These California Cheesemakers Don't Want to Go Big

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These California Cheesemakers Don't Want to Go Big

“I don’t want to get to the point where we have to hire people,” says cheesemaker Marco Moramarco, who owns the exquisitely small-scale Pazzo Marco Creamery with his partner, Paul Vierra.

The road to Pazzo Marco Creamery begins in Gualala, California, a small town hugging the rugged Northern California coast, about three hours north of San Francisco. It winds east, away from the ocean, into a world of towering redwoods that filter the wan fall sunlight into glowing shafts that would turn the most dedicated skeptic into a mystic. Eventually, the road turns to dirt, and bumps downhill past hand-lettered signs and dust-covered pickup trucks to Marco Moramarco's piece of land, which he owns with his partner of 25 years, Paul Vierra. They have a house they built off the grid, a couple of cats, a black lab rescue named Howard, and, of course, a creamery.

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Really, though, the road to Pazzo Marco Creamery begins in 1990, when Marco met Paul in San Francisco. (Paul was in drag, Marco will tell you with a teasing smirk.) Maybe it began even before that, with Marco's food-obsessed Italian heritage and his detail-obsessed, scientifically inclined personality. It's what led two hard-working members of the Bay Area's steadily booming tech industry to make their way north, away from San Francisco and into the woods, and on the road to making the very best small batch dairy products imaginable. Their creamery's name stems from this somewhat drastic shift. "People kept telling me I was crazy for pursuing this!" Marco says with a laugh. Pazzo Marco—"Crazy Marco" in Italian—became their calling card.

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Marco Moramarco and Paul Vierra. Photos by Alex Kleeman.

Their products, the cheese specifically, are what led me here to the Pazzo Marco creamery for the third time in about five years. I first came to know Marco and Paul through their gelato, a sinfully creamy concoction featuring local milk and ingredients like huckleberries (which grow wild on the nearby coast) and candy cap mushrooms (foraged in the woods near their home). It was and is the best gelato I've ever had, including the real-deal Italian stuff. Upon learning that the two were deep in the midst of pursuing cheese—their original dairy-based passion—I knew that this development was bound to be a big one, not least because it would surely be delicious.

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It was also an important next step for a local, small-batch, artisanal food production company that takes those descriptors very, very seriously. Marco and Paul are unwilling to grow their business or expand their distribution if it means making any kind of compromises regarding the quality of their product. And in a world where constant growth seems to be the inherent goal, their movement in another direction remains an important reminder of the benefits of actually staying small.

The terms "local,""small-batch," and "artisanal" have, at this point, been rendered almost meaningless. Domino's and Dunkin' Donuts have been known to tack them on to products, while spirits brands will call just about anything "craft." Lately, smaller craft breweries have been bought out by big brands looking for a "local, small-batch" feather for their beer sales cap. In cheese, even genuinely artisanal brands like Bay Area-based Cowgirl Creamery are small-batch only relative to the Krafts of the world; they process five to six thousand gallons of milk per week, and distribute through Whole Foods around the country.

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Pazzo Marco Creamery. Marco with his cheeses.

This disconnect between trendy food terminology and truly artisanal, small-batch production becomes all the more striking after spending a day at Pazzo Marco, where the team is a grand total of two, the gallon count is in tens, and just about everything is done by hand.

Marco and Paul have just gotten back from Stornetta Dairy in Manchester when we arrive at the creamery on a Tuesday morning at 9:30 AM. It's about 25 minutes from their house—"25 there and 38 back," Paul tells us as he and Marco lug the 100-pound jugs of milk from the back of their inside.

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"If we drive too fast, we jostle the milk and break up the fat globules," Marco calls from over his shoulder. "With gelato, it matters less, so we can drive a little faster!" The milk jugs are hauled inside the creamery, which, with its bright lights and spotlessly clean, bright surfaces, could be a chemistry lab. At just 480 square feet, it serves as the base for all of their cheese and gelato production.

It doesn't take long to realize that this scientific knowledge of the structure of the milk—the way it behaves differently when making cheese versus gelato, and the importance of these chemical processes—is deeply woven into Marco's approach to his craft. When he began experimenting with gelato (in his kitchen, using a neighbor's excess goat's milk), he went to Italy to study it at the source. When he began digging into his passion for cheese, he went to Vermont (three times), took courses at Sonoma State University, and read "a lot of books."

"I'm still reading," he says. "There's so much to learn, so much to understand."

Participating in cheesemaking with Marco and Paul is more a science lesson than anything. Marco will patiently explain each step of the process, from the stirring and heating of the milk, to the addition of culture and rennet, to the constant pH testing to ensure that the milk is reaching the correct acidity level as it transforms into cheese.

Moments of downtime—as the milk heats or the cheese is pressed—are filled with meticulous note-taking, checks on cheese wheels aging in their "cheese cave" next door (a 120-square-foot wooden hut-like room outfitted with spruce boards and a serious temperature control system), and a couple of affogato breaks. There is a freezer full of gelato, after all.

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They're making Madrone Grove today, a semi-hard, Tomme-like cheese that's aged for 90 to 120 days. Taste-wise, it's reminiscent of a sharp cheddar, with an earthy, almost musky flavor courtesy of the ash-colored rind. The rind's color and character are products of the microbiology of the surrounding environment—specifically, their location in the woods, kind of in the middle of nowhere.

"We couldn't make this cheese, or any of our cheeses, anywhere else," Marco says.

In addition to Madrone Grove, they currently have one other cheese in production—L'Amitie, a creamy, Camembert-style cheese—with plans for a washed-rind iteration (called Rosette), and possibly, a duo latte cheese featuring Stornetta cow's milk and sheep's milk from a friend down in Petaluma.

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Packing the curds into molds.

While the location is an essential contributing factor to the flavor profile of their cheese, it also comes with a number of challenges. Winter storms can reliably be counted to knock out the power, and although the creamery has backup generators, they're not strong enough to power the cheesemaking equipment. Paul and Marco watch the weather carefully and avoid starting a batch anytime it looks like it might storm. Transporting milk into the creamery and finished products out of it requires long drives on winding roads. And sometimes, the local population doesn't understand why a wedge of cheese costs $20, regardless of the time and energy put into it.

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But for them, the benefits outweigh the challenges. The creamery is on their property, and is walking distance from their house, both of which they built themselves. And the community that they live in steps up to support them far more often than not.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent acquisition of a brand new cheese vat—"the Cadillac of vats!" Marco says proudly as he shows off the 52-gallon, $35,000, Dutch-made beast. It can make up to 15 large wheels of cheese at a time; previously, they had been using a small vat that could make three. Marco had considered using Kickstarter to help cover the costs, and told a couple of friends who had come by to help make cheese. A couple weeks later, the same friends presented him with a check, saying simply, "Your Kickstarter's complete." A group of ten had banded together to help offset the costs.

More than anything, the vat has allowed them to think about expanding their distribution beyond the immediate community (possibly as far south as San Francisco), which they're planning on doing this coming spring. This was never a possibility with the gelato production—Marco refuses to add chemical stabilizers to his gelato, making it virtually impossible to transport it more than a few miles without it melting. Cheese has a "less delicate" structure, he tells us, and can more easily survive the trip.

Even with these expansion plans in place, Marco wants to be very sure they don't grow too much.

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"I don't want to get to the point where we have to hire people," Marco says. "Sure, maybe we'll occasionally have a friend come help out, but I don't want to manage people. I did that for 25 years, and I don't want to do it again."

It's evident that, for Marco, the hands-on aspect of cheesemaking is the point. The new vat has mechanized some of the cheese processes—it has paddle attachments that automatically stirs the milk as it heats—but Marco still cuts the cheese curds by hand and packs them into molds himself. He's up to his elbows in the vat, feeling the consistency of the tender, flan-like curds, tending to their changing texture.

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He and Paul have a rhythm to their work, bantering and occasionally bickering. They come together to enjoy last night's leftover soup and a bottle of wine as a timer, which goes off every half hour, causes Marco to run inside and flip the steadily solidifying wheels. It's cheesemaking on their terms, in the home that they've built, and the community that they've made their own.

"In bigger creameries, you'll see all these mechanical systems," Marco says as he gently presses the curds into their wheel-shaped mold. "But I think it tastes different, cheese that's handmade like this. It just tastes better."