Most people are surprised to discover that California is the country’s second largest cheese-producing state. In the Central Valley town of Hilmar, you can taste some of the state’s best offerings at Hilmar Cheese Company, a perfect stop for Yosemite National Park-bound travelers and anyone driving along State Highway 99. Its impressive visitors center has a gourmet gift shop, while a cafe takes full advantage of Hilmar’s pepper jack and Cheddar in grilled cheese sandwiches and such favorites as a cheese chowder soup.
“It’s one of the best-kept little secrets,” says Denise Skidmore, Hilmar’s director of education and public relations. “In this day and age, people want to learn more about food and agriculture and the farmers that raise their food. Our tours help visitors better understand how farmers are taking care of their cows and the land.”
Even if you don’t know Hilmar by name, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted one of the dozens of cheeses the company makes. That’s because Hilmar is a wholesale manufacturer that sells to food service firms and companies that market cheeses under their own labels.
From a modest start in 1984 by 12 dairy farmers who raised Jersey cows (the breed is famous for yielding high quantities of milk), Hilmar has grown into the world’s largest single-site cheese processor. The facility now sprawls over 40 acres, and the company receives its milk from 200 local, family-owned farms.
Take a free guided or self-guided tour for a great introduction to Hilmar’s cheesemaking process. Depending on the production schedule, you may even get to see workers packing 640-pound chunks of cheese for shipping. (On certain days, Hilmar also offers a tasty ice-cream-making tour.) At the end of the tours, there are free tastings of Hilmar cheeses, including a delicacy available only at the factory: fresh curds known as cheese squeakers.
“The squeakers are chewy and a little salty and haven’t developed a strong cheese flavor yet,” says Skidmore. “And yes, they actually squeak when you eat them!”