It feels sometimes like the revolution of fine artisan cheeses in the Northwest began about a decade ago. That’s when Kurt Dammeier founded Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Pike Place Market, bringing a high profile to not just his own products but to a cheese counter that was whey, whey full of other Northwest finds. (One of Dammeier’s cheeses was named best in the country in 2012.) It’s about the time that Kurt Timmermeister left his chef work behind and turned to raising cows on Vashon Island, eventually producing his celebrated Dinah’s Cheese and its successors. Dairies across the state were declining, and farmers increasingly turned their talents to value-added products like cheese. Washington had just nine licensed cheesemakers in 2000 by state figures, it now has 60 or more.
Perceptions are deceiving, though, as author and cheese expert Tami Parr shows in her new book, “Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History.” Parr, a longtime chronicler of the cheese scene, looks as far back as the livestock carried on the boats of 18th-century explorers. She turns up tidbits like the reason Oregon’s cheese production beat out Washington’s in the early 20th century (Washington had a big market for condensed milk, absorbing supplies that might otherwise have gone to cheese,) and the rise of cooperatives like Tillamook and Darigold. She traces the renaissance in local farmstand cheeses, as with the $2,210 grant Sally and Roger Jackson received in 1979 to build what became a legendary business, and the rise of farmers markets that helped create new sales outlets.
Parr will appear at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13. She’ll also be at the Calf and Kid cheese shop at Melrose Market from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, surrounded by examples of some of the best the region (and beyond) has to offer.
One of the interesting questions raised in the book is where the region’s industry is headed — are we on track toward being another Wisconsin? Cheese authority Laura Werlin told Parr no, that “the very thing that is creating the Pacific Northwest’s reputation as a place where world-class cheese is being made is also the main thing that will keep its cheeses below most people’s radars: Scale.” Larger producers such as Beecher’s (now with a Manhattan shop and factory) and Rogue Creamery in Oregon serve as standard-bearers, Parr wrote, but “that will only carry so far in the broader marketplace without a larger and more diverse group of producers to sustain it.” She put forward some novel ideas to that end, such as partnerships between cheesemakers. Some cheesemakers are also apparently considering establishing place-based designations for cheese, the way there are American Viticultural Area designations for wine. Food for thought.