By Lorrie Baumann
In 1865, Samuel L. Clemens was living in San Francisco, writing articles for newspapers and wondering if he had any shot at a career as a humorist. He was also apparently drinking quite a lot, which means that there actually is some chance that he tasted the Breakfast Cheese made by Jefferson Thompson, who founded his west Marin County dairy farm that year. He sold the cheese he made in the creamery that would eventually become known as Marin French Cheese to San Francisco saloons who sold it to their customers.
No, Marin French Cheese’s official history doesn’t document any consumption by the writer who’s best known today as Mark Twain, but there’s no way to prove it didn’t happen, after all. What we do know is that Thompson launched his Thompson Brothers Creamery in 1865 on a 700-acre dairy ranch that’s now known as Hicks Valley Ranch near Petaluma, California. He sent his Thompson cheese by horse and wagon and then by boat to San Francisco’s saloons, where dock workers began calling it “Breakfast Cheese.”
Thompson’s two sons, Jeff Thompson, Junior and Rudolph Thompson, took over the creamery in the early 20th century, and Jeff, Jr. traveled to Connecticut to learn to make European styles such as Camembert, Brie and Neufchatel. He branded his French-style cheese Rouge et Noir, French for “Red and Black.”
In the 1990s, Marin French Cheese was acquired by cattle rancher and real estate developer Jim Boyce, who modernized the cheese plant and expanded distribution of the Marin French cheeses. In 2005, Marin French Cheese achieved distinction as the first U.S. company to be awarded Gold in a European competition for Triple Crème Brie, besting the French in that category. The 2014 World Cheese Awards in London honored Marin French Triple Crème Brie cheeses with three out of four awards in the soft-ripened category, awarding a Super Gold to a new cheese, Supreme. Following that win, the company’s legacy cheese, Petite Breakfast, was selected as a winner in the 2015 Good Food Awards, recognizing authentic and responsibly produced food.
After Boyce’s untimely death in 2010, Marin French Cheese was acquired by The Rians Group of France, which has since modernized the creamery with state-of-the-art equipment and aging rooms, new packaging with redesigned labels and an expansion of the retail shop on the creamery property. This year, Marin French Cheese is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a year-long schedule of celebratory events that pay tribute to the company that is the longest continuously operating cheese company in the United States.
Rians, a French company that specializes in farmstead cheeses with European AOC and AOP identities, bought Marin French Cheese with the knowledge that the company operates in a very environmentally conscious community and saw a fit that matched Rians’ environmental ethics and respect for the places in which its cheeses are created, said Eva Guilmo, Quality and Food Safety Manager for both Marin French Cheese and Laura Chenel’s Chevre, which was acquired by Rians in 2006. “Rians Group is built on having many small creameries that have terroir and a close relationship with their environment,” she said.
Like Laura Chenel’s Chevre, where Rians built a new creamery from the ground up that incorporates modern technology to save both energy and water, Marin French Cheese is adapting its operations to modernize and to save water, said Miguel Da Conceicao, Site Manager for Laura Chenel’s Chevre. He arrived in California three years ago after transferring from a Rians goat cheese plant in France. “Every year we are doing things. That’s why in three years, we have saved 30 to 35 percent of the water compared to what we used when we started this plant [at Laura Chenel's Chevre],” he said. “We haven’t waited until California was in crisis to start doing things.”
“Proactivity is the word, always, and we want to stick to that,” Guilmo added
Marin French Cheese gets its water from natural ponds on the property that are fed from snowmelt and rain, although it hasn’t snowed here since 1990. “Each year, after the winter, we look at our ponds and we manage from that,” said Amelie Curis, Site Manager for Marin French Cheese. “I think it will be okay for this year. We should be okay for the next two years.”
Marin French Modernizes
As it modernizes its operations, the company is working closely with the federal Food and Drug Administration as well as state regulators, Guilmo said. “We’re working on the design of the machines to ensure that they comply with the rules and even go beyond them in terms of standards of cleanliness and food safety. The dairy inspector comes every three months and we discuss the requirements for the dairy industry,” she said. “With the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA is moving from a system of management of corrective actions to a system of anticipation of the risks with the implementation of prerequisite programs which are good practices to run a food manufacturing plant. They’re asking more about control points and trends management before serious problems arise and require the manufacturer to issue a recall. We’re moving from a corrective era to a proactive era in food safety.”
Industry self-policing is also helping to ensure that consumers are getting the safe cheese they want, she said, noting that the large retailers have begun asking their suppliers to provide products that meet consumer demands, such as dairy products made without the use of rBST, the bovine growth hormone that increases milk production when injected into dairy cows. “The use of rbST was approved as safe by the FDA. The FDA found that there is no significant difference between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST treated cows, but the distributors want rBST-free milk. The same thing is happening with GMOs,” she said. “Consumers are always pulling us forward before the government does. By the time the government acts, we’ve heard about it, and it’s already being discussed, which is a big advantage.”