Our whistle stop tour heads west this week, and it couldn’t be better timing. I recently returned from a two-week trip to Washington and Oregon, where I visited cheesemakers and shops that are famous in the Pacific Northwest and beyond for their award-winning cheeses. Today we’ll focus on the Oregon cheesemakers I was lucky enough to see, but tune in tomorrow to learn about the Oregon cheeses I discovered during the tour.
First up on our itinerary was the world-renowned Rogue Creamery in Center Point, in the heart of Southern Oregon. My husband and I were headed to Ashland and its famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but I didn’t have to beg hard to get him to stop the car at Rogue (the chocolate shop next door helped my case).
Rogue Creamery has an 80-year legacy in the Rogue River Valley, with a pedigree no one in the cheese world can deny. The Vella family, famous for its California Jacks, established Rogue Creamery during the Great Depression, but perhaps its most significant moment came in the mid-1950s, when founder Tom Vella went to France to learn the secrets behind blue cheese-making. For most of us cheese lovers equate the phrase “Rogue Creamery” with blue cheese, and in fact, the week I visited Rogue, many cheese shops around the country were unpacking their first shipments of the 2012 Rogue River Blue.
I got a taste of that creamy, blue-veined delight when I opened the door to the small creamery shop and was welcomed by manager Tom Van Voorhees, who seemed to be amused by my reverence and tolerated the many questions and photos. The cheese case beckoned with the full complement of Rogue Creamery blues – Caveman Blue, Oregonzola, Smokey Blue, Crater Lake Blue, Echo Mountain Blue – as well as Rogue’s many non-blues, such as Touvelle, various cheddars and lots of flavored curds. I not only snacked my blue-loving heart out on Rogue’s cheeses, but I even made it to the second case full of other Pacific Northwest cheeses, including recent ACS best in show winner Flagsheep, which eluded me back in Seattle at Beecher’s. I could have stayed for hours tasting every cheese, but we had to move on eventually, and just two days later I got my cheesemaker fix again much further north.
We stumbled onto Willamette Valley Cheese Company as we were cruising through Salem in Oregon’s famous wine region and had to turn the car around so I could pop in for a tasting. This 50-year-old cheese operation first came across my radar last year when I picked up a wedge of its aged gouda at Beecher’s, and I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to sample more of its tasty cheddars, goudas, fontinas and Jacks. Though we ended up not purchasing any cheese on this stop (the cooler was getting pretty full at this point), we enjoyed several of Willamette Valley Cheese’s cow’s-milk delicacies, with particular love for its havartis and farmstead fontina. The cheese samples also helped fuel our bellies for the winery visits that followed. (Psst…learn more about Willamette Valley Cheese straight from owner Rob Volbeda by watching the new video posted by the ACS Chair and Cheese Chick Christine Hyatt for the Oregon Cheese Guild.)
The next day saw us head toward the Northern Oregon coast, and no trip to this area would be complete without a stop at regional dairy powerhouse Tillamook Cheese. Much adored not only for its cheddars and colbys, but for its killer ice cream flavors as well, Tillamook was the main reason why I wanted to go to the coast in the first place! Luckily, it didn’t disappoint.
Unlike the other cheesemakers we visited, we got to see the magic in action at Tillamook. Even though it was a Sunday, several works handled enormous blocks of cheddar on the assembly line, which mesmerized the crowd – and made it hungry, of course. The line for the samples paled in comparison to the line for the ice cream, but we took our time, savoring the intensely rich cheddars (that Special Reserve Extra-Sharp Cheddar is the stuff dreams are made of) and enjoying a lunch of – what else? – macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese before we selected our scoops. Yes, it was an indulgent day, but we were on vacation, and my Caramel Toffee Crunch-Sweet Centennial-Espresso Mocha trio kept my belly full and happy until our very late dinner in Portland that night.
The cheese train will rest in Oregon overnight – come back Tuesday to read more about our fave local cheeses!