Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Artisan Cheeses of Washington State

I've already written a rather lengthy post about my trip to Seattle to visit friends this past summer, but I also wanted to take some time to write in detail about the cheeses that I ate while I was there. My job exposes me to a lot of different artisanal and farmstead cheeses on a daily basis. It's one of the greatest luxuries and most serious dangers at the same time. Getting paid to learn about cheese, wine, and food is pretty great except for the damage it does to my waistline. I've had many of the best from New England and examples from California are not all that uncommon on our cart. We've even had cheeses from my home state of Louisiana and right now there is one from Texas on the cart called Hoya Santa that I'm pretty excited about. However, I've never seen anything from Washington, so I was very pleasantly surprised at how good the cheese was and how friendly the folks who make it and sell it are.

In Boston, there is a rising culture of "locavores" due to the influence of writers like Michael Pollan and movies like Food Inc. I've noticed a new tendency amongst diners to ask questions about the source of foods that we serve on our menu, and I think it's fantastic that people are starting to veer away from fast food and eat fresh ingredients grown in their area. Cheese-makers have certainly latched onto this idea and it has helped, to a certain extent, save dairy farming and a way of life especially in states like Vermont. I suppose that's what I witnessed in Seattle in a similar vein. Folks out there seem to care as much if not more about local products, farmers' markets, and supporting local businesses than we do in our own little stedtle. I'm all for supporting local and New England's cheeses are fantastic, but delicious is delicious and I wouldn't mind seeing some cheese from Washington on the East Coast!

Here are a few of the cheeses that I tried while I was in Seattle and some details about each:

Beecher's Handmade Cheese: This seemed to be just about everywhere in Seattle. A lot of restaurants printed the Beecher's name on their menus commonly using the "Blank Slate" fromage blanc. We even saw one menu that offered Poutein with Beecher's Cheese Curds. They are located just off Pike Place Market and get a lot of exposure from the tourist traffic. We wanted to sample a grilled cheese sandwich there, but weren't in the mood to brave the long lines.

They must be doing something right, because it would have taken us twenty minutes just to get up to the counter to order our sandwiches. We bought some "Blank Slate" later at a little cheese shop called The Cheese Cellar near the Space Needle and brought it back to our friends' house. It's a sweet, creamy, spreadable cheese that reminds me a little of cream cheese. We ate it spread on toasted baguette with honey. DELICIOUS!

Mt. Townsend Creamery: I met the cheese-maker at one of the many farmers' markets that my friend Jill took me to in a cute little Seattle neighborhood. At his stall, I tried a couple different cheeses and picked his brain about how he made them. He recognized that I was a huge cheese dork and didn't shy away from giving me lots of technical details, except for his "secrets." We bought a delicious "Cirrus" which is essentially a camembert style. It had a lovely earthy bloomy rind with a decadently creamy paste that was bordering on too ripe - pretty much optimal, in my opinion. We ended up dipping our bread in it after it had been sitting out for a while to scoop up the creamy goodness. I was also quite taken with their award-winning "Trailhead" alpine style cheese. It had complex herbaceous nutty tones that I would compare to a fine aged gruyere, but with a subtle sharpness like a young but mellow Vermont cheddar. It made me long to have a really great white Burgundy with it. The long buttery finish is what won me over as a life-long fan. What a treat!

Estrella Family Creamery: Next to the foraged and found stand where we bought morels, we happened across Estrella at the farmers' market. They had quite a few of their cheeses available to sample. It was almost overwhelming. They were all very very good. We bought a couple of different ones, but what I remember most is the "Red Darla." It's what's referred to as a washed rind cheese because it's doused with red wine while it's aging. This promotes the growth of something called b-linens which is essentially what makes stinky cheese stinky. It was indeed a funky one! I loved the earthy mushroom notes and the utter (no pun intended) joy that I got from letting it melt in my mouth. I will make it a priority to search this cheese out next time I'm in Seattle.

I can only hope that someone from one of the cheese importers around here will read this and get these cheeses in. Not only would I like to get other people into them, but I'd also love to be able to taste them again, and soon. Happy eating!

Check out Artisan Cheese of The Pacific Northwest by Tami Parr for more information about these and others. Tami also has a fabulous blog where you can read all about current events regarding cheese in the Northwest.

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