Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

sheep cheese Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.



[Photo credit: Kate Arding]

Tasting gourmet Dutch cheese in Amsterdam

Dutch cheese
I’m addicted to it. Every time I’m in Amsterdam the first thing I do is get some to satisfy my craving. I couldn’t think of a trip to Amsterdam without it. Yeah, you know what I mean.

Eating Dutch cheese!

I’ve always wondered why some countries get famous for certain foods. Why is Belgian chocolate so great? Why do the Dutch make such fine cheese? Why aren’t the Dutch the chocolate experts and the Belgians famous for cheese?

While in Amsterdam I went to a Dutch cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Rooms, the shop and showroom of one of the nation’s leading cheese manufacturers. They hold hour-long cheese tasting classes most days, where you get to taste a variety of cheeses and learn about the process of making them.

This class will teach you all you need to know to be a bore at cocktail parties. For example, most of us know that aged cheese is more flavorful, but why is that? As cheese ages it loses moisture, and moisture dilutes taste. As cheese ages, calcium and salt will form crunchy little white crystals called cheese crystals. This is a sign of maturity in a cheese. Very large crystals are a sign of well-aged cheese.

Some cheese has holes in it. This is caused by gas produced by bacteria. One would think that flatulent germs would be a bad thing, but as anyone who has eaten holey cheese knows, it has a sweet flavor that’s quite pleasant.

Local conditions affect the flavor, and this is one of the reasons The Netherlands is one of the leaders in the cheese industry. Warmth and humidity makes cheese mature more quickly. The Dutch region of Beemster is considered one of the best regions for cheese because its between to stretches of water.

The grass the cows, sheep, or goats eat is also a factor. For example, some cheese is only made with milk produced from animals eating grass in springtime because this is the richest and most lush grass of the year. Weather conditions affect dairy farmers almost as much as they do crop farmers. The rainy dutch weather ensures rich grass most years. England and Ireland have lots of rainfall too, and so it’s no surprise they have some excellent cheeses.

When tasting cheese, slice it thin as that allows for more oxygen. Drink some water between each sample to cleanse your palate. It’s best to sample both with and without wine. During the tastings we tried different wines and ports with different cheeses. I found that the flavor of all but the most mature cheeses was drowned out by the strong flavor of port. Lighter wines allow for the flavor of the cheese to come through, and the right combination of wine and cheese improves the taste of both.

The cheese tasting class was a great way to spend a rainy Dutch afternoon, and of course everyone ended up buying something in the shop! So if you’re at a loss for something to do while waiting for Amsterdam’s nightlife to kick in, stop by and learn something about Dutch cheese.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Down-home cooking in Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.