The Pacific Northwest's artisan-cheese movement may still be cultivating an instantly identifiable character that can't be replicated anywhere else, but the region's cheesemakers have nailed the classics.
"They're still using recipes of the Old World because that's what consumers recognize, and because you have to be at a certain skill level and certain economic level to really play around," Tami Parr, author of Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest, told me yesterday when we met for a Pacific Northwest cheese primer. "But the quality of Northwest cheese is on par with France, New York, and Vermont."
Is it ever. Parr and The Calf and The Kid's Sheri LaVigne arranged for me to tour the region via cheeseboard, offering samples of more than a dozen outstanding cheeses that demonstrate the range of visions and techniques available to local consumers. Here's a list of the five cheeses I'll remember next time I visit the cheesemonger:
1. Nonna Capra, Yarmuth Farms, Darrington, Wash.
"These women have the gift," says LaVigne, who first met Yarmuth Farms' owners when they presented her with an early batch of chevre for inspection. LaVigne didn't like it, and suggested a series of meetings with veteran cheesemakers who could help unravel the chevre's flaws.
"I don't know what they did, but they did their homework," LaVigne says. "I love them and I love their cheese."
The Nonna Capra, a plush, buttery pasteurized goat cheese, is surrounded by a delicate white mold that contributes to the cheese's undeniable sophistication.
"That's fantastic," Parr said upon sampling.
2. Valentine, Ancient Heritage Dairy, Scio, Ore.
For its popular soft-ripened Adelle cheese, which I also tried, Ancient Heritage Dairy cuts its sheep's milk with cow's milk. But the Valentine, named for the farm's first ewe, is all sheep. The cheese has a terrific spongy tang and delivers a subtle hit of pepper on the back end. It's a wonderfully rich, round cheese.
3. Tin Willow Tomme, Black Sheep Creamery, Adna, Wash.
Black Sheep's pastures in western Washington can only support so many sheep, so the creamery's owners purchase milk from a neighbor to make their grassy, hard cheese that's indebted to lessons learned from the world's best Manchego producers. The Tin Willow has a refined depth that made me reach for another wedge.
4. Holey Goat, Oak Leaf Creamery, Grant's Pass, Ore.
Oak Leaf Creamery is an Oregon transplant, having gotten its start in Maine. And Holey Goat, a raw goat's-milk rendition of traditional Swiss cheese, is among its newest offerings.
"He brought this in last week and I love it," LaVigne says. "You can taste the Swiss culture."
The Holey Goat is nutty and balanced, with none of the plasticity that plagues industrially-made Swiss cheeses.
5. Classico Reserve, Tumalo Farms, Bend, Ore.
LaVigne hesitated to stock Tumalo Farms' pasteurized goat cheese, even though "everything they do is amazing." With a price tag of $39 a pound, she wasn't sure she could sell it.
But "I haven't had any problem at all," she reports.
That's likely because the semi-hard cheese is a stunner. While few artisan cheese makers have the cash flow to allow them to cave-age a cheese for more than a few months, the Classico Reserve spends a year developing buttery, hazelnut, and gently floral flavors.
"It's pretty incredible," Parr says.