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Slow Food Monterey Bay

By George "Fred" Wright

One of the great food 'controversies' over the past three or four decades has been raw milk. I grew up in Los Angeles, where AltaDena Dairy has produced raw milk for many years, and periodically the L.A. Times would run a story about the Health Department closing down the dairy for supposed 'violations.' However, AltaDena has always reopened, and they are one of the few producers of kefir, a yogurt-like milk drink product. My mother comes from West Virginia dairyman stock, and as kids my brothers and I spent summer vacations on the farm, drinking warm cow's milk almost literally from the tit (OK, great uncle Mart squeezed the milk from the tit into a glass, and then we drank it). I've traveled in Europe and eaten raw cow's/sheep's/goat's milk cheeses--a heavenly experience every time--and I'm still alive to tell the tale, even though the authorities of the E.U. have tried to edict them out of existence. If you look in the back of the newly revived Eating Well magazine, Marialisa Calta writes of sweating bullets (my term) through U.S. Customs with 'illegal' cheeses in her luggage.

What's the deal?

I make raw milk cheeses because I can hardly buy them here in California. I started with goat's milk because I teach high school art in a rural part of central California, and I have students who raise goats for county fair competitions, and they have a great deal of raw goat's milk to give away. But I've been longing for the taste of that raw cow's milk I used to drink in West Virginia, and another Slow Food member turned me onto a local source.

Claravale Farms, just west of Watsonville, produces raw cow's milk, legally, in returnable real glass bottles, every day of the week. Most of it gets distributed through 'hardcore' natural foods stores within a one hour drive of the dairy. Ron, the current family owner, continues a 65 year traditional business. The dairy isn't easy to find--not even a sign on the road--but when Kim and I finally nosed the place out, Ron was in the middle of conducting a family tour of the dairy. The 'ladies' all stand in clean pastures, with plenty of space to meander around. Kids are encouraged to pull grass outside of the fences and feed it to the gals.

Ron keeps the herd to a little less than fifty cows. Because he produces raw milk, his herd is inspected by the state Department of Agriculture and the state veterinarian far more regularly and strictly than conventional dairies. Ron is proud of the fact that the ONLY thing he does to his milk is remove the cream when people prefer skim milk. He raises Jersey cows, rather than the more common Holstein, even though the production is lower, because Jersy milk contains higher concentrations of proteins, solids, butterfat, and beta-caroteen.

The girls eat nothing but hay and grain, and when one of them gets sick and needs medication (as we all do from time to time), she is taken off of the milking line until she is well again, and off of medications. Nothing is done to artificially increase the production of milk.

[Note: The dairy moved from this location in 2007]If you are in the Watsonville area and wish to visit the dairy, from scenic highway 1 take the highway 129 exit west to the 'T' intersection, turn right and proceed one country block to West Beach Street, turn left and proceed approximately two miles to San Andreas Road, where you make a 'Y' right and proceed about three miles to the front gate of the Monterey Bay Academy (a gated private school). Enter the Academy and proceed about one-half mile until you see a sign for a Morgan horse establishment on your left--the dairy is behind the horse farm in a low, gray building. I really recommend that you call in advance (831 722-7779), and you will probably get voice mail, but Ron is good at returning your call, so plan accordingly.

On your first visit, things seem a little pricey; the milk is $1.50 per quart, but there is a $1 deposit on each bottle, and if you buy in bulk, like I do, there's a $5 deposit on the bottle crate. So, a first visit purchase of three gallons of milk comes to $35 (much of which is returnable).

As I write I have two pounds of raw milk farmhouse cheddar setting up curd in the pot, and another gallon in the 'fridge to think about for tomorrow's cheese making. And that first taste of raw cow's milk! Pure West Virginia nostalgia.

Visit the website at http://claravaledairy.com

At the time of writing, Claravale milk could also be purchased at the Five Mile House, New Leaf Markets, Cornucopia, Whole Foods, and Wild Oats.

07/30/2002Worth the Trip: The Spanish Table By Kimberly Wright
08/14/2002Pastured Poultry: Paul and Leticia Hain, Roaring Creek Ranch By George Fred Wright
06/01/2003Grass-fed Beef By K. Wright
06/01/2003Niman Ranch Meats By Helen Shepherd
09/03/2003Sparky's Root Beer By Kimberly Wright
07/01/2004Carmel Valley Market By Andrea Bach
08/14/2009Tassajara Natural Meats By Mark Shelley