The conference is an industry event, but public tickets are available for the awards ceremony and tastings of more than 1,300 cheeses. Attendees will also get a taste of the maturing Washington cheese industry, which now has 42 licensed cheesemakers, up from 28 in 2007 and nine in 2000.
photographed by Ken Lambert
“SEATTLE: UNDISPUTED Cheese Capital of the World.”
Kurt Dammeier had his tongue firmly in cheek, of course, when he made a YouTube video with that claim after helping persuade the august American Cheese Society to hold its national conference here.
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But the big cheeses of the trade, so to speak, will have plenty to chew on Aug. 25-28 when they see what Washington does with curds and whey. Attendees will hear a talk by Michael Pollan. They’ll hear seminars. But they’ll also get a taste of the maturing Washington cheese industry, which now has 42 licensed cheesemakers, up from 28 in 2007 and nine in 2000.
“Not that much of what we do here has leaked out to the national level,” said Dammeier, founder of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, one of the few locals to win national attention.
A handful of Washington cheesemakers are well-known to cheese writers and to aficionados. But “then there are places like Port Madison (a goat farm on Bainbridge Island) that nobody knows about, making great cheese,” Dammeier said. He has long argued that Washington cheeses are as promising, and underappreciated, as our wines were 20 years back.
Just consider what happens when a cheese-lover like Sheri LaVigne moves to town.
“I had no idea how much was being made in this area, and how good it was,” she said.
After nibbling her way through the Seattle Cheese Festival founded by DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine, she began searching for a neighborhood cheese shop like the ones she had loved living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She didn’t find one that met her vision. So she embarked on a journey of cheesemonger training, farm interning, business planning, investor-gathering and a whirlwind of other logistical prerequisites to starting up her own neighborhood fromagerie. The Calf and Kid opened on Capitol Hill earlier this year.
LaVigne doesn’t shun imported cheeses. After all, she says, “the first time I had cheese that made my knees buckle was in France.” But she does highlight the Pacific Northwest. And that gives her the particular pleasure of spotlighting Washington cheeses that Seattleites would otherwise rarely see, made by producers too small for supermarket shelves.
As Seattle prepares for its moment in the national cheese spotlight, we asked LaVigne, Dammeier and Pat McCarthy of DeLaurenti to share some standout bites from Washington farms. Among their picks:
Black Sheep Creamery: Sheep-milk cheeses made on a farm near Chehalis, where LaVigne interned before opening her shop. She praises Queso de Oveja, a raw-milk cheese with a caramelly, nutty flavor with a bit of grassy tang and a custardy texture. “I could eat it every day.”
Estrella Family Creamery: The family-run business has won national awards, and cheesemaker Kelli Estrella is “a real treasure” of astounding breadth and quality, says Dammeier. McCarthy particularly cited Estrella’s Grisdale, a semi-soft, raw-milk goat cheese with a hazelnut finish, as one in a newer trend of established Washington cheesemakers doing their own things instead of sticking to traditional classics.
Gothberg Farms: LaVigne raves about the cheese made from La Mancha goats at this farm in Bow. They include “a lovely chevre, some really nice feta,” a raw-milk Gouda and a dry, manchego-like wheel called “Woman of La Mancha” that was rubbed with paprika and herbs and aged for a year.
Kurtwood Farms: Kurt Timmermeister, who recently switched from raw-milk production to cheesemaking on his Vashon Island farm, won unanimous applause from our panelists, who find it hard to keep his rich rounds of Camembert-style “Dinah’s Cheese” in stock. (Dinah, Timmermeister’s first cow, has passed on, but his herd still has fewer than a dozen animals, including one named “Dinah 2.0.”)
Mount Townsend Creamery: You may know the award-winning Seastack and Tomme cheeses from this Port Townsend business, but McCarthy also admires how they’ve experimented with small-batch new varieties and adjusted to changes in the local herds that produce their milk. The truffled fromage blanc will make you forget every tiresome overuse of truffle oil you’ve eaten, while the Red Alder has a bright, refreshing rind and a deep, strong, pungent center.
Willapa Hills: This family-run farmstead dairy near Chehalis, specializing in sheep and cow milk blue cheeses, also won unanimous praise. McCarthy favors their soft-ripened Willapa White, a beautifully white sheep-milk cheese that’s a little denser than a Camembert: “It’s hard to make that kind of cheese well. They’re taking some chances, and they’ve succeeded.”
Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.