Willamette Valley Cheese Trail
Taste your way down the valley
A herd of tawny goats ripples across a lush green pasture in front of me, smooth and steady, like brush strokes at the start of a painting. I lean into a wooden fence, squinting to get a closer look at the 38 ladies, a mix of alpine and LaMancha goats, frisking about a five-acre farm in Molalla, Oregon.
To my left I hear a lyrical call: “Biquette…biquette.” This is Carine Goldin, French native and owner of Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese, calling out to her cheese-making herd. Her lilting call, which means both “little goat and sweetheart,” sings out over the blue sky and countryside. But it’s midday, and the goats know it’s not yet dinnertime, so they continue to dally in the tall summer grass.
When I discovered that many of the small-scale dairies and creameries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley welcome visitors by appointment, I knew a cheese-inspired road trip was in order. My journey will take me from Portland as far south as the town of Lowell with an overnight in Eugene. My first stop, Goldin Artisan, is a tiny operation located off a bucolic road at Goldin’s home.
Goldin’s romance with cheese began in her hometown of Mouxy in the Savoie region of France, an area known for some of France’s finest cheese. Her grandmother was a cheese connoisseur. “She shared her passion with me when I was young,” says Goldin, who recounts visiting small farms and cheese shops around the French countryside as a child.
Walking around the farm, she introduces me to the baby goats, which are all between four and six weeks old. Bright-eyed and eager to be touched, the goats bleat and nuzzle their soft noses into my hands. “They love people,” says Goldin. “They are curious, smart,” and “they can get out of anything,” she adds.
Goldin makes cheese in a small building located just steps away from her house. Natural light floods the simple fromagerie, where she spends most of her days making small-batch, farmstead goat cheese in the style she remembers from her childhood.
She opens the door to an adjoining room to show me pristine, aging white rounds, and the aroma reminds me of fresh cut grass in springtime. The cheese in here ranges from a tangy semi-soft certoux to a mushroomy Tomme de Sawtell. Goldin points to a favorite — the Tomme des Vignes — and describes as rich and nutty with a taste of the Willamette Valley.
Back outside and near her garden, where a raspberry bush bursts with deep pink fruit, Goldin explains how the idea for her cheese-making business grew out of her missing the taste of French cheese. She began dabbling in the kitchen, and that led to a dream of owning a farm and raising her own goats for milk.
In 2004, she found five acres in Molalla at the foothills of the Cascade Range. She’s been making cheese to sell at local markets and to nearby restaurants ever since. All of her cheese is ripening and aging today, so I plan to visit the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University next weekend for cheese to take home.
Jersey Girls in Salem, Cuisine in Eugene
The road trip continues as I coast by red barns and roadside wild flowers to the cottage-like Willamette Valley Cheese Company tasting room in Salem. The tasting room samples 31 different cheeses, listed on a chalkboard menu, ranging from a subtly nutty, smoked fontina to a bright and tangy aged gouda. As I pick a selection of cheeses to try, I admire the herd of fawn-colored Jersey cows through the front windows.
After savoring seven different bites of havarti (the zesty horseradish was a favorite) I learn that owner Rod Volbeda, a second generation dairyman, produces the only farmstead cow’s milk cheese in Oregon. This means that his cheese is made solely with milk from Volbeda’s own herd.
The Jersey cows on the farm, numbering around 500, pasture on certified organic grasses and are never treated with hormones, so Volbeda’s cheese is all-natural. I walk out to meet a few of the ladies before I leave, admiring their gentle, doe-like eyes, long lashes and soft, furry noses.
Back on the road, I head about an hour south to Eugene for the Inn at the 5th, a contemporary and lively boutique hotel conveniently located steps away from Marché, the restaurant that helped start Oregon’s farm-to-table revolution. From spring to late summer, chef/owner Stephanie Kimmel uses edible flowers from a kitchen garden to add flavor and flair to each dish.
After a classic Pacific Northwest meal of local greens, wood-oven roasted salmon with earthy chanterelles, roasted potatoes and a glass of pinot noir, I am completely satisfied. I almost skip dessert until I spot a summer special: marionberry cobbler with rose geranium ice cream. I walk one block back to the Inn and take advantage of the stately spa tub in my comfortable room and settle in with the book, “The Guide to West Coast Cheese.”
Going Local in Lowell
Early the next morning, after dreaming of mountain tomme and manchego, I swing by Marché Provisions for a Croque Madame and a coffee to go. The gourmet food store, located just across from the inn, is a treasure trove of artisan food and drink and a great spot to pack a picnic. Windows rolled down and back on the road, I wind along idyllic country roads seeking signs to Ferns’ Edge Goat Dairy in Lowell. I miss the turn for the dairy the first time, which is fortuitous, because now I get to see the nostalgic Lowell Covered Bridge. Originally built in 1907, the linen white bridge is framed by Dexter Lake, its blue water glimmering in the morning sunshine.
Paolo is the first to greet me when I arrive to the farm. He’s a Great Pyrenees dog with a thick mop of hair and sweet eyes. A livestock guard dog, he stands watch while I call the owner, Shari Reyna, from the barnyard. We three walk the farm together, meeting goats of different ages clustered along hillsides and in forested nooks across the property.
Reyna tends to 100 milking goats at a time on the land she’s called home for more than 20 years. She originally moved from California to complete her doctorate in anthropology at the University of Oregon. “But Oregon gets you,” she says, looking up at towering pine trees. “I’ve been here ever since.”
She leans over to touch the inquisitive nose of a Nubian goat. “They always want to say hi,” she says. The milking herd wears colorful necklaces, each adorned with a name. “Goats have lots of personality,” she says, pointing to one goat, that was put in “time-out,” sticking her perky head through a hole in the fence.
Scientific by nature, Reyna began keeping goats to study genetics in the early 1970s and focused on breeding superior stock. She’s always farmed organically — from what her herd eats to how she manages the land. And it doesn’t end there; Reyna points to three nearby geese, their bright beaks bobbing up and down in the bushes. “Parasite control,” she says.
Even dairy production follows the organic philosophy; the hazelnuts, dill and habañero peppers found in the soft, fresh-flavored chevres are from the neighboring organic Circle h Farm. When it’s available, Reyna supplements the feed for the goats with spent grain from Agrarian Ale in Coburg. “The organic farmers in the area have a great relationship,” she says. One of Reyna’s long-term customers is King Estate Winery; the feta cheese is the chef’s favorite.
Before I leave, Reyna takes me meet the newest baby goats. Just a few months old, they are so small that one could fit comfortably in my over-sized purse. We bottle-feed the bright-eyed kids and stroke their floppy, cashmere-soft ears. Reyna looks toward the arching Cascade foothills. “We have the lake on one side and mountains rise up from the other — it’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “I feel so lucky to live where other people take their vacations.”
A Rose in the Valley
I decide to take a meandering way back to Portland. It’s summertime and the days are long. Plus, I’m not ready for my cheese quest to end. I wind past hazelnut orchards, vineyards, farmlands and Douglas fir forests to my last stop, Briar Rose Creamery, a cheese tasting room in the heart of northern Willamette Valley wine country.
When I arrive, a group from Seattle is tasting its way through the creamy spreadable chevres varieties, including lemon-dill, spicy chipotle and garlic-herb. I squeeze alongside them into the 120-square foot tasting room as cheese maker Sarah Marcus begins talking about her aged cheeses.
She begins with Freya’s Wheel (named for the Norse Goddess of Love and Prosperity), which is a semi-soft, bloomy rinded goat’s milk cheese. The chewy cheese evokes hazelnuts, mushrooms and a splash of citrus. It would be a perfect pairing for a pinot noir from the neighboring wineries of Lange Estate Winery and Vineyard or Torii Mor Winery.
One of the reasons Marcus chose this spot for her creamery was the proximity to wineries and vineyards. “There’s camaraderie in cheese and wine,” she says. Not to mention the symmetry with other food producers in the area; Marcus takes leftover whey to feed the heritage hogs at Worden Hill Farm just down the road, and, in exchange, the farmers gift her cuts of pork.
A California native, Marcus began making cheese at home. She attributes her love of food to her mother, who was a food and travel writer. In 2005, she decided to pursue cheese fulltime, and began working behind the counter at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.
Two apprenticeships followed at Ticklemore Cheese in England, and Goat Lady Dairy in North Carolina. She opened Briar Rose Creamery with her husband in 2010. “Cheese is my passion,” says Marcus. “The hedonist in me really likes it.”
Marcus sources milk from Tideland Dairy Goats in Tillamook and makes the cheese in the creamery I can see through the glass door. “The cheese room is where all the magic happens,” Marcus says.
The next cheese I try is the pungent Lorelei, a robiola-style goat cheese washed in Steam Fire Stout from Fire Mountain Brewery in Carlton. This is followed by chevre romano, a cheese with toffee notes that’s been aged for over a year. Marcus suggests using it like Parmesan, shaving thin slivers to top soups, salads or pasta.
I end my tasting — and my trip — with one chocolate-goat cheese truffle. It’s delicious and decadent. Standing on the porch of Briar Rose, surrounded by Douglas fir trees as tall as city buildings, I think of where I am and all I’ve experienced in just two short days. Now I know that one tomme of cheese can equal a person’s lifelong dream. And I realize how much more there is to explore — and taste — along the Willamette Valley Cheese Trail.
about author Kerry Newberry
Kerry Newberry is a Portland-based writer who covers food, wine, farms and travel for a variety of publications. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Fodor’s Travel Publications, Edible Portland, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and more. Whenever she throws a dinner party, she always sets out a platter of Oregon cheese.
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