Nutty. Robust. Sharp. Delightful. Fruity. Creamy. Bold. Buttery. Rich. Three squares of cheese, one ounce exactly, are daintily placed on a wooden board with a few crostini and a small dish of mango chutney. The cheeses, one delicate, white and creamy, another hard, yellow and pungent, the next an ivory sheep’s milk cheese with evenly distributed holes, are the center of the masterpiece laid out by cheesemonger Steve Jones. Behind each cheese on the board is a story; written by artisan cheesemakers who care deeply for their product. Whether raw chévre dusted daintily with cocoa powder from Briar Rose Creamery, or aged Boerenkaas Gouda from Salem, Oregon’s Willamette Valley Creamery, each artisan cheesemaker has a unique relationship to his or her animals, methods, philosophy, and cheese.
Artisan cheesemaking is by no means a new phenomenon. Immigrants from Europe brought traditions of cheesemaking, and pioneers would make cheese as part of everyday life. Historically, because cheese was a perishable product, farmers would pool “their milk at a centralized location, usually in the same county” (Parr). This kept the cheese industry local, but with technology such as highways and refrigeration, the cheese industry became national and even global...
The vast surge of artisan cheese farms emerged in the 1970s, as many moved towards localized organic and wholesome food. Contributing to the resurgence is the great interest in sustainability, causing local and organic to become lucrative. Many were comforted by the idea of a product that came from their neighborhood creamery and was made without using pesticides or chemical fertilizer. Much cheese had previously been imported from Europe, leading to huge carbon emissions for the transportation of the product. Cheesemaking practices such as manufacturing, packaging, and shipping the wheels of cheese cause CO2 to be released into the environment. Foreign imports lead to the biggest release of this carbon dioxide, and therefore cause the greatest carbon footprint. Also, industrial creameries may have unsustainable practices, where their animals are confined and more methane is released from the animal manure (Reinemann). Tami Parr, an exuberant character and ex-lawyer turned cheese author, blogger, and enthusiast, agrees that even in the Unites States, mass produced cheese leads to “animals being confined…There is a definite manure problem” (Parr: Interview). Yet not all cheese is harmful to the environment, Tami argues. “The small farmer preserves land” and makes sure his property is well maintained. Most of the artisan creameries of the Pacific Northwest “are organic. Or if not certified, many of their practices are almost entirely organic.” Industrial manufacturers have carbon emissions from transporting the milk to the creamery, machinery used to make the product, and transportation to the retail stores. Many artisan cheesemakers are farmstead creameries, where the milk is from their farm, which negates any cost for transportation of milk. Visiting every creamery in writing her book, Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest, Tami noticed that almost all artisan creameries focused on preservation of animals, land, and traditional practices. Many cows, once unable to produce milk, are sent to slaughter at large companies. With artisan creameries, the goats may be sold at auction, or the animals let graze on another pasture.
In accordance with the sustainability interests towards local and organic, farmers markets producing and selling local products found a huge industry. In Oregon alone, there are 110 registered farmers markets, each promoting artisan farmers, including cheesemakers of the Pacific Northwest (Oregon Farmers’ Market Accociation). For artisan cheese makers, marketing is difficult. Each must be licensed by the state through creamery sanitization inspections and permits, and getting well-known can be a hard task (Wisconsin Dept. of Agriculture).
Tami, soft-spoken yet animated, credits, almost entirely, the surge of farmers markets for the success of small creameries. Farmers markets, which emerged and expanded in the past 10 years, are “an incubator for small business.” Going to a store or co-op and trying to have them sell your product is both hard and competitive, but with the new industry niche any farmer can register for a stand at a farmers market and market their own product without any middle man. By being involved in farmers markets, the creamery gets known locally, relationships are made, and their name and product spread. Although Tami Parr described the economic prosperity in the early 2000s as a possible reason that the gourmet aspect of artisan cheese could flourish, she noticed that, even though the economy is in a current recession, “the artisan cheese business has continued to grow” (Parr: Interview). Parr adds that Americans still found enough money for gourmet items, as cheese was a small fraction of gross costs in a household. Fewer than 25 artisan cheesemakers were making cheese in the Pacific Northwest in 2000...In 2008 that number has tripled, currently standing at 70 and growing” (Parr). According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 10,435,900,000lbs of cheese were produced in the US in 2010, equivalent to the weight of over 8 million Holstein cows (Gould). This production rate is the highest in the United States’ history, and has grown by over 2 billion pounds annually in the past decade, where previously only 8,258,000,000lbs were produced. Parr may have to credit part of the growth of the artisan cheese industry to her success, as she has been able to make a respectable living through her cheesy pursuits.
Discussing her favorite Chévre or cave-aged Gruyere in mouth-watering detail while gesturing enthusiastically with illuminating zeal, it was clear she was destined to be involved with cheese. Born in Wisconsin, the cheese state, Parr’s uncle was a dairy farmer. Tami, a middle-aged woman with short grey hair and small glasses resting delicately on the end of her nose, grew up familiar with the dairy industry, so, as a creative outlet during her monotonous job as a lawyer, in 2004 Tami started her cheese blog, the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project. Cheese was always a passion of hers. She noticed that at farmers markets there were many local farmers selling artisan cheese, so she decided to begin her blog, discussing cheese makers of the Northwest and their products. While becoming immersed in the cheese industry, she noticed there were many books about styles of cheese and various types of cheese, but there were no books about specific creameries and their cheeses. This realization led to Tami’s decision to focus on the cheeses and creameries in a specific region, the Pacific Northwest. She chose the Pacific Northwest because it was familiar to her; she grew up in the area, went to University of Washington, and knew the locale. Tami wanted to address in her blog questions she had, such as where a particular cheese is from and who made it. To begin the process of research, Tami read many books, but because there were few on local cheese, she ended up talking to farmers and creamery owners. After continuing her blog during the flowering of both farmers markets and artisan creameries, the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project became wildly successful. She realized she even had enough to compose a book. Her book, Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest, has gained national acclaim for showcasing local cheesemakers. Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest focuses mainly on Washington and Oregon, while also showcasing some creameries in Idaho and British Columbia. Compared to alternate locations for making cheese, the Pacific Northwest offers a mild climate that can offer almost constant grazing for animals, allowing longer seasons for cheesemakers to produce their products.
Artisan cheese is “made by hand and in small batches.” It is hard for Tami to truly discern what “small batches” means, and she admits that there is a fuzzy line. Her definition is that artisan cheese makers are, in general, more involved in the process. Artisan cheesemakers take great pride in their practice. In discord with big industrial corporations, artisan cheesemakers are in direct contact with their product. Through the process of milking the cows to individually turning or rubbing the rind of the cheese, the small batch production is a very hands-on experience. Although there may still be some machinery in pasteurizing the milk, workers are usually the ones who stir the cheese, press the curds, and turn the cheese. Rogue Creamery, the oldest raw milk creamery in the Pacific Northwest, believes that, “to be true to being an artisan cheese company, we will do as many processes as we can by hand,” and that “the hands are so important in the process of making an artisan cheese” (Bryant & Gemmels). In more industrialized creameries, such as Tillamook creamery in Tillamook, Oregon, “you watch and see that it is almost all machinery.” From milking the cows, heating, cutting, pressing, and packaging the cheese, many industrial cheese companies will use machinery almost entirely. Tami also notes that with industrially produced cheese, the company is “looking to make a standard product.” For example, the milking process at a large farm will consist of defined groups of cows to breed throughout the year, giving a constant stream of milk. At small farmstead artisan creameries, the farmer breeds the animal seasonally. When milking the animal, many industrialized farms use machinery, while most artisan creameries milk by hand. With artisan cheese makers, “they know and appreciate that each batch is unique.” Tami referred to a specific “chemistry of cheese” as the science of knowing that what the animal is fed will affect the taste of the milk, and subsequently the taste of the cheese. The farmers know that variation occurs form season to season as the grass supply shifts, from the humidity of the climate or the room, or from the type of food the animal is fed. With artisan cheese “you’re not standardizing.” Parr, along with most artisan cheesemakers, argue that these variations should be celebrated, as the variables add “nuances of flavor.” The artisan cheesemaker is “an artist working with a palette of milk, animals, and season” (Parr:Interview).
Unique to artisan business owners is their commitment and passion to the highest quality. Kim Gibson, of Oregon’s Lochmead Dairy, believes that “any kind of farming and work with animals and land takes absolute passion and integrity” (Hyatt). The Pacific Northwest cheesemakers have varying backgrounds, yet the same passion for excellent cheese. Integrity plays a role in the industry, as the farmers and producers of the product base their business on creating wholesome, high quality cheese, while preserving the land and the health of the animals that are producing the commodity. Jan Nielson, of Fraga Farms creamery on the South Santiam River in Oregon, understands that “cheese is alive, and what people receive is what I’m putting into it, so I try to make sure everything is harmonious” (Hyatt). Cary Bryant, CEO of the Rogue Creamery in southern Oregon, notes, “It’s also about conserving a cultural knowledge base that’s closer to the earth.” Bryant believes that the “soul of the cheesemaker goes into the cheese, and then it’s also a craft and not an engineering experience” (Bryant & Gremmels).
Claudia Lucero is owner and proprietor of Urban Cheesecraft, a local Portland business that sells cheese kits so the average cheese enthusiast can create their own fresh cheese. Due to the unique relationship one would have through making homemade cheese, I ventured to ask about her outlook towards cheesemaking. To Lucero, making cheese is “like some sort of yoga. It’s slow and peaceful…It’s a living thing that we help along the way to a delicious goal that takes a little care and patience.” Lucero accepts nothing but the best. She notes, “I choose raw cow or goat milk from a friend's farm, I grow the herbs I use myself and I am able to make a cheese for friends and family that is truly local, truly special and like nothing you could buy.” Artisan cheesemaking is less of a business to the cheesemakers as it is a unique craft where the farmer has a relationship to the product, the process, the land, and the animals.
Time, meticulousness, and true artisanship transform mere milk into the luscious and buttery “fromage” that is delicately placed on my cutting board. The milk is first heated with a bacterial culture and rennet, a coagulating agent, at nearly 70 to 95ºF for 30 minutes to 2 hours, or until solid curds begin to separate from the liquid whey. Curds are cut by the cheesemaker to release the whey; cheeses that are to be moist will be minimally cut, while curds may be cut numerous times for firmer cheeses. The cheesemaker then will put the curds into a specific mold either delicately, for soft-ripened cheeses, or firmly, for hard cheeses such as cheddar or Gouda, where all remaining liquid is pressed out completely. Fresh cheeses, such as a goat Chévre or Ricotta, don’t require an aging period. For this reason small creameries often make fresh cheeses for a quick financial supplement as their harder cheeses age in the back (Parr: Interview). To age the cheese, the cheesemaker must be meticulous, keeping the room at a certain temperature and humidity, and for some even turning the cheese every day. If slight mistakes are made or if the room shifted minimal degrees, the product could spoil, dry out, or the mold may not grow to ideal likeness. Only through great care exceptional cheese is made.
Once the cheese is perfected into mouth-watering creamy and moldy delicacies, each artisan creamery sends his or her cheese into the sea of critics, to struggle to stay afloat or be exalted by a blue ribbon. The epitome of success for any cheesemaker may be having Steve Jones, cheesemonger and owner of Portland’s most well regarded cheese and charcuterie establishment, the Cheese Bar, listing your cheese as a favorite. Jones, handing me his signature Cheese Board, looks with eager eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses awaiting my reaction, yet subtly knowing he has made a spectacular pairing. His brown hair is tousled and untidy, clearly not his first priority on a dreary Sunday afternoon. The shop, located far up Belmont Street towards Mount Tabor, is the perfect slice. Outside, a bohemian couple sit in black metal patio furniture, sipping red wine and enjoying a cheese board during their Sunday repast. Entering the Cheese Bar, upbeat oldies rock music is playing, fostering feelings of nostalgia for the good ol’ days. The establishment is very proper, aside from its laid-back atmosphere. Clean wood floors, tall ceilings, freshly painted chairs adorn the one-roomed shop. Crisp countertops are organized with European crackers, rich chocolate, and books, offering an array of treats for the cheese-loving customer. The proprietor of the Cheese Bar stands behind a glass case near the store’s forefront, busy at work. While assisting customers, Jones never stops moving his hands, unwrapping, cutting, weighing, rewrapping and returning cheeses perfectly to the case. Each cheese –the Cheese Bar carries over 200– is chosen individually for its unique flavor, texture, smell and style. When customers come to the Cheese Bar, they can expect only the best. Not only are the cheese, wine, beer, and choice meats of the highest quality, but Steve Jones himself is the nation’s top pick. This summer Jones won the 2nd annual national Cheesemonger Invitational in Long Island, New York. To accomplish this feat, and gain the title of America’s best, the cheese aficionados were judged on rounds consisting of an Introduction, Taste Test, Cut & Wrap, and lastly a Plate the Slate test. I find the most amazing is the Taste Test, where each cheesemonger tasted six small pieces of cheese and determined for each the milk type (sheep’s, cow’s, etc.), country of origin, whether the milk is raw versus pasteurized, the cheese category (such as fresh, bloomy rind, washed rind, semisoft, firm, hard, or blue), age of cheese in two-month increments, and the name of cheese. Although it is an amazing accomplishment to be able to pass the Taste Test, Jones sealed his cheesy destiny by wowing the judges with a pairing of bacon caramel corn from Portland’s Xocotatl de David with a mountain cheese during the final Plate the Slate test. In this final assessment, Jones accompanied the popcorn with an extra-aged Bergkase cow’s milk cheese from Austria, wowing the judges and winning him the title of America’s best. With the national title of #1 Cheesemonger, Steve Jones proves that he can make a successful career out of his passion.
Steve Jones and the thousands of others involved in the artisan cheese industry have a desire for excellence, tastiness, and, put simply, uniqueness. Each is dedicated to creating a product, exploring its subtleties to the very crevice of each cheesy hole, and is willing to commit to the life of artisan cheesemaking.
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