Where would French Week be without a little foray into the world of cheese? Sasha Davies, a Portland, Oregon based cheesemonger and author, took the time to chat with me about the cheeses of California, Oregon and Washington. We talked about her new book and how American cheeses stand up to those stinky white blocks of France. She also tells us of a certain cheese with a peach-colored rind that makes her "weak in the knees." Which cheeses make your knees buckle?
Sasha is a knowledgeable cheese maven with her first book recently published: The West Coast Guide to Cheese. She earned her chops working in a variety of cheese settings: Murray's Cheeses in New York and Steve's Cheese (recently closed) here in Portland, to name a few.
The author also educated herself further by embarking on a cheese odyssey, a four-month road trip across the United States, visiting small-scale artisan cheese-makers along the way. She tasted and listened, capturing their stories with in-depth, recorded interviews. Her website, Cheese by Hand documents these experiences, interviews and impressions of all the creameries she has visited. Her book will undoubtedly serve as an encyclopedia to the West Coast Cheese scene. I can see myself using it instead of a travel guide, to plan a delicious road trip up the Coast, stopping at the listed cheese caves all the way up to the Canadian border.
The American cheese threshold
One of the more inspiring things Sasha had to say about cheese being made in the US is that we're getting to a threshold, a tipping-point of sorts, where the cheeses here can hold their own against French and British varieties. Vermont and New York were pioneer states in this endeavor, but more and more, small-batch, amazing cheeses are being created on the West Coast--so much so that we are starting to export our cheeses to France and Britain. We are moving further away from cheeses known by where they originate to a time where the type of cheese stands by itself -- for example, instead of "Willamette Valley Comte", we're seeing "Comte." Her book lists cheeses in this fashion, by type, not by the producer. So, next time you are selecting a few cheeses for a tasting or dinner party, pick up those awesome, oozy French Camemberts and Bries, but also look out for a cheese made closer to home, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Interview with Sasha Davies
How did you get your start as an expert on West Coast cheeses?
Even though my cheese career started on the east coast, I had a bit of a jump on the west coast cheese scene because I grew up in Northern California in between the great markets of San Francisco and the lush agricultural expanse that makes up northern Marin and Sonoma counties. My first experience seeing cheese made was fittingly at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station when I was on a trip home to visit my parents. I tasted and sold many great cheeses from the West while working at Murray's Cheese in NYC and got to know even more producers and their cheeses when I did the Cheese by Hand tour in 2006. Reading Tami Parr's website - The Pacific Northwest Cheese Project - and working for Steve's Cheese here in Portland also contributed greatly to my familiarity with the region.
What do you enjoy most about the cheeses from this area?
One of the best things about this region is that we have such a wide variety of cheese types with an incredible focus on quality in production. There is everything from luscious and pillowy Burrata made by Gioia in California to earthy aged goat milk tommes produced by Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese in Oregon, and pudgy washed rind stinkers like Brewleggio from Estrella Family Creamery in Washington. All of these products can easily rival European imports in flavor, texture and complexity.
Do you have any recommendations on how to best serve a few special cheeses?
When I serve cheeses that I want people to savor, the most difficult thing is to not go overboard with my selections. People (and their palettes) can be easily overwhelmed by a large selection, so sometimes I think the most powerful way to share cheeses is to offer a single cheese with a cracker or condiment that provides good balance. For example if you served a soft gooey cheese it might be lovely to offset that texture with a crisp cracker or toasted nuts. If you want to get a bit geeky with some cheese enthusiasts, comparative tastings are also fantastic flavor experiences. Your cheesemonger can help you select to similar cheeses with distinct styles. For example compare and contrast the aged sheep milk tomme Scio Heritage from Ancient Heritage Dairy with a Spanish Manchego or young, Italian Pecorino.
How do the Tomme, Comte and other French varieties of cheese being created on on the West Coast of the US compare to the same cheeses produced in France?
It is often challenging to make direct comparisons because American producers are not always directly trying to mimic a specific European cheese. That said, West Coast producers are doing an amazing job creating cheeses of all types that are winning high honors at the World Cheese Awards where they compete against their European counterparts. There are also products that I think are better than the imports. For example take Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam which in my opinion has a more interesting bouquet of flavors than many French triple creams (St. André, Explorateur, Delice de Bourgogne, etc.). Take Hillis Peak--an aged goat tomme from the small, southern Oregon producer Pholia Farm, though it does not have a direct counterpart, it could rival any European goat tomme in flavor and texture.
Tell us about your favorite French-inspired cheese.
Easy to think of--hard to get: El Dorado Gold from La Clarine Farm in California. This little raw goat's milk tomme is made by a woman who learned cheesemaking in the Ariège--a small region in the Central Pyrenees. When I left New York for the West Coast, I was heartbroken to find that a number of the European cheeses I'd grown to love were not making it all the way out here. One of these cheeses was Tomme de l'Ariège; a large, low wheel made entirely from goat milk and washed through its development so it had a bright peach colored rind. The complexity of the paste made me weak in the knees, and I had not experienced a washed rind goat cheese of that texture and dizzying flavor again until I tried El Dorado Gold. Though not an exact replica of Tomme de l'Ariège, this tomme is a lovely, vibrant American cousin to that long admired French favorite of mine.
• Visit Sashas Davies' site: Cheese by Hand
• Sasha Davies' book: The Guide to West Coast Cheese
Related: How To Store Cheese
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)