From sharp and pungent to milky and creamy, specialty cheeses come in all types and flavors. And whether you're a novice or a cheese lover, the Valley has something for nearly every appetite.
The Whole Foods Market at Fig Garden Village in Fresno stocks more than 400 varieties of cheese, including several from the Valley. The store's cheesemongers recently cracked open two 85-pound wheels of aged Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy.
A crowd of about 30 people feasted on samples of the sharp and versatile hard cheese.
"People in the Valley really like to eat cheese, and especially when it comes from local cheese producers," says Alexa Popplewell, marketing team leader at Whole Foods in Fresno.
Cheesemakers hope to grow the local market for cheese, much like what's been done for the region's burgeoning wine and olive oil industries.
Already, new restaurants such as the Pinot Wine Bar and Bistro in the Tower District offer cheese plates that give customers a range of flavors from the nutty tasting Manchego to a smooth-tasting white cheddar.
Longtime cheesemaker Bill Boersma urges customers who are unfamiliar with his award-winning blue and cheddar cheeses to eat them slowly. Roll it around your mouth, he reminds people.
"When I first started in this business and I would take a big bite of cheese, it was almost like biting into aspirin," says Boersma, creator of Bravo Farms cheddar cheese and now operator of 9th Street Cheese. "But if you eat slowly, it is amazing how truly satisfied you get."
Boersma is making several cheeses, including a blue cheese that he sells at his small factory at 128 N. 9th St. in Fowler.
A full-bodied and savory cheese, Boersma says his blue cheese works well with crusty bread and a robust wine. And he likes to crumble it on salads or barbecued steak.
Boersma has been making cheese for more than a decade and has been joined over the years by others, including Fagundes Old World Cheese in Hanford, Dairy Goddess Farmstead Cheese in Lemoore and the newest player in the market, Nancy Vajretti, owner of Love and Garlic, a Fresno-based catering company.
Vajretti recently introduced a cheese spread that combines cream cheese and goat's cheese. Although Vajretti is not a cheesemaker, she created the spread several years ago and began selling it at her clients request.
The spread comes in three flavors: fig walnut, lemon garlic artichoke and roasted garlic.
As a chef, Vajretti uses the spreads on crackers, breads and bagels when serving appetizers. The lemon garlic and roasted garlic also work well in pasta dishes or slathered on a hamburger.
The spreads are available at Water to Wine, 522 Pollasky Ave., Clovis, and by contacting Love and Garlic at (559) 438-8677.
Barbara Martin of Dairy Goddess Farmstead Cheese sells her soft, spreadable flavored cheese at several Whole Foods Markets, including Fresno. Martin's cheeses come in seven flavors, ranging from spicy to sweet. They can be used to top appetizers or added to dishes for a smooth and creamy texture.
The Dairy Goddess website -- dairygoddess.com -- also has several recipe ideas.
"We wanted to create something that people could easily use and have some fun with," Martin says.
For those interested in cheese, check out the selection at Whole Foods; the Market at West and Herndon avenues in Fresno; and Sumner Peck Ranch Fruit stands at 14439 N. Friant Road, Friant, and 14860 Highway 41, Madera. Also try Simonian Farms, 2629 S. Clovis Ave.