Barinaga Sheep Ranch: Marshall Matters.
Cows dot hills in California, not sheep. So when a new wheel rolls around with a pretty ewe on the label, people notice. When the cheese it produces rivals Vermont Shepherd in complexity, people start running after the wheels to chase down a taste.
Take a drive down the Pacific coast highway 1, past the signs draping the Sonoma hills with Swiss and Italian dairy names, and if you're lucky, you'll run into the Basque-inspired Barinaga Sheep's Ranch. Located in Marshall, it is the fourth of five certified sheep's milk dairies in California.
After finding that their successful careers in biology and journalism weren't completely fulfilling their passion for the shepherding life to which Marcia Barinaga's Basque family is devoted, the Barinagas headed to Marin. Marcia returned to her family's sheep farms in the Basque country, studied with her shepherd and cheesemaker relatives, and toured creameries until she had a firm grasp of the Pyrenées cheese methods. Upon her return she focused on making two Basque style cheeses- Basseri, and Txiki. The pictured cheese is Txiki.
I was taken even before slicing into it.
The rind is an orange-brown that recalls the coppery tones of the Grand Canyon. It is rippled and rough from basket draining and graced by an occasional pocked depression or two, an affect of aging. Underneath the rind, the Txiki's golden colored layer leads to a cream colored center. The paste is somewhat smooth, with a texture a little like a young pecorino.
The flavors are vibrant. The milk is sweet and buttery like a cow's, lemony and lightly grassy like a goat's, and nutty and earthy like a sheep's. It's sweet and tangy and spicy and shows the beauty of farmhouse cheeses that impress because they never try too hard- they're stunning in their simplicity and are made from beautiful milk. Tasting the rind (remember, this is Spain, not France) too packs an even earthier punch.
Txiki is a little over a pound and small enough to slip into a cloth bag for a shephard's lunch. Or an Oakland picnic near my house. I saw some at the Pasta Shop Market Hall in Oakland, conveniently also near my house, next to the picnic. If you bring the cheese, I'll bring a spicy Tempranillo or Grenache for us to share. Might as well pick up some salami and olives while you're at the market too.
Have you tried Barinaga?