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Meet the Makers - Joe Matos St. George

Joe Matos Cheese Factory

There is one cheese I simply cannot imagine doing without, a cheese that is essential to our grilled cheese sandwich and the Croque Monsieur: Joe Matos’ “St. Jorge.” It’s a semi-soft, pale-yellow cow’s milk cheese reminiscent of Havarti but with more bite to it. I like eating it out of hand or in a sandwich; it melts nicely but still retains its flavor. We’ve had Joe’s cheese on our menu since 1997 and it was one of the first California cheeses I tasted when I moved here. It’s another ingredient that is quintessential Sonoma County—the product of two people, a herd of cows, and a lot of hard work.

Driving down the rutted dirt road to the Matos farm in Santa Rosa doesn’t give you a clue about the intensely-flavored cheese that sits in the aging room. Past the wooden fences, acres of grass, a friendly dog, and a large brown barn lies a plain white door. This is where the magic happens. Joe and Mary Matos have been making this particular cheese for five generations, and “it’s the only type of cheese made where I come from,” says Mary. The family is from the town of St. George in the Azores, an island in Portugal, but the Matos' settled in Petaluma, California, in 1965. Joe taught Mary how to make the cheese and Mary made it in her home kitchen for family and friends until they moved to Santa Rosa in 1980 and built the cheesemaking facility. Joe is a compact man in a baseball hat who moves efficiently around the farm and refers affectionately to “the boss,” his silver-haired, toughtalking wife Mary.

The Matos’ use milk from their head of 37 Jersey and Holstein cows—

“I don’t want anyone else’s milk,” says Mary.

Joe takes care of the cows and milks them while Mary and her two assistants (“the ladies,” as they’re called) make the cheese six days a week. They make 10 to 13 wheels each day, “depending on how much milk we have,” says Mary.

The cheesemaking room is actually quite small. A large stainless steel vat dominates the small white room. The milk is heat treated and then poured into the vat. When we first started serving the cheese, it was a raw milk product. However, the county caught up with them and they’ve been heat treating the milk since 2000. The curds and whey are separated in the vats and then the cheese is transferred to presses in a small cement-floored room. Joe made the presses himself from cement and metal weights; the cheese is entirely handmade except for the heat treating machine. (When Mary first started making cheese she used a coffee can with holes punched in it and a wooden press to shape it.) After the cheese is shaped and pressed, it’s transferred to the aging room, a narrow room filled with brown wooden shelves that reach ten feet high. The wooden shelves allow the cheese to breathe and age evenly. Mary checks the cheese every day, and it’s turned over once a day and rubbed with a dry rag.

“It gets tangier the longer it ages,” says Mary. “It has to be aged properly.”

The cheese ages for two to eight months and is then cleaned and scraped ready for customers—chefs, wholesalers, and locals—to pick up. (The cheese is shipped around the country, as well.)

It was lovely watching Mary’s eyes light up when we visited the farm. She proudly told us the story about how a few years ago she shipped a wheel of her cheese to the priest in her hometown in Sao Jorge. He claimed it to be finer than the original versions there on the islands. I am not surprised—a combination of an age-old tradition, Sonoma County’s terroir, and good animal breeding would do it! A sense of pride like that only keeps the quality and intention high in the production of a family cheese.

Don’t expect to find St. Jorge in your local grocery store. “We keep making it a little bit at a time,” says Mary. “That’s how I was raised.” You might find it in local cheese shops in Sonoma County and some specialty stores but you can always find it on our menu.

excerpts from Plats du Jour, the girl & the fig's Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country

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