More Than a Sampling Frenzy: The Oregon Cheese Festival is a Delicious Homegrown Industry
Quick, what kind of wine pairs best with an aged gouda?
How about this one: How many cheesemakers are there in the state of Oregon?
Luckily, the region’s biggest cheese festival is happening March 18 and 19 at Rogue Creamery in Central Point—and can answer these and other burning cheese questions. The 13th annual Oregon Cheese Festival will bring in 100 vendors to tempt with not just cheddars, bries and fetas, but also specialty meats and other locally crafted foods, as well as wine, beer, spirits and ciders.
Under a 1,500-square-foot heated tent, both cheesemakers and milk makers—baby cows and goats, anyway—will be available to answer questions and/or frolic. Kids get in free and will be entertained by plenty of volunteers and kid-friendly activities. That should allow parents visit all the booths and maybe even take a class on cheese pairing.
“You could spend a good chunk of the day here,” says Festival organizer Francis Plowman, and we’ll go ahead and assume that pun was intended. In addition to education and plenty of samples, attendees can look forward to a new Festival highlight this year—a handcrafted cheese sculpture by famed cheese artist Sarah the Cheese Lady.
Those who attended the Festival two or three years ago may be in for another surprise this year: Plowman says that attendance has boomed in the past decade, growing from 300 people in 2005 to close to 4,000 last year. It’s part of the reason the Festival is now a two-day event.
Plowman credits the local-food revolution with the growing popularity of this festival. And although popular culture gives plenty of eye-rolls to those who want to know the herd structure of the dairy cows and the precise temperature at which their cheese was cured, he says these are the very folks who have grown and supported a small but thriving industry of cheesemakers in Oregon.
Cheese is a bit like wine in that different micro-climates produce a vastly different product. And just as Oregon can produce Pinot Noir in one valley and Reisling in the next, the types of cheeses that come out of our state are as varied as the landscapes and people that call it home.
“We have so many great cheese makers,” affirms Plowman, “and many of them are very, very small creameries.”
How do very, very small creameries survive in a world where companies like Kraft produce the bulk of cheese that most people eat? It comes back to those pesky foodies, and their delight in sampling and purchasing each new product that a mom-and-pop creamery can produce.
Another important element is the industry support provided by the Oregon Cheese Guild, the non-profit that benefits from the funds raised through events like the Oregon Cheese Festival. Rogue Creamery is a major sponsor of the Guild, and Plowman serves on its board.
“Our main goal is to raise the quality of Oregon cheeses,” Plowman says. The Guild follows through by providing support and training for cheesemakers, and facilitating everything from finding factory space to procuring steady milk supplies and exploring insurance options.
It appears that their efforts have been successful. In the most recent competition of the American Cheese Society (i.e., the cheese Oscars), Oregon cheesemakers took honors in seven categories and 11 subcategories. The winners included Ancient Heritage Dairy, Ochoa Queseria, Tillamook County Creamery, and of course, Rogue Creamery, who took home an impressive 6 awards last year alone. For more information and tickets, visit OregonCheeseFestival.com
Oregon Cheese Festival
11 am – 5 pm, Sat. and Sun., March 18 and 19
Rogue Creamery, 311 N Front St. (Hwy 99), Central Point
$15, advance. $20, door. $10, alcohol sampling. Free, kids ages 12 and under.