Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Visit to Fiscalini Farmstead

 fiscalini-3aFrom a modest farming town in California comes a Cheddar that recently won acclaim as World’s Best Extra Mature Traditional Cheddar. This is the first time the Wyke Farms Trophy has been awarded to a non-English cheddar. What is even more amazing  is that Fiscalini Cheese Company of Modesto, California has only been making cheese of any kind since 2000.

This award wasn’t just luck, however. In the past five years Fiscalini 18-month aged Bandaged Cheddar has garnered multiple gold and silver ribbons and “best of” awards in the cheese world’s top competitions. Either the cheese stars are aligned just right for this company or there is a dedicated and talented team at Fiscalini Farmstead. I wanted to meet them.

We found a place to park between meticulous pens of curious, lovely-eyed Holsteins and the unassuming cheese making facility. John Fiscalini, the owner and Mariano Gonzalez, the cheese master welcomed us with warm smiles and a we-have-all-day easiness. John answered our questions about the herd, milk and plans for a new visitor’s center. Mariano supplied cheese related information as we strolled the cheese making and ageing areas.

Mariano is infectiously joyful with a core of uncompromising dedication. He perfected his art at Vermont’s Shelburne Farms developing one of the first domestic bandage-wrapped cow’s milk Cheddars. After his move to sunny California it took him six months to perfect his recipe in this very different environment. The breed of cows was different and so was the milk. The feed, climate, a hundred different influences needed to be taken into account.

To make a great cheese, Mariano pointed out, you have to start with great milk. “When I first came here I saw that the cows were happy, healthy. There weren’t even any flies! The focus on quality milk made the decision easy to accept a job here.”

John Fiscalini is equally passionate and particular. He described his job as being “head of high quality milk”. The farm maintains its own closed herd of Holsteins. Mariano would like to see some Brown Swiss cows introduced to the farm but John is reluctant. No new cows have come into his herd in ten years, making their health and the bacteriological levels in their milk easy to control and above industry standards.

The Fiscalini Farmstead was founded in 1914 by John’s Swiss grandparents. But it was not until 2000 that the family decided to expand into making cheese. By selling their milk in bulk to large companies the Fiscalinis were forever at the mercy of fluctuating milk prices and bothered by the lack of control over their milk.

John didn’t realize that the flow from dairyman to cheese producer is not a natural one. It is an entirely different product and business. “I don’t have the background to do the marketing” admitted John. But he has a plan. His son Brian, now a senior at Cal Poly, is graduating with an Agri-business degree. Brian spent one summer making cheese along side Mariano “and that’s what changed his life!” jokes Mariano. John’s older daughter works in the company office. His younger daughter he claims will be great working with visitors when they build the new visitors center.

Mariano is expanding the line of cheeses Fisaclini produces. The Bandaged Cheddar accounts for about 45% of their production. San Joaquin Gold, an award-winning non-cheddar style, is another 45%. They also produce a small line of flavored cheddars. Both John and Mariano spoke excitedly about their new Alpine style cheese called Lionza. It is named after the home village of the Fiscalini family in Southern Switzerland.

Several years ago John, Mariano and their wives visited Lionza village. Mariano extracted bits of cheese making lore from the local producers determined to make the local Alpine style cheese in California. We tasted their 6-month aged Lionza, which was tiny-eyed and wonderfully buttery with a lightly caramel-milk flavor. John said he has been blown away by the response and demand for this cheese which is in very small production.
The day we arrived John told us the county planning commission had just approved his plans for expanding the facilities to welcome visitors. The plans call for new underground ageing rooms, one for each type of cheese they produce. Educational areas will include a commercial kitchen to highlight guest chefs, conference room for wine and cheese pairing and a retail area. John would like more public events, but that is another hurdle given the local farm land protection act. But they are hopeful of having the new facility presentable, if not open, for a gigantic Christmas celebration this year. We hope to be there to help celebrate with the Fiscalini team.

Read more about Fiscalini Cheese Company and order on-line:

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.


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