Why, we scratched, are we so blessed in the North Bay to have two fairly major cheese events slated for the same bleary first week of March? We fancied that it had something to do with the annual rhythm of the cheese maker's year: new spring grasses, calving animals—the usual verdant agrarian fantasy. In fact, according to Sheana Davis, founder of the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference , now in its sixth year, it has to do with winter's drop in tourism and the opportunity that allows something new and different to help fill restaurants and hotel beds. OK, so not a verdant agrarian fantasy—but who really cares? This is cheese we're talking about. And indeed, a full week of cheese instruction and eating is our good fortune, beginning with Davis' Sonoma conference March 4&–6 and continuing with the second annual Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma March 7&–10.
Focused on providers, restaurateurs and on the business of cheese-mongering, the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference is composed of three daylong seminars on the marketing, storage, preparation, purchasing and importance of community connections for those in the businesses of purveying or producing artisanal cheeses. Each day ends with a tasting reception featuring different wine and beer makers, as well as cheeses from around the world. "Sixteen years ago, when I first became a chef," Davis says, "everyone [in the restaurant world] knew their beef producer, their poultry producer, their fruit and vegetable producers—but no one knew their cheese producers. I decided to go out and meet them."
For its part, the Artisan Cheese Festival is aimed at the consumer. It features an opening reception and two days of educational tastings and seminars, a cheese marketplace and a gala dinner. Field trips to local creameries are also scheduled.
Next year, Davis promises that the two events will be a full month apart; as it stands, local cheese makers can't attend the training she offers because they have to be selling at the Petaluma event. "A small business owner can't be away for seven days," she says.
Saturday, March 8, is the big day in Petaluma, focusing on the educational aspects of producing delicious cheeses made by local dairy and farming families, as well as how the consumer can help support and sustain the artisan communities who farm on protected agricultural lands.
"Our mission is to support the artisan cheese community," says Lynne Devereux, the festival's associate director. "We're here to highlight what's in our own backyard."
To learn more about the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, go to www.sheanadavis.com; for details on the Artisan Cheese Festival, go to [ http://www.artisancheesefestival.com ]www.artisancheesefestival.com.
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