On the boardwalk at Pismo Beach, on California’s beautiful Central Coast, I stopped by the Wednesday afternoon farmers’ market. It wasn’t much of a farmer’s market, but half-dozen upbeat vendors offered samples of their surprisingly good wares—of course, being 20 feet from the waves just makes people happy. A coconut butter cake with a moist browned bottom was too good to buy, as it would ruin my bathing suit goals in a day. A masked madman was popping sweet kettle corn with a blast torch. But a woman in weathered blonde braids really got me with her slightly grainy sheep’s cheese. The lightly abraded cube offered a delicious cheese taste, a not-really nutty flavor without a hint of sheepiness, but you know sheep was the magic ingredient somewhere in it.
I didn’t buy it. With two hotel rooms ahead, I didn’t want to babysit such a magnificent cheese: wrapping it in newsprint (where to find that?), coddling it out of the sun, immersing it in an ice-bucket bath (inside the plastic liner). I knew more great cheese lay ahead of me in this agri-lovely region, the stretched waistband of California if you imagine the state as person.
In Paso Robles, where cowboy and cowgirl history has given way to more than 300 wineries, it’s all about the food. Even modest restaurants call themselves “bistros,” and wine bottle-and-grape images fill the storefronts. I don’t drink, but I did sip from a few glasses and yes, it was wine, all right. I had excellent blue cheese crumbles with chicken and candied walnuts in a baby greens-salad, draped with a tangy-sweet maple syrup-balsamic vinegar dressing. This set off the cheese-seeking mechanism in me that only comes to life in the presence of a really divine dairy product.
That night I ordered a sheep’s cheese course at a top organic restaurant. It was listed at the bottom of the menu with other local cheeses, so I made sure to ask if it was permissible as an appetizer here, since I know really formal people eat it after their “mains.” The server was surprised that I asked, which means that we are truly over our European insecurity and what was gauche is now normalized. I do love California because we think everything we do is okay, and why anyone would think otherwise is something no one asks. This used to disconcert me but after many years here, I can roll with it. Probably I’m even a bit annoying myself that way now.
But this cheese, while mildly pleasing and white-plated with a smear of house-made apricot-ish jam, wasn’t in the same league as the beach sheep cheese. I was a little sad but still humble enough to appreciate my good fortune to even have a nice restaurant meal. But the cheese—lacked.
Because I am sadly deluded enough to try replicating vacation food experiences, I couldn’t stop there. Back at home in Laguna Beach, CA, another fab-casual beachfront town, neither farmer’s market nor Whole Foods had a local sheep’s cheese. “Not popular here,” said the store cheese monger, but she and the likely lad helping me find sheepy stuff raved over the French Gabietou H Mons cheese, a “thermized” (not raw, yet not fully pasteurized) blend of cow and sheep. “Just avoid the rind,” he cautioned. “I don’t like the gamy taste of sheep cheese, but this is great.”
Once home, I sautéed heirloom cherry tomatoes in pure pork lard, scrambled eggs with a touch of whipping cream, added turkey sausage and fresh local spinach, and cut a few strips of the new French sheep-cow cheese.
On grain toast, the cheese was nicely smooth, somewhat tasty, but again—blah. “I love the rind,” said my husband. “You do?” I said. To self-soothe my sheep-cheese disappointment, I nibbled the rind too. It tasted like dank basement wall with a hint of smoke. And it was good. Not as great as the Pismo Beach sheep’s cheese, but better than the blandly impressive interior it protected. And the mouse-ear brown rind reminded me—don’t pass up the great things right under my nose, even if I’m too busy to bother, or someone says something else is better.
Now where will I find that cheese? For now it’s in my memory, with glinting salt waves and an uneven boardwalk underfoot.