The phone rang. It woke me up. “This is the Cheese Police,” I heard, in a Texas twang. It sounded like the president himself.
“We have information that leads us to believe that your are organizing a raw milk cheese tasting at the Experience Music Project on July 15th.”
“Yes, I am.” I said.
“Mr. Finkel, are you aware that raw milk cheese is illegal in this country?” “I am a little confused,” I equivocated. “I have received a couple of e-mails telling me that the law has changed since we began planning the event. But Raw Milk Cheese is the finest cheese!” I defiantly, but respectfully, admonished.
“That’s for the government to decide. We’re just doing our job.” He stated with little sympathy. I thought of Bill Clinton pictured with Big Macs and Coca-Cola, and now George W. serving genetically modified food in the White House. “Oh my God, I’m in trouble.”
“You’re in real trouble,” he told me matter of factly. We would like you to come down to our local office by noon today.” I will be flying in from Denver, along with our vice-head of enforcement. We have some questions to ask you and we want names! If you cooperate, we can discuss immunity.” I had no choice but to agree to meet him there.
I thought of my commitments that day—(1) to make the final selection of cheeses with our panel of experts via telephone and email; (2) to print out a list of the cheese, type and producer along with space for notes; (3) to make a last minute trip to the store for 76 bottles of mineral water; (4) to be back by mid-afternoon since we were expecting our featured cheesemaker, Lora Lea Misterly of Quillisascut Cheese Company. She was to be our houseguest that evening and was driving six hours from her farm in Rice, Washington, in the far northeast corner of the state; and (5) to answer e-mails—some of which were more than two weeks old! “I am in big trouble!”
“Wake Up!” Rose Ann said, “We’ve got a big day… the cheese tasting is tonight and we’ve got a lot to do.” “You’re telling me,” I said, mentally adding to my list, the espaliered apple tree that I had hoped to trim before our guest arrives. The event starts at 6:00 p.m.
Rose Ann left to run errands including picking up 4 of the 15 cheeses that we were to taste, from James Cook Cheese Co. James, a Scot with an accent to prove it, specializes in raw milk cheese and also offers outstanding butter and yogurt in his tiny Belltown shop. His selections included a ripe rich triple cream Brillat Savarin, barnyard-like Isle of Mull Cheddar from his native Scotland, Tomme Affine Poitou Chevre, and the incredible creamy Roquefort Le Vieux Berger.
We methodically rushed through our list of chores and rendezvoused at home just in time to receive Lora Lea. She arrived bearing gifts of several different tiny goatmilk cheeses and ginger-peach preserves. They were all from the 36-acre farm run by her and her husband Rick. We had just enough time to share a draft Pike Pale Ale, some tasty cheese and rosemary croccantini from La Panzanella bakery. She told us that this trip to Seattle to speak to our Slow Food gathering was her total summer vacation and she was glad to have a break from farm work.
Cheeses, water and a dozen loafs of Tall Grass Bakery organic baguettes in tow, we met Karen Collins, Nicki Grover, Melanie Mann and Slow Food volunteers Gerry and Diane Warren and Shannon Borg at EMP at
4:00 p.m. We had only two hours to set up tables in a classroom setting, cut the cheeses, and chill the wine before our guests arrived.
The Experience Music Project is one the world’s great museums and one of Seattle’s top tourist draws. Originally conceived as a Jimmy Hendrix’s shrine, the concept was expanded to include all American popular music. The spectacular and super high-tech building was designed by renowned architect, Frank O. Gehry, and was a gift to the city by Paul Allen, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft along with Bill Gates. As we tasted raw milk cheese in the museum’s Learning Lab, Joan Jett performed next door in the Sky Church to commemorate the first anniversary of EMP.
The museum’s Turntable Restaurant, specializing in regional American cuisine, has been upstaged by the museum itself, but is no less of a discovery.
Our event began with reception where we enjoyed authentic and spicy Caribbean cuisine (designed to enhance the museum’s Reggae music exhibits) prepared by Chef Doug Murray, his director of catering, Melissa Flynn, and their staff. We savored two wines from Hedges Cellars, their Red Mountain Reserve and Fume/Chardonnay. Both were made from grapes grown on vines in Hedges own vineyards located in Washington’s Columbia River Valley. Not to forget about cheese, we sampled the Brillat Savarin and a large wheel of Raw Milk Morbier with the buffet.
The formal tasting began with a few words from Lora Lea Misterly. She told the group that she had grown up on a farm and that her parents grew their own vegetables, made cheese and baked bread. While she had fond memories of her childhood, society was generally discouraging about farm life and it was presumed that urban living was a more desirable lifestyle alternative. She met her furture husband Rick who had grown up in suburban sprawled LA and discovered that they both yearned for a simple farm life. They found a place in remote rolling farmlands where the Columbia River flows from Canada to the U.S and named their farm Quillisascut for a stream on the property. They began making cheese in 1981 and were licensed to sell to the public in 1987. Their herd includes 75 goats and two Jersey Cows. We tasted a semi-hard Quillisascut Goat Curado, patterned after Spanish Manchego along with UFO; a flying saucer shaped cheese with an ash gray rind. Both were complex and delicious. The aroma of the UFO is that of a great aged wine—earthy, floral and herbaceous. As a special treat, Lora Lee brought along a rare 15-year-old cow’s milk cheese. Its texture was quite firm with a depth of flavor somewhere between aged Cheddar and Gouda. Quillisascut cheeses are offered by Seattle’s best restaurants including Rover’s and Cascadia, but marketing to local stores, where it is not well known and difficult to pronounce, is a challenge.
Karin Collins managed a cheese shop before she became specialty cheese manager at The Peterson Co., a cheese wholesaler. There, she uses her prodigious knowledge to support local shops and restaurants in their cheese selections. She is an articulate spokesperson for raw milk cheeses and presented two local cheeses that our group happily sampled. The first, Juniper Grove, Redmondo, a pecorino style, is named for the city of Redmond in Oregon’s High Desert. There, on five acres, Pierre Kolisch switched from being a trial lawyer to a goat herder and cheesemaker. Pierre designed and built his dairy after spending two years living in France learning cheesemaking. He raises several breeds of goats including Toggenburrg, Saanen, French Alpine, Anglian Nubian and La Mancha. The complexity and character of his cheese is obviously the result of his attention to detail. The bulk of his cheeses, that also include Tumalot Tomme, are sold in a few specialty shops in Portland and Bend, Oregon.
Sally Jackson’s legendary aged sheep’s milk cheese was Karin’s next selection. As beautiful to look at as it is to taste, the slightly dry textured 3.5 pound round is wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with natural twine. It is the best known of Washington State artisanal cheeses and is sometimes shipped to fine cheese shops in California and other states. Their farm in the remote Okanagon Highlands at an elevation of 4,200 feet is closest to the tiny town of Tonasket, four miles from the Canadian border. Sally and her husband Roger began making cheese and selling it at local farmers markets in 1974. This brought them to the attention of the county inspector who was convinced that such raw milk cheese was illegal. It was later determined that hand ladled cheese was exempt from the law and they haven’t looked back since.
Our final presenter was Nicki Grover, the specialty food buyer at Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods is a national chain of more than 100 supermarkets specializing in organic and natural foods. They opened their Seattle outlet a little more than two years ago. Thanks to Nicki, their cheese selection is wide, beautifully displayed, properly cared for and knowledgeably presented. It is a tribute to her, that her department has quickly become the largest volume cheese seller of the entire chain.
Nicki presented three raw milk cheeses, all from the U.S. She started with Vermont Shepherd (a ewe’s milk cheese) then proceeded to a tangy Shelburne Cheddar also from Vermont and finished with a rich, luxurious Point Reyes Blue Cheese, made from cow’s milk in California. Each was a masterpiece of taste, balance and complexity—a testimony to the quality of American farmhouse cheeses.
As a surprise treat, two of our guests were Roger and Suzanne Wechsler from Samish Cheese Company in Bow, Washington. They brought along three of their delicious raw milk cheeses that were quickly sliced and passed around.
The crowd of Slow Foodies was visually excited to taste and learn about each of the cheeses. As moderator, I fielded questions ranging from regulations governing raw milk cheese and organic labeling, to cheese styles, cooking with cheese, storing cheese, the healthfulness of unpasturized cheese, marketing cheeses and cheese making. After the tasting, guests had a couple of hours to tour the museum.
Although no Cheese Police showed up that evening, we did learn that unpasteurized cheeses less than 60 days old are indeed illegal. The experts agreed that this law makes no sense and prevents consumers from experiencing the great taste of fresh cheeses.
Charles Finkel is one of the world’s leading authorities on beer and an active member of SF Seattle.
Photo: Foto: Lora Lea Misterly