Tami Parr's new book, "Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History," chronicles the origins of cheese making in our region’s grassy, damp, and moldy terroir (or for some of us, the arid, sagebrush grazing lands east of the mountains).
It all began with American Capt. Robert Gray’s milk goat, Nancy. The well-travelled goat perished at sea just before Gray found and named the Columbia River.
From then on, cheese making was interwoven with Northwest history from the time of other explorers, through the age of pioneers coming west, industrial production, and has now come almost full circle back to small farmstead cheese makers.
Parr tells the tale of our region’s cheese history largely through stories of cheese makers come and gone.
Their businesses frequently don’t last more than a generation at best.
As I found in my own experience as an apprentice, making cheese is not only an art, it is hard work. A lot of time is spent cleaning the cheese room and all the equipment. I have the red hands to show for it.
Farmstead cheese makers must also spend hours doing the milking and animal care chores twice a day. And sometimes the goats escape and you might find one standing on top of your car.
For all the cheese making operations that have failed because they couldn’t get a dependable supply of milk or were too far from markets, there are some familiar names have been around for close to a century. The Tillamook County Creamery Association was formed in 1909 to promote quality control among the cheeses produced and marketed from the north Oregon coast.
As Parr writes, one of its first tasks was to weed out the heavy drinkers among the cheese makers, a move that had an immediate effect on the quality of the region’s cheese.
The Rogue Valley Creamery first began operations in Grants Pass, Ore., in 1913. By the late 1950s, it was producing its first blue cheeses, with the recipe still used today for Oregon Blue.
Established during the late 1800s, the land grant colleges in Corvallis, Ore., Pullman, Wash. and Moscow, Idaho, devoted part of their mission to advancing the science of dairying. Among their many accomplishments, in 1937, Dr. Norman Golding perfected a cheddar cheese recipe that could be successfully packaged in a can. The technological innovation known as Cougar Gold was soon overtaken by the invention of plastic packaging. Either way, cheeses with rinds (do I eat it or not?) became a thing of the past.
My favorite slice of our regional cheese story is about the current revival of farmstead cheese making. Begun with the back to the land movement of the 1970s, Parr tells us it is no longer just the hobby of counterculture hippies.
As of 2012, there were 87 artisan cheese makers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The range of cheese styles is mouthwatering. By far the greatest number of fromageries profiled in the last chapter of the book make goat cheeses, from tiny Mystery Bay Farm on the Olympic Peninsula to prize-winning Rivers Edge Chevre from Logsden, Ore.. With influences from Spain’s Basque region and a large population of sheep, Idaho is home to two new sheep’s milk cheese producers, Lark’s Meadow Creamery in Rexburg and Blue Sage Farm in Shoshone. To fill out your cheese course, don’t forget some cow’s milk cheeses like Beecher’s Flagship (cheddar-style) of Seattle and Beaver Classic (alpine-style) from Oregon State University.
"Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History" reads like a textbook at times. Livestock censuses and production statistics are regularly provided to describe the growth of dairying and cheese making since the days of the pioneers.
Nevertheless, this book is a good addition to a cheese head’s library. Reading the 208 page volume, I came to the conclusion that now is the best time to be a cheese consumer. More fine and tasty cheeses are now made in the Northwest than ever before.
If you want to know even more, Tami Parr is speaking at the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival at the Seattle Design Center in Georgetown on October 12th. Find more information about the festival at http://washingtonartisancheese.com/.
Beth Redfield lives in Olympia, Wash., and spent one year learning her way around milking parlors and cheese rooms at farms in Thurston and Grays Harbor Counties.
"Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History" 208 pp. Paperback, $22.95 (OSU Press) http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/book/pacific-northwest-cheese