farming

Matos Cheese Factory - Satisfyingly simple!

Artisan cheese in California is rife. Come to think of it anything and everything that can be considered artisan, local, home-grown, solar-powered, alternately-lived, organic, sustainable or farm-table-y can be found in California. It's a little overwhelming and can almost make the above words redundant. As a result they lose their significance and it can be difficult to tell what is a trend and what is authentic. With that in mind, sometimes it is refreshing to visit somewhere that keeps things plain and simple. A place where there is no merchandise for sale. A place that doesn't have signage telling you absolutely everything you need to know. A place that doesn't have a Twitter account or an Instagram or even a website. A place that has been making the same cheese for years and yet still only accepts cash or checks. Lots of these locations can be found in other countries but this is the consumer capital of the world so these places are few and far between.

One such spot is the Matos Cheese Factory in Marin county, California. The only cheese made at the farm is St. Jorge which is themed on the fromage that comes from the Portuguese Azores. The family, originally from Portugal, have been making cheese on and off since Jack was a lad. All the cheese is made from raw milk and it is available in two stages of aging.

How your experience may go?

image.jpg

You enter the farm by driving down a long dirt road that passes a variety of cow breeds all chewing on the cud and staring at you. The road ends in a tiny space just enough for three cars. The farm seems deserted and just when you start to ask the inquisitive cows for directions you see a tiny sign saying 'cheese' in a window of a room so small that it looks like it may be home to a family of mice. Almost feeling like you must be in the wrong place you'll turn the handle on the wooden door and enter a miniature space that has nothing in it except a small desk and another door that houses all the aging cheeses. As previously mentioned the company only make one cheese but it is offered at two levels of aging. You should ask the very friendly girl behind the counter to try them both and to see the wheels at their various stages of maturation in the back room. Finally, buying a piece is a good idea - you can get a fairly big wedge for $5 and feed your face with it as part of a picnic.

St. Jorge on Advocado

St. Jorge on Advocado

In all honesty, having tried it before I'm not a big fan of the younger version of the cheese but the aged version is spicy, floral and fruity. Not only is it a great tasting cheese but it would be real good grated on top of a pasta dish to add a punch of flavor. Matos factory is open 9-5 daily and amazingly it's part of the official California cheese trail. Unlike Cowgirl Creamery or Marin, don't expect any frills here, just simple cheese tasting with a friendly atmosphere.

Rogue River Dairy

Once you reach Southern Oregon everything seems to be named Rogue. The Rogue River Farm Stand and Dairy can be found not far from the meandering Rogue River after a long winding drive through Rogue State Forest. There is something about the word rogue that is pretty cool. A rogue to me is a mischievous swindler, a lovable bad guy - the Honorable Sheriff of Nottingham, Captain Jack, The Black Mustache....

So anyway, we were bumbling through backcountry Oregon feeling like rogues in search of Rogue River cheese. Our initial intentions were to go to the shop and cheese making facility in Central Point but because we got there so early the place was closed. Therefore we decided to continue on to the Dairy and Farm Stand in Grants Pass and I'm glad we did! When we arrived there were no cars in the parking lot and all we could see were cows - I guess Sunday is a quiet day for eating cheese. There was a milking parlor to the left, calves to the right and a pretty lawn with three picnic tables donning respective Rogue Creamery umbrellas to provide some shade from the hot sun. We hadn't even entered the shop and I already wanted to have my lunch there.

After viewing the outdoor premises we decided to venture inside. We were greeted by a lady stood behind a humble counter offering selections of Rogue cheeses. She was real friendly and directed us towards the cheese curd samples for the day; the lavender cheese curds were particularly good! The lady was one of only six (seven?) staff that work at this organically aimed establishment including all the herds people and merchandisers which surprised me considering the popularity of their product. I knew that the company had just started moving towards robotic milking and the lady (can't believe I didn't get her name) told me that despite the robotics costing an extremely large amount that they have greatly improved production. I was amazed to discover that each cow has a chip in its ear which automatically knows when the cow needs milking. Providing I have the information correct, the cow walks up to the milking barrier and if the chip sends a message that the cow has a full udder then it opens and allows the cow in to be milked! The milk is then transferred to Central Point to be made into cheese.

We tried the Caveman Blue and the Oregonzola (both wonderful) and then we discovered that they make grilled cheese sandwiches or as I prefer to call them - 'cheese toasties!' There were two to choose from so we decided to get one of each! The first was a 'Sebbie' that consisted of a delicious melting cheese made with a local chocolate stout and the second was a 'Classic' which was made with Caveman Blue and honey. We took 'em outside and ate them under the shade of the umbrellas on the lawn. The whole time we were eating, a cow was staring at us as if to say 'you've got me to thank for that sandwich' and I would totally agree (with a little help from Rogue River Creamery of course!)

Rogue River is a relatively new company and they are expanding fast. They export nationally and internationally. It's really not surprising why. If you forgive the pun, their cheeses, like their cows, are outstanding in their field and I have a special regard for their line of blues. Every blue cheese I have had from Rogue has been incredible - my favourite still being the smokey blue which is the best smoked cheese in the west!

Thank you Rogue River Creamery.

Thank you cows.

The positives of volunteering through WWOOF.

Stepping off the train at a remote station, knowing you are going to be spending at least two weeks in the company of someone you have never met, leaves you with a natural feeling of anticipation. It matters not whether you are an experienced, well-travelled, green party orientated eco-nut or a first time volunteering, city dwelling, gardening novice looking for a change of scenery; you're going to be living with a stranger.

Picking Basil, talking, watching the world go by.

Picking Basil, talking, watching the world go by.

Fortunately, if you are volunteering through WWOOF you can at least hope to share some common ground in the sense that the majority of hosts and hostee's usually have a passion for sustainability, a desire to learn/teach and a general interest in the natural world. Many people seem to treat the idea of volunteering with suspicion and two of the main arguments against it seem to be: firstly, the fact that you are working in return for no money and secondly, you have to pay to sign up to these volunteer programmes in order for them to cater for your every need. In the case of the latter I am inclined to agree with the skeptics as it is well known that many large volunteer organisations are indeed guilty of charging the earth for a 'once in a lifetime', two week trip to stroke a lion or sit on a dolphin, while you are often herded round like sheep and have no time to immerse yourself in the culture. There are obviously exceptions but this is a 'luxury' that few of us can afford to do anyway. 

However, there are many other organisations in Britain which are much more practical and cost-worthy and should be looked upon as more than simply 'working for no money.' Turn your radars to the wavelength of Wwoofing. As a fairly experienced wwoofer having worked in America, Wales and Scotland I feel like I can fairly confidently exclaim that this a good frequency to tune in to. Wwoofing is a worldwide organisation in which people request help to increase the productivity of their farm, small holding or community. For me it is so much more than 'working for free', it has allowed me to gain a whole acquisition of new skills including gardening, being self-sustainable, woodwork, tiling, using what is available, making cheese, making bread, animal husbandry, keeping bees, an insight into permaculture, biodynamics and companion planting. Not only could the list go on and on but there are also other fantastic benefits from volunteering with this organisation, predominantly the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. Every place you go to stay is as diverse as the last, the people are friendly and welcoming and the food is often excellent. There is so much to learn about the surrounding area of where you stay and there is often the opportunity to meander into the culture of where you are at leisure. 

If you have never volunteered in this way before and you would like a unique experience I would highly recommend having a gander at WWOOF simply by typing it into google. If you decide to do some wwoofing there is no doubt you will get off the plane or train filled with anticipation and excitement just as I did last year in America. But with any luck, when you leave you will have gained friends all over the world and have a whole set of new skills and confidence at your disposal, just as I do now.

Leeks, Learning and Lost Mobile Phones: Wwoofing in South Wales

I opened my rugged, brown diary looking at our carefully made plans for a summer of WWOOFING and as I did so I couldn't help but feel simultaneously nervous and excited for what was to come. I had spent the last few weeks preceding our trip ringing up farms and community small-holdings and asking them if they would be interested in having an art student and a teacher arrive at their residence to help them achieve their horticultural and agricultural goals. Before we go further, let it be known that I did not just fly through the farming directory and simply ring anybody with a carrot. Instead I signed up with WWOOF UK and carefully selected places that were looking for volunteers. If you have never heard of WWOOF then apart from it being the only word in a dog's vocabulary it also stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms and is a global non-profit organisation which was established so that farms can advertise for voluntary help in return for room and board.

The garden

The garden

My girlfriend (now wife!) and I had already spent three months volunteering on a non-certified organic vegetable farm in Louisiana so we felt fairly confident in regards to what would be expected of us and what our sleeping and eating arrangements would entail. After spending a few days in busy London with a friend (who is no WWOOFING novice herself) we were both eager to get out into the countryside. I opened my diary and looked at our plan to see 'Next stop, South Wales, Pembrokeshire' written in thick, black ink. Two chuffer trains, one bus and one lost mobile phone later we arrived in Newport town with no way of contacting our hosts to tell them we were there, hence heightening our sense of anticipation. Fortunately for us, David and Anne (our hosts) had been good enough to look for their future Wwoofers and they found us floundering around at the side of the road, walking the wrong direction out of town. Immediately we knew that they were pleasant folk, full of interest and intrigue as to who we were and where we were from and as we took the short journey back to their house the sense of anticipation began to wane. 

 

Their house was at the end of a narrow, single track lane surrounded by trees which were themselves encompassed by the rolling, green hills of South Wales. On arrival we were shown our sleeping quarters which turned out to be delightfully quaint, residing in an old caravan with a wood stove, a fridge, a cooker, and a composting toilet. After immersing them in conversation we discovered that Anne was a potter and David was predominantly a cabinet maker, although looking around the house and the actual house itself it seemed there was nothing he could not produce out of wood. Their aim was not to be a working farm but to be as self-sustainable as possible through their garden, only buying staple  
foods in bulk where possible; we did not go short of food. A typical morning breakfast involved freshly made porridge with raisins, apricots, molasses, yoghurt, syrup and a choice of green or ginger tea. Lunch and dinner were even better, heightened by a home-made special brew which was pretty potent! Treated so well with food, we naturally wanted to do our best to help in the garden and our tasks included planting leeks and beetroots, weeding, digging a drainage tunnel, producing beds, and picking Fat Hen (a delicious edible weed      that can be added to soups). 

One of Sally's left-handed drawings

One of Sally's left-handed drawings

Despite the fact that we knew we were only staying with David and Anne for a week it was hard not to feel at home with them and develop a routine. Waking up on only my third morning I distinctly remember writing in my diary 'just had my usual breakfast' as if I had been there months. On getting to know our hosts better, it transpired that Anne's father was no other than John Seymour who was a prolific and innovative author of books on sustainability in the 1960's. The sheer amount of knowledge Ann must have been able to acquire from him was evident and although he had passed away, his wife (Sally) still lived with them in the house. She was a wonderful artist who had unfortunately lost the use of her voice and her drawing arm in a stroke and so had valiantly began to pursue drawing pictures with her left-hand. The amount of rehabilitation and patience required to do this could only leave me with a feeling of admiration for her. 

David's knowledge of the local area was fantastic and when we were not working in the garden with Ann he would take us down to the ocean to discover edible beach plants such as Sea Beet and Samphire. We also had the opportunity to visit ancient burial sites, take walks around the old twisted oak forests and even go to a local dance-a-thon led by an African themed musical group called 'Baraka'! 


Time flew by, a day turned into a week and it was time for us to leave David and Anne for our trip to our next farm. WWOOFING is different every single place you go and experiences can be very varied ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous but in regards to this particular small-holding I can honestly say I can't remember another time where I have learnt so much in such a short space of time. Not only was I able to develop my skills in sustainability but also in communication, compassion and confidence. I would recommend it to anybody.