When I scrutinize the selection of cheeses at my local grocery store or farmers market, my neck gets sore from the constant craning. It's a price...
When I scrutinize the selection of cheeses at my local grocery store or farmers market, my neck gets sore from the constant craning. It’s a price I am willing to pay for my constant craving.
In the past 18 months, I have discovered Pleasant Valley Dairy’s peppercorn Gouda, Samish Bay Cheese’s nettle Gouda and Appel Farms’ Greek olive feta. Each of these cheeses is made by hand within a 35-mile stretch of Interstate 5 through Skagit and Whatcom counties. While traveling that corridor, I often have thought of the cheese-makers, hoping that a road sign would point me in their direction, or that I somehow would stumble across them selling their cheeses from a cooler on the side of a road.
No such luck. Fortunately, though, Gouda things come to those who wait.
By scouring the Dairy Farmers of Washington Web site (www.havemilk.com), I learned that I could go to the dairies instead of waiting for the dairies to come to me. With little effort, I could cobble together a cheese-tasting day trip up I-5, similar to a wine-tasting tour only better because I don’t have to appoint a designated driver.
Cheese is a lot like wine anyway. The more you taste, the more you learn — and the less intimidating it becomes.
Or as George Train, Pleasant Valley’s cheese-maker, puts it: “Americans are finally realizing there is much more to cheese than Kraft or Velveeta. We’re finally getting to the point where little artisan cheese factories can make a dent. The consumer has become more brave.”
Good to the coreI recommend starting at the midpoint at tourist-friendly Appel Farms in Ferndale, two miles east of the interstate, down a bucolic country road lined with fields and pastures. Kick up a trail of dust as you drive down a long gravel road toward the dairy, park within sniffin’ distance of the cows and follow your stomach to the farm’s borderline-fancy cheese shop stocked full of hunks o’ cheese and — this is important! — enough samples to constitute a light lunch.
Gravitate to the dairy cases and sneak a few nibbles of Appel’s flavored Goudas and cow’s-milk fetas, using the toothpicks that rest inside miniature wooden shoes. Swallow Appel’s pride, then take a tour.
Before you watch the fresh cheese being made, take a gander at the cheese-making artifacts on display in the shop, including an antique cheese tub. Dutch immigrant Jack Appel used this tub to separate the curds and whey, way back when. The steel vats that Appel Farms uses these days serve the same purpose, but are five times the size, able to hold 3,200 pounds of milk, which produces 320 pounds of cheese.
Jack Appel, who died five years ago, learned the art of cheese-making while making Gouda six days a week for a Dutch farmer on a French farm. He emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s and eventually landed in the Puget Sound area, renting a farm in Auburn before buying the Ferndale spread 37 years ago.
I always had heard that watching cheese being made is like watching sausage being made. Witness it and risk losing your taste for it. Turns out, though, nothing about the process is unappetizing. In fact, it’s pretty fascinating: the splish-splash of separating glossy curds from watery whey, the scooping of curds into round plastic forms, the pressing that compacts the formed curds into a cheese wheel, the wheels floating in a pond of brine.
Appel Farms’ cheese-making may be viewed through a window in a building next to the shop. Good smells escape from the cheese-making area into the viewing room, which helps mask the not-as-good dairy-farm stench. Mornings generally are best to watch cheese being made at Appel Farms, but if cheese-making isn’t going on when you visit, you still may wander inside the aging room — located in another building on the grounds — where wheels of curing Gouda taunt you on shelves.
What a perfect time to return to the cheese shop.
Just so you know, fresh samples are cut every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Appel’s 12 Goudas, four cheddars and four fetas fill the trays, and then your stomach. Also sample Appel’s trademark “Squeakers,” cheddary curds that come in either plain or garlic-dill.
“The best way to promote your cheese is for people to sample it,” says John Appel, the son who runs the cheese side of the farm.
I like the way this man thinks.
Skip the pleasantriesI’m nutty about the Gouda made at Pleasant Valley Dairy. So even though the small family farm isn’t tourist-oriented, I suggest a side trip to sample a few slices and load up on wedges. The farm, located on the west side of the freeway toward Birch Bay, doesn’t open its cheese-making or aging rooms to tourists.
“We like to make cheese,” says Joyce Snook, the hard-working daughter of 71-year-old patriarch George Train. “We just don’t have time to entertain people.”
Family members will sell you the goods at the dairy’s cheese store, however, even if that means interrupting the cheese-making going on in an adjacent building. The store, an extension of the family house, is open to the public only through a charming Dutch door. Visitors can stick their head through the door’s top half, but the bottom half remains shut.
Customers are handed a brochure that lists Pleasant Valley’s cheeses: eight varieties of Gouda, a tart farmstead, a Swiss Mutschli and a Norwegian Nokkelost that Train created at the request of a local grocer.
The family pulls what you want from a refrigerated glass case and also slices samples upon request. Ask to see the three-ring binder, a photographic scrapbook that explains the art of cheese-making and tells the 30-year history of the dairy’s cheese operation.
“I wrote our first cheese recipe in the kitchen,” Train narrates, pointing to the house.
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Train’s cheese-making tutor was none other than Jack Appel, his former employer. Train, whose 1981 pickup bears the license plate “GOUDA,” is one of the first small dairy farmers in the state to concentrate on cheese. Critics told him he would go broke. But an Oregon State University agriculture professor encouraged Train, giving him a book on cheese-making and telling him, “Go for it! You can do it!”
And so he did, building his aging room on faith, using the book — and a trust in God — as guides.
Pleasant Valley offers six spiced Goudas, but to appreciate the distinctive flavor of its cheese, start with the prize-winning plain, sold in a red wax covering.
“Our type of cheese-making is an art,” Train says. “At larger dairies, it’s a science.”
Address: 6605 Northwest Road, Ferndale
On-farm store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Directions: Exit 262 off I-5. Drive one mile east on West Axton Road, left on Northwest at four-way stop. Farm is one mile down road on the left.
Pleasant Valley Dairy
Address: 6804 Kickerville Road, Ferndale
On-farm store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday (May to December); 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday (January to April)
Directions: Exit 266 off I-5. Drive 4.5 miles west on Grandview Road/SR 548. Left on Kickerville, farm is on the left.
Samish Bay Cheese (Rootabaga Country Farm)
Address: 15115 Bow Hill Road, Bow
On-farm store hours: Noon to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. (Hours reduced in winter.)
Guest-house rental: Rates vary; call for details
Directions: Exit 236 off I-5. Drive four miles west on Bow Hill Road. Farm is on the right. If you reach a stop sign, you have gone one-tenth of a mile too far.
Seattle Cheese Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at Pike Place Market
For a list of cow’s milk cheese-makers in Washington:
From moo to GoudaTo appreciate the farm-to-table progression of cheese-making, visit Samish Bay’s Rootabaga Country Farm on Bow Hill Road in Skagit County. The operation is as transparent as plastic wrap.
By calling ahead to strategically plan a trip, visitors can watch everything from the cows being milked to the leftover whey being fed to the pigs raised on the organic farm. (The farm markets its pork as “Whey Tastier.”)
“If you just show up at the farm, someone will stop what they’re doing and show you a few things,” says Suzanne Wechsler, who owns the farm with husband Roger. “We’ll get more in-depth for scheduled tours.”
For those wishing to experience the life of a farmer, the Wechslers rent the farm’s century-old guesthouse, which can serve as a base for visiting other area cheese-makers. But Wechsler does not want guests to mistake it for a bed-and-breakfast. Hitting the hay here means baling, not snoozing.
“We try to educate,” Wechsler says. “We’re a small farm, and we like to give people an idea of what we do in a day’s work.”
Cheese-making occurs on Tuesdays and Fridays, with the most action after noon. Little is off-limits here, as visitors are encouraged to wander and explore the farm, including the stables.
The payoff, of course, occurs at Samish Bay’s closet-size retail shop, connected to the aging room, which the Wechslers will enter to fill your order. Samish Bay sells its cheese at seven Seattle-area farmers markets, but its aged varieties are sold exclusively at the farm’s retail shop. The Wechslers have been known to fire up the barbecue for tourists so they may sample the farm’s meats along with its cheeses.
“On weekends, we always try to have something special going on,” Suzanne Wechsler says.
As if Gouda flavored with nettles isn’t special enough.
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or email@example.com