Bellwether Farms' Liam (left) and Diana Callahan (right) with Lynne Devereux (center) of Butter Communications at the California Artisan Cheese Festival
Last month's California Artisan Cheese Festival was abuzz with creative energy and enticing cheeses. Sunday's annual grand marketplace is the best venue in the west to catch up with all of the top cheesemakers and industry folk making this one of the most talked about artisan food movements in the world.
One of my first stops was at the Bellwether Farms booth to catch up with my friend Lynne, board member extraordinaire of the California Artisan Cheese Guild. Lynne's professional and personal enthusiasm for promoting and educating the best of the west when it comes to artisan cheese is so inspiring.
She shared much good news from Bellwether, following the announcement of winners from the 2017 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest (USCCC) in Wisconsin earlier this Spring. Sonoma County's Bellwether Farms Whole Milk Basket Ricotta was recognized as Best in Class in the Ricotta Category and their newest cheese, Blackstone (one of my personal favorites) as Best in Class in the Mixed-milk Category. Ricotta scored a near perfect 99.5 points and Blackstone bested challengers with a score of 99.35.
These first wins of 2017 continue a 2016 winning streak for both popular cheeses. Whole Milk Basket Ricotta racked up four awards including International acclaim from Wisconsin’s World Cheese Championship while Blackstone grabbed 1st Place at the American Cheese Society competition and Gold at CalExpo in its premier performances.
“These competitions guide us in making the highest quality product we can, on par with the best in the artisan cheese business,” says Liam Callahan, co- founder and cheesemaker. “The wins also translate into sales growth as retailers confidently recommend our products to their customers.”
To make its award-winning Ricotta, Bellwether Farms starts with rich, whole Jersey cow milk from a neighboring Sonoma County dairy farm. The milk is cultured and slowly heated to develop flavor and its uniquely pillowy texture. The finished Ricotta is sold in its original draining basket. Blackstone a blend of Jersey cow and sheep milk with a scattering of peppercorns, aged and hand- rubbed with ash and pepper for a distinctive black rind.
A family business founded in 1986, Bellwether Farms established the first dairy sheep ranch west of the Mississippi. Artisan cheesemaking began in 1990 and continues today in the expanded creamery. Family matriarch Cindy Callahan tends to the flock while her son and his wife, Liam and Diana Callahan, are cheesemaker and business administrator, respectively. Bellwether Farms crafts a family of aged and fresh sheep and cow milk cheeses and yogurts using time-honored traditions and fresh whole milk sourced from their flock and family dairy farms nearby.
Here are a few more photos from my afternoon with the cheesemakers, chocolate makers, ice cream makers, wine and beer makers . . . If you've never attended the festival, the Sunday Marketplace is a great and super tasty introductory experience to this three day event, in which tickets are available individually for farm tours, dinners and seminars, too. Mark your calendar for next March.