farm La Clarine, after the bells French herders tie to their livestock, each one possessing a distinctive ring for each producer.

Their production is seasonal, starting in the spring and ending about Christmas, says Hoël. The cheese goes on sale after it's been aged a couple of months. It sells for around $25 a pound and is available locally at David Berkley Fine Wines & Specialty Foods and Taylors Market in Sacramento, Dedrick's Cheese in Placerville, and Allez! at El Dorado.

Hoël likes to slice the cheese and put it on bread, cut it into cubes for an appetizer, grate it on pasta, and soak small squares in olive oil and herbs to add to salads. While it doesn't melt as easily as cow-milk cheese, it nonetheless can be sliced atop pizza near the end of its baking. It's also durable, holding up on long hikes without getting mushy, she has found.

More information is available at the couple's Web site.

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