White, yellow, orange or blue; aged in wax, fresh from the farm, or whizzed from a can; paired with a Pinot, swirled delectably with crab, or melted over toast to tasty perfection - apparently, there's no end to the way Pacific Northwesterners enjoy their cheese. There was, however, a definitive beginning. And in what may come as no surprise to residents of a coastline famous for its "firsts," all that cheesy goodness started right here.

In her latest book, "Pacific Northwest Cheese, A History," Portland author Tami Parr takes readers on a delightful journey that begins with the rugged fur traders of the 18th century, then follows the early pioneers across the Oregon Trail to the grasslands that would become the heart of our dairy industry, weaving tales of triumph and discovery into a chronicle that showcases one of America's favorite foods as key in the settling of the west - illustrating beautifully that "there's more to regional cheese than meets the eye."

A matter of survival

In 1811, John Jacob Astor's ship Tonquin sailed into the Columbia River, establishing the first non-native presence in the area. That early crew carried dreams of fur and fame, but, according to Parr, they also brought "goats, pigs and sheep," to help sustain them in an untried land. Fort Astoria was short-lived, but its successor, Fort George, built upon those early herds, and by 1814, visitors were pleased to note that milk from resident goats added "great luxury" to their coffee.

Expanding herds of livestock was no easy feat, as the wildness of the coast, replete with hungry bears and cougars, took its toll. But when Britain's Hudson's Bay Company arrived, it moved headquarters upriver to a more protected Fort Vancouver, taking a few of those early milk producers along for the ride. In short order, they created an impressive system of farming and ranching that quickly produced freshly churned butter and, as early as the 1820s, the Northwest's very first cheese.

But British transplants weren't the only ones with a taste for dairy - or opportunity. Americans in the east began to migrate west, and during the 1840s to 1860s, an estimated 300,000 people headed overland to the new frontier. With them, they brought goats and cattle, milking steadily along the way, letting the rhythmic motion of their wagons do the work of churning while they crossed the rough terrain.

When they arrived to the Pacific Northwest, they found a country just as wild as the one they'd traversed - the only goods and services the ones they provided on their own. "Those with cattle that survived the journey, or with means to purchase cattle once they arrived, fed themselves in the short term by butchering...or in the long term by milking," writes Parr. To sustain their families, as well as make money, settlers built small farmstead dairies, peddling their wares and establishing communities virtually linked by butter and cheese.

Then and now

"The question of how to make a living on the coast is a perpetual one," said Parr in a recent interview, noting that harsh weather and isolation from the larger marketplace continues to this day. But on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, outside the quiet hamlet of Oysterville, Lisa and Jerry Busenius, owners of LJ Ranch, are taking a tip from our earliest explorers and answering that timeless query in the simplest way they know how: with goats.

Like their pioneering predecessors, the couple's foray into farm life began out of necessity, when, helping raise their grandchild, the family's demand for milk became too expensive. "We'd kept goats before, when our son was small," says Lisa, "and it just made sense to do it again. It's hardly easy, but it is rewarding, and life is never dull. There's feeding, and twice-a-day milking, as well as the regular care of the herd, and during kidding season (when goats are born), we're busy around the clock."

With children grown and out of the house, the milk that once was barely enough soon became a surplus. So the couple acquired milk and cheese processing licenses, and they now sell fresh goat milk on a weekly route across the Long Beach Peninsula, turning leftovers into glorious cheese. Though small, their operation produces great variety, including cheddar, gouda, Monterey Jack, fresh chevre and a tangy fromage blanc, available at their farmstead store and in local shops and restaurants. While each type of cheese is different, Lisa says that, like her well-loved French Alpine goats (all with names: "Sadie," "Bliss," "Anita" and "Calamity") the milk produced is very sweet - a quality "that really comes out in the cheese."

From small farm to big business

Like the Busenius' ranch, all early dairies started out sweet and small; but it wasn't long before farmers caught on to something larger - namely, the ever-profitable cow. During the 1860s, as Astoria boomed with timber and salmon, its swelling population provided a ready market - and a huge appetite - for dairy products of all kinds, and by the 1880s, writes Parr, more than "a thousand cows inhabited an area along the Oregon Coast stretching from Astoria to Nehalem Bay."

Serious dairy farmers built their own facilities to manufacture cheese and butter, but the hard work of farming took time away from cheese-making, and production and quality suffered. But in 1909, with the formation of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, all of that changed. Uniting independent dairies throughout the region, members brought their milk to shared production plants, improving consistency in their products, and, by 1917, embarking on an advertising campaign that would launch their previously independent cheeses into long-lasting cooperative fame.

Today, amid the verdant fields of the Lewis and Clark Valley, just south of Astoria, Brad and Melody Cowan are proud owners in that same association. Trusting that the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side, the Cowan's sold their family dairy near Cathlamet, Washington, and moved to Astoria in 1999, specifically for the Tillamook opportunity - a decision they don't regret.

Third generation dairy farmers, the Cowans' move was a shift in location, but also in practice. Changing from the traditional large-scale style of dairying, which operates by confining cattle and feeding only a provided diet, they now manage their herd (the largest in Clatsop County) with a method of rotational grazing; and the couple says they have no intention of switching back.

"If you're into grazing, this is the best place in North America to be. You can't ruin a grass field in this country, even if you try - it just loves to be grazed and tromped on," Brad says, adding that, "it's far cheaper to work with nature than against it." An additional change to seasonal management - where calves are born only in the spring, rather than year-round - allows them to take the most advantage of the grasslands that surround them, cutting down dramatically on feed costs. Now, Cowan says he spends more time monitoring pasture than cows, which is just the way he likes it. "We were going broke the other way. These days, I think about it more simply. We have lactating cows, harvesting grass. That's what we focus on." That, and a kind of trickle-down theory of good farming practice: Take care of the land to take care of the cows; do that, and you'll end up taking care of people in the process.

The milk of human kindness

While such a philosophy might seem unusual in the large-scale dairy industry, it's right at home with the "back-to-the-land" movement that started in the 1960s and '70s. Of the era, Parr writes, "A growing cadre of small farmers-turned-cheesemakers, slowly began to make inroads in the well-established commodity cheese production industry. They returned to practices tossed aside by industrial producers, making cheese in small batches from the milk of animals that many raised on their own farms."

Today, such principles continue in the production of artisan cheese, made by "dedicated and passionate people who view their endeavors in the context of the broader importance of sustainable farming, land stewardship, and the production of wholesome, healthy food." Speaking recently, Parr added that cheese exists as a convergence of "animal, land, and craft," and according to Cynthia Clark, owner of Crooked Cow Cheese, she couldn't be more correct.

While most 10-year-old girls long for a horse, Clark recalls that what she wanted was "a soft, brown cow," and almost 35 years later, on-site at the Strange Family Farm in Naselle, Washington, her long-held dream finally came true. Partnering with her neighbor, Annie Strange, Clark acquired her beloved "Crooked," a high-producing Brown Swiss cow, who came to her from a Tillamook farm where "she'd never been outside, or even seen the grass." All that quickly changed.

In the milk house of the renovated historic barn on the original Parpala homestead, a pristine spread Clark calls "cow heaven," Crooked's milk (along with the milk of several other cows) is now used to make high quality artisan cheese - a project Clark started mainly to support her self-proclaimed "cow habit." Producing on a small scale, Clark turns the grass-laden milk, one batch at a time, into perfect wheels of cheddar - a process that takes seven hours. Using only a water-bath method, she adds precious cultures to heated milk, then stirs in rennet (a natural coagulant) to separate the curds and whey. Once completed, fresh curds are pressed into 4-pound wheels, then dried and waxed by hand, and finally left to age for a minimum of 90 days.

While the process is arduous, the finished product is breathtaking (and delicious), and in learning how to change milk to cheese, Clark says she herself has been transformed. "I never was somebody who was very conscientious about the environment, but all that's different now. Now I see clearly that what I do must absolutely start with the care of the land, because it's all going to come out in my cheese. The grass they graze on, the water they drink, the organic supplements they receive - all of it goes into the milk that I pull from these incredible creatures that I've loved and nurtured, and the end result is a unique product that only I can make, and one I have to be proud of. To get there, the focus has to be the earth."

Those components, says Tami Parr, are exactly what artisan cheese is all about. "The enjoyment of cheese - the tastes, the flavors, the texture, the pairings - are all beautiful and amazing, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. Cheese is really a complex thing, and all of it - the characteristics of the land, the animals, the people who make it, the economic factors that drive it to market - all of those aspects get distilled down into every single bite."

To experience that themselves, Parr advises readers "get out there and enjoy some locally produced artisan cheese right now." It's not just food; it's "cheese history happening right before your eyes."

Read more on coastweekend.com

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