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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

September 24, 2014 at 12:20 PM

At this local festival, Washington cheese stands alone

Kurt Timmermeister salts fresh "Dinah's cheese" at Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island, which will be featured at the 2014 Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival. Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Kurt Timmermeister salts fresh “Dinah’s cheese” at
Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island, which will be featured at the 2014
Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival. Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times

Some of the purveyors featured at the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival are local household names like Beecher’s in Seattle, or well-known by aficionados, like Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island.

But some of the cheeses being sampled at the third annual event — meant to be as small-scale as some of its participants — can’t be found anywhere else in town.

“A lot of local cheesemakers are so small, I don’t think they can do a huge festival,” said festival founder Lisa Miyashita. She worked for years in the Washington beer industry before discovering that her favorite cheeses were not “something that was shipped from England or France” but were coming from a field as local as any Washington beer or wine, though dramatically lesser-known. (There was a busy cheese festival at Pike Place Market for several years, but it wasn’t restricted to Washington cheeses — and was, ironically, too big for many local producers to handle.)

“It’s such a labor-intensive product,” Miyashita explained. “It’s not a job, it’s really a commitment and a lifestyle for them to produce those beautiful cheeses … Once you hear all those stories, the cheese is amazing to begin with, but you develop a deeper appreciation for the cheese and for what they do.”

Willapa Hills from Doty is expected to attend the 21+-only event with a version of the “Lily Pad” cows-milk cheese that recently won a third-place award at the national American Cheese Society festival — it won’t officially be released until February. Cherry Valley Dairy from Duvall is expected to bring its Dairy Reserve aged cow’s milk cheese, which took a first-place award in the same competition. The Monteillet Fromagerie near Walla Walla plans to bring the cheeses it makes from its Alpine goats and East Freisan-Lacaune sheep, which usually can’t be found within 200 miles of Seattle.

Around 20 cheese makers have signed up to participate, roughly a third of the total number in the state. That’s a huge increase from the mere handful of producers that existed a decade ago.

Two newcomers that Sheri LaVigne of the Calf & Kid cheese shop is especially excited about are the Domina Dairy in Chehalis — “they’re doing fantastic aged Gouda, they just released their first run of cheese this month” — and the Ring of Trees creamery in Bellingham, which was just licensed in April and is producing “some really cool stuff,” including Manchego-style sheep cheese. She’s also a fan of the Cherry Valley dairy reserve, with a rind brushed with black pepper and cocoa powder: “It’s really well-crafted, it’s super-buttery, and tastes very cow-y and milky and the rind is of course super edible.”

Though LaVigne, who also helped with festival organization, is about as involved in the cheese world as anyone in Seattle, there are a handful of new cheeses from the burgeoning industry that she’ll be checking out at the festival for the first time.

“I think we’re getting a little more serious about it and more sophisticated every year, with every newcomer that comes on the scene,” she said. “When you look at some of the styles of cheeses that have been (introduced) in the past 5 years, we’ve got a lot of hand-molded soft-ripened cheese, and those are very finicky, they’re difficult to make, they require a lot more loss and waste because you’re doing more trial runs. It really elevates the commitment and the level of skill and craft that is evident in what our cheese makers are doing now.”

LaVigne will be putting together her own local cheese plate for a separate tasting seminar at the festival, featuring favorites from Tieton Farms near Yakima to Black Sheep Creamery in Chehalis. It’s hard to hold herself to just the eight state favorites she can fit on the plate, she said — “it’s an occupational hazard.”

Does she see any common styles in the cheeses, anything that distinctively marks them as being from Washington state?

“People ask that all the time. I don’t think so at all,” she said. “I think that’s a great thing to say about it, because we have so many cheese makers doing so many different things … It’s all across the board, and I love that.”

The Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival is from 1-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, at the Seattle Design Center, 5701 Sixth Ave. S. The event is 21+-only. $35 for advance tickets, $40 at the door, including all cheese samples, nibbles like local charcuterie, and crackers and jam, and three drink tickets. A separate seminar with Sheri LaVigne costs $40, or $35 with a festival ticket. Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com, information online here, along with a free map of where to visit farms and producers throughout Washington state.

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