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?

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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.

Tasting Notes: Poplar Grove Tiger Blue and The Farm House Brie

Poplar Grove Tiger Blue | The Farm House Natural Cheeses Brie A few weeks ago I was in British Columbia for a couple of book signing events at the Vancouver Farmers Market. While crossing the international border means enduring a litany of things, including drug sniffing dogs and gruff border guards, once I'm across I swear I can see a whole new world of great regional cheeses opening up before me. And when I'm visiting BC I always try as many local cheeses as I can, because it's rare to find these cheeses for sale south of the US/Canada border due to complex import/export rules. Here are a couple of great cheeses I tried on this most recent trip.

Poplar Grove Tiger Blue

Located in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, Poplar Grove Cheeses was once part of Poplar Grove Winery. Though the two are now separately owned, Poplar Grove Cheeses is still making great cheese in a stunning vineyard setting along the Naramata Bench overlooking Penticton. Tiger Blue is a very spicy cow's milk blue that's as intense as Valdeon or Cabrales, and thus not for the uninitiated, but all the better for that spark and complexity. Cheesemaker Gitta Sutherland told me that rather than piercing this blue (the traditional way cheesemakers introduce air into blue cheeses to stimulate mold growth), she crumbles the cheese curd by hand after it has been pressed, creating microscopic air pockets which enable the signature marble textured mold pattern of this cheese to take shape.

The Farm House Natural Cheeses Brie

One of British Columbia's most outstanding  cheesemakers, Debra Amrein-Boyes is making a spectacular array of cheeses at The Farm House Natural Cheeses in Agassiz, in BC's fertile Fraser Valley. If you look at the above photo, one thing that stands out right away is the gorgeous straw yellow color of this cow's milk cheese - that's pasture talking to you right there. Especially during this time of year, cheeses made from grass-fed milk will take on this gorgeous tint, the result of beta carotene in the milk of pasture grazing cows. This brie is everything you want a brie to be - gorgeously butter-rich, with earthy and mushroomy flavors that melt on your tongue. My feeling is, why buy the French stuff when you can get something as good as this, and support a local farmer in the process?

Langlois Blue Cheese Factory

Langlois Blue Cheese Factory Langlois, Oregon (on the Southern Oregon coast south of Bandon) was once home to a thriving blue cheese factory that was destroyed in a fire in 1957. According to this brief summary (scroll down a bit), the factory originally made cheddar before switching to blue. In the same summary we also learn that the professor who instructed owner Hans Hansen to make blue cheese apparently also taught the folks at Maytag Cheese Co.....so perhaps you can get a bit of the flavor of what Langlois cheese may have been like by sampling Maytag blue today.

All that was left of the factory when this photo was taken, in 2007, was the rusted sign (Langlois Cheese Makers - Famous Blue Vein Cheese).

Thanks to Rick Donaldson for the photo.