Allow a slight divergence from this strictly cheese-focused column. Last weekend I tasted a crème fraîche that's worthy of some rule-breaking. Because while all crème fraîche is delicious (how could it not be?), this one, from Bellwether Farm in Sonoma County, is particularly special, and pretty much made my Thanksgiving appetizer.
Crème fraîche is basically cream that's been acidified and let to sit and thicken. Liken it to sour cream, but it's less sour and more creamy, more like Mexican crema than anything else.
Last Thursday, alongside some smoked trout, I served Bellwether Farms' version. While most crème fraîche acts as a foil for other flavors, offering a slick of something creamy and tangy but nothing too much more complex, this one, from Sonoma County, California, had its own personality. Sinful and rich, buttery and perfectly tangy, and with a finish—an actual finish—more what you're left with when eating cheese, not a cultured milk product.
So I called Bellwether to ask them why their crème fraîche is as good as it is. And what I found out was ample explanation.
They've been making the stuff for nearly 20 years. They use local cream from Sonoma County, from a mix of Holstein, Guernsey, and Jersey cows, but primarily the latter breed, which explains the richness. Jersey milk contains the highest butterfat content, which will more than translate into a sumptuous partner for whatever you choose to serve alongside.
Bellwether has one employee dedicated to coming in on Saturdays just to acidify their cream. While many producers use buttermilk for acidification, Bellwether uses a unique culture— again, very reminiscent of cheesemaking—which not only makes turns the crème, well, fraîche, but also adds layers of flavor. The next day, after sitting out at room temp, the now-thickened product gets packed, while still warm, and sits for a few more days before being sent to market.
I love the crème fraîche from Vermont Butter & Cheese, which is typically what I see most, and I'll continue to use it, but Bellwether's is what I'll seek out. It has an almost buttery hue to it—thanks to those Jersey cows, I suppose— and a buttered popcorn flavor. Forget the smoked fish, I could eat the stuff plain. It's excellent for cooking, as well, since it won't curdle, and don't forget how successfully the tangy bite coalesces into sweet applications, as well.
Find it: Gratefully, the production is increasing, as demand does. Each year they've ramped up production. I found a tub at a San Francisco Trader Joe's, though they distribute widely to other shops, too, like Safeway and Lucky's. And how apropos. I'll be lucky to find it when I return to the East, since they've recently expanded to Whole Foods on that coast, as well.