CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University is helping the state's artisan cheese makers ripen to a new level of sophistication.
Since 1999, the number of cheese making businesses in Oregon has grown from a few large-scale operations to 17 commercial artisan cheese makers currently statewide. Now OSU's cheese-making classes match that level of growth and sophistication.
Donations to OSU from Oregon Dairy Industries for new equipment, totaling more than $25,000, means cheese-making classes at the university can focus on the production of specialty artisan cheeses, according to Lisbeth Goddik, OSU Extension’s dairy processing specialist.
Like fine wine, artisan cheeses are made to be savored. Goddik said a quality cheese is judged according to its taste, aroma and texture—the feeling in the mouth while eating it.
"I hope the Oregon wine and cheese industries hook up in the future," she said. "The cheese industry is about 10 years behind, but has the same focus on high quality. People have to know they're getting something really good when they buy their $15-a-pound cheese."
In the past, Goddik's cheese-making courses relied on kitchen pots and pans. The donation provides real equipment for small-scale cheese production. "My plan is to develop an artisan cheese pilot plant here at OSU so that we can have even better courses in cheese making," Goddik said.
With part of the donation, Goddik purchased a large stainless steel cheese vat from Holland. The vat looks like a large industrial clothes washing machine.
"With the cheese vat from Holland and a cheese press donated by Tillamook Cheese, I'm getting the equipment together," she said. "Next we need funding to remodel space in Withycombe Hall that we will turn into a cheese-making facility."
Goddik is fresh back from a year in Europe where she studied cheese making at two leading schools and worked with French artisan cheese makers.
"France is THE cheese country, especially when it comes to the softer cheeses like Camembert," she emphasized. "The sabbatical helped me to advise the artisan cheese makers here in Oregon, so we can make our extension program even stronger."
Artisan cheeses are made using low-mechanized, traditional cheese making techniques using local ingredients.
"People want to know where their food comes from," Goddik said. "Consumers can see where Willamette Valley cheese comes from. If they want to, they can read about the owners, know how they make the cheese, and have faith in the artisan cheese producers."
Most artisan cheese is fresh “chevre” (the French work for “goat”) and is made from goats' milk. Typical goat herds range anywhere from around 35 milking goats on small family farms to more than 100 goats at a large operation like Tumalo Farms in Bend, according to Goddik. Cows' milk artisan cheese tends to be from larger operations, such as Willamette Valley Cheese in Salem and Rogue Creamery in Central Point.
Artisan cheese makers sell their cheese at farmer's markets, directly to restaurants, to specialty retailers, or to distributors. Goddik said most artisan cheese makers are in the business because of their enthusiasm for cheese, rather than to make a lot of money. "These are people with a passion, who wanted to make cheese all their lives and are ready to mortgage nearly everything to do it," Goddik said. "And it takes both passion and energy to get licensed, buy the equipment, care for the animals, produce the milk and make and sell the cheese."
Oregon's artisan cheese makers formed a professional organization in 2006 called the Oregon Cheese Guild, and Goddik serves as technical adviser to the group's board of directors. For more information about artisan cheese makers from Portland to Bend and Medford, see the Oregon Cheese Guild's website at http://www.oregoncheeseguild.org/cheesemakers.html.