Tall Talk Dairy

[This is part of an ongoing series about the history of cheese and cheesemakers in the Pacific Northwest. Click here for previous entries on this topic.] Harlan and Esther Petersen of Canby, just outside of Portland, were among the earliest of a new wave of small cheesemakers that began emerging across the nation in the 1990s. They operated Tall Talk Dairy on an 8 ½ acre farm outside of Canby starting in the early 90s, first selling raw goat’s milk and then later branching out into cheese. Their products, sold under the brand name Willamette Valley Chevre, included feta, fromage blanc in a variety of flavors and a mild jack style cheese. They later added goat’s milk yogurtDSCN1329 to their product lineup.

According to longtime area dairy goat farmer and cheesemaker Mary Rosenblum, who helped the Petersons develop their cheesemaking operation, marketing goat’s milk cheese at the time was a real challenge. “At the time, stores would bring in imported goat’s milk cheeses that had a really short shelf life, and no one would buy it because it would smell of ammonia. It sure didn’t make people want to buy goat cheese of any kind.” The Petersens sold their property and herd in 1997, reportedly under less than ideal circumstances, leaving area goat’s milk aficionados scrambling for fresh goat’s milk dairy products. As we know now, it was not long before goat's milk cheese began to dominate local cheese production in the Pacific Northwest.

Trout Lake Cheese Caves

Trout Lake Cheese Caves

If you've ever actually been in a natural underground cave you know that it's not just pitch dark inside the cave, but cold. In the millenia before the invention of refrigeration, this was a useful property, and people living in areas with natural caves took advantage of them to preserve food.

As it happens, we have lots of naturally occurring caves in the Pacific Northwest, the result of dramatic volcanic upheaval that took place thousands and millions of years ago. In particular, the western part of Klickitat County, Washington (in the shadow of Mt. Adams in the south-central part of the state) is full of caves...not only is it a favorite haunt of mushroom and huckleberry hunters, it's also well known to cave explorers.

This area was settled by dairy farmers in the 1880s, and dairy has been part of the area's history since then. Once the farmers found the caves (they're all over the place around there), they used them to store produce like potatoes and apples. Later, they used the caves to store butter and cheese made by the local cooperative creamery.

Fast forward to the 1930s and 40s. At the time, American scientists were spending a lot of time scheming about how to replicate the blue cheeses of France that were no longer being imported into the United States due to political turmoil and World Wars in Europe. Can you see where this is going? An enterprising man named Homer Spencer put two and two together. Spencer, working in conjunction with the USDA, had the bright idea to develop the caves of Klickitat County into something resembling those at Roquefort, France.

more + photos of the cheese caves ------>

Though Spencer's company, Guler Cheese Co., is long gone now, you can still see the remnants of this bit of Northwest cheesemaking history in Trout Lake, Washington. Down a long dirt road, still unpaved even in 2010, is the A-frame house that marks the site (photo at the top of this post). That's where the main operation used to be. Inside the house - which was built long after the cheese operation closed - are stairs that lead down into the cave, but today the house is boarded up and they're inaccessible. At least from the outside.

But, there is another entrance to the cave system, about 1/4 of a mile away down the road. Did I mention that it's called Cheese Cave Road?


That's the cave entrance above - you can just see the ladder sticking up out of the top. I visited this site a couple of weeks ago but didn't have the gear (in particular, a big ol' light!) to go down in the cave. But I was able to hunt down some photos of the interior courtesy of photographer Carolyn Ganus, who has been inside.

Huge cavern of drips

As you can see, these caves are HUGE. This particular lava tube extends for almost 2000 feet. According to Carolyn it's a pretty easy walk from the opening over to the main cheese cave area (note: see the comments below for additional advice about exploring this cave from Carolyn).

The main cave is approximately 25 feet long by 35 feet high. Temperatures stay a pretty even 42-44 degrees fahrenheit thorughout the year. There you'll find the stairs leading up to the main house.

Cheese cave explorer

Old newspaper articles about Guler Cheese Co. show that the main staircase was originally made of wood - but you can imagine that it would probably have deteriorated over time in this enclosed humid environment.

The actual cheesemaking operation was in a nearby building on the property. Once the cheese was made, workers would have had to carry wheels of cheese down the stairs into the cave for aging. After about 6 months of aging (having been turned and brushed multiple times per week) the cheese would have been carried back out, packaged and sold. Would you have wanted to work in these cheese caves? I'm not sure I would have.

No more cheese

Above are some of the old, broken down racks once used to hold hundreds of wheels of blue cheese. They're just lying about in the cave today, faint reminders of what went before.

Guler Cheese Co. made blue cheese from the early 1940s through the mid-50s, first under the Guler Cheese label, then under the Black Rock Cheese label. At the time, a big selling point for the cheese was that these caves lie at approximately the same latitude as those at Roquefort, France. There was also the small matter of a messy divorce between Homer Spencer and his wife, the daughter of the owners of the property where these caves are. Now it's all just a bit of interesting local lore and cheesemaking history.

But the story does not end there...the history of cheesemaking in Trout Lake, Washington has recently been resurrected. John Schuman recently started Cascadia Creamery in Trout Lake and has been making cow's milk cheeses for most of the past year now. He's using Jersey cow's milk from several cows that he owns and pastures at a local dairy and is making some great aged raw milk cheeses....so stay tuned, I think you might be hearing more about cheese in Trout Lake in the future.

A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part IV

This is Part Four of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here, Part II here, Part III here and Part V here.

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Debra Dickerson on a trip to Sally Jackson's Farm in the late 1990s:

I remember first selling Sally's cheese at Zingerman's in the mid-90s. I called to purchase cheese and joyfully for me, Sally agreed. There was only one cheese available at the time, wrapped in leaves. I asked her about the name. 'Cheese in leaves' I believe she said. At Zingerman's we were looking for some of the details surrounding the cheese to help build a sense of place and identity for customers. Sally quickly lost patience with my questions. I thanked her for her time and thought - well,  'Cheese with Leaves' it will be. Summoning my courage, I called again. This time I got Sally's husband Roger on the phone. We went on to have a riotous and most informative conversation. The cheese became 'Okanogan at Zingermans.'

A few years later Daphne Zepos, Kate Arding and I took a trip to see Sally and Roger. Kate (former cheesemonger and one of the founders of Culture Magazine) was buying Sally's cheese for Tomales Bay Foods at the time. When we arrived, Sally met us without an ounce of fanfare, she was all business. I was surprised at what a tiny woman she was, her hair tied back in a kerchief. I remember having to hustle to keep up with her.

I will never forget walking into Sally's dairy. Functional. Spotless. Wood scrubbed and worn. Everything was spotlessly clean. A wood burning stove, a very large cauldron to heat the milk, an impeccably organized aging room and the perfectly bundled wheels, wrapped in leaves and twine. And a basset hound looking at us through the door, lovingly. Sally gruffly snarled at the dog, named Doris, who madly wagged her tail and sauntered away. It was love.

But it was the canning jars on the window that linger in my mind, small jars filled with the most magnificent vibrantly colored wild flowers. A jar on every window sill, the light reflecting through the crystal clear water. Were the flowers in honor of our visit? No, I think not. This Sally Jackson is a very complex woman, I thought to myself.


We met Roger, a big bear of a man who was clearly enamored with Sally. He had a big handshake, with paws that felt like they were strong enough to hold the world together. And such a joyous fellow - always a smile and twinkle in his eye. Sally and Roger told us the story of their courtship in New York City and subsequent transcontinental trip across the country. About the energy grant from Jimmy Carter that enabled them to begin their cheese making venture. And hilarious stories about Steve Jenkins!

The next morning when we arrived back at the farm, Sally piled us all in the car and we went out to pick chestnut leaves. She would freeze them for use in the future, for wrapping cheese. It was a wonderful experience, and made us feel like we were able to compensate a bit for monopolizing their time. I remember those huge old trees, and Sally telling us stories about the people who planted them. I felt as if I was in an enchanted forest.

I have always been proud to sell Sally's cheese. I wish Sally and Roger much strength. I know they have the good wishes of all of us who were lucky enough to share their cheese and their story with others.

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Debra Dickerson, a longtime cheese industry veteran, works for Cowgirl Creamery in Petaluma, California.

Tomorrow:  Where it all began, and more.

A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part III

This is Part Three of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here, Part II here, Part IV here and Part V here.

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Laura Werlin on Sally Jackson:

The main thing I remember about Sally is that once you got her talking, she never seemed to stop. I, then a fledgling cheese book author, wasn't quite sure how to take her when I interviewed her for The New American Cheese, but she certainly was entertaining. How did this woman, practically blind, make cheese on her stovetop? Though I never got to see her farm, she sure painted a vivid picture. I kind of visualized Annie Oakley at the stove, stirring and stirring, in between sharpshooting or, in Sally's case, milking animals and doing farm chores. That may not have been the case, but that's somehow what I saw. She's truly an American cheese icon, which is why I chose to put her cheese on the cover of the book.

The New American CheeseShe certainly represents cheesemaking pioneers in that she continued doing what she did the way she'd been doing it pretty much since Day One. She wasn't all that concerned about innovating once she got her formula down. That said, her cheese WAS an innovation. Who, in this country, ever wrapped their cheeses in grape or chestnut leaves before she did it? Also, back when she started, no one would have had the nerve to give their cheese an eponymous name. Indeed, I don't know anyone who does that now? It was courageous of her to do that because in those days, Americans only bought cheeses that they'd already heard of -- cheddar, Monterey Jack, maybe Gruyere -- but Sally Jackson cheese? Then again, her distribution was tiny, so hers was a foodie's food, a chef's find, a jewel from northeast Washington that only insiders knew about -- and loved.

Though many people in this country, even cheese lovers, won't have ever heard of her, that doesn't make her contribution any less important. Knowingly or not, she helped pave the way for cheesemakers today by virtue of the quality of her cheese, the physical beauty of it, and the fact she did it her way.

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Laura Werlin has written four books about cheese, including the groundbreaking The New American Cheese (published in 2000), which featured Sally Jackson's cheese on the cover. Her most recent book, Grilled Cheese, Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes, will be released in March of this year. 

Tomorrow:  Debra Dickerson of Cowgirl Creamery recounts a trip to Sally Jackson's farm with fellow cheese mavens Daphne Zepos and Kate Arding.

A Tribute to Sally Jackson: Part II

This is Part Two of a five part series devoted to pioneer cheesemaker Sally Jackson. See Part I here; Part III here, Part IV here and Part V here.

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Cheese PrimerSteve Jenkins on Sally Jackson:

I shipped SJ's cheese to my extended family, fully six different addresses this past Christmas.  That's a measure of the regard I have for Roger and Sally.

First time I ever spoke to her was by telephone in the early '90s. I was feeling very full of myself, as usual, and I told her in high dudgeon that I was insulted that she existed without having first informed me, and how on earth could she be selling that cheese I had just seen in Balducci's and not to me at Dean & DeLuca.  She took it, and we commenced a long business and personal relationship, and I cultivated one, too, with Roger.

I often gave Sally a long and hard time about being so morose, so laconic all the time, and I actually succeeded a few times at jollying her out of her usual funk.  She even came all the way to Seattle when I was there on book tour, and I met one or both of their boys, too, which made me feel even more devoted to the family.  I wrote about her cheese in magazines and in my Cheese Primer. I talked at length about her and Roger and her cheese on NPR many times, I offered her cheese at innumerable lecture/tastings over the years, I sold her cheese over my counters with my own hacked up and calloused hands, and I made lots of folks irretrievable devotees of the Okanogan Wonderment for 20 years.

Sally and Roger cannot better be described than that they are American Treasures.


Steve Jenkins is the author of Cheese Primer. First published in 1996, it was one of the first good cheese books that helped introduce the concept of fine cheese to the American public.

Tomorrow: Author Laura Werlin on Sally Jackson

Red Rock Cottage Cheese: An Oregon Original


Red Rock Cottage Cheese, Oregon Cottage Cheese advertisement from The Oregonian Feb. 2, 1924

Cottage cheese - it's one of those things most people take for granted these days. But did you know that the first commercial production of cottage cheese in the United States occurred in Oregon?

Cottage cheese (also referred to as farmer's cheese or pot cheese in earlier days) is made using skim milk, which is a by-product of the butter making process. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, skim milk was usually fed to cattle or dumped - but enterprising, thrifty folks used the skim milk to make cheese. This resulting cheese was often dressed with a little extra milk or cream, creating the product we know as 'cottage cheese' today.

Red Rock Cottage Cheese Co. started in Tigard, Oregon (now a Portland suburb) in 1915. The early story is a familiar one: Harry West's mother started out making cottage cheese in her kitchen. The company started small, with West taking his mother's product from store to store daily. From there, business took off rapidly. Red Rock eventually acquired dairies and plants in Washington and California, then merged with Kraft in 1929. For a time the Tigard plant made Philadelphia Cream Cheese before finally closing in the 1950s.

Peter McIntosh, Father of Oregon's Cheese Industry

Peter McIntosh, Father of Oregon Cheese If you've read anything about the history of Tillamook (either the city or the cheese producer) then you've probably come across the name of Peter McIntosh. In 1894, the early dairymen and cheesemakers of the Tillamook area were struggling. They'd settled on the idea of making cheese, but had a bit of a problem - no one really knew how to make cheese well or consistently. Then Harry Ogden and T. S. Townsend had the bright idea to hire McIntosh away from a cheese factory he was then operating in Woodland, Washington. McIntosh, a native of Ontario, Canada, brought much needed experience to Tillamook, and perhaps more importantly, he brought a recipe for making cheddar cheese. His contributions led to the sustained growth of the cheese industry in Tillamook and its later expansion all along the Oregon coast. McIntosh himself went on to own several creameries in the Tillamook area and in Southwest Washington. He spent his final years in Gaston, Oregon, where he worked at the local cheese factory until his death in 1940.