Traditional teleme is a stracchino-style cow’s milk cheese from the San Francisco Bay Area of California. It is most commonly made and distributed in 6-pound square slabs. Teleme is semi-soft and sliceable when young; at its peak it is soft and pudgy and loses its square-edged shape at room temperature, and its rind cleaves open revealing the unctuous paste beneath. When aged for 3 or more months, the glossy body of the cheese appreciably liquifies and gains a luscious, flowing elasticity when cut. One of the unique characteristics of this cheese is the fact that it is dusted with rice flour after a few days of drying. Rice flour is used because it dries the edges of the cheese just enough without becoming gummy or drying the whole cheese out. Rice flour from a local rice farm and milling company has always been used. The cheese is then wrapped in wax-coated paper and matured for at least 2 weeks before being released for sale. No matter the stage of aging, teleme is pleasing to eat: When young (aged about 1 month), its mellow flavor tends toward fresh cultured cream with hints of citrus, a crème fraîche tang and buttery-yeasty aroma. At its peak (aged about 2 months), it exhibits a more pronounced yeast aroma reminiscent of fermenting wine or sourdough bread, with the same mild tang balanced with buttery notes and brighter citrus fruitiness. Aged further (3 months or more), the flavors intensify into robust concentrations of woodsy mushrooms with a stronger, sweeter tang tempered by a nutty edge. Traditional teleme can be served drizzled with olive oil on a cheese board or dolloped onto halved fresh peaches. It amalgamates perfectly in silky mushroom risotto and adds a distinct flavor to a steaming pot of rustic polenta.
The origins of teleme are somewhat obscure, but it is clear that this cheese has no sole inventor—the teleme that we know today reflects the work of generations of cheesemakers. The first version of teleme that was made in California was likely similar to a Greek cheese called telemes. Though no descriptions of the earliest California-made teleme are available, we can assume the similarity for two reasons: One, because the men who first made it were from Greece, and two, because the names of the cheeses are virtually the same. While Greek telemes cheese is aged in brine, there is no evidence that teleme made in California was ever brined. An early version of teleme was made as early as the 1920s at Standard Cheese Company in Pleasanton, California, owned and operated by a group of Greek businessmen and cheesemakers. The main market for this cheese was the Greek immigrant population of San Francisco and the surrounding area. This company dissolved in the 1980s. In historical parallel, a different group of entrepreneurial immigrants—this time Italian—strove to make their own version of Teleme. Italian immigrant brothers Serafino and Gianni Iacono owned a butter factory and a group of creameries. In 1917 they built a factory in Los Banos to found another creamery. At the time, Standard Cheese Company’s Greek-influenced teleme had become popular among San Francisco’s Italian immigrant community, who used it in ways that a stracchino-style cheese would have been used in Italy. Noticing market demand, the Iacono brothers decided to make teleme themselves, but they wanted to reformulate the cheese to make it more similar to a stracchino-style cheese that would appeal to the area’s Italian markets and delicatessens. Serafino Iacono’s uncle-in-law, Giovanni Peluso, was a cheesemaker at New Sonoma Creamery who proved himself instrumental in this process, making the first batch of new teleme cheese in 1927. Peluso created a cheese that was closer to a native Italian’s idea of a stracchino-style cheese—one that melds beautifully in cooking, is higher in moisture, less piquant in flavor and more versatile than cheeses that require grating. This cheese was also dusted with rice flour after a few days of drying as is typical in Italy for cheeses of this style. Several generations of the Peluso family continued to make traditional teleme, and today their company, Mid-Coast Cheese Company, is the only remaining producer of the authentic cheese. The dusting of rice flour on the rind identifies true traditional teleme—the version of cheese that is released to the market without rice flour is sealed in plastic vacuum packaging and has a different appearance, flavor, and texture altogether. Indeed, expert cheesemongers and food writers in the San Francisco Bay Area warn customers about the shrink-wrapped version.
Traditional teleme is and has always been made with pasteurized milk. This is due to the United States Food and Drug Administration’s rule that cheeses aged less than 60 days prior to release (like teleme) must be made from pasteurized milk. However, as a high-quality product that reflects the immigrant history of the San Francisco Bay Area, traditional teleme is a vital counter to mass-produced industrial cheeses, and is worthy of protection. Because this cheese is made in extremely limited quantities by a single producer, cheese experts have reason to worry for traditional teleme’s future.