Interview: Kirstin Jackson, Author of It's Not You, It's Brie

refdp_image_0For several years, Kirstin Jackson has been captivating cheese interested readers with her witty and informative blog, It's Not You, It's Brie. Now she's unleashed her considerable talents in a longer format, and we have It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese- the book. Part travelogue, part tasting guide and part cheese encyclopedia, the book is a fabulous romp through the world of domestic cheese, with recipes for good measure. Like her blog, Jackson's book is smart, funny and irreverent all at once- in other words, totally absorbing. I'm thrilled to see an author stray from the worshipful, remote prose so common in books about cheese.... in It's Not You, It's Brie, Jackson brings the world of cheese and cheesemakers to to life, in all of their stinky, funky glory. Kirstin Jackson was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat about the book, how she got into cheese, and her take of the cheeses of the Pacific Northwest.

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Right away in the introduction, it's clear that this is going to be a different kind of cheese book. What did you have in mind when you were writing? 

Well, thank you! I wanted to write a book that explored why domestic artisan cheese is the way it is -i.e. awesome- through exploring its styles, flavors, and cultural and historical influences in-depth, but also keep it lighthearted. It was important to me to avoid writing a book that was too serious or exclusive, because enjoying and learning more about our artisan cheese is within everyone's grasp. That said, another aim in writing this book was to thoroughly appease my inner cheese geek by asking TONS of questions of the 48 different cheesemakers profiled in the book, and to travel around the country eating pounds of cheese in the name of research. I also went with a publishing house and editor that let me have a lot of fun writing- I could be a little... less traditional with my descriptions.

Tell us a little about your background. You went to UC Berkeley (majoring in anthropology, I believe?) and culinary school. How did that evolution into food come about? And then how did you arrive at cheese?

Immediately after graduating high school I went to culinary school, cooked for three years in restaurant kitchens, and then decided that I wanted to return to school to to write about food. That inspiration struck when I picked up my first Saveur magazine in the late nineties, but working in kitchens didn't provide me with the time to do actually write. A couple years later I transferred to UC Berkeley, and yes, studied cultural anthropology and worked as an interviewer and transcriptionist in the Regional Oral History Food Program. After Cal, I worked in a cheese shop and started managing a wine bar and directing their cheese program. I went on to teach- at Solano Cellars, the Cheese School of 18 Reasons, Murray's and beyond.

My love of cheese likely spawned from two things- first, a firm foundation in artisanal fermented milk. My parents used to drive me around Northern California cheese country as a child and teenager, and I quickly realized that cheese was a very, very good thing (and an excellent way to get a fifteen year-old to sit for hours in a car with their parents with "minimal" complaints). Second, as a student of anthropology, I'm enamored with the stories- cultural, geographical, political, everything- behind cheese.

There are some killer recipes in this book - I mean, crisped rice treats with Mayor of Nye Beach cheese from Rivers Edge Chèvre? Awesome. (That's on page 175 if you're following along at home.) Would it be fair to say that cooking with cheese requires a different kind of understanding of cheese?

Glad you like them! And, does cooking require a different understanding cheese?Sometimes. It can be fantastic to consider a cheese's flavors, textures and nuances so one can arrive at a stunning final dish that highlights the cheese like in a sheep's milk ricotta-pine nut cheesecake, or those crisped rice treats. But sometimes it's just as lovely to simply grate or crumble a cheese into a bechamel sauce, bake it with noodles, and top it with breadcrumbs and call it a delicious day. It depends how involved you want to get.

Based on your cheese related travels and tasting experiences over the past few years, what's your take on the cheeses of the Pacific Northwest?

I love them! We get some like Mt. Townsend, Beecher's, and Rivers Edge in the Bay Area, but oh how I wish we could get more of the Dinah I wrote about in the book, or the tasty little numbers that never leave your farmer's markets. The land the animals get to hang out on isn't bad either. In other words, if it wasn't so rainy, I'd move there.

What do you think the future of domestic artisan cheese looks like? Or, to put it a different way, what will we be eating in 10 years? 

Hopefully more buffalo milk cheeses. Hopefully more funky, washed rind, stinky, adventurous cheeses and blues. Many more blues. But more importantly, I hope that in ten more years, we'll be eating much more artisan cheese, period, not just more of a certain style, that we'll embrace artisan cheese's breadth.

Obligatory question - what's next?

I'm not sure! I might make a brief trip out of the U.S. to refresh my look at domestic cheese. Play around. Sometimes it's hard to really see what's in your own backyard when your head and tummy is so saturated. It would be hard to leave our good stuff for a long time, but I might take a couple weeks and go eat raw milk cheese and pet foreign animals elsewhere.

Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Tami. I'm very flattered to be here!

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It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese By Kirstin Jackson Illustrations by Summer Pierre Perigee Books   240 pages  $19.00  hardcover

Oregon State University Debuts Beaver Classic Cheese

The Oregon State University Creamery is up and running again, and making cheese! After an over forty year hiatus, Oregon State University released a new cheese in September. Dubbed Beaver Classic, the cheese is a rich, nutty, alpine style cheese resembling Comte or Gruyere. Best of all, Beaver Classic is now available for purchase. If you're in the Corvallis area, you can stop by Weigand Hall on Fridays from 11am to 1pm and purchase the cheese. Beaver Classic is also available at home football games (see schedule here) and word is that fresh cheese curds are available at games as well. Those of us outside the area can also buy Beaver Classic online here. Stay tuned for additional styles and flavors of cheese from the creamery.

Oregon State University is the second regional university currently making cheese - you may already be familiar with Washington State University Creamery in Pullman, Washington, famous for its Cougar Gold cheese packaged in cans. OSU Creamery operated on the Corvallis campus for many decades but closed in 1969. Food Science Professor Lisbeth Goddik has revived the creamery in recent years and it now serves as a teaching facility for Food Science Program students as well as an incubator for prospective cheesemakers looking for space to test recipes and techniques. Marc Bates, industry consultant and former creamery manager at Washington State University, is also part of the new OSU creamery management team.

Little Cheesemaker Surprises

If you frequent farmers markets you have probably already discovered this - many times cheesemakers sell products at farmers markets that you won't find anywhere else. Today's featured surprise is cajeta, or goat's milk caramel, a traditional Mexican confection. Portland Creamery is well known around Portland for its great plain and flavored chevrés, but if you frequent the local markets you'll find this gem of a cajeta. Little Brown Farm, a small goat dairy on Whidbey Island near Seattle, makes a number of styles of goat's milk cheeses but at Seattle area farmers markets you can buy not one but two kinds of cajeta, regular and chocolate, which is a rare sort of double deliciousness.

In order to make cajeta, cheesemakers combine goat's milk with sugar and heat the mixture low and slow until it gets gooey, thick and caramelized. As you might expect, the results are fantastic. Because it's made with milk (unlike straight caramel, which is made with just sugar), cajeta has a depth of flavor and gorgeous richness that takes caramel to the next level. There's also a just a hint of cinnamon. Cajeta is perfect for drizzling over ice cream, fresh chevre, fromage blanc...or just use your imagination. Check each cheesemaker's website for their current market schedule and give this stuff a try!

Cheese and Culture by Paul Kindstedt

  For all of the contemporary enthusiasm about cheese, I’m surprised by how little has been written about the history of the cheese and dairy industry in general. Now that’s starting to change, most recently with the publication of Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt.

In his first book, American Farmstead Cheese, author Paul Kindstedt devoted the first section to a brief historical overview, and spent the balance of the book discussing the finer points of cheese chemistry. Kindstedt notes in the introduction to Cheese and Culture that he wrote the history part of that first book in order to grab readers' interest and provide context for what was intended to be a technical manual. But in the process he became fascinated with the depth and complexity of all of the history that he'd begun to uncover.... and in his new book, Kindstedt revisits the historical side of that earlier project in much more depth.

In Cheese and Culture, Kindstedt focuses primarily on the ancient origins of the production of dairy products and cheesemaking. It's heady stuff: evidence of dairying goes back not just centuries but millennia to as early as 6500 BC in southwest Asia. Technological advances such as the development of the craft of pottery making led to the creation of sieves and strainers that early cheesemakers used to funnel the whey off of coagulated dairy products, enabling the production of increasingly larger quantities of cheese. By 3000 BC, Kindstedt says, cheesemaking was a firmly entrenched part of Egyptian culture. Rennet-coagulated cheeses emerged later and by the era of the Greek and Roman empires (extending through about 500 AD) cheese was an integral part of both the diet and way of life of each of these civilizations.

Kindstedt devotes a lot of time in this book to unpacking the finer points of ancient history; much of it is complex and fascinating, though some reviewers have commented on what they perceive as an "academic" tone to the book. Most interesting for me was Kindstedt’s examination (starting in Chapter 6) of the more modern origins of styles of cheeses that still exist today - though in this context "modern" is relative and we're still looking back at least one thousand years. While it can be hard to visualize what types of cheese might have been made in Ancient Egypt (though Kindstedt does his best to guess), his take on the gradual evolution of more familiar types of cheese is thoroughly engrossing....eating Brie just got a lot more interesting.

In a recent interview on Anne Saxelby's Cutting the Curd, Kindstedt opined that "If cheese can help us understand the origin of civilization, it can help us understand who we are as a species." If food could be said to be a necessary foundation of human culture, then it makes sense that cheese would be a lens through which we might view its development. With Cheese and Culture, Kindstedt has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of the ancient origins of a food still very much enjoyed today.

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Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization by Paul Kindstedt Chelsea Green 288 pages $24.95 hardcover

see the publisher's page here for a summary of news, book-related events and Paul Kindstedt's appearances and interviews.

Kurtwood Farms Dinah's Cheese Coming Soon to Portland!

You may have heard of the delectable Dinah's cheese...made by Kurt Timmermeister on Vashon Island in Seattle, this camembert-style cow's milk cheese is on many people's top ten NW cheese lists. It's a luscious, buttery, velvety creation that takes you by surprise with its authoritative flavor. Like many cheeses in the northwest, Dinah's cheese is a micro-batch creation that's (until now) been available near the source - which means the Seattle area. But today I've got good news for Portlanders....Kurt Timmermeister tells me that thanks to distributor Provvista, we'll be able to enjoy Dinah's cheese every day of the week. Look for it at fine Portland cheese shops starting in August! Seriously, Dinah's Cheese will change how you think about local cheese.

 

Briar Rose Creamery Goat Cheese Truffles

photo courtesy Angelina Williamson

Fresh goat's milk cheese (also known as fresh chevre) is a natural in combination with other things...its mild lemony tartness makes a great base for any number of flavors both sweet and savory: herbs, flowers, honey and chilies are just a few of the possibilities. So why not chocolate?

Why not indeed! Briar Rose Creamery's Goat Cheese Truffles are here for you. Newly minted Oregon cheesemaker Sarah Marcus says she got the idea for goat cheese truffles while doing an internship with another cheesemaker a few years ago; she's since worked hard on tweaking the recipe. She experimented with a number of different chocolates before coming up with the precise formula for these beauties...as you might imagine, different chocolates delivered very different flavor profiles. "Some of the experimental truffles ended up fruitier than others and some had a flat, waxy texture. Some had hints of flowers. I had fun hosting focus groups, letting people try the truffles made with each different chocolate," says Marcus. She also tested seven different cocoa powders before finding one that was just right for dusting the outside of the truffles. "Wouldn't you know that a high fat cocoa powder tastes better than a regular cocoa powder!"

Marcus' dedication shows: all of that hard work has resulted in a great tasting product as well as an example of creativity in artisan cheesemaking. Both delicate and decadent at the same time, these goat cheese/chocolate truffles are bite sized and totally addictive. They're creamy and slightly tangy, warmly chocolate-y with a comforting underlying note of sweetness. In other words, sensational. In fact, so good are these truffles that they can be called 'award-winning,' as they took second place overall in the confections category at the American Dairy Goat Association competition earlier this year.

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Briar Rose Creamery Goat Cheese Truffles are available in Portland at Cheese Bar, in Eugene at Sundance Natural Foods, in McMinnville at Abbie and Oliver's and in Seattle at Calf and Kid. You can also find them at the upcoming Season's Eatings event in Portland on Saturday December 11th, which will be held at New Deal Distillery in Portland.

For a complete list of retail outlets for all of Briar Rose Creamery's products, see the website here.

Blueberry Fromage Blanc Parfait

Since it's blueberry season I thought I'd re-run one of my favorite berry recipes. This lovely treat combines fresh blueberries and fromage blanc. Enjoy!

Blueberry Fromage Blanc Parfait, Blueberry RecipeWhen I was putting together my book I developed a few easy cheese recipes... I'm definitely not a chef but I found that it was fun to think outside the box a little bit about using cheese in combination with other flavors. This recipe in particular, using artisan made fromage blanc, takes advantage of berry season. You could use any type of berry in this recipe - raspberry, boysenberry or even stone fruit like fresh peaches or apricots. Enjoy!

Blueberry Fromage Blanc Parfait

8oz artisan fromage blanc 1 tsp lemon zest (plus additional for garnish) 2 tsp honey, or more to taste 1/2 pint fresh blueberries

Combine fromage blanc, lemon zest and honey in a bowl. Taste for desired sweetness, as fromage blancs will vary in flavor and tanginess. Aim for a subtle sweetness that balances the cheese without overwhelming it.

In two 6 oz juice glasses, layer fromage blanc, then blueberries, then more fromage blanc and more blueberries. Add an extra bit of lemon zest on top, if desired.

Makes two small parfaits

From Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest by Tami Parr

An Olympics Guide to Cheese in Vancouver, BC

Flower Chevre CheeseSeems like everyone is weighing in on all of the best places to eat and drink in Vancouver, BC during the Olympics, so I'm going to jump right in. One of the many great things about Vancouver is its unabashed enthusiasm for two of my favorite things - tea and cheese (maybe it's a British colonial thing?)...in any event, here's a roundup of what to eat and do, cheese-wise, in Vancouver, BC. Les Amis du Fromage Cheese lovers, this is it - Vancouver's cheese destination. Get to Les Amis du Fromage by any means necessary. They've got three locations in the city and the Hastings St. location is also home to Au Petit Chavignol, a wine/cheese bar. You'll find a fabulous selection of locally made cheeses as well as a huge spread of French cheeses, many of which you don't see very often in the US.

Granville Island Market Granville Island will be the official home to the French Quarter during the Olympics, so I can only imagine the crowds will far exceed those at Granville Island even on a sunny summer day. Nevertheless, the Granville Island Market is home to a number of great cheese shops and the lovely and amazing Oyama Sausage Company, the coolest charcuterie and cured meats shop in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, I did just say that.

Other cheese shops and retail outlets with good cheese include Mt. Pleasant Cheese Co. on Cambie (this will be easy to get to because it's right on the Canada Line); Benton Brothers Fine Cheese and Meinhardt Fine Foods. The larger markets generally have a good selection of artisan made cheeses as well, like Capers on Robson (they still call it Capers but really it's a Whole Foods) and Urban Fare with several locations including Yaletown.

The Vancouver Farmers Market The Vancouver Winter Market is going full swing through the Olympics and generally you'll find several local cheesemakers with stalls there.

And if you're feeling like getting away from the Olympic crowds, you might check out The Farm House Natural Cheeses in Agassiz, about an hour or so east of Vancouver. Debra Amrein-Boyes is making some of the best cheeses in the province at this lovely farm in the Fraser Valley.

BC Cheeses Not to Miss Keep your eyes out for cheese from these British Columbia cheesemakers: Salt Spring Island Cheese Co. (especially their lovely flowered chevres, and also the Montaña if you can find it); Poplar Grove's Tiger Blue, Carmelis Goat Cheeses, Moonstruck Organic Cheese and Hilary's Artisan Cheeses.