Heading south on Route 99, we saw billboards for the Bravo Farms Cheese Factory as we approached our destination of Visalia, CA.
After getting settled in the RV park, we took the 10-minute trip to Traver, population 732, expecting to find a tiny cheese factory that was a hobby for a local dairyman.
Well, not only is Bravo appropriately situated in the heart of Tulare County, arguably the world's top dairy area, but it has earned a silver medal from the World Cheese Awards in London three years ago.
So it was with a respectful admiration that we sat down in front of the windows to watch the cheesemakers working at the three 500-gallon vats. The small size of the operation understates the superior quality of the final products.
Alex, one of the cheesemakers, gave us a little explanation of the process during our 90 minutes of viewing.
Bravo Farms starts with antibiotic-free, raw milk. It's piped into one of the vats, where culture and vegetarian rennet are added to coagulate the milk. After a metal harp cuts it, it becomes curds and whey.
As we watched the cheesemakers go through all the steps, my back began to ache. Seeing the guys bent over the vat began with a feeling of discomfort and progressed to a feeling of pain as they progressed to later stages.
Here the curds are gathered along the sides of the vat while the liquid drains away.
Once fluids are drained, the curds are cut into blocks. These blocks are turned a couple of times. This compacts the curds and also allows more of the liquid to drain.
This photo shows three steps in the process. Each block is put through a shredder. Salt is added to the shredded curds, and two men move along the sides of the vat mixing the salt and curds with pitchfork-like instruments. The weight of the product in each forkfull and the speed at which the men move was impressive. My back was aching more.
After allowing more liquid to drain out and mixing in special ingredients, such as sage, for speciality cheeses, the shredded cheese is packed into metal containers.
A mesh cloth lines each container, and as each is filled, the fellows begin compacting the cheese by hand. As they reached into the center of these vats, I had to hold my back. It was getting very painful to watch them having to reach that far into the vat.
In this final stage of the packing process, the cloth is folded over the top of the container and a lid is placed on it.
The 60-pound container is then lifted out of the vat ("Oh, the pain") and carried to the final stop in the process that took place in this room.
On this rack, a plunger presses down on the containers in each column (see the column on the far right). After a prescribed period of time the containers in each column are rotated from top to bottom. This step forces out more liquid. The blocks are aged at 50 degrees for up to nine months before being ready for customers.
Bill Boersma (right) and his wife, Pat, started Bravo Farms in 1995 and have had to adjust (new location and new partner) to the popularity of high-quality cheese and the increased recognition of their brand.
They made the perfect adjustments by teaming up with Jonathan Van Ryn, a graduate of Cal Poly with a degree in dairy processing, whose family owns the Valley Farms gift shop, a popular tourist area off Highway 99 in Traver.
If you can find any of the eight different Bravo Farms cheeses at your local supermarket (or www.bravofarms.com), buy it. It was Silver Mountain, an old-fashioned Cheddar that won a silver medal from the World Cheese Awards about three years ago.
More on the cheeses tomorrow.