I am so grateful that I’m not lactose intolerant. My recent trip to the Central Valley of California to learn more about the California dairy industry would have been a complete and stomach-rumbling bust. Thankfully, all was well and I was able to not only sample the best of what can be made from “moo juice”, as my children call it, but I was able to learn how those divine dairy products get from, well, bovine to table.
The dairy industry is a really big deal to California, and for the rest of the country. It’s the number one commodity in California, with 99% of the farms family-owned.
The history of the dairy industry
The first stop my fellow dairy devotees and I (other travel/food writers from around the country) made was to get a glimpse into the past of the dairy industry. The Alviso Adobe is one of the few remaining adobe structures constructed in the San Francisco Bay area during the Spanish and Mexican periods. It is the centerpiece of a seven-acre park that lets history come alive. The site is now an interpretive park where school groups and visitors can learn about history, including a re-creation of the historic Meadowlark Dairy Milking Barn and Bunk House,/Interpretive and Activity Space. We were fortunate to hear stories of the early days of the dairy from Bob and Bruce Takens, whose family owned Meadowlark Dairy on that site. We also met Johan and Nellie Bartelink who worked on the dairy when they first came from Holland to America and now own Bartelink Dairy. Here’s their story.
The Aliviso Adobe Community Park enables kids to learn about the various uses of the land in the past, the way adobe structures were made and the way people lived emphasizing the relevance to today’s world. “Kids don’t know where an apple comes from or how food gets from point A to point B,” says Eric Nicholas, a guide at Alviso.
An unusual yet natural pairing
After a drive through charming Pleasonton, we settled in at Handles Gastropub for a leisurely dinner that started with a great education. We’ve all heard of wine and cheese tasting but BEER and cheese tasting? This was new to me but oh so enlightening and enjoyable.
Turns out, like wine and cheese, beer and cheese go together beautifully. We tried a variety of California cheeses and California beers and, whether creamy or firm, bland to strongly-flavored, it was interesting to see that certain beers brought out the best in certain cheeses. Each was good on their own, but together, they were better! Andy Wild, our guide through the tastings, taught us to sip the beer, opening our mouths slightly to draw in air to aerate the beer and expose a whole new level of flavor. I was amazed at the difference this made in my beer-drinking experience. Try your own pairings at home. It makes for a fun evening.
As Wild explained, the pairings you end up liking are very subjective and personal. “It’s all related to what you’re thinking, feeling and where you eating”. So by all means, try frequent pairings to see what you’ll like differently next time.
How milk gets to our tables
The next day we visited Fiscalini Farms to see the entire dairy farm operation up close. I was very surprised at what a detailed operation it is and how much goes into a carton of milk. The cows are well-cared for, with a physician at the ready and feed that is mixed together from the supply of ingredients, depending on the needs of the cows.
I’ve never seen so many cows at once. They had sweet, expressive eyes, unique markings and udderly sagging utters. Those poor ladies – having nursed four babies and hooking myself up to a double breast pump, I could easily imagine how those poor cows feel. “I feel our pain,” I whispered to one particularly pendulous one.
The cows were so well-cared for, they fit in beautifully with the California Milk Advisory Board ad campaign featuring the happy California Cows (I love those ads)! John Fiscalini keeps the entire operation running which is no easy feat. He has an awesome responsibility to his staff, the cows, the community and, ultimately the consumer who will feed his dairy products to their families. It isn’t always an easy path but Fiscalini does it with conviction and passion, believing he’s doing something worthwhile – and he is.
We sampled the Fiscalini Farmstead cheeses made at Fiscalini Farms which were all tasty and inventive. I had to laugh at the sight of my fellow food writers having both a photography- and feeding-frenzy at the sampling table. Not a bite gets eaten before a picture gets taken!
The next day, we got an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at how milk becomes cheese and yogurt and other dairy products. We went to the family-run Karoun Dairies, Inc. and got to see the whole amazing process, start to finish. Starting with seeing the milk unloaded from trucks, we watched the well-choreographed action of humans pulling and twisting braided mozzarella and machines sending products down the line filling, sealing, packing, applying labels and sending them off to stores.
We sampled many of the products we had just seen made including a wide variety of yogurts, cheeses and other dairy products produced for international cuisines. My favorite was the Yanni Grilling Cheese which forms a golden crust when grilled or pan-fried. It’s like having a grilled cheese sandwich without the bread. Delish. Take a look at their website and you’ll be amazed at all of the products they make.
See below for links to recipes that will help with those first, frantic days of back-to-school, courtesy of Real California Milk.
Epilogue – an afternoon in San Francisco:
On my way back to the San Francisco airport, we had a few hours to kill and took a whirlwind tour around, making a few wonderful stops. The first was to Twin Peaks which provided amazing, panoramic views of San Francisco.
One of my fellow food/travel writers is a big fan of the “Full House” TV show and just had to see the famous Painted Lady houses in the opening scenes. We found ‘em and snapped a picture. Look familiar?
We made a quick but essential stop for ice cream made from, you guessed it, milk from California! Humphry Slocombe is a funky little spot with flavors like Peanut Butter Curry, Lime Basil and Balsamic Caramel. I went rather tame with salted chocolate and it was at once creamy and made my mouth water. Quite an experience.
The last stop was to one of my favorite places, The Ferry Building . After my first trip to San Francisco a few years ago, I was so impressed by the place that I signed up for their enewsletter just so I could feel a connection to it again. This large, open building houses small businesses tucked on either side of a long, open building with a very high ceiling. Each business is a feast for the eyes and palate. Here are a few of the businesses I spotted.
Miette captivated me the most with its lovely baked goods and charming displays. Sampling the most delicious short bread ever, made me a fan for life. I was thrilled to find their cookbook in my library when I returned home.
I think most of us take dairy products for granted. They are just there within easy reach in our refrigerators. Yet I learned that so much goes into every product before it is sent out to our grocery shelves. The farms and manufacturers and everyone involved in the dairy industry in California is extremely proud of the products they turn out, with good reason. To all of them, I say “bravo” and to the cows, I say “thank you”, you cute things, you.
Here are some recipes from www.RealCaliforniaMilk.com that will help with breakfast, school lunch and an easy dinner as the kids head back to school:
Breakfast: Nutty Pear and Raisin Breakfast Pudding
Dinner: Cheesesteak Pizza
* We did not receive monetary compensation for this review. California Milk Advisory Board invited Courtney to attend this farm tour to facilitate this review. All expenses were arranged by PR/California Milk Advisory Board. This will in no way sway our opinion of the product or service. The review is in our own words and is our opinion. Your results and opinions may differ.