You can find soft, creamy local cheese at the farmers market — but tasting it in the fresh air of a river valley, surrounded by green grass and the sheep, cows and cheesemakers who created it, is even better.
The best place to do this? Chehalis.
Washington has more than 50 artisan cheesemakers, but by some coincidence, five of them run their farms in the lush countryside around Chehalis. That’s great news for South Sound cheese lovers, because you can spend a day driving yourself from farm to farm, tasting and buying and meeting the farmers (and animals) behind those smooth, fresh flavors.
Here’s how to explore Chehalis cheese country.
WILLAPA HILLS CREAMERY
When you drive into Willapa Hills Creamery, it’s immediately obvious you’re at a family farm. Swingsets and friendly chickens line the drive just in front of the farmhouse. That’s the whole vibe at Willapa Hills, where Seattlites Stephen Hueffed and Amy Turnbull began cheesemaking 10 years ago as a way to get their family out of the busy city rat race. Now, the creamery boasts 140 sheep (a cross of East Friesian for milk volume and Lacaune for butterfat), whose milk Hueffed and Turnbull combine with local cows’ milk to make cheeses that are sought after by stores and restaurants from Alaska to California.
It’s also obvious that Hueffed loves the whole cheesemaking process. He’ll take visitors into the dairy, tucked inside a tall white historic barn, and while workers scuttle back and forth between stainless steel vats adjusting temperatures in the foggy steam, he’ll talk you through when to add culture, rennet and mold. Just opposite is the “parlour” — also called the milking room — though you’ll have to come back in spring to see any action. Sheep only milk from February to August.
But the tasting room is open daily year-round (always call in advance), and here, too, Hueffed is a font of information. Take the semi-ripened, Caerphilly-style Pluvius, a seasonal cheese named after a nearby pass through the hills that gets about 140 inches of rain per year — and was, in turn, named after the Roman god of rain. Willapa Hills itself gets 65-70 inches, which might explain the lush green grass and the rich milk. Other Willapa cheeses include the Gruyère-style Lilly Pad with a smooth, buttery flavor; the Big Boy Blue, round and mild; and six flavors of cream cheese spread, including the unthreatening Garlic-Herb and intensely sweet Cranberry-Blue. Ask for fresh eggs, too.
Willapa Hills cheeses are sold in stores from Metropolitan Market to Fred Meyer, but it’s a whole lot more fun tasting them in the rain-soaked fields where they’re made — and meeting the sheep, chickens, turkey and pigs who live there.
It’s like a little piece of Switzerland at Rosecrest Farms, about 15 minutes east along Highway 12 from Willapa Hills toward Chehalis. Down a long, tree-lined drive is a neat red barn, with a tiny chalet in front where Sharon and Gary McCool sell their Swiss cheeses. About 125 milking Shorthorn cows low gently in the century-old barn. Sharon McCool, petite and welcoming, is quick to explain the cheeses’ Swiss pedigree: The base recipe came from the Swiss cheesemaker that McCool got her equipment and training from 35 years ago (and who, at 82, still checks in on them occasionally). The farm itself has been in use since 1903.
The pedigree shows. Rosecrest supplies Swiss cheeses to Cedarbrook Lodge in Federal Way, Seattle’s Portage Bay Café and Fairmont Hotel, and the Space Needle, among other prestigious venues. It has won multiple awards, and McCool is always adding new flavors to the basic, nutty-fresh recipe: smoky peppercorn and chive, herb and garlic, spicy caraway seed and now bacon.
The tiny store is given a country touch by the homemade signs, lamps and jars made by a local neighbor, all for sale. The McCools can accommodate big groups by arrangement, offering videos of the milking and cheesemaking process and giving farm tours. If they’re not around, an honor system operates for cheese purchases.
BLACK SHEEP CREAMERY
The first thing you’ll see at Black Sheep Creamery, just around the corner from Rosecrest in Adna, won’t be sheep but dogs. Two extremely friendly and enthusiastic border collies will greet you at your car and play fetch for hours. But look across the road to the far pasture and you’ll see the sheep, guarded by two enormous Anatolian shepherd dogs: a flock of 85 East Friesians and Lacaunes in a charming mix of black and white who also love visitors — until they figure out you have no food, that is.
Visiting farm animals is one of the pleasures of a cheese tour like this, and the sheep at Black Sheep offer more than just milk. Brad and Meg Gregory also shear, selling wool and four styles of yarn, home-dyed by Meg with hollyhock flowers, chamomile and sunflower seeds. You can also buy a lamb or two, either for meat or to start your own flock.
But it’s the cheese that’s unique here. Made solely from sheep’s milk, it ranges in season from a salty, citrus-edged feta, to the smooth, round St. Helens, to an aged pecorino that’s as sharply delightful as a Parmesan. There’s also fresh cheese, ricotta, mizithra and yogurt in late spring, and a Basque cheese with salt hand-knit into it during winter.
On the east side of Interstate 5, just south of Chehalis, is a very different kind of dairy. Instead of guard dogs you’ll find a watch-flock of rather loud guinea-fowl, and inside a sparkling white brick dairy room you’ll find Lisa Jacobs, who gave up a law degree to produce a delectable range of butter and cheese single-handed.
“I was born in Dublin, but I also lived in France,” explains Jacobs, with an accent that retains only a hint of Ireland. “So I really wanted a taste that merged between the cream of Irish cheese and the culture of Normandy cheese.”
Jacobs has definitely achieved that union. Using locally sourced milk (she doesn’t farm her own animals), she has developed a range of products from fresh, melt-in-your-mouth butter; through creamy, super-soft fromage blanc; to a golden butterscotch Gouda; a tangy, sparkly cheddar; and a blue with a rich, smooth body and a bite that’s arresting but doesn’t linger. She also sells milk, fresh eggs and her own homemade pickles and jams.
And like some of the other Chehalis cheesemakers, she has a back story about how she got into making cheese.
“I dropped out of law school and knew I wanted to make cheese,” Jacobs says. “But I didn’t inherit a family farm. So I called up the Department of Agriculture to see what I needed.”
Jacobs rented a dairy and began to sell her cheese in the local farmers market, then worked for a while at Willapa Hills before finding her current location. Her site had been used by cheesemaker John Ammerman until he moved across the valley to his wife’s farm, now Domina Dairy (see sidebar).
One thing Jacobs does keep from her Irish childhood is a love of tea, which she’s translated into cheese. Her latest experiment is a batch of semi-soft cheese brined in Irish Breakfast tea, resulting in a mild, quirky taste.
“I love tea, and I love cream,” she says. “So I wanted to combine them.”