I’ve always found that arriving at a new destination after nightfall is a particularly special experience. The dark shadows of unfamiliar spaces are inviting and mysterious, full of potential and begging to be explored. This is exactly how I felt as we arrived at the Rinconada Dairy on Friday night, our base – as farm stay guests – for the weekend. We were given a warm welcome by our host, Christine Maguire who took us across the courtyard to our accommodation in the renovated barn. There’s a faint smell of cheese – in the morning we quickly confirm that we’re actually linked to the dairy here – and the small apartment is warm, comfortable and attractive. The kitchen is fully-equipped and the fridge contains a selection of local fare, including their own bacon and eggs, a generous piece of sheep’s cheese and a selection of home-made jams. This is an excellent start. We’re invited back to the main house for a drink and to meet Jim, Christine’s husband, who as well as helping to run the farm is a lawyer, working full-time as a public defender for San Luis Obispo County. The rest of the evening is our own and we enjoy a good meal at The Range in Santa Margarita, before coming back to the barn.
In the morning we get our first proper glimpse of this stunning property. It’s a 92-acre farm set in the hills of the central coast area of California. Even in the drizzle it’s a remarkably attractive place, with low rounded hills and rocky outcrops that emerge between the oak trees and paddocks. Our delight is compounded by the white, woolly sheep that occupy them. It’s 8.00am – which strikes us as quite early for a Saturday morning – but Jim and Christine have been up for hours. They’ve already fed the animals (sheep, goats, pigs and chickens) and have gone to sell their produce at the local farmer’s market. They’ve had the farm for thirteen years, starting with just eight East Friesian ewes which they milked twice-daily by hand. Expanding ever since, they now have over 100 sheep, as well as a herd of goats, and – thankfully – a milking platform which at least makes that part of their job less labour intensive.
They produce four specialist cheeses, including the award winning La Panza Gold and Pozo Tomme, both made from sheep’s milk. Our favourite was the Chapparal. It’s a creamy, complex cheese made from a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Or perhaps it’s the rich and intense Carrizo, a goat’s cheese that has been added to their repertoire only recently. Although it’s no longer the season for milking (and cheese production is not currently under-way), Jim took the time to show us both the milking platform and the dairy, telling us as much as we wanted to know about the processes involved. It struck me over and over again how immaculate everything was – from the floor of the ageing rooms to the farm equipment lined-up outside the barn. But it was the animals that made this visit such a joy. Sheep and goats in generous pastures, stories about lambs and kids that have been hand-fed for weeks – even allowed to sleep with Christine and Jim when things looked dicey. Free-range chickens and turkeys, and the most beautiful pigs I have ever seen, who are fed on whey but also enjoy tomatoes, corn and apples. The highlight was joining Christine on her daily task of taking the baby goats for a walk through the woods, watching them wander freely to eat the tastiest acorns they could find.
But as a visitor it’s all too easy to romanticize this farm. The incredible amount of hard-work that is put in by the Maguire’s year-round must not be under-estimated, and even during quiet periods Jim’s weekend lie-in – on a Sunday – is to 5.45am. As well as the routine care of the animals, maintenance is seemingly never-ending and preparations have just begun for the annual ‘deep-clean’ of the dairy which goes so far as to include stripping the white paint from the concrete floor. And all the time their costs are rising. There is absolutely no doubt that the food produced here is of the highest quality. On a farm such as this there is simply no need to even raise the issue of animal welfare standards, and their philosophy extends to the soil so that no herbicides, pesticides or artificial fertilizers are used on the pastures. Of course, this all comes at a price and while the farm stay does generate an income, the rest breaks even at best, despite the high retail value of much of their produce.
We’ve come away from the Rinconada Dairy not just with two amazing wheels of cheese – and the feeling of pleasure that comes from being able to support such a fabulous enterprise – but also with some bacon and ham, as well as one of the turkeys that were raised (and slaughtered) on the farm. Adding to our bounty as we left, Christine picked a butternut squash from her own kitchen garden and asked if we would like to take that with us too. We did. At the end of the day, Christine and Jim are very special people doing an exceptional job, and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again in the spring.