‘It’s an hour round trip. Are you sure?’ This time it’s me with phone in hand.‘How often are you going to get to this part of the world?’ He has a fair point.
‘Okay. You’ve convinced me. Let’s go get cheese,’ I say, not really putting up much of a fight. Only the month prior I had stood at the counter of one of my favourite cheese providores and paid more than I care to admit for 100 grams of Caveman Blue cheese. Sweet, buttery and amine rich, it was reminiscent of my go-to after school snack – Vegemite on hot buttered multi-grain toast. Have you noticed that butter tastes better, richer when it melts? The milk solids get released and the salt makes more of an impact on your tongue.
Cabot cheddar, Monterey Jack, chèvres from Cypress Grove and more have recently cemented my love for premier cheese from America. It’s easy to be dismissive of both American and Australian cheese with the skewed view that only European product is worthy. Australia makes some rocking cheese and I’m damn proud of it. America is proving no slouch either. The industrial shelf-stable Velveeta is a mere fleeting thought as we turn at Grants Pass towards Central Point in southern Oregon.
Rogue Creamery is undoubtedly one of the premier cheese-making companies in North America, having won multiple World Cheese Awards. Its foundation in 1933 was an attempt to eke out a sustainable living from small-scale farming during the Depression coupled with the harsh Oregon winters. During World War 2, the company was able to employ many local women and seasonal workers as they ramped up cheddar production, supplying the USA armed forces overseas. From cheddar and cottage cheese, the founder, Tom Vella, headed to Europe to seek an entree into the world of blue cheese and more specifically, The Roquefort Association. Moulds, recipes and cultures in hand, Vella returned valiantly to Oregon in 1955. From here, Vella set about building a Quonset, which is essentially a semi-cylindrical building that would mimic traditional cheese-ageing caves. Insulated to maintain correct humidity and temperature, cheeses are regularly turned by hand as part of the process known as affinage or bringing cheese to its ideal ripening.
It’s almost 3pm as we pull into the carpark beside the unobtrusive looking building which is our destination. Parking up against the factory’s side wall, Steve is trying to get the car in any shade that’s he can. Nestled behind the driver’s seat under both our unnecessary coats is our chiller box stacked with beers gathered on our journey so far. Hot and parched from the drive, cheese tasting is not the first thing that comes to my mind. Past patio chairs and milk urns turned planters we stride awkwardly. Steve opens the door and we step from the bright sun into a cool, dark and familiar-smelling shop. The bare concrete exterior walls belie the dairy cornucopia contained within. I stop and allow my eyes to adjust to the light. Ahead of me stands multiple fridges stacked with thousands of dollars worth of cheese. Foil wrapped rounds, handwritten signage and exposed cheese faces with spidery blue veins. ‘Made locally. Celebrated globally’ is written in signature cobalt blue chalk along the bottom of the fridge. I can attest somewhat to this. Three cheesemongers, I know personally in Australia have extolled the skills of RogueCreamery cheesemakers.
To one side, there is a large window looking into the adjacent factory. Gleaming stainless steel benches and scrubbed tiled floor wait for the next delivery of milk from the farm. Today the vats stand empty and forlorn. Framed black and white photos from times gone by document the process barely changed to the current day. Rogue Creamery is the very definition of an artisan producer. They combine sustainable practices with technology to scale up production without compromising the high quality of their handmade cheese range.
A tall, stocky man clad in a blue polo shirt and matching bib apron looms over the counter. ‘How’s it going there?’
I look up from the fridge showcase before me, my face like that of a stunned mullet. Momentarily I don’t know what to say. I know he is speaking English to me but I can’t figure what words were just used. Steve steps in to ameliorate.
‘Better now. How are you doing?’
I manage to find my voice. ‘What an amazing selection. Are they all made here?’ I ask gesturing to the fridges in front of me and also lining the wall.
‘Most of ‘em. Sure. Gotta a few imports in that fridge but I make the majority of them back there, beyond that window.’
Looking up and around I’m unsure where to begin. I eschew the farthest fridge with its portioned wrapped cheese, pickles, smallgoods and other cheese accessories. Back to the glassed-in selection, I only recognise two of the many cheeses in front of me.
‘So, I’ve had Caveman Blue and Flora Nelle before but I don’t know any of the others. You don’t want to know how much we pay for these cheeses back home in Australia.’
‘How much do you pay for them?’
‘At least double,’ I respond doing some quick maths in my head.
‘Huh.’ He pauses then adds, ‘Would you like to taste some?’
‘Yes please,’ we both enthuse.
‘We didn’t come 50 miles out of our way to tell you how expensive they are in Australia mate,’ Steve adds.
For the next twenty minutes or so, our new friend gives us a comprehensive tour of his cheese cabinet. This is a move I’ve done myself professionally. It’s fun and satisfying to introduce passionate cheese lovers to new curdy delights. From salty, buttery, spicy, fruity and smokey to everything in between, Steve and I ride the highs and greater highs of cheddar and blue cheese. My mouth savours the creamy texture, the pronounced piquancy and the briny backbone. I’m eager to purchase as much as we can consume in next few days, adding to the Cowgirl Creamery washed rind and the Humboldt Fog chèvre we already have staying cool in the insulated foil box in the warming car.
If it were earlier I’m sure we’d stay on and sample more local beers on tap and the no-doubt incredible cheese toastie made with four year aged cheddar. But it’s not and we’ve still got miles to put on the odometer before we can hunker down for the evening.