By Christine Hyatt
In March, I had the pleasure of jetting off to Southern Oregon to experience the sixth annual Oregon Cheese Festival. It was a homecoming of sorts for my cheese-loving soul, having relocated to Arizona, a desert of cheese - literally and figuratively. I'm always impressed and inspired to return to Oregon and be surrounded by the ever-evolving cheese scene.
Held in an enormous tent on the grounds of the historic Rogue Creamery in Central Point on March 20, the festival has truly been turned up to the next level. The 15,000-square-foot tent was humming during the entire event, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., as enthusiastic cheese lovers descended en masse.
"We are happy to report a steady flow of cheeselovers to the festival," said Francis Plowman, Rogue Creamery marketing manager, festival organizer and incoming president of the Oregon Cheese Guild. "We saw upwards of 3,000 attendees this year, a significant increase from years past. We're lucky we planned for a bigger tent!"
Max McCalman, Maître Fromager and author of several books, including "Mastering Cheese," was on hand to emcee the Friday night kick-off event, a cheese-centric dinner at the historic Jacksonville Inn. He was the festival's featured speaker and honored guest.
Also on hand, Portland's own James Beard award-winning chef, Vitaly Paley, who sang the praises of Oregon cheese and tea connoisseur/extraordinaire Steven Smith, founder of Stash and Tazo Teas.
Smith, of the eponymously named tearoom Steven Smith Teamaker in Northwest Portland, presented a variety of his high quality customized blends perfectly paired with a selection of Oregon cheese. This sophisticated pairing was a hit, with blends that accentuated but did not overpower the cheese.
During the festival, the crowd was tempted by a selection of Oregon's finest cheeses, from world famous companies, like Tillamook and Rogue Creamery, to micro-creameries, such as Pholia Farm that sell direct to consumers from the farm and at only a few shops in New York, Chicago and Portland.
Even more impressive than the crowds, classes and delicious accompaniments from Southern Oregon wineries, breweries, bakeries, chocolatiers and smokehouses was the number of new creameries that have only recently come on line. Some, like La Mariposa, Mama Terra Microcreamery and Jacobs Creamery, were represented at the festival and others, like Briar Rose Creamery and Fairview Farm, are still so new to the scene they did not yet have enough cheese to sample and sell.
One of my favorite new creameries would have to be La Mariposa.
This growth in the number of cheesemakers in the state is not new. In fact, it hearkens back to the turn of the 20th century, when the state boasted a creamery or two in each small town. This renaissance speaks volumes both about the quality of milk and camaraderie among the cheesemaking community, but also about the informed and passionate consumer who wholeheartedly supports their local cheesemaker. Without each of these factors, combined with a few talented and passionate individuals willing to take a big risk, the state surely would have less of a cheese tale to tell.