The morning fog clung to the valleys of Tomales as I drove past farms dotted with cows standing in the mist up to their bellies, content to watch the day unfold as every other day has before. Eucalyptus trees lined driveways leading to the houses of farmers who wake at dawn to tend to their land. Coffee cups long since drained, the early morning for me is lunchtime for those whose day began before sunrise. Much had been accomplished by the time I drove by.
Glitzy big name vineyards and high-profile restaurants haven’t found their way to this lane that winds between hills mimicking the sharp bones and gentle slopes of the hind-quarters of the animals that roam them. This is a quiet part of Sonoma County, where land is still handed down generation to generation, not corporation to corporation. Folks here talk of trips to the Feed & Grain, rather than tastings at Gloria Ferrer.
It was the kind of quiet morning that you see in movies; a picturesque start to a life-changing day.
I made a left onto a dirt drive hugging the pasture where water buffalo congregated, not an everyday site for most people. As in 99.999…% of the population in North America. They raised their large heads to witness my arrival, eyes rich brown and serene, backed by large, leaf-shaped ears, faced forward and out, parallel to the ground. Vikings copied the placement of their horns which grew out from wide foreheads, sweeping back and up, appearing more ornamental than utilitarian.
The fact that the ladies have horns is not lost on me.
They watched me take the hill up and out of sight to a parking area that could have been a much visited lookout on the side of a country road; the valley of Tomales stretched over earth bumps, holding the roots of trees clumped and streaked here and there; fences marched off in the distance, marking lands and reining in beasts. I pulled to a stop on the edge of the lot facing east, got out of the car, took a look around at the buffalo and the land and laughed.
What a hoot. In one year’s time I’ve flown a plane, climbed the tallest mountain in the continental US, swam the San Francisco Bay, the ocean from Venice to Marina del Ray alongside a seal, and cradled a boy with a severed finger laying on the ground between his legs, all while braving the mad, mad world of betrayal and divorce. And now I’m about to make some cheese. But not just any cheese. Cheese from water buffaloes.
At this point I’m waiting for a movie director to say, Cut!
I’m dressed in all white, like the Staypuff Marshmallow Man or Guy Ritchie when Madonna dragged him to Kabbalah services, and surveying a large gorgeous mass of Sonoma County land before heading in to handcraft some cheese. If I had a mirror I would expect to see Michelle Pheiffer or Diane Lane staring back at me.
I was about to do something I had never done before. Taught to me by a man who is choosing the route most unconventional as he enters the world of fromage; creating handcrafted cheese from the milk of animals considered tourists in this land. While in Italy they are considered homeys, bros, long-time residents, honored for centuries for the luscious milk they willingly provide which becomes the most delectable mozzarella di bufala, here they are a feral population. Slim. Nearly none. Forty-four of these magnificent creatures dot the hills of Tomales in Sonoma County. And I am about to become quite intimate with them.
But first I will spend a day with their milk. Turning it to curd, pouring off whey, and melting it into mozzarella. When it’s warm, bathed in olive oil, it’s like like eating love. There. I finally figured out how to describe it. And that’s exactly how I started my day, with warm mozzarella wet with olive oil, set upon a plate on a table in front of a window that looks west toward Bodega Bay.
Wow. How did I get here?
We spent the day in the creamery; two small rooms perfectly sized for cradling the simple yet delicate process of making cheese. I was mainly a witness to the journey of the milk as it was pasteurized, curdled, sliced and diced, and drained until all that was left was a silky pancake the size of a large roulette wheel six inches thick. I slid my hands into the stainless steel tank, down along the sides of the disc, feeling the weight of the curds, each so light and pure, but when drawn together form a solid base from which edible nirvana emerges.
Hours passed as we tended to the cheese in its various stages of development. We talked of dreams, and of those who help shepherd them to fruition and those that attempt to stand in the way for whatever their reasons, in between tastings. Drained whey became ricotta, one batch cooked too long as we laughed over story lines from South Park, losing track of time. That day’s curd was cut and nestled into containers like puzzle pieces as Springsteen and Southside Johnny played on a laptop.
This day was not by chance. I’ve written about the nudging that the Universe and my Mom provided, resulting in me contacting Craig Ramini. You know me, I’m up for any encounter. And I always have high hopes. Within each there are magical moments, meaningful messages, and occasionally life-altering experiences. But I just figured I’d meet some buffalo, have a cool conversation, and make new friends. Taste some mozz and call it a day. I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to shadow the only man in the United States making mozzarella di bufala, sharing with me all that he has learned on his wild, and smartly conceived, pursuit of happiness.
I left the farm that day with a container of warm ricotta cheese that begged for figs and prosciutto and a grill. But The Genius took the grill, so I settled on my cast iron skillet. As Mr. Delicious described it, it was food porn. I actually panted as I slid half of a fig stuffed with a cloud of ricotta wrapped in salty pig into my joyous mouth. He’s right. I could have uploaded that to the web and made a small fortune. If I was naked, a large one. (Note to self…)
I’ve had many opportunities to spend the day shadowing entrepreneurs, for which I am ultra grateful. I am in awe of their energy, enthusiasm, and confidence; their willingness to take risks believing that determination will win out and smarts will undo the obstacles that pepper the path to success. It’s an environment in which I thrive. In the past I’ve left those encounters on a high. I expected that as I drove away from the farm. Later that evening I pondered why my excitement over the experience seemed dialed down, subdued. I couldn’t discern why.
In the morning, as I spread ricotta on my gluten free toast, I fielded a text from Mr. Triathlete. We tried to make plans for the coming weekend. No dice.
Are you free tonight?
I took five minutes to respond. The boys are with The Genius. I have to write. My toes aren’t painted. The laundry has piled up. I didn’t swim yesterday. I can’t be distracted by a date. I’m not a lady of leisure. There are things to do and I have to get to sleep at a human hour so I can rise early. I had gotten out of my 10 day habit of getting up at 5 to write, and it was starting to weigh on my conscience. So many things to do…
I just had to go. I crammed in a one mile swim before heading down to the Sutro Baths to meet Mr. Triathlete for the first time since mid-August. Every time we have seen each other I’ve been in hiking pants or a wet suit stripping to a tank, and on the occasion of seeing The Parlotones, a boyfriend sweater, black jeans and boots. I really felt the need to be girly, so regardless of the fact that a walk along the trails was on our agenda and he suggested jeans, I slipped into a long, fitted cotton tank dress with a black and white tribal print and wore my trusty three inch suede ankle boots that had taken me for miles along the Embarcadero. I wrapped a wispy emerald colored scarf around my shoulders and grabbed a shrunken black cardigan that belonged in Audrey Hepburn’s closet.
Racing to beat sundown, I pulled into the only open spot right next to where Mr. Triathlete was parked, on the edge of land. The top third of the sun melted and oozed above the horizon as I came around to greet him. He opened his door, his eyeballs fell out, and his breath ran away.
He needs to get out more.
Our embrace was long and much appreciated. Comfortable and easy. We took to the path and descended to the ruins of the Sutro Baths where we connected as if it had been a few days since our last time together. His arms wrapped around me as the winds picked up, the horizon a swath of plum; a blue heron hunted a fish in what was once one of many pools that nestled in a sandy pocket beach between the tide and cliffs. We gazed upon Seal Rock, the crest of each formation lined with sea birds bowing to the day and welcoming the night.
A crescent moon hung over the water.
The longest shooting star I’ve ever seen. It streaked from west to east and flamed out like a massive golden firecracker, slightly to our right and straight up. Somehow, we were both looking in the exact right direction at the exact right time to see its entire arc.
After a cheer, we fell silent, marveling at the events of a single hour in the sand at Ocean Beach. For me it had been 24 hours of sensory overload in the most fantastic way. Each and every one got fed and stroked just right. Instead of being all buzzy and bright, I felt soft and grounded, aware of my whole body being connected to the the earth and the man holding me. I felt subdued. And relaxed. Although this was the first time I had been to this beach, I felt as if we were going to turn from the sunset and walk up the porch stairs to our little red farmhouse whose chimney puffed the smoke of a well-stoked fire.