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]

Ten great food co-ops in the western U.S.

food co-opsIf the concept of food cooperatives conjures up images of burning bras and withered, wormy produce, hear me out. The times they have a’changed, and today’s co-ops (about 500 nationwide) can be the hometown equivalent of a certain high-end, multi-billion-dollar, national green grocery chain. As with farmers markets, all are not created equal, but when you hit upon a good one, it’s easy to see why they’re such community hubs.

One of the defining principles of many co-ops is their commitment to purchase produce, meat (if they’re not vegetarian stores), and dairy as direct as possible, often from local farmers. By shopping there, you’re promoting food security and supporting the community. Most co-ops are also open to non-members.

Great product aside, I love checking out co-ops because they give me a sense of place. I learn about what foods are indigenous to or cultivated in the region, and usually, who grows them (I have a particular weakness for hand-lettered signs informing me I’m purchasing “Farmer Bob’s Pixie tangerines,” or blackberry honey from an enterprising 10-year-old’s backyard hives).

No matter how well-intentioned, not everything in even the best co-op is regional, as it depends upon what grows in that area, and the time of year. But the best co-ops have a high proportion of local products, and I award bonus for a truly appetizing deli (no tempeh loaf, please), bakery, and an espresso bar. When I’m on the road, dropping under five bucks for a delicious breakfast (steel-cut oatmeal, polenta, or ethereal scones, perhaps) and a well-made latte with locally-roasted beans always makes me happy. With a good co-op, that’s often possible.

Below, some of my favorite food co-ops in the western U.S.:

1. Ashland Food Co-op, Oregon
Located just over the California border in the Rogue River Valley, Ashland is famous for its Shakespeare Festival. It also deserves props for the co-op, with its selection of carefully curated local produce, deli, espresso bar, and delicious baked goods. Hippie haters may cringe at the earnestness of the patrons, but grab a seat on the patio, and enjoy the show. The surrounding Railroad District neighborhood boasts galleries, artist studios, shops, and restaurants.

[Photo credit: Kootenay Co-op, Flickr user donkeycart]

food co-ops2. Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco
This beloved collective draws customers seeking out some of the most impeccable produce, dairy, and specialty foods in the nation–all grown or made nearby. Look for goat cheese from Harley Farms, seasonal Gravenstein apples from Sebastopol, and honey from the bulk tank.

3. Boise Co-op, Idaho
I stumbled upon this co-op while exploring Boise, and fell in love. Idaho doesn’t usually conjure images of pristine produce aside from potatoes, but this bustling store is packed with beautiful local product, a deli, and an impressive housewares department. Located in a pleasant quasi-residential neighborhood walking distance from the downtown core.

4. Ocean Beach People’s Organic Foods Market, San Diego
It’s all about produce at this large, contemporary collective, especially citrus. But be sure to pick up a sandwich or some picnic items from the deli/bakery; the beach is just a few blocks away. Confession: I got a job here as a recent college grad, and it’s a tribute to my former boss, Trent (then and still the produce manager) that I found a career in food and sustainable agriculture. I was living in my car and going through a severe quarter-life crisis at the time, and by the end of my first day working with him, it was as though a light (energy-saving, of course) had switched on in my serotonin-starved brain. Thanks, Trent!
food co-ops
5. PCC Natural Markets, Fremont (Seattle)
Call it hometown advantage, but I live down the street from this store–part of a greater Seattle co-op chain–and shop here several times a week. It’s my favorite of the stores–some of which could use a makeover. Located in the pretty Fremont neighborhood on Lake Union’s northern shore, it’s modern, inviting, and stuffed with local product. Don’t miss Grace Harbor Farms yogurt, made from butterfat-rich Guernsey milk: the thick layer of cream on top is irresistible.

6. La Montanita Co-op Food Market, Santa Fe
It’s hard to beat Santa Fe’s famous farmers market, but should you miss it or require some additional souvenirs (posole and Chimayo chilies, anyone?), swing by this New Mexico co-op chain. Mark your calendars for September, when select stores roasts massive batches of organic Hatch chilies.
food co-ops
7. Davis Food Co-op, Davis, California
Home to one of the nation’s top ag schools, Davis is located within Yolo County, one of California’s largest farming regions. You’ll find exquisite vegetables from small farming champs like Full Belly Farm and Riverdog Farm of nearby Capay Valley, as well as local olive oil, honey, nuts, orchard fruits, and cheese. Cooking classes for kids and teens, too.

8. Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, California
Take the same wonderful products found in Davis, and add an ambitious learning center and cooking school program for kids and adults. Learn how to raise backyard chickens, take a two-day farming intensive, or gain some urban cycling skills.

9. People’s Food Co-op, Portland, Oregon
Portland is rightfully one of the nation’s epicenters of mindful eating. With both excellent restaurants and farmers markets, a co-op may not make it onto your travel itinerary, but if you’re in the Clinton neighborhood on the Southeast side, stop by. The reason Portland gets it right? Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture and livestock production, artisan cheesemaking, craft brewing, and winemaking. The store also holds a year-round farmers market every Wednesday, 2-7pm.
food co-op
10. Central Co-op, Seattle
Located in Seattle’s hipster thicket of Capitol Hill, this popular spot is just the place for an espresso before hitting the aisles. A seriously bomber selection of PacNW craft beer and wine, and a tiny but well-stocked cheese case featuring offerings from the likes of Washington’s excellent Black Sheep Creamery = one hell of a happy hour.

For a national directory of food co-ops, click here.

[Photo credits: peppers, Laurel Miller; bread, Flickr user farlane; apples, Flickr user Shaw Girl; espresso, Flickr user Nick J Webb]

Food & Wine Classic in Aspen celebrates 29th year; get discount tickets until March 15th

food and wine AspenBetter put your cardiologist on speed-dial; it’s almost time for the 29th annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. The nation’s most-lauded culinary festival will be held June 17-19, featuring food, wine, and cocktail seminars, cooking demos and competitions, grand tastings, and book signings by celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and Michael Symon. Get your tickets before March 15th, and you’ll save $100 off the $1,185 ticket price. Hey, no one said gastronomic blowouts in Colorado’s ski town Shangri-la come cheap.

The price includes attendance at five Grand Tastings, where you can sample the goods from over 300 vineyards, breweries, and distilleries, as well as charcuterie, cheese, olive oil, and chocolate.

Think it sounds a little too high-falutin’? Take note of a few of this year’s witty new seminars: “Sauce on the Side: Wine, Wieners & the Works,” with restaurateur Danny Meyer; “Global Street Food” with chef/one of half of Two Hot Tamales’ Susan Feniger, and “One Pot Meals” with Ming Tsai. Also sure to be popular: “Sophisticated Sipping Rums,” “Top Chef: Salty and Sweet,” with Gail Simmons and Tom Colicchio, and “Cheeses and Wine from Spain.”

FOOD & WINE donates two percent of the net proceeds from all Classic tickets sold to Grow for Good, benefiting Wholesome Wave Foundation. Grow for Good is FOOD & WINE’s national initiative dedicated to supporting local farms and encouraging sustainable agriculture. To purchase, call 877-900-WINE or click here.

Hotel cooking classes let you savor travel memories at home

You know what they say…”take only pictures, leave only memories.” But what if you want to take it home with you? That searing pad ka prow that leaves a film of sweat on your brow, a fragrant bouillabaisse, schnitzel so thin and crisp it practically floats?

What you need is a cooking class, from one of the many resorts, hotels, or cruises offering full or half-day demonstration and hands-on programs that let you recreate regional specialties. Depending upon the class, you might find yourself shopping at the local market for ingredients, visiting wineries, or truffle hunting.

In the Southwest, Inn on the Alameda joins up with the Santa Fe School of Cooking for “Muy Sabrosa,” a package demo class/lunch, and two nights stay, including breakfast, daily wine and cheese reception, and $40 gift certificate to Mucho Gusto cafe. Rates start $376 for two and dates are available throughout the year.

In Jamaica, Jake’s Island Outpost offers private lunch classes utilizing local ingredients, and featuring traditional dishes like “run down,” for just $20 a pop. Farmers often visit Jake’s to sell their produce, while fisherman pull up onto the beach each day, so guests can cook with with freshly-caught seafood. Crystal Cruises has hands-on classes on all Wine & Food sailings, which feature guest celebrity and award-winning chefs, winemakers, and mixologists. Each trip has a theme, such as sushi or Latin American food.

In Europe, Park Hyatt Hamburg has classes focused on seasonal ingredients such as spring asparagus, or cooking a Christmas goose. An October 16 class features quinces, apples, and pears from the “Old Land,” Europe’s largest fruit orchard, just outside of the city. Students will use the fruit to make braised venison with porcini. At Hotel Crillon le Brave, a charming boutique property in the Provence countryside, class participants this fall can immerse themselves in five, half-day intensives, including excursions to local markets, and the aforementioned truffle hunting. In Switzerland, La Réserve Genève’s chef lets guests in on his professional secrets during his Chef Workshops, each based on a different dish or theme, such as fresh pasta, or chocolate.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, in Northern Thailand, are famed for their cooking schools and classes. Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa lets students choose from one of four set menus in their half-day program, which includes a guided tour/shopping expedition of the Chiang Saen food market. Over in Abu Dhabi, Desert Islands Resort & Spa, on verdant Sir Bani Yas Island, offers the unusual experience of Arabic cooking classes, where students learn to prepare dishes like moutabel, and prawns haram.

Holiday readiness: A lesson in sparkling wine from around the globe and calamari

I was on the quest for a Christmas present for my dad when I came across this wonderful lesson on sparkling wines and cooking calamari from the Culinary Institute of America. Located in the Hudson Valley in Hyde Park, just outside of Poughkeepsie, New York, this is one of the best cooking schools in the world. I’ve eaten at the American Bounty Restaurant there a couple of times. Bliss.

This video starts out with an in depth, but breezy run through of sparkling wines from around the world that are affordable and popular–perfect to search out for holiday cheer. The range is from Italy to Albuquerque, New Mexico. There’s also a demonstration on how to safely open sparkling wine without putting someone’s eye out or losing all the bubbles. After that, John Fisher, an associate professor at the institute shows the best way to pan fry calamari to go with the sparkling wine. Oh, even more bliss. Here is the recipe for the calamari from the Culinary’s Web site. It doesn’t look that hard to make, and it tastes so good.