Berkeley writer Dayna Macy, like many of us, forged a complicated relationship with food as a child. Ravenous, her newly released food-and-yoga memoir, details her yearlong quest to uncover the origins of her obsessions, reporter-style, by interviewing farmers, food artisans, butchers, a Zen chef, a forager, and a chocolatier, among others. In this excerpt from Chapter 2, a cheese-craving Macy pays an attentive visit to Sebastopol’s Redwood Hill Creamery.
Chapter 2: Cheese
I place a wedge of Cambozola, a triple-cream French blue cheese, on a plate. I cut some and spread it on to a piece of fresh Acme sweet baguette. As I bite, my mouth sinks into the luscious creamy texture of the cheese. I feel the crunch of the hot baguette as I taste the tang of the blue veins mingled with the sweet creaminess of the milk: perfection.
I wrap the cheese up and put it away, but instantly, it calls me back. I cut myself a little more, smear it on another bit of baguette, and repeat the experience. It is just as perfect. I do this again and again, until the wedge is gone.
I adore triple-cream cheeses like Cambozola and Brie. But once I start, I have a hard time stopping. My love for them is probably responsible for more than a few of my pounds. Which is why I’m now standing in the aging room of Redwood Hill Creamery, a goat cheese, kefir, and yogurt maker located in Sebastopol, about an hour north of San Francisco.
“Cheese making is an intimate conversation between the cheesemaker and the cheese,” says Erika Scharfen, the head cheesemaker. I’m watching Erika and her assistant give a cider wash to the Gravenstein Gold, one of their seasonal raw milk cheeses. The bright orange rinds cast an other-worldly glow, and the scents of goat milk and thyme fill the air. “The look of the milk tells me what its potential is, and how I choose to work with it,” she continues. “The end result is always a collaboration between me and the milk.”
“Why did you become a cheesemaker?” I ask.
She pauses then says, “Because of the smell. I remember when I was in college studying dairy production and processing, I visited several dairy processing plants that were entirely mechanized and smelled like cold walk-in boxes. But then I visited Vella Cheese in Sonoma, and I liked the smells of the warm milk and of the wood in the aging rooms.
“I know most people don’t have positive associations with the smell of mold, but to me it just smells right. It smells of nature, of things left undisturbed.”
She tells me cheese is made from just a few ingredients: milk, lactic acid bacteria culture, rennet or another coagulant, salt, and, in the case of surface-ripened cheeses (where the ripening process starts on the surface and progresses to the interior), mold and yeast cultures. But it all begins with milk.
“I’m still in awe of the fact that in cheesemaking you start with essentially one ingredient—milk—and with not much else, create something so completely different,” she says. “Liquid changes to solid, textures change as the solid curd ages, aromas and flavors. All of the elements of a cheese are already in the milk. Time just moves these elements down a certain path.”
I’m 11 and I want to write. I already have two important qualities a writer needs—a curious mind and a love of words. But I am still young enough to believe all artists are born, not made through hard work.
I want to write a book about a disaffected girl named Jill. She would run away from her suburban parents and live on the streets where, despite all odds, she would find a boyfriend who truly loved her. I take out a small ream of lined paper and write the title “Why Jill Why,” then stop. I’m nervous about writing, so I go into our kitchen to find something to eat to soothe myself. I open the mustard-colored refrigerator. I ignore the Velveeta and Kraft singles, and then I see the foil-wrapped wedges of Laughing Cow cheese. I take the cheese back to my room, sit down on my thick, pink shag carpet, and pull the wedge’s red tab down the center, splitting the foil apart. The cheese is soft and innocuous. I stick my finger in, digging some out, and lick it off.
I start writing the first line—I no longer remember what I wrote. Then immediately, I stop.
“Who gave me permission to write?” I think. “Who ever said I could?”
I stare at the mostly blank page, and after what seemed like one very long moment, I make a decision that would limit my creative life for a long time to come: I put the paper back in the box and close the lid. Then, I pick up the cheese, dig the rest of it out with my finger, and eat it.
It would be another 20 years before I figured out that eating can’t replace creating. And that no one could give me permission to write except myself.
I leave Erika and make my way through the humming and whirring of the creamery floor. I walk past the cheese-making rooms with their enormous vats and draining tables, and past the aging rooms full of yeasty smells, and up a flight of stairs to the office of Redwood Hill Farm’s owner, Jennifer Bice.
Jennifer is a pioneer in the artisanal cheese movement. She’s been around goats her whole life, ever since her parents bought the farm and moved her and her nine brothers and sisters from Los Angeles to Sebastopol in the late ’60s. David Bice, one of Jennifer’s brothers who acts as our tour guide, tells us the farm started with just two goats. Today, the herd numbers around 350.
He leads me and two cheese buyers who are also on the tour into the center of the room, where I see a tasting table displaying many of the farm’s award-winning cheeses.
Jennifer invites us to dig in, and as we begin, she tells us that Redwood Hill is the first of five goat dairies in the United States that qualified for the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label. This means, in part, that a third-party has verified that the goats are raised with shelter, resting areas, and sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors, and that the goats’ food contains no antibiotics or hormones.
The first cheeses we try are the fresh chevres. They are fluffy, creamy, and a little dry. I especially like their softness and sourness.
We move on to the Crottin, a strong cheese with a wrinkly, slightly bitter rind. The Bucheret also has a bitter rind, but a thick, buttery inside. The interior of the cheese near the rind has turned a little gooey, which can happen as it ripens with age. I love the goo. I put some on a cracker. It’s delicious. We try the cheddar, which is sharp, flaky and dense. I don’t enjoy the smoked cheddar, because I can’t get past the smoky taste. But I adore the fetas—salty, curdy, and intense.
These are so different from the industrialized cheeses of my youth, which the writer Harold McGee calls a “simplified food that could be and is made anywhere, and that tastes of nowhere in particular.” Redwood Hill’s cheeses are distinctly from here—from goats that graze on the ground I’m standing on, whose diet consists largely of native thistles and scrub.
When we’re done, David walks us towards the door that leads back into the creamery. He has kindly offered to show us the farm, and, as much as I enjoy the creamery, the truth is, I can’t wait to meet the goats.
“Follow my truck so you don’t get lost,” he tells us as we leave.
I trail him on the freeway, and then west for a few miles, down a long, winding road, hedged with tangles of blackberry bushes. Everywhere are meadows filled with brilliant yellow sorrel. In the unique ecology of this place, I see olive trees growing next to a redwood grove, which is just over the hill from a copse of palms.
It’s a bright, clear spring day. We’ve finally had rain this month, and the land is grateful. But after several years of drought, the ground is perpetually thirsty. The rain is welcome but much more is needed. I’m glad for a break in the weather, though, because I don’t like wading through mud.
I park and walk a short way on a gravel road toward the first shed. I smell the goats’ animal scent before I see them. The yearlings are in the first pen—black, white, brown, and all combinations thereof. I walk up to the fence, as they poke their heads through, crowding each other to get a sniff of my hand. The yearlings and the younger kids, whose horns have already been removed, are kept separate from the older goats, which are moved into the main barn when they turn 18 months old.
The farm keeps four primary breeds of goats: Alpines, Saanens, LaManchas and Nubians. The first things I notice are their horizontal pupils, which I later learned increases their ability to see peripherally. Then I notice their ears, which are all so different. The Alpines’ stick straight up, while the Saanens’ stick out sideways. The LaManchas’ are stubby and curlicue-shaped while the Nubians, with their long, floppy ears and Roman noses, look like an entirely different species. One Nubian with a fierce overbite reminds me of Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.
I put my hand through the fence and instantly feel a few sets of mouths gumming my fingers. Then I feel a tug on my left side and notice an Alpine chewing on my pocket, while another Alpine starts gnawing on my jacket button.
I ask Trinity Smith, the farm manager, how these breeds differ in personality.
“Of the breeds that we have, the Alpines are the queens. They are dominant, aggressive and rule the roost. If there’s a fight, you can pretty much bet an Alpine is involved.
“The Saanens are the large, lumbering workhorses. They love making milk and do it well, while having the sweetest, most teddy-bear-like personality. Nubians are the softies. They are always looking for a shoulder to lean on, and need reassurance before embarking on any adventure. You constantly have to hold their hoof and pat their back, but once they trust you they become the most caring and loving of all.”
“And the LaManchas?” I ask.
“They are the most high and mighty. They will love you on their terms, not yours, and in their own good time,” Smith says. “They are also the most mischievous of the lot. Any gate that can be opened, fence that can be jumped, wire that can be chewed, you can bet a LaMancha is responsible, grinning all the while.”
As if to prove that point, a LaMancha named Calamity Jane is busy trying to open the gate with her hoof.
We move on from the yearlings and past the milking shed, where I see an elliptical-shaped platform known as a stanchion, equipped with milking hoses. Smith tells me that the goats come here to be milked twice a day.
I hear soft, tiny bleats in the distance, the sound of hungry goat kids, waiting to be fed. We walk through the barn. Smith picks up a big plastic bucket with 10 tubes on the inside attached to nipples on the outside. She fills the bucket with rich goat milk and opens the pen.
They come running—dozens of baby kids, all less than two days old. They are the size of small dogs, each weighing between 4-6 pounds. They have names like Rayna, Coquette, and Estelle, and come in various combinations of white, black, cream, and brown. The larger ones push their way through the throng and start sucking on the bucket’s nipples. Smith occasionally has to help a goat latch his or her mouth on to get good suction.
“Watch this,” she says. She begins petting one of the kids on its back as he sucks from the pail. His tiny tail begins to move, wagging back and forth at warp speed.
“Do they all do that?” I ask.
She motions for me to test it out on another kid. I pick a white and black one and start scratching her back. Her tail starts wagging frantically.
I start scratching the backs of all the kids around the bucket, and their tails move back and forth furiously, like some tiny caprine chorus line.
I feel a knock against the back of my shin. I turn around and a kid is butting me insistently, wanting to get my attention. I pick him up, and nuzzle him under my neck. He bleats softly, nestles in, and starts gumming my earlobe. I sigh. I am madly in love.
I ask Smith to tell me more about the goats: “They are so faithful,” she says. “They’re there whenever I need a shoulder to lean on. They give their full attention. They love you. They get mad at you. And eventually, they forgive you.”
“I could learn a lot from them,” I think, as I reluctantly detach the tiny goat kid from my earlobe.
A few hours later, I’m home in our kitchen. Before I left that morning, I set out some Redwood Hill cheeses I’d bought a few days earlier from The Cheese Board, Berkeley’s famed cheese collective. I put the cheeses out because I knew I’d want to try them again after my visit.
I cut myself a wedge of the Crottin which I enjoy, but am not captivated by it. The Bucheret is a different story. The fat content combined with its buttery thyme flavor is enchanting. I cut a wedge, remove the rind, and take a bite. The cheese is earthy, and I can taste the thistle and scrub in the goats’ milk.
I cut another wedge—creamy and lovely. I eat it, and then cut yet one more. I know so much about this cheese now: who makes it, what fed the goats whose milk turned into it, and just how irresistible those goats are. But so far all this knowledge isn’t helping me master my craving.
And so I take another bite.
Warm Goat Cheese Salad with Peaches and Honey
4 rounds of fresh goat cheese, about 1-inch thick (about 5 oz.)
1/2 cup of breadcrumbs or 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, ground in a food processor to breadcrumb size
10-oz. fresh mixed salad greens (or 2 5-oz. packages) cleaned and spun
2 large peaches, pitted and sliced into 12 wedges each
4 tsp. of good-quality honey
1/4 cup of good-quality extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp. minced garlic or shallot
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375. Dip the rounds of cheese in the breadcrumbs or walnuts, making sure coating is even.
Place rounds on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, and bake until golden, about 10 minutes.
Whisk the vinaigrette ingredients together in small bowl. Pour vinaigrette into salad and mix.
Place some salad on a plate. Place a cheese round on top and arrange peach slices around it. Drizzle cheese with a little bit of honey.
Excerpted from Ravenous: A Food Lover’s Journey from Obsession to Freedom, by Dayna Macy (daynamacy.com). Reprinted with permission by Hay House.
Dayna Macy’s essays have appeared in Self, Salon, Yoga Journal, and many other publications. A managing editor and communications director at Yoga Journal, she lives in Berkeley with her husband (the writer Scott Rosenberg) and two sons.