In honor of the upcoming Seattle Cheese Festival this weekend at Pike Place Market, I interviewed Tami Parr. Since its launch five years ago, Parr's>"/>
In honor of the upcoming Seattle Cheese Festival this weekend at Pike Place Market, I interviewed Tami Parr. Since its launch five years ago, Parr's Pacific Northwest Cheese Project blog has become the preeminent source for local cheese news, producer profiles, and cheese reviews. Now she's just come out with Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest, a guide to cheese producers.
Parr is in Seattle from Thursday through Sunday, reading at local cheese shops and talking at the Cheese Festival. I talked to her last week, and here are a few excerpts from our conversation -- and a few of her favorite Northwest cheeses.
How did you get started writing the blog?
I was working as an attorney, disliked my job, and blogs were just starting to happen in a serious way. And I was reading the Julie/Julia Project [when it first appeared on Salon]. I 'm like, if I don't have a creative outlet of some kind I'm going to kill myself. [Laughs.]
If you read back, the blog is dorky at first. It was fairly random, but the little spark was that no one was writing about local cheese. I decided that the blog was going to be stupid unless I got more journalistic about it. I started doing interviews with cheesemakers, and, voila! I became an authority on NW cheese. I was starting just as there was an explosion of cheesemakers here.
Is there such a thing as a Northwest style of cheese? Why or why not?
I wish that there was some great thing I could tell you. The one thing I think is unique about the region is the range of terroir: In the same states [Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia], we've got coastal climates, mountain climates, desert climates. You get such a diversity of possibilities.
When you look back at why cheese was made, millennia ago, it was simply to preserve excess milk. Greek shepherds had a very arid climate, a lot of saltwater, and so they made feta. Alpine cheesemakers had to preserve milk through cold, long winters, so they made hard cheeses. Cheese evolved out of where it was from. Now that cheese is industrialized, you could buy a vat and some milk, and decide, I'm going to make whatever -- feta, cheddar, gouda. Then you buy the cultures with the flavor profile you specify. Now, there are also people here who are trying to see what the Earth brings them, what the region brings them. Kelli Estrella (of Estrella Family Creamery) in particular is doing things that are very interesting.
What's responsible for this explosion in artisan cheesemaking?
The farmers markets. For sure. The rise of the farmers markets coincided with the rise in cheesemaking -- across the country, of course, but particularly here. It makes it so easy to start. You don't have to have a bar code, you don't have to worry about retailers and marketing. If you're going to grow, you'll have to go retail, but for sure the markets have been huge in terms of getting people to start.
Which artisan cheesemakers in the Northwest do you think are doing the most innovative things?
Well, Beecher's Flagship Reserve is amazing, of course. [Parr also thinks the selection of Northwest cheese in Beecher's store is one of the best in the area.] There's a woman in Oregon, Pat Morford of River's Edge Chevre, she's on the coast. With her soft-ripened goat's milk cheese and that coastal climate, she's seized on something. Estrella Family Creamery's chevrette (JK. note: pretty much my favorite cheese in the United States) is the kind of the same thing. Kelli's working with what she has, and her new cheese cave is allowing her to get all kinds of interesting flavors.
Ronda Gothberg of Gothberg Farms in Skagit has really nice goat cheeses. She has 14-17 goats -- really small, really nice. And the cheesemaker I think is underappreciated is Pleasant Valley Dairy in Ferndale, Wash. -- they were one of the oldest cheesemakers in the northwest, which started in the 1960s. They make unbelievable raw-milk gouda and something called farmstead cheese.
One more that I want to mention is Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese out in Leavenworth. It's a couple with have 80 sheep. Catha, the wife, is the cheesemaker, and she's awesome -- they have a creamy, soft ripened blue, and a tomme aged 3-4 months. Really amazing.