Living the American Dream. It’s something thousands of people aspire to, whether they live in the United States or are hoping to do so one day. Movies, books, music, and magazines have celebrated this concept for decades. For the Bulk family of Oakdale Cheese & Specialties, the American Dream is something they live every day.
This was not always the case, however. Walter Bulk grew up on a farm about 20 minutes west of Amsterdam. His grandmother, Geertje Rosenboom, made Gouda in a room attached to her kitchen, while her husband milked the cows. When Walter was 29, he immigrated to California, bringing with him a passion for agriculture and a nostalgia for the Gouda of his homeland. Two years later, he met his future wife Lenneke on a trip back to the Netherlands, and they decided to embark on a cheesemaking adventure.
“He [Walter] wanted to have independence to run his own business,” says John Bulk, Walter’s son. “Cheesemaking seemed like a good fit given his background and the availability of milk from all the local dairies in the valley.”
Oakdale Cheese & Specialties began in September 1983 under the name Bulk Farms Inc. Walter started by making cheese in an old, remodeled milk barn surrounded by an almond orchard in Escalon, CA. He used his grandmother’s recipes to craft his cheeses. In 1995, Walter opened their current facility on Highway 120 in Oakdale, CA, and changed their name to Oakdale Cheese & Specialties.
Current Head Cheesemaker John has grown up with cheesemaking. He began helping his dad when he was four years old, beginning with putting the lids on the cheese forms and putting tools away. “I wanted to learn cheesemaking at a young age,” says John, “so my dad taught me the basics.” As John got older, he progressively learned more of the tasks associated with the business. After graduating from CalPoly San Luis Obispo with a Dairy Processing degree, John became the head cheesemaker in 2005.
Oakdale Cheese & Specialties makes a variety of cheeses, including the 2014 ACS Judging & Competition 3rd Place Best of Show winner, Aged Gouda, plus Edam, Quark, Curds, and Garlic Basil Gouda, among others. Creating additional cheese types is always a possibility for John. “We do plan to continue to develop our repertoire of cheeses, especially if there is an increasing demand for a certain type of cheese,” he says.
In addition to their cheesemaking, Oakdale Cheese & Specialties has a specialty market and bakery. “Our specialty market is the perfect place for food lovers,” says John. It is stocked with gourmet foods including Dutch specialties and chocolate, gourmet meats and cheeses, jams, honey, oil, vinegar, sauces, marinades, desserts, and snacks. The market also has gift items such as European stoneware and pottery, Dutch linens, kitchen goods, cheese knives, cheese boards, and picnic baskets. The bakery offers sweet and savory options including German-style cheesecakes, cheesecake brownies, cookies, truffles, and biscotti, as well as a selection of breads. There is also food made-to-order, such as grilled cheese sandwiches and spicy tomato soup in the colder months. The store is open every day, 9 am – 6 pm (mid-January through March, 9 am – 5 pm), and is closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The public can take tours of their facilities, as well as picnic in the garden under the willow trees by the specialty market and bakery. Tours are available all day, every day. Self-guided tours are free and offer visitors a glimpse into the processing and aging rooms. For a small fee, Oakdale Cheese & Specialties offers tours to school groups, which include a tour guide who can answer questions the students may have.
As for what the future holds? “We hope to be continuing to thrive!” says John. “We hope to continue offering a family-friendly experience to our customers with even more varieties of award-winning cheese available for their enjoyment. We also hope that the next generation of our family will be enthusiastically involved in learning the joy of making hand-crafted cheeses.”