By: Michael Salzman
Even the most knowledgeable cheese connoisseurs in California might not be aware of Teleme. Cheese snobs may find Teleme not refined enough. Still, chances are, if you were raised in the Bay Area or you’ve been lucky enough to have a good, open minded cheesemonger at your service, you’ve at least tried Teleme, and for those who’ve tried it, California cheese doesn’t get any better than Teleme! It’s the cheese of traditional Bay Area polenta. It’s the cheese that most local Italian families know as a breakfast option often served with fresh fruit. It has shown up in other Italian dishes and on burgers, adding rich, creamy texture and oh-so-cheesey flavor where cheddar and jack can’t do the job. It has won the praise of chefs, foodwriters, and cheese professionals.
To get better acquainted with Teleme, you should be aware that it comes in two varieties from two distinct producers, and this is where it gets tricky: one is Franklin’s Teleme made by Franklin Peluso at Mid Coast Cheese Company; the other is Tomales Bay Teleme Cheese made by Peluso Cheese. Franklin Peluso used to own Peluso Cheese before starting a second company and selling his family-namesake company — an element that confuses buyers and customers looking for the real deal. You see, Franklin’s Teleme is painstakingly made by an old-world recipe that has been handed down from generation to generation. It has rice flour stewn on its surface to control its moisture, it is never wrapped in plastic, and it is ripened in boxes that are not sealed. All of these elements create a superior, traditional product that shares qualities with cheeses made for millenia in Northern Italy—a family of cheeses known as stracchino cheeses. This is the Teleme that has been profiled in books on cheese and praised by food writers for decades.
In spite of its importance to California’s food culture and its popularity, Franklin’s Teleme is in serious danger of disappearing. You may have noticed that it’s been missing from its normal places for most of 2019. Franklin, the last maker of real Teleme, has been without a production facility lease since December 2018. With no new facility lined up, it’s all too easy to surmise that Franklin, in his mid 70s, may decide to retire without passing on the family recipe. Even more than my love of the cheese itself, it was the family element, the passing on of an old-world recipe from generation to generation, that attracted me to Teleme. A cheese with such a rich history is very rare in America. Once I learned that Franklin was the last man alive who knew how to make this cheese, I was compelled to nominate it for the Ark of Taste, a product designation and recognition project of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. The nomination process requires a full product history and biography to fulfill all of the eligibility requirements.
During the process of researching Teleme and Franklin’s family’s link to this cheese, I realized that more was at stake than the loss of a unique product. The story of Teleme is the story of an American immigrant family experience; it’s the story of the American dream; it’s the story of a traditional food community in San Francisco that expanded to the larger Bay Area and up and down California; it’s become the story of one man’s struggle with modernity and wanting not to compromise his identity, which is intricately tied to this cheese. Traditional Teleme cheese was accepted by the Slow Food Foundation and added to the Ark of Taste in September, 2019. It may be too late to save Teleme from extinction but at the very least I had the honor of chronicling its history for the Ark of Taste and brought its plight to the attention of many California cheese-lovers with a spring article in Culture Magazine. Many people are now watching closely to see if Teleme reappears in stores to be fallen in love with all over again. Hopefully, a new generation of cheese-discoverers will then appreciate a part of California’s food heritage that needs two things to survive and thrive: adorants who love it for what it is, and a brave, new cheesemaker to take it over and create the next chapter of its amazing story.