Say Cheese to the Dairy Goddess of Lemoore
The Cheese SolutionMarch 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Christy Canafax
It’s practically the lifeblood of Tulare County. Sure, it has its detractors, but let’s take a minute to appreciate the virtues of milk. It’s one of the USDA Food Pyramid’s essential five food groups and a source of 16 nutrients. Packed with vitamins A and D, calcium and protein, you can thank milk for those sturdy bones and that beautiful hair. Milk is the gift that keeps on giving: butter, ice cream and, yes, of course, cheese – all the cheese.
You’ve got your fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, soft cheeses and hard cheeses, and all the in-between cheeses; common cheeses like cheddar and the rarer, unintelligible cheeses like Milbenkäse. There are goat cheeses and cow cheeses and even donkey cheeses – yes, a Serbian Pule that costs about $600 a pound. Ah, cheese, you’re as beautiful as you are diverse.
Cheese makers and mongers, like vintners and viticulturists, are historically rich and remote professions. Like wine, cheese has a localized history dating back to the Old World: Spanish Manchego, Italian Parmesans, English Cheddars and French Brie. Perhaps wine and cheese pair so well together because of their deep traditions and pedigree. No wonder California couldn’t break into the international wine scene until the ’70s – through the eyes of their European forebears, Californian vintners must have looked like upstarts. Similarly, California is still the new kid on the cheese block. But California cheese makers are doing it right: there’s Point Reyes Blue and Humboldt Fog and, just around the corner in Lemoore, an award-winning Fromage Blanc.
In 2010, Barbara Martin, aka the Dairy Goddess, began making cheese in her husband’s 250-square-foot office. Though new to cheese making, the Martins have their dairy pedigrees, dating back three generations. In fact, says Martin, “Our family farms were only three miles from each other.” In 2006, they relocated to Lemoore from Chino “because it became really difficult to farm down in Southern California,” she explains. “So we just decided to move our cows up here,” and they started Tony Martin Dairy.
Like most dairy farmers, the Martins struggled in 2009. “We lost some 400 dairies in California, and I felt like we were going to lose everything,” says Martin. “I thought, now I have to do something to take control of our milk.”
For some of us, cheese is the answer to all life’s problems. But for the Martins, cheese really proved a practical solution in a struggling market. Martin, who took a cheese-making class at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2008, began using their farm’s milk to make fresh cheese, which she then sold at farmer’s markets. When she proposed the idea to her husband, “well, he was leery,” Martin admits. “We had no background in marketing or cheese making. We’re farmers, so he was apprehensive… Things were tight, and it was a risk.”
That risk quickly paid dividends. Martin transformed her husband’s office into a cheese factory, where she created recipes for Fromage Blanc, a fresh, yogurt-like, French-style cheese. She has a plain “Naked” Fromage Blanc, but she also makes others, “my favorite flavors named after my favorite places,” she explains. That includes a bacon and ranch “Ol’ West” and a spicy red pepper “Azores” Fromage Blanc, a nod to her family’s origin.
Martin’s cheese is proof that you don’t necessarily need years of experience to do something well. “I just won first place at the American Cheese Society Awards,” says Martin. Her “Valley” Fromage Blanc, a peaches, almonds, and honey flavored cheese, took the blue ribbon in the flavored fresh cheese category. “It’s pretty exciting to be my size and win a nationally recognized cheese award,” she admits. And with more than 1,800 cheese makers participating in the competition, it’s safe to say that Dairy Goddess is doing something right.
Besides Fromage Blanc, Dairy Goddess also makes cheese curds and bottles non-homogenized milks. “I’m actually the only one in California that does non-homogenized whole chocolate milk,” she points out. But she hasn’t and doesn’t want to stop there. She’s expanded beyond local farmer’s markets and now sells her products in Northern California Whole Foods stores, “and I should be starting in Southern California soon.” Martin hopes to add more cold storage and an aging room, which would allow her to make hard cheeses like cheddar. Maybe in the future, she mulls, since they’ve recently expanded the old office by 300 square feet to accommodate her growing business.
Does Martin’s husband expect ever to get his office back? “No,” she laughs, “but he’s been with me every step of the way.” He’s even suggested they rename their dairy to Dairy Goddess. “The dairy industry is such a male-oriented place, so for him to relinquish his own name to Dairy Goddess,” says Martin, that just goes to show “how much he stands behind the product.”