Start in rural Okanagan County, Washington, way up near the Canadian border. In the middle of nowhere. Then keep going. Drive through the one church town of Havillah. Keep going until you're at an altitude of 4,200 feet or so. Come around a bend in the road and there it is, Sally Jackson's farm.
Here in the Northwest we're a bit starved for cheesemaking icons. Unlike Vermont and Wisconsin, it's a fairly new industry out here and you don't find many cheesemakers who've been around long enough to have passed down their craft through generations. Few have made it to, let alone beyond, their twentieth year of existence. Sally Jackson is one of those who've not only managed to make a go of an artisan cheesemaking operation, she's a nationally and internationally recognized master who's been practicing her craft for almost thirty years.
Like the royalty-obsessed British public we tend to hang on every scrap of information about Sally just because so little gets out. While some consider her reclusive, the remote location of her farm and hard-earned years of success really just mean that Jackson doesn’t need to spend time talking. In fact, Sally and Roger Jackson are well known in the local community; in addition, Sally regularly dispenses advice to local goat and sheep keepers and has mentored Washington cheesemakers including M. Clare Paris of Larkhaven Farm in nearby Tonasket, Kelli Estrella of Estrella Family Creamery and Catha Link of Alpine Lakes Sheep Cheese. Several years ago, she traveled to Bangladesh to participate in an effort to teach cheesemaking in impoverished communities....so yes, she does leave the farm.
But let's talk about the cheese.
Sally Jackson started out making a variety of cheeses from fresh chevres to aged tommes (she even made butter and ice cream for awhile), but these days she's focused almost exclusively on those gorgeous leaf-wrapped creations encasing buttery sheep, goat and cow's milk cheeses that most people are familiar with. She makes her raw milk cheeses on a wood burning stove in her cheese room, deciding when the curds are ready by feel. Then she drains the curds and scoops them by hand into unique hexagonal ceramic molds (made by a local potter) to drain and compact further. The nascent cheeses are unmolded, salted and wrapped in leaves to age for 2-3 months....the sheep and cow's milk cheeses are wrapped in chestnut leaves from a local orchard and the grape leaves that envelop the goat's milk cheeses come from area vineyards.
Jackson's cheeses resemble the French Banon in appearance, though her wheels are much larger - usually 2-3 lbs or more. She does not steep her leaves in spirits or other substances, but the leaves impart subtle vegetal flavor characteristics on their own. More importantly, the leaves may well contribute to moisture retention, something significant to aging cheeses in the hot and arid Okanagan climate, which receives only about 11 inches of rain per year (compare that to Phoenix which averages about 8 inches per year). If you're looking to experience terroir in your cheese, you've arrived.