One of California’s iconic cheeses is in danger of extinction. Lights out. No more. Franklin’s Teleme has already been MIA since late last year, when Franklin Peluso reluctantly ceased making his supple cow’s milk classic, a former American Cheese Society Best of Show. The 74-year-old cheesemaker, whose grandfather devised the original recipe, has been trying to revive production ever since, with no luck.
“I’ve been thinking of retiring,” the frustrated Peluso told me, in a phone conversation that had me close to tears. If he can’t find a new cheesemaking space soon, he will sell his equipment and call it quits.
Peluso’s troubles began when his creamery landlord experienced a series of financial blows in quick succession—“a perfect storm,” says Peluso. The landlord stopped repairing the creamery equipment—a sure sign of impending doom, says the cheesemaker—and Peluso couldn’t continue cheesemaking there. He hasn’t been able to find a suitable home since.
Like winemakers, many American artisan cheesemakers are gypsies, working out of rented space with shared equipment. It’s an efficient system because the start-up costs for a creamery are so high. With a couple of producers sharing vats, a press and a pasteurizer, a facility can get close to full utilization.
Franklin’s Teleme is (I’m going to optimistically use the present tense) a floppy six-pound two-inch-thick square with a thin dusting of rice flour in lieu of a rind. Matured for three to four weeks, it becomes as soft as a feather pillow, with a yeasty scent, buttery flavor and lactic, crème fraiche finish. I adore it with extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper or cut into slabs and melted on hot polenta. There is nothing quite like it, although Bellwether Farms Crescenza comes close.
Several years ago, Peluso sold the Peluso Cheese Company and moved to Maine. His wife and kids missed California and the family moved back within a year. He resumed making the Teleme but no longer had the rights to the family name. Hence, Franklin’s Teleme. Peluso Cheese Company continues to make a Teleme, but it ain’t the same.
I’m hoping that someone will emerge from the shadows with a space that meets Franklin’s needs. If any reader has leads, please email me and I will connect you to Franklin Peluso. In the meantime, Bellwether’s Crescenza fills in admirably in this late-summer recipe starring meaty, vine-ripe plum tomatoes.
Polenta with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes and Teleme
Patience pays off with this recipe. It takes two to three hours for meaty plum tomatoes to lightly caramelize in a slow oven and a good hour for polenta to become perfectly creamy on top of the stove. Pour the polenta onto a board and top with the juicy tomatoes and soft, melting slabs of Teleme or Crescenza cheese and your patience will be rewarded. Pour a Zinfandel or Sangiovese. From Wine Country Table by Janet Fletcher. Photos by Sara Remington.
1-1/2 pounds plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
Kosher or sea salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, minced
1 bay leaf
2 cups polenta
Crushed red pepper or coarsely cracked black pepper
6 to 7 ounces Teleme or Bellwether Farms Crescenza cheese
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Put the halved tomatoes, cut side up, in a baking dish just large enough to hold them. Drizzle with the olive oil. Scatter the garlic and the oregano over the tomatoes evenly. Season generously with salt. Bake, basting occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to caramelize around the edges and are completely soft but still hold their shape, 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
Melt the butter in a pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add 2-1/2 quarts cups boiling water and the bay leaf. Gradually add the polenta, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. When the polenta becomes too thick to whisk, switch to a wooden spoon. Cook until the polenta is thick and creamy, about 1 hour. Stir often to keep the polenta from scorching on the bottom of the pot. Remove the bay leaf and season the polenta with salt and pepper.
Pour the polenta onto a large wooden board or rimmed serving platter and spread it to an even thickness. Top with the cheese in thin slices, then arrange the tomato halves on top, pressing them gently into the polenta. Spoon any juices from the baking dish over the polenta, sprinkle with pepper, and serve immediately.
Serves 4 to 6