The Inn at the Commons in the heart of Medford, Oregon, was the place to be for great food, wine and beer as part of the Cheesemaker’s Benefit Dinner on Friday March 13th, the evening before the 11th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival.
Eagar to check out this special event for the first time, I was excited to see some of my favorite people from the world of cheese and find out more about the fantastic menu I’d been teased by on the Oregon Cheese Guild’s website.
I immediately ran into Francis Plowman, marketing manager of Rogue Creamery, as well as owner David Gremmels, who ushered me toward an amazing spread of fantastic Oregon cheeses, fresh fruit and nuts. While in the line for the cheese table, I met Katie Bray and was thrilled to learn that she has been named executive director of the Guild, which has always been made up of and managed by volunteers and cheesemakers, who can’t break away from their operations to attend to Guild business during certain times of year.
For anyone who might wonder what in the world a Guild is, it’s an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal. The four major goals of the Oregon Cheese Guild are:
1) Increasing awareness of Oregon artisanal cheeses.
2) Education of its members.
3) As a platform for sales opportunities.
4) As a forum to interact with other cheesemakers.
Organizations like this don’t run on passion alone, they need cold, hard cash! Annual fundraisers for the Guild include the Oregon Cheese Festival, held every March at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, and The Wedge, Portland’s Celebration of Cheese. The Cheesemaker’s Dinner kicks off the Festival in a fantastic way, for a lovely start to a weekend of eating well. So, let’s talk about this dinner!
The appetizer hour was fantastic. In addition to Oregon cheesemakers, other fine folks representing California (Peggy & Sue from Cowgirl Creamery) and Vermont (Allison from Vermont Butter & Cheese and Jeremy from Springbrook Farm) were in attendance, as were other retailers, such Gordon Edgar cheese buyer extraordinaire for Rainbow Coop in San Francisco and Sheri LaVigne from The Calf & Kid. There were distributors from New York to the Northwest looking for great new eats to bring to markets.
It was exciting to hear the cheesemakers talk about their new creations, like the cows’ milk washed rinds from Briar Rose in Dundee, known for its fantastic goats’ milk cheeses. Then there was Cheesorizo, a new project of Pholia Farm that’s made with cows’ milk instead of goats’ milk. This is a cheese “sausage” kind of a ricotta with fantastic spices that’s great when cooked in a skillet and added to, well, everything!
My table was a fun mix of Chelsea from Rogue Creamery, a distributor from New York named Dimitri, Lisa Carlson from DPI Specialty Foods, who was my lovely host and car pool partner for the night, Sheri from the Calf & Kid, and two fantastic cheese enthusiasts who are long-time Market of Choice shoppers! Dinner was four courses of fabulous pairings with local fare, cheese and wine beautifully assembled by Chef Chad Smith from Lark’s Restaurant.
Course 1 (above): Confit Organic Chicken with Blackeyed Pea “Risotto” with OSU Beaver Classic Cheese, Tomato-Viognier Sabayon and Watercress. Amazing! The chicken nearly jumped off the bone, and the cheesy “risotto” had the most fantastic texture and lovely balance of salt. What a way to start dinner!
Course 2 (right): Rare Seared Peppercorn-Crusted Ahi Tuna Carpaccio with Shaved Ancient Heritage Hannah Cheese, Dijon Vinaigrette, Fried Capers and Diakon Radish. Holy moly this was good – the contrasting texture of the ahi and the cheese was delightful, and the peppercorn against the fried capers were so bright and zingy!
Course 3 (left): Braised Kurobuta Pork Cheeks with Bing Cherry-Infused Pan Jus, Arugula and Hazelnut Oil, Grilled Ciabatta and Face Rock Creamery Mozzarella Curds and Fromage Blanc. The combination of pork cheeks and the cherry pan jus was almost enough to make me fall off my chair, but then I tried the Face Rock Mozzarella curds that had been warmed and stretched into a spiral around the Fromage Blanc – that was some genius at work, the way the mozzarella’s salt and structure contrasted against the fresh milkiness of the Fromage. I’m recreating it the next chance I get!
Course 4 (right): Olive Oil Sponge Cake with White Chocolate Sea Salt Mousse, whipped Fern’s Edge Chevre Chantilly, Orange Marmalade and Honey Caviar. I may have said some indecent things when this plate was set in front of me; it’s all kind of a blur at this point. There were moans coming from every table in the room, as we tasted the bliss of this airy sponge cake in combination with the Chantilly and its brush of sea salt that made my head spin – incredible! I’m still a little weak in the knees just thinking about
Punctuating the fantastic food was some great speaking moments by Oregon cheesemakers, vintners, brewers and the sparkling and informative John Greeley, who has experienced an amazing amount of American artisanal cheese history and has the stories to prove it! This evening was so much more than I could’ve hoped or expected.
It was a truly special opportunity to be near people who are doing great work in the wonderful state in which I live, along with guests from near and far who appreciate everything these producers are working so hard to offer. This may have been my first year at this dinner, but it will definitely not be my last!
For more info about the Oregon Cheese Guild and its members, go to oregoncheeseGuild.org.