By Christine Hyatt
Clear Creek Distillery is a world-class artisan distiller located in Northwest Portland. I first became acquainted with the popular brand via one of Oregon’s signature cheeses, Rogue River Blue.
Oregon cheesemakers incorporate a wide variety of regional flavors — from wines, beers and spirits to nuts and mushrooms — into their recipes. Crafting products with a genuine sense of place creates a real sense of community and camaraderie among Oregon producers.
Clear Creek Distillery produces the exceptional Pear Brandy used to macerate the Rogue Valley-grown Syrah grape leaves, which envelope each wheel. The brandy is made with Bartlett pears grown in Parkdale, on the family orchard of distillery owner Steve McCarthy.
When the company was founded three decades ago, it was an innovative solution to sustaining McCarthy’s century-old family orchard on Mt. Hood through the creation of a value-added, high quality product with a sense of place.
“I got the bright idea maybe 30 years ago that in order to make money on our family orchards, we couldn’t just take our fruit to buyers anymore,” McCarthy said. “We had to get more creative.”
McCarthy’s study in France and extensive travel in Europe gave him the notion that he could do what Europeans figured out 300 years ago: Take what grows well where you are and do something new and wonderful with it.
The Williams Pear, known in the U.S. and as the Bartlett, is the best Brandy pear in France. McCarthy’s family orchard had 80 acres of Bartletts growing in the shadows of Mount Hood and some years they couldn’t make enough to pay the pickers.
“The French,” he said, “make Cognac, not because it’s a great brandy. They make it because wine in that region isn’t that great.” What they do have is great fruit.”
Adopting a European philosophy was a short jump. In 1980, he went to Alsace and the distilling regions of Switzerland to research and learn the craft. He bought his first German-made hot still for making eau de vie in 1984 and started distilling the following year.
The basic technique, he says, is very straightforward. “Over a few hundred years, distillers in France and Switzerland found local fruit and made decisions about what to grow, how to pick, when to pick, crush, distill and age their products.
“We grow our own fruit or buy it from a neighboring farm,” McCarthy said. “We make an eau de vie that carries the aromas and flavors that come purely from our fruit. It conveys a real sense of place.”
McCarthy wasn’t surprised or taken aback when Rogue Creamery co-owners David Gremmels and Cary Bryant approached him in 2002 to partner in producing an ingredient so integral to their new seasonal signature cheese, Rogue River Blue.
“I thought it was wonderful,” McCarthy said, reminiscing. “I love good cheese and was overjoyed that people are reviving this industry.”
But, he points out, this is what Europeans do, too. The eau de vie and Cognac all appear in regional cuisines. Spirit distillation, like wine production, is tied to regional cuisine. It is connected to types of animals or seafood close to a region, allied to the types of foods being produced.
“These things evolved together in Europe for close to 1,000 years,” he said. We’re just now starting to get it here.”
Rogue Creamery Celebrates 75
Rogue River Blue serves as a melting pot, of sorts, combining the many flavors of Oregon in one distinctive product.
Creating products that feature the bounty of local and regional artisan producers has an additional level of importance: It supports a thriving local foodshed, which means not only great food products but also sustainability of local, often rural economies.
This certainly was the vision of Rogue Creamery founder Tom Vella when he acquired the then-defunct creamery in Central Point, 75 years ago. Vella persuaded businessman J.L. Kraft to invest in the operation when he heard talk of war from his brother at home in Italy.
Knowing that milk production in the Bay Area would be consumed for a war effort, Vella encouraged casting a wider net, which included the dairy-rich Rogue Valley.
The creamery, which has been in continuous operation since 1935, supported more than 30 small dairies in its heyday. Vella even developed a system to help finance these dairies, keeping them afloat during the depression and war years.
During WWII, production of Rogue cheddar cheese went into overdrive, supplying millions of pounds of cheese to troops overseas. The creamery received the “E for Effort” award for its contribution.
In the 1950s, Vella traveled to the caves of Combalou in Southern France where Roquefort is made and aged. Learning the secrets of blue cheese from the masters, Vella returned to Central Point and constructed the first blue cheese caves on the West Coast.
After several decades of growth and success, the creamery stayed the course during tough years of consolidation and commodity products, re-emerging with new energy in 2002 when the next generation of owners took the helm.
“Rogue Creamery has gotten a lot of notoriety since [owners] David and Cary came along, but this is our 75th Anniversary, and we want to honor the whole history of the creamery,” said Tom VanVorhees, Rogue Cheese Shop manager. “As you enjoy who we are now, we want you to celebrate our founders who also supported local food.”
To that end, Rogue kicks off a month of festivities marking their diamond anniversary, hosting Southern Oregon producers of cheese-friendly foods and wines in their tasting room each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in November. Stop by for a bite and visit an Oregon institution.
Christine Hyatt is a food writer and educator who is passionate about cheese. She blogs, streams video and answers cheesy questions at www.cheese-chick.com.
Wine-Poached Pear with Rogue River Blue
Recipe by Christine Hyatt, Cheese Chick
“The gorgeous hue of a fresh pear sparkles like a jewel beside an enticing wedge of Rogue Creamery’s award-winning Rogue River Blue. This easy, make-ahead dessert embraces the season and the region. What could be better?” —Christine Hyatt, Cheese Chick
2 cup red wine (Syrah or Merlot)
½ cup water
½ cup orange juice
¾ cup sugar
½ cinnamon stick
3 inch piece vanilla bean or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract)
4 Bosc or Bartlett pears, slightly underripe, unblemished, stem attached
6 ounces Rogue River Blue
1. Combine wine, water, orange juice and sugar in a medium stockpot. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Add peppercorns, cinnamon and vanilla bean. Set aside.
2. Using a sharp paring knife, slice a small amount from the bottom of each pear to form a flat surface. Gently scoop out the core using a small spoon or melon scoop. Peel each pear using a vegetable peeler.* 3. Place pears in syrup and heat over medium high heat until boiling. Reduce heat to simmer. Cook pears for 40 to 60 minutes, turning regularly to ensure even coloring. Remove pears and cool. Store in an airtight container up to 2 days until ready to serve. 4. Return syrup to a gentle boil and cook until reduced by half, about 25 minutes. Strain and store syrup for plating. (Leftover syrup makes a delicious ice cream topping.) 5. Plate one pear with a 1.5-ounce wedge of Rogue River Blue. Pour 2 tablespoons syrup over each pear and serve at room temperature. This recipe is also fabulous with Crater Lake Blue. Yields 4 servings.
*For perfectly smooth results, gently rub the peeled pear with the green side of a clean scrubbing sponge.