Oregon jaunt finds friends in cheese

Last month, I made a long-overdue pilgrimage to the Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point, Ore. It was a tedious six-hour drive to the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon. The ride rewarded me with beautiful vistas of snowy Mount Shasta, Mount Lassen and a very full Lake Shasta Lake. Arrival in the little city of Medford is like finding Shangri-La.

In its 15 years, the Oregon Cheese Festival has become a popular weekend event. Its sponsor, the Oregon Cheesemakers Guild, has also grown from a handful of members to two dozen cheesemakers. These are mostly artisan cheesemakers, whose names you wouldn’t recognize, like Facerock Creamery, Walla Walla Cheese Co, Ferns’ Edge Goat Dairy or Crushpad Creamery.

This event is a reason to travel for cheese, locating cheeses that are rarely found outside the Pacific Northwest. Artisans there produce their cheeses in small quantities to serve their own communities. Of course, there are the two bigger, better-known company members that provide major financial and logistic support to the guild and its festival: the Blue cheese king Rogue Creamery, and the iconic Tillamook Cheese, which produces commodity cheddars found on supermarket deli shelves. Regardless of size, the cheesemakers want to produce the very best for sale.

The Oregon Cheese Festival kicks off on a Friday night at a Medford hotel with a grand Cheesemaker Dinner that boasts five gourmet courses, each with a paired beverage. It was preceded by long tables of 100 Oregon cheeses for tasting. At dinner, each table was hosted by two cheese-making professionals. Ours were from Portland Creamery and Rogue Creamery. (Cheese people are always friendly and ready to talk cheese news; I always learn so much.)

The festival starts Saturday morning and continues for two days, set up farmers market-style outdoors under big tents.

Inside the tents are tantalizing selections of tastes, from cheeses and charcuterie, to chocolates, honey, dates, olives, nuts and pears. There was a goats’ milk caramel sauce and more, along with Oregon wines and even gins and vodkas made in the area. Walking from table to table, tasting, talking, learning and buying are the pleasures of the day. Not as densely crowded as Bay Area events, it’s easier to talk directly to the producers and taste their products. I can meet “cheesemaker celebrities” in person. It was fun to talk directly to the person who created that amazing washed-rind cheese (Sarah Marcus of Briar Rose Creamery in Dundee, Ore.).

We attended two educational seminars: The first was a tasting hosted by Steve Jones (a Portland cheesemonger) and beverage expert Adam Lindsley, who wrote “Cheese, Beer, Wine and Cider.”

Imagine sitting in front of a plate of five artisan cheeses paired with beers, wines and ciders. Some pairings were hits and others misses. One thing I learned is with such a wild explosion of craft beers and ciders, it’s hard to pair these creative unknowns with cheeses. Also, I found that hoppy beers don’t pair well with cheeses, so stick to the meltier brews and keep your ciders dry.

A second tasting session was presented by an American Cheese Society colleague, Shari Allen, who paired six Riesling wines with yet six more artisan cheeses. Although few Rieslings are made in our Sierra foothills appellation, it’s an emerging white wine that loves cheese. Anderson Valley is well worth a trip to kindle a love of Riesling. There is quite a range of flavors that are fruity, dry and complex, too. It’s not your parents’ Riesling anymore.

The final day we were treated to a private tour of the Rogue Creamery, where its all-organic cheeses are made today. Most are blues, some cheddars. This creamery is one of the oldest on the West Coast, started in 1931 by Tom Vella, the patriarch of Vella Cheese Co. in Sonoma. Vella brought back blue cheese spores from Roquefort, France, and then built a “cave” to ripen his Oregon Blue, which is still made today.

Rogue River Blue is an organic, raw-milk, seasonal Blue made only in the fall. It’s wrapped in grape leaves that are soaked in local pear brandy, and it’s a two-time Best of Show winner at the American Cheese Society. Rogue Creamery’s cheese shop on-site is very old-timey, a memory of the 1930s, and is stocked with great cheeses to taste and purchase.

By the way, it’s not too late to explore Oregon cheeses. You can attend The Wedge in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 5. There’s even a Cheese Trail to follow. So take a road trip, find a cheesemaker to visit and you’ll be rewarded.

May you find delicious cheeses at the end of your travel rainbow.

Judy Creighton presents Best of Cheddars cheese and wine tasting on June 9 and 11 at the Lavender Ridge Vineyard tasting room in Murphys for $25. Reserve at 728-2441.

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