Cheese is one of ultimate comfort foods, and who can’t a use little comfort these days? Luckily there’s no lack of incredible farm-fresh cheese in Oregon, largely thanks to the rains and the talented makers and ranchers. You can sample to your heart’s content at the annual Oregon Cheese Festival, typically held in March but now rescheduled to June 20-21, 2020 at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, a friendly town just north of Medford (just about 4 hours south of Portland) in beautiful, uncrowded Southern Oregon.
The two-day gathering includes educational classes, tastings and other events featuring cow, sheep and goat cheese from Oregon and U.S. creameries. Culture magazine, one of the leading periodicals in the cheese industry, has named the Oregon Cheese Festival one of the Ten Best Cheese Festivals in the United States.
Cheese lovers should know that you can find a whopping 250 varieties of sheep, cow and goat cheeses made in the state. From creative curds and Goudas at Umapine Creamery in Milton-Freewater and the handmade Mexican-style queso fresco at Ochoa’s Queseria in Albany to the rustic, French-inspired Tommes from Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese in Molalla, Oregon’s cheesemakers are building strong traditions with an age-old craft.
Yes, you can plan an entire road trip around cheese. Travel through the state’s lush green valleys and coastal mountains along regional segments of the statewide Oregon Cheese Trail — you’ll find clusters of creameries in Portland, on the Coast, in Central and Eastern Oregon, in the Willamette Valley and in Southern Oregon.
Read on, and just try to resist.
Terroir for Cheese
At her dairy farm in the central Coast Range near the town of Siletz, Patricia Morford, founder and cheesemaker at Rivers Edge Chèvre, has been raising goats since 1970 and now runs the small creamery she established in 2005 with her daughter.
“Oregon is a terrific place to raise dairy animals because we grow bountiful grass and browse, which is critical for the production of quality, creamy, high-protein milk,” she says.
She’s seen the state’s close-knit community of artisanal cheesemakers grow rapidly — with around two-dozen members in the Oregon Cheese Guild spanning from tiny coastal hamlets to the southern Rogue River Valley. “The influences of maritime, mountain, valley and every microclimate in between creates wonderful terroir for each of us making our cheeses,” says Morford.
One common thread between all Oregon cheesemakers is a spirit of innovation. You can see this in sustainable farming practices and environmental stewardship, and you can taste it with the focus on craft and inspired ingredients. For example, at Pholia Farm, Gianaclis Caldwell raises Nigerian Dwarf goats and makes cheese in the state’s first off-the-grid creamery, which runs on a hybrid of solar and micro-hydro power. Similarly, Fern’s Edge Goat Dairy capitalizes on their proximity to nearby forests and tops seasonal chevres with locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms.
On their sixth-generation Century Farm, Helvetia Creamery partners with a local cidery for their Bergkäse, a traditional Swiss Alpine-style cheese that has a rind washed with hard cider. And Portland Creamery uses a puree made with the state’s beloved marionberry with a touch of habanero to add a kick in Sweet Fire, one of their popular spreadable chevres.
Then there’s Rogue Creamery’s internationally famous Rogue River Blue, a limited-production cheese made annually beginning on the autumnal equinox. At this time of the year, their cows are grazing on renewed growth due totemperature dips, and the resulting milk becomes richer and higher in butterfat. After thischeese is made and has ripened, each wheel is wrapped in organic Syrah leaves (from the nearby Cowhorn vineyard) that have been soaked in pear brandy. Before release, each wheel is caveaged for 9 to 12 months. Cheesemaker Morford follows a similarly intricate ritual for Up in Smoke from Rivers Edge Chèvre that begins with smoking fresh chevre over alder and maple wood, then artfully wrapping each round of goat cheese in smoked maple leaves that have been lightly misted with bourbon.
Sure, you can easily taste a local tangy goat cheese or a smoked, aged Gouda at a funky restaurant in Portland. But cheese in Oregon is also a reason to explore. Here you can see cheesemongers in action, catch behind-the-scenes cheese production and even swish through green pastures to meet cows (or goats and sheep!). Nothing beats tasting cheese at the source.
If you are a cheddar enthusiast, start at the Coast. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to taste the tangy clothbound cheddar from Face Rock Creamery that earned them a 2019 Good Food Award. You can visit the creamery in the coastal town of Bandon and watch the hands-oncheddar process behind a glass wall (usually on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays). After snacking on their house-made mac andcheese and a cheese-stuffed panini, hit the nearby beachfor a windswept stroll.
Travel a few hours north along the tree-studded coastline to the town of Tillamook, where the history of dairy farming dates back to the 1800s. Swing by the longstanding Tillamook Creamery, where you can get a bird’s-eye view of cheesemaking in action, plus interactive exhibits that cover day-to-day life on a dairy farm and the history of the region. Fuel up in the dining hall on creative cheese plates like tempura-battered cheese curds with sriracha-ranch dipping sauce, orbacon and beer mac and cheese.
For an on-the-farm learning experience, pack your boots and steer toward TMK Creamery in Canby, about 45 minutes from downtown Portland. This small family farm began over 30 years ago when owner Todd Koch bought his first cow at the age of 12 as part of a 4-H project. Now he has a herd of 20 cows that he and his brother raise for milk, while his sister runs their micro-creamery. “We decided to host tours for the public so people could see where their food comes from,” says farmer Tessa Koch. “One of the definite highlights for visitors is meeting our cow-lebrities. We call them that because they are the ultimate hero of the story.”
Wine and Cheese
Food writer M. F. K. Fisher said it best: “Wine and cheese are ageless companions.” You can taste-test this sentiment at the source in Southern Oregon. Cruise along the 35-mile Applegate Valley Wine Trail and you’ll find CrushPad Creamery at Wooldridge Creek winery in Grants Pass, which in 2015 became the state’s first joint creamery and winery. Here co-owner and cheesemaker Kara Olmo focuses on small-batch cheeses to pair with the Applegate Valley wines, produced by her husband, winemaker Greg Paneitz. The couple also added house-made charcuterie to the mix, including pates, terrines, salami and duck prosciutto.
When in the area, make a cheese pilgrimage to the renowned Rogue Creamery tasting room located in Central Point’s Artisan Corridor. In addition to sampling the complete line of blues, cheddars and curds, you can order a solar-powered grilled cheese sandwich and catch a peek at cheddar production. Go behind the scenes at their nearby organic dairy and farm stand with a self-guided tour (or scheduled tour Wednesday through Sunday) that highlights sustainable farming practices, including rotational grazing and composting systems. Another focus here is consistently improving herd health and happiness, which is why you’ll see two of only a handful of Automatic Milking Systems (AMS) in the state of Oregon. The robotic milkers are a novelty and allow the herd of 120 Brown Swiss and Holstein cows to milk themselves on their own schedules.
Closer to Portland, you can taste through creamy spreadable chevres—including lemondill, spicy chipotle and garlicherb — in the 120-square-foot tasting room at Briar Rose Creamery, located in the heart of northern Willamette Valley wine country. One of the reasons cheesemaker Sarah Marcus chose this spot was the proximity to wineries and vineyards.Many of her aged cheeses pair perfectly with pinot, especially Freya’s Wheel, a semi-soft, bloomy-rinded goat’s milk cheese with underlying flavors of hazelnut and mushroom.
Don’t Miss The Wedge
In October the Oregon Cheese Guild’s annual Wedge Festival, a farmers market-style event in Portland, brings together more than 75 local artisan producers of cheese as well as specialty foods, beer, wine and cider.