On the dairy trail in San Francisco

San Francisco is a food lover’s paradise. With restaurants covering just about every type of cuisine in the world (we had everything from Shaanxi to Scandinavian, from donuts to Vietnamese), it is almost impossible to stop eating, lest you miss out on something special. Ingredients are also usually locally sourced, fresh and organic. While the foodies there can sometimes go a bit overboard (don’t get me started on this four-dollar “artisan” toast), the local obsession with food creates myriad opportunities for excellent dining experiences.

Luckily for me, Beijing also has a pretty diverse range of culinary options, so while in San Francisco I could concentrate on what Beijing doesn’t have or do very well. That includes sushi and Vietnamese, but mainly I’m talking about milk.

As I’ve said before, I love milk. For milk is the basis of many creations that I love: milk and cookies, milkshakes, milk tea with tapioca pearls, yogurt, cream, ice cream, custard, butter, things made with butter, lattes, and of course just plain whole milk. Aside from the ethical concerns of milk production, I love milk enough to make up for my family’s intense dislike of milk. My dad, who loves ice cream and was my constant ice cream companion when I was growing up, claimed to be lactose intolerant and hates cheese. My mom, scarred from the French culinary influences in Vietnam, also hates cheese and has a phobia of custard and custard-like foods. My sister just hates dairy, for no reason, but she’ll try anything labeled as crafty and artisan, so now she is into some cheeses and ice creams (also, beer).

So when I got to San Francisco, I bought three things at the grocery store: Ben and Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Cookie, ice cream sandwiches, and a quart of whole milk made by Straus Family Creamery, located in a North Bay community called Marshall. As its name implies, Straus is a family-owned dairy and creamery and in fact was the first creamery in the United States to be certified organic. They apparently treat their cows really well (as well as dairy cows can be treated?). They also sell their milk non-homogenized (hello, cream!) and in reusable glass bottles (yay!). Cold whole milk poured from a glass bottle can just about take any city girl back to the simple life on the farm, even if she never lived on one. I tried a cup of their sheep’s milk yogurt as well, and I think it might still be in my sister’s refrigerator because I never finished it.

One of the first places we went to was Smitten Ice Cream, an operation that started out on a wagon and now sits immobile on a corner shack in Hayes Valley (as well as in several other places in California). But the coolest part about Smitten is that they use liquid nitrogen to freeze their ice cream when you order it. It is literally churned right in front of you:

Unfortunately, this means that you can't sample every flavor before choosing to stick with your favorite.
Unfortunately, this means that you can’t sample every flavor before choosing to stick with your favorite.

The liquid nitrogen makes the freezing process ultra fast, which, according to science, means the ice crystals are smaller. Smaller ice crystals makes ice cream creamier, and the salted caramel ice cream I had sure was creamy. But being caramel, it was a bit too sweet for me. They have some pretty awesome other flavors (on rotation; only four available at any one time), so hopefully I can go back to try another, better one.

A goat, a Gouda and a blue sat on a plate.
A goat, a Gouda and a blue sat on a plate.

On the cheesy side of things, my sister neglected to tell me about Mission Cheese, a wine and cheese cafe (I guess? It’s like a coffee shop, in that you can hang out in a casual space, but instead of coffee, it has wine and cheese. And pate. Mmmmm pate.) located in the Mission. It’s actually right next to Dandelion Chocolate, where my sister was originally aiming to take me. Don’t get me wrong, I love chocolate and Dandelion, but it is impossible to find a top-quality cheese plate in Beijing for under 100 kuai ($16.26). In fact, you can’t even find top quality cheese. So after chocolate, we chose a flight of cheeses from the Pacific Northwest, a glass of Riesling, and some duck liver mousse. It was quite a decadent afternoon, one I would not mind repeating, especially because of the fabulous eight-year aged Gouda from Bend, Ore. It was the best Gouda I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. It was probably the best cheese I’ve ever eaten, and I love all cheeses. I wish I knew the name of the cheese maker!

Mac and cheese paired with a New Belgian IPA
Mac and cheese paired with a New Belgium IPA

Then there is Homeroom, a food truck-turned-super-popular restaurant that serves only macaroni and cheese in Oakland. We went there about 8 o’ clock on a Saturday night and waited more than an hour for a table. Was it worth it? Totally! I had the Vermont white cheddar mac and cheese with breadcrumbs and broccoli — I’d have preferred it a bit drier, but the cheese was still sharp and creamy. My sister had the truffle mac, made with truffle Gouda, mushrooms and thyme. The thyme took the dish to a whole new level, and I will now have to experiment more with this flavor combination.

Lastly, we paid a brief visit to Cowgirl Creamery out in Point Reyes Station, a small town on the North Bay coast. It was just about to close when we got there, so I had little time to explore their cheeses. Their cheeses are sold all around the Bay Area and we were about to go to dinner, so I told myself I would try them some other time. But I never did (unless that cheese plate we had at dinner included their cheese), because there are just too many things to eat in San Francisco.

* I hereby mention my sister’s fiance, who was often part of the “we” above.

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