Way out on a winding country road in Northern California is a cheese company that has been making European-style cheeses for more than 150 years. Marin French Cheese Co. has been creating its award-winning products using many of the same cheese-making methods as it did more than a century ago.
Founder Jefferson A. Thompson started making fresh cheese on his dairy farm for a burgeoning San Francisco economy in 1865. The Gold Rush was in decline, so many miners found their way to the city by the bay. This increase in population caused a shortage of eggs, which were frequently pickled and served as a saloon snack to hungry dockworkers. To supplant this dearth, Thompson provided his fresh cheeses, which quickly gained in popularity.
One of his first cheeses was Breakfast Cheese, a fresh, unripened Brie still made today. You can just imagine the dusty days of early San Francisco, with rough stevedores wolfing down this delicate, ivory-colored cheese on a piece of sourdough bread.
As the demand for his cheese increased, Thompson created more creamy varieties. By the early 1900s, Thompson and his family added aged cheese to their repertoire of Breakfast Cheese, cream cheese and other fresh varieties. They produced a creamy Camembert and a pungent Austrian variety called Schloss.
Cheese company has grown with the times
Marin French Cheese Co. is considered the oldest continuously operating cheese factory in the United States, and it has operated in the same location of west Marin County all this time. Back in the early days, the cheese was brought to Petaluma, California, by horse and wagon and shipped from there to San Francisco on a steamer called The Gold.
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Thompson was the first pioneer to create European-style soft-ripened cheese in California, and he quickly gained recognition for his achievements and for his delicious cheeses. Initially aged in a hand-dug cellar, the washed-rind cheeses have gone on to win a cache of awards, starting in the late 1980s at American Cheese Society competitions. The game changer, though, was the 2006 World Cheese Awards in London, where the Triple Crème Brie beat out all the competition, including from French counterparts. This was a turning point for California cheeses in general because it helped them become recognized on the international stage, and for Marin French in particular as a producer of Brie whose quality rivals that of European cheeses.
In 2014, again at the World Cheese Awards, Marin French won “Super Gold” for its newest cheese, called Supreme. This is a lush, soft-ripened cheese with a decadent 70 percent butterfat. And in 2015, the very first cheese the company created in 1865, the Petite Breakfast, was a winner in the Good Food Awards. This was the first time the company had entered this competition, which is known for recognizing those on the forefront of American craft foods.
What makes Marin French cheeses so good? For one, the milk, which is produced at dairy farms all within 15 miles of the creamery. The cheeses require rich cream and milk to maintain their indulgent textures, so the milk comes from a combination of Jersey, Guernsey and Holstein breeds.
Another way the company maintains its consistency is through employee longevity and satisfaction. Many folks have worked for the company for 30 years — and one person who recently retired had been there for 60 years. Marin French uses a training program in which new production workers learn all areas of cheese making under the guidance of experienced employees, which aids in producing an exceptional product.
Up until 1995, members of the Thompson family were involved with the company. That year, they sold it to Jim Boyce, a cheese aficionado and entrepreneur. Boyce died in 2010, and in 2011, Rians, a French cheese company owned by the Triballat family, purchased Marin French. Rians also owns Laura Chenel’s Chevre, just over the county line in Sonoma, California.
The new owners have upgraded the creamery facility, investing in state-of-the-art equipment. They’ve contributed their business expertise as well and have refined the cheese-making process.
Marin French Cheese Co.’s standards of excellence in producing handmade artisanal cheese gain recognition both within the industry and from legions of fans who enjoy the 40-plus varieties produced at the scenic, historical facility. The cheeses are still made by hand from locally sourced milk creating their own flavor profile, integrity and terroir. Considering their start as a saloon snack, Marin French cheeses have certainly come a long way.
Marin French Cheese Co.
7500 Red Hill Road, Petaluma, California
Main photo: Cheeses from Marin French Cheese Co. Credit: Brooke Jackson