The Culture Club

Buttery and Creamy, with a Bit of Tang

By / Photography By Stacy Ventura | May 20, 2016
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Pack Bleating Heart’s Goldette Tommette in Your Picnic Basket This Summer

We are excited to introduce a new department in Edible Marin & Wine Country that will highlight a different local artisan-crafted cheese in each issue. With so many world-class cheeses produced here in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties, we expect that this is going to keep us busy, and our readers entertained, for a very long time.

Gary Fitzgerald, the cheese specialist at Whole Foods East Blithedale in Mill Valley, has agreed to serve as our tour guide on the local cheese trail.

In 2014, Gary became one of just over 400 people in the United States to be named a Certified Cheese Professional by the American Cheese Society. The mission of the ACS is to provide the cheese community with educational resources and networking opportunities, while encouraging the highest standards of cheesemaking focused on safety and sustainability. Peggy Smith, co-founder of groundbreaking and award-winning cheese producer Cowgirl Creamery, is the current chair of the ACS board of directors.

In order to become certified by the ACS, applicants must study for months and pass a rigorous written test of their knowledge not only of a vast array of cheeses, but also best practices for safety and handling.

Like many of us, myself included, Gary, who grew up in a working-class area on the South Side of Chicago, says his first experiences of “cheese” consisted of the likes of Velveeta, Kraft American cheese slices, Cheez Whiz, Cheez-It crackers and Kraft macaroni and cheese. He recalls the excitement when he and his brothers discovered Cheez Whiz in the aerosol can. “The possibilities were endless.”

He’s come a long way, baby.

Gary joined the Whole Foods team at their Miller Avenue store in Mill Valley in 2007. The deli at the Miller Avenue location is just across the aisle from the Specialty Cheese counter. He jokes that he spent many hours standing next to the chicken rotisserie, sweat pouring down his face, while looking at the Specialty Cheese team members having calm, intelligent discussions with customers about cheese.

As soon as he got the opportunity, he made the leap across the aisle. “It’s a very interesting department,” he says. “Aside from a brief, enjoyable trip to Guadalajara, I haven’t been out of the country. However, through cheese and wine (and Google Earth), I’ve traveled the world.”

Clearly well-suited to his new department, Gary was named the cheese buyer at Whole Foods’ larger East Blithedale store in Mill Valley when it opened in June of 2010. He says he decided to apply to take the ACS exam, even knowing how grueling it would be, because he “always likes learning something new, never knowing where it may take me.”

He also likes sharing what he knows with his customers, and continuing to learn from them, as well. “I enjoy listening and learning from customers; hearing stories about favorite cheeses they’ve encountered locally, or on an overseas holiday. After the summer, customers will often stop by and share stories, looking for a cheese. By listening to their description I’ll try to find that cheese, or one similar but new. Often it involves going online and I’ll learn something new. Of course, nothing can be duplicated. Having Roquefort and a great Cabernet shared with a romantic interest while on a holiday in the French Pyrenees won’t be the same back home. Food and wine is not just about taste, it also involves atmosphere.”

Reflecting on the local cheese scene, Gary says, “We’re fortunate to have many outstanding cheesemakers and dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma Counties. They’re not just admired locally, but in many cases internationally. There are also new young cheesemakers to be found at our farmers’ markets. By supporting local products, you’re supporting local communities and those involved in the production. Of course, less travel time is also better for the environment and the products taste better.”

To launch this new department, Gary’s pick is Bleating Heart Cheese’s Goldette Tommette. Here’s why, in his own words:

While very much a fan of sheep milk cheeses, I have selected Bleating Heart’s rich Jersey cow milk cheese Goldette Tommette for this first issue of The Culture Club. The cheese is a small 11/2-pound lightly washed semi-firm raw milk tomme.

The milk comes from Marshall Home and Ranch Dairy in the tiny West Marin town of Tomales. The dairy’s milk holding tank is located about 20 feet from Bleating Heart’s cheese vat.

The Jersey cows are 100% grass fed when fresh grass is available, so cheeses made in the spring will contain only grass-fed milk, but during the drier summer and fall seasons, the cows’ feed is supplemented with hay.

The seasonal grass-fed-milk cheeses taste a bit richer with (appropriate) grassy undertones, however both fresh and dry grass milk versions are excellent, very buttery and creamy, with a bit of a tang.

The cheese is aged 2–3 months on California redwood boards that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The rind is 100% natural and edible.

The complex flavor of Goldette Tommette is most pronounced at room temperature. It’s a very pleasant and versatile cheese, excellent for cheese plates and also cooking, as it melts beautifully. It can also be used with a girolle, or cheese curler.

Bleating Heart makes cheeses using sheep and cow milk, as well as blends. They make the only water buffalo milk blue cheese in the United States (their Buff Blue). Outstanding, I’d like to add.

I appreciate that the owners, husband and wife team Seana Doughty and Dave Dalton, are relatively new, hardworking cheesemakers who source everything locally. They only work with small, family-run local dairies.

For a locally produced and delicious pairing, I recommend serving Goldette Tommette with Napa-based La Saison’s Rosemary Olive Oil Roasted Almonds and Pey-Marin’s 2014 “The Shell Mound” Riesling. It’s a dry, refreshing and very crisp wine perfect on a warm summer afternoon. Add some olives, local honey and a crusty baguette, and height of the season summer fruits like peaches, figs and berries, and you’ve got the perfect picnic.

[Editor’s note: For in depth classes on pairing and cooking with local cheeses, check out the great line up of offerings at The Fork, the culinary center at Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. Many of their classes and events are listed in the Edible Events Calendar in this issue, or see their full calendar online at]

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