How to Experience the Bay Area Like a Cheesemonger

One whole, free day to spare in San Francisco before our course at The Cheese School began meant that Alicia and I had already spent an entire day on cheese tourism in the Bay Area before the real cheesiness started.

“How cheesy is the Bay Area?” you might be asking yourself. Really cheesy, actually.

Aside from the fact that Northern California is crawling with artisanal creameries—including some that use water buffalo milk!—the urban areas that are easily connected by the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) light rail system are rich with cheese opportunities.

We didn’t have a chance to get up North to the Napa-Sonoma wine and cheese corridor, but you can be sure that we’re filing it away for future trips (and you should, too!).

Just check out this section of the California Cheese Trail map that stretches from Pescadero (which is home to Harley Farms Goat Dairy, which we did visit with the Cheese School) to Sebastopol (with Redwood Hill Farm, another famous goat dairy).

For the record, both Napa and Sebastopol are about an hour’s drive north of the City, and Pescadero is about an hour’s drive south. Whether you rent a car or bring your own, cheeseland isn’t too far off the Bay Area’s well-beaten paths.

Nevertheless, we had our sights set on some places we could easily attain access to on foot (or BART) during our day of freedom.

We started that day first by having breakfast at our hotel. Hilton now does this thing where you get free “grab and go” breakfast from a shop that resembles a convenience store married to a café.

The directions say you get any coffee drink you want, a whole piece of fruit, and a pastry. Once we overcame the learning curve of not being sure what counted and not wanting to look like dingbats for not knowing, we sat down with our fare.

Alicia had a banana and a small latte, bypassing the pastry because she wanted to save her gluten intolerance for the best kinds of gluten that were going to be totally worth it. I had a larger latte, a banana, and—drumroll—a cheese Danish. (Bah-dum-tss.)

After our nutritious breakfast, we got some exercise in by walking from our hotel in Union Square down Market Street to the Ferry Building, where we made sure that Acme Bakery still had a storefront, affirmed that the name of the ice cream shop we both remembered was Humphry Slocombe, pointed at the “tasty salted pig parts” sign in the Boccalone Salumeria shop and giggled like idiot teenagers, and then attacked our primary target, the Cowgirl Creamery cheese shop.

We probably spent 45 minutes in that tiny little shop, pointing at cheeses, taking pictures, comparing “ours” versus “theirs,” tasting a few things, talking cheesemonger talk with the shop’s mongers, and marveling at the selection of local cheeses before walking out with $40 worth of cheese each. Yes, we spent our day walking around with bags full of cheese. No apologies here, folks.

I couldn’t resist dragging Alicia to Berkeley to experience the town I had lived in and loved for nearly three years during my PhD program. I would live there again in a heartbeat, if I could ever afford it—and after only a few hours there, Alicia felt the same way.

After a fun BART right beneath the San Francisco Bay (Alicia didn’t believe me when I told her we were going under the bay; it’s true!) and through Oakland, we emerged from the Downtown Berkeley BART station and walked up Shattuck Avenue to Cheese Board Pizza, where we lunched on steamy slices topped with arugula, asparagus, mozzarella, and parm.

 

The pizza was bomb, as the kids these days say (or is it “dank?”); the ingredients tasted incredibly fresh—a phenomenon that truly characterizes California cuisine.

Plus they had Double 8 Dairy’s buffalo-milk soft serve, and it was the smoothest, silkiest cold dessert ever. I’m not a huge fan of “plain” vanilla desserts in general, but this stuff was super refreshing on such a warm day.

After the best lunch in the world, we stopped in to the iconic Cheese Board Collective, the adjacent cheese shop owned by the same group that started the pizza joint. The cheese shop, which also has a coffee bar and serves up fresh-baked bread and pastries, predates the pizzeria.

We marveled at the style of mongering at Cheese Board, in which all of the cheeses were cut to order, all of the customers seemed to be out for large amounts of cheese, and none of the cheeses had signs to tell you what they were. We relied on our special monger senses to pick up on which cheeses were what and imagine what the things could be that we didn’t recognize.   

It was a blazing 70 degrees, too hot for two cheesemongers from chilly Seattle in their long-sleeved shirts, but we still managed to march back to Downtown Berkeley from Cheese Board without dying.

From there, we trudged up through the UC Berkeley campus, stopping first to pee in my old stomping ground, Dwinelle Hall, then checking out the Campanile tower, squinting at the smoggy view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and gushing over the stunning interior of the Doe Library before heading back to the light rail and jet setting one whole stop away to go visit Berkeley Bowl.

Probably the only people who visit grocery stores on vacation are people who work in grocery stores themselves. It’s a kind of tourism, you could say—seeing how “they” do it differently from us.

But more than anything, we “insiders” know local grocery stores are the best place to go looking for things you can’t get back home.

I feel it’s a better type of tourism. Rather than bringing home overpriced, cheap junk from some crap stand in the middle of tourist-central, you find things that are unique to the area, that you can really enjoy with all of your senses, and which also feed money back into the local economy.

Which is the type of stuff we looked for at Berkeley Bowl, and found. (Sort of.) I walked out with yet more cheese and a mandarin I didn’t end up eating until we got home, and Alicia walked out with three flavors of Highball energy drink that she’d never seen before—each of us feeding our own addictions.

It had been a few years since I’d been to Berkeley Bowl (I actually shopped at Monterey Market when I lived in Berkeley), and the sheer size of the Oregon Street store’s produce department nearly brought me to tears. We have nothing like it in Washington. It’s gorgeous; it’s gigantic; it’s a food-lover’s paradise.

  

So much great produce in one place. I could pitch a tent and live there forever.

Also, their cheese department was perhaps the largest we’d ever seen–their cases piled much higher than we are allowed to back home.

   

Once we had finished wandering through the produce department and stopping store traffic as we snapped selfies with all of the oranges, we went back to the City where we popped into a clothing store—I’m too embarrassed to disclose which one; just know there are many options in Union Square—to buy a selection of short-sleeved attire more appropriate for the bone-drying heat of Northern California.

(Anyone who has lived in the Bay Area should laugh at this. We Pacific Northwesterners are a weak and delicate breed.)

We should probably have headed from Berkeley Bowl to the Market Hall Foods in Rockridge before returning to San Francisco, but we may have been a bit worn out by that point. Full disclosure: my feet hurt. Also: I regret that we did not make it to Market Hall.

After a rest, a change of clothes, and a reapplication of deodorant in our hotel room, we hit the streets once more, heading to the Mission in search of an evening of fine dining delights.

My goal was to guide us to Mission Dolores Park and Bi-Rite Creamery—a pairing of food and scenery that was central to my San Francisco experience as a PhD student—but I am a directional dum-dum and went the wrong way, taking us instead the way of the Cheese School (score anyway, now we knew how to get there!) and a roundabout back from whence we came.

Along the way, we stumbled upon Mission Cheese and decided to get a cheese flight before dinner. We let the staff know we were fellow mongers visiting from Seattle and chatted a bit as we decided to try the Midwest Cheese Flight in order to broaden our knowledge of American cheeses.

 

While we waited for the wedges to be cut from the wheels in their awesome cases, we settled down with some California red wine to accompany our fare. Alicia had a Pinot Noir from Lompoc Wine Company, and I had a Grenache from Helmet Wine.

Our server brought our flight, welcomed us as fellow comrades, and let us know they’d included a fourth cheese in the lineup just for us. The flight included cow’s milk bloomy-rind Bent River (Alemar Cheese), cow’s milk Alpine-style Little Mountain (Roelli House), and sheep’s milk Big Woods Blue (Shepherd’s Way Farms), plus cow’s milk washed-rind Good Thunder (Alemar Cheese).

I adored that all of the cheeses’ names were nature-themed. Not only was the nature theme unexpected, but so was the goodness of the cheeses.

Our tasting skills were really on point that evening, which whet our appetites for more cheese and got us amped for the next day’s class. We didn’t take notes on the tasting, but we really should have. All I remember is that Bent River was our favorite; it was gooey, supple, and delicious.

Of course, cheese doesn’t fill up a real cheesemonger, so we went back out in search of dinner food after the cheese was finished making our mouths and our minds happy.

Although it seems to have fallen from grace in the years since I lived in the Bay Area, Mission Chinese was still the inevitable spot to hit up. I don’t care what the critics say, the food was delicious beneath the atrocious lighting, purposely tacky décor, and bumping club music.

I had the classic chow mein with beef and Alicia had the sour chili chicken. There were no leftovers.

Sadly, there was no room left for Bi-Rite ice cream that night; early morning transit to the Cheese School loomed large in our minds after dinner, as did the prospect of not having to be on our feet any longer.

Yet we did manage to get some ice cream on Sunday once our class got out.

For the uninitiated, getting ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery entails waiting in line for a customary 45 minutes and nearly peeing your pants in the meantime. The payoff is delicious, sweet ice cream in flavors like honey lavender, black sesame, and boozy Irish cream.

In true grocery-store cheesemonger form, we also paid a visit to the Bi-Rite Market down the street, as well as a few Hispanic grocery stores in the Mission, to see what other cheeses, beers, and chocolates we were missing in our lives.

There were a few, and we bought we them.

 

Now, we didn’t get to all of the cheesy sites in the City or the Bay Area at large. Some notable cheesy places we missed are:

Planning your own cheese pilgrimage to the Bay Area? Or hoping to fold cheese into a normal weekend in the City? Then check out some of the places we did make it to.

1 thought on “How to Experience the Bay Area Like a Cheesemonger

  1. Wow!! You guys really covered some ground! Wish we had cheesy places to visit in our neck of the woods. 😉

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