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The Transformative Cheese Quest

on October 4 | in Real Food | by | with 26 Comments

Photo Credit: Bien Stephenson

[info_box]Guest Blogger #13: Elizabeth Evans. Elizabeth is a single mom living in Longview, WA, a small city in the southwest corner of the state. Her blog, The Cowlitz Locavorian, covers her adventures in local and nourishing real foods.[/info_box]

I used to laugh at myself when I bought Cheetos from the vending machine at work. “Cheetos are good for you,” I would say. “There was actually real cheese in the same room when they were made!”

I get serious cravings for salty snacks and cheesy snacks, even though I know Cheetos and Cheese Nips are a classic example of what Michael Pollan calls “edible food-like substances.”  It’s been a while now since I had one, and I might be able to resist if someone waved them under my nose.

For a long time, I just tried not to include edible food-like substances into my diet. I would stand in the store holding a box of Cheese Nips and muttering “edible food-like substance” and on days when both my resolve and my budget were strong, I would buy Triscuits and Tillamook cheddar cheese instead. (Tillamook medium cheddar is a standard grocery store buy in this area, frequently on sale. The cows are partly grass-fed, and it is made within 100 miles of home. It’s my minimum quality standard cheese for cooking.)

Just leaving the bad stuff out isn’t always enough. Sometimes you need to add the good stuff in as well.

What I really crave now is cheese

Good cheese. Extraordinary cheese. Miraculous cheese. A good sharp Cheddar like Cougar Gold from the WSU Creamery is just a starting place.

Photo Credit: Paul Lopez

My son Nathaniel doesn’t share this craving. It took years of patience to get my son to accept that Tillamook medium cheddar is “normal” cheese, instead of the American cheese he was used to from school.

Since I have to cook for both of us, my quest for cheese became a quest for cheese that he would eat as well.

Then I stumbled across the Pacific Northwest Cheese Projects, a blog that strives to list every artisan cheesemaker in the Pacific Northwest.

Only one was available in my home town, Blue Rose Dairy, which was sold at the farmer’s market and in one health food store. At $16 a pound, I couldn’t buy it very often.

My son turned up his nose at their chevre, which was fine with me. More for me. But it meant I couldn’t cook with it.

He thought my pizza with chevre and beets on a whole wheat crust was just weird. He ate two bites and left the rest for me. I have to admit it wasn’t very pizza-like, but it was tasty.

I don’t leave town just to shop, only when I have to travel anyway. A trip to Vancouver costs me $10, to Portland or Olympia more like $12.  So I was elated the day that I managed to get a visit to the Olympia Food Co-op worked into a necessary visit to Olympia. Several of the Washington state cheeses listed on the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project were available there.

I came home with organic blue corn masa, my first-time-ever quart of raw milk, and three little packages of cheese.

Valentina cheese, from Estrella Family Creamery, changed my view on the cost of cheese vs. cheese-like foods forever.

Valentina is a raw cow’s milk cheese, a sharp, well-aged Gruyere-type cheese named after one of their cows.

It was so good that I moaned when I tried it. The little sliver melted in my mouth in a cascade of flavors — sharp, salty, fruity, nutty, wine-like.

It has become my standard for cheese flavor. No cheese has ever measured up to it. I don’t have a large sampling for comparison, but not even imported Parmigiana Reggiono or Asiago quite measured up.

And no Cheeto ever came close.

When I first tried it, I just sat on the couch for about a half an hour, carefully shaving off slivers with a vegetable peeler, placing one sliver at a time into my mouth, and moaning and rolling my eyes in ecstasy as one brilliant but elusive flavor melted into another.

Nathaniel, then about 15, said it was “OK.”

“OK” means he will eat it without significant protest as long as I don’t layer it on too thickly.

I did try cooking with it, with the first delivery from a new  CSA, grating a little onto a bowl of white bean, squash and kale soup, and it was excellent in that role, enhancing the soup without either the soup or the cheese being overwhelmed by the other.

He thought the soup was “OK,” too.

The other cheeses? He liked the Adelle from Ancient Heritage Dairy. This one is a soft, ripened sheep’s milk cheese. “It would be good on crackers,” he said.

We were making progress.

And the family Bible study we attended they enjoyed a little round of Cirrus from Mt. Townsend Creamery, a Camembert style cheese. “I don’t know anything about these gourmet things,” said our leader, but a young man who had visited Europe went nuts over it…he had no idea anything like it was available in the U.S.

That was a couple of years ago, during my mis-timed participation in the Pennywise Challenge for locavores (I was only a year late! – no need for Nathaniel to get in such a huff over it when I figured it out).

I haven’t had many opportunities for cheese exploration since then. Trips to Portland have been centered around Shriner’s Hospital. Trips to Olympia have been centered around college campus visits and shopping for special shoes for him.

But I am convinced that the quest for wonderful cheese is worth continuing.

And on a cost comparison basis?

An ounce of a good artisan cheese (at $16 – $19.95/pound) will cost $1.00 – $1.24.  A 2-ounce bag of Cheetos costs somewhere around a dollar. Both measures are light snack sizes. In terms of either nutrition or pleasure, a good cheese wins every round.

I might not want to put the more expensive cheeses into a casserole…but even without finding another cheese to equal the bliss of Valentina — I would much rather spend my $1.25 of snack money on really good cheese. A little goes a long way, especially if you slice it with a vegetable peeler!

And Nathaniel? This summer we finally found a cheese he was enthusiastic about.

Not just enthusiastic, but evangelical.

At a family reunion, my dad brought out a Stilton cheese and a bottle of port on the last evening. He announced that he had been hearing all his life what a great combination this was, and he had made up his mind that one of the things he wanted really to try was Stilton and port.

I knew just what my dad meant. I read lots of books set in the Regency/Napoleonic wars era. The gentlemen in these novels always round off their dinners with a fine Stilton and a bottle of port, while the ladies retire to the drawing room. I think Bunter served up this classic pairing to Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers’ novels as well. So it felt like a taste of both history and literature, as well as cuisine.

It may have been the effect of letting him sample the port (powerful, rich, and silky smooth), but my son loved the Stilton!

He went around the room with a little plate and fork trying to persuade all the younger kids to try it. “Go on,” he said, “it’s a little strong but it’s really good!”

If only Stilton were local…but since it’s both imported and famous, I can probably buy it at a well-stocked Safeway!

NOTE/WARNING from Elizabeth: I found this news shortly after sending my entry in. On September 4 the FDA issued a press release with a safety warning on possible Listeria contamination in Estrella Family Creamery cheeses. Apparently it was found during testing on cheese from one cave and none of the contaminated cheeses were actually released to the market. Here’s the original FDA release and a story that does a good job of telling the dairy’s side of the story –which is that there was not, emphatically not, an actual recall (which is what happens when contaminated food is actually sold). In fact, this may prove to be a good example of the food safety system working as it should…vigilant attention to safety catching problems before they reach the market place, instead of, say, 15 million eggs later.

NOTE FROM MOMMYPOTAMUS: Leave a comment below to help Elizabeth win the Blog For Mommypotamus and Win Your Own Blog” Contest!

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26 Responses to The Transformative Cheese Quest

  1. Heather says:

    Elizabeth – What a joy to find someone as passionate about food as I am! This post perfectly describes what, for me, real food is all about. I used to focus on avoiding processed food, but that was before I, too, fell in love with cheese (and raw milk, and pastured meat/eggs!).

    People sometimes ask if I ever “cheat” and eat junk. The answer is yes . . . but not often. It’s not because I’m trying to take the high road, though. The fact is, “food like substances” just don’t compare now that my body got used to the real thing. Sometimes I think people believe I’m “missing out,” but I disagree. Although it SEEMS like there is a lot of variety, processed foods really only cover a limited flavor/texture spectrum. To me, almost all cheese sold in national grocery stores has the plasticky texture of Kraft singles, whereas REAL cheese can be creamy like brie, crumbly like cave-aged cheddar, etc. And that’s just cheese! The more I have explored, the more pleasures I have found in eating real, wholesome foods. I could write it about it all day, but I won’t :)

    Thank you again for contributing!

  2. latisha says:

    i loved this! sending to my WA based family. great piece.

  3. I posted a little while ago about the real cost of fake food. When you consider the cost of snack foods on a per-pound basis, you realize that yes, you could be eating that expensive imported cheese for the same price.

    But I have to admit, I’m still a sucker for Cheetos. I don’t buy them, but if someone else has them I have to steal a couple.

  4. Kristine says:

    Have you tried these cheeses as fondue? Mmm, I bet that would be good!

  5. Hunter says:

    Mmmm mmmm mmm. I too am a cheese fanatic… Married to a man who has the palette of your son. So- off to buy some port! Sounds like the perfect way to win him over!

  6. Sarah H says:

    I so love to read your blogs, I always learn something new! Keep writing and I will keep reading! Thanks!

  7. Brittany says:

    YUM! I have to say that I indulge in a yummy bag of cheetos or a box of cheez-its a little too frequently. I love it! But I really appreciate you putting the cost in perspective of good cheese and “fluffy air cheese”. I’ve shied away from the good cheeses because of expense, but I guess I can’t use that as an excuse anymore!

  8. Melinda says:

    Once you’ve started eating real cheese (and real food), there isn’t a single “edible food-like substance” that compares in flavor or quality! There are a couple of local dairy cheeses that I get at the farmers market that have completely spoiled me to the overprocessed cheeses at the grocery store. I remember the first time I tasted Latte Da Dairy’s fresh chevre. You could truly taste the love and work that went into it. I could go on and on, so I’ll stop.

    Hooray for real cheese and real food!!!

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Heather, and everyone, for your kind words!

    I linked this post directly to the Tuesday Twister at GNOWFGLINS, forgetting that I wouldn’t be able to go in and add a link….so here it is:
    http://gnowfglins.com/2010/10/04/tuesday-twister-14/

  10. “And no Cheeto ever came close.”

    Amen!

    It is so great that you kept seeking out and trying cheeses, and eventually your son loved one. Many would have given up long before then.

    Delightful article!

  11. It’s amazing that Nathaniel took to such a strong cheese! What a wonderful thing it is to turn youth onto real food. I once saw a photo of a Guatemalan family with their week of fresh, real foods next to a photo of an American family with their week of food all in boxes and cans. The Guatemalan food looked enticing, while the American food didn’t even register in my brain as food. I walk through the center of the grocery store like a zombie amid all the edible food-like substances. Thanks for your great article and for furthering the cause of real food!

  12. Trentina Porter says:

    This was a great blog post! and its so true about Nathaniel’s unwillingness to try much else. that part really didn’t surprise me. You’ve defiantly looked into all the aspects of this and it was cool reading your post :D

  13. Christy says:

    I am a little more like Nathaniel – but I just keep on trying the cheeses and occasionally one stands out – but I will say this, even the ones I don’t care for are 100% better than American Cheese product!

  14. RobinP says:

    Well I have to admit I love cheetos, but I only allow myself some on rare occasions. But I’m finding that, the farther I get down the real food road, the less I can tolerate the junk. I’m only recently discovering cheese since getting our own cows last year and I hope to expand my horizons.

  15. girlichef says:

    Well…any cheese is good cheese in my book…never met one I didn’t like. Great post!

  16. Rose says:

    Are there lists like you mention for other areas of the country?

    • Elizabeth says:

      Rose, Do you mean the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project? You could start by looking on Local Harvest at http://www.localharvest.org/ and searching for your state.

      Eatwild.com has a directory of farms producing grass-fed dairy (including cheese), as well as beef, pork, poultry and eggs.

      There is also an American Cheese Society — http://www.cheesesociety.org/ — and a book called “Cheese Primer” available on Amazon.

      Some states have agricultural departments or university extension offices that list small producers of different agricultural products.

      Good search terms are “artisan cheese” and “creamery”, plus the name of your region. A “fromagerie” is a shop that specializes in selling cheese.

  17. Ken Rolph says:

    “If only Stilton were local”

    Here’s a question for locavores: should you buy King Island cheese?

    King Island is a remote place in Bass Strait between Tasmania and the mainland. In the 1800s straw mattresses washed ashore from shipwrecks. These contained grass seeds from Britain and France. The grass made itself at home and later settlers took cows, who liked the grass. There are only about 2,000 people there but the cheese they make is very, very nice.

    Yet King Island is more than 150 km from anywhere, so falls outside everyone’s locavore boundaries. If we don’t buy King Island cheese we condemn them to a miserable existence of a grassy rock in the southern ocean. Their cheese does cover a lot of food miles, but in relatively small quantities. It is not like shipping grains around the world. Besides, we miss out on some great cheese. Perhaps locavores should be more flexible with specialty products like cheese and wine. By all means get grains, plants and meats from your local area. But the highly specialised (and localised) peasant foods should be allowed to travel.

    I’m going to stop now and sink my teeth into a slice of Dutch goat’s milk cheese. It’s very white, looking nothing like anything made by Kraft. And I’m pretty sure there are no Dutch goats anywhere within 150 km. But I’m going to eat it anyway. So there.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    Ken — I’m sure you know that one of the basic principles of economics is that some geographic areas excel in certain special products, and trading between different areas is mutually beneficial. It just doesn’t make sense to try to produce olive oil in Washington State, or apples in most of southern California. But if we trade our apples for their olive oil, we both benefit. Locavores do overlook this principle (I’ve forgotten what I learned in Econ 101 thoroughly enough to forget what it is called)…but most make exceptions for things that can’t be grown in their areas, and try to find sustainable or fair-trade sources for them: coffee, oranges, olive oil, etc. And frankly, I haven’t found a good local substitute for Parmiggiano Reggiano, so once in a while I take great pleasure in supporting one of Italy’s great cheese traditions!

    So yes, I would try your King Island cheese. Or I would if I lived in Australia…I bet I can’t buy it at my Safeway.

  19. You might want to check out “Empires of Food”. You can see my review of it here, but the reason I mention it is that historically agriculture goes through cycles of becoming more specialized. Regions start to grow only what they grow best, and trade it with other regions who only grow what they grow best.

    The problem is, when every region relies on trade, crop failure in one region cascades throughout the system, and everyone starves. Then people rediscover the value of being self-sustaining, and the whole cycle starts again.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Drew — whoa, those are good points. Can we have a little of both? Some trade specialization AND some diverse sustaianable agriculture? Believe it or not….the kind of boom in specialization has been happening recently in Oregon with Christmas trees! As a result of NAFTA, Oregon Christmas trees can now be marketed in Mexico I wonder what the recession did to that trend? Are there a lot of undercapitalized abandoned Christmas tree farms out there?

  20. My wife has some relatives who own tree farms in Pennsylvania. They always viewed it as a long-term investment. Buy cheap land no one wants, plant it, come back once a year to prune and do basic maintenance, then cash in all at once. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them are abandoned.

    The only tree farms still operating around here (Northeastern Ohio) are the cut-your-own, for people like us who make an outing of it. They probably make as much on the gift shop as on the trees. Even the farms truck in extra pre-cut trees from the Pacific Northwest.

    The problem with mixing sustainability and specialization is that historically government policies favor the most “efficient” system, which means the thinnest possible margins. That’s why everything is so precarious and susceptible to one or two bad years.

  21. Geni White says:

    Hello Elizabeth, fellow CWGI’er!
    Like you I love a good cheese. For the last year I’ve been on a low-fiber diet, due to radiation damage that cured my colon cancer. PTL, cheese is low-fiber and I can enjoy it often.
    Blessings to you,
    Geni White

  22. Kelly Cook says:

    Elizabeth, I stopped by from GNOWFGLINS to read your post-great article! I LOVE cheese, have always loved cheese, but have often wondered about spending the price per pound. Amusing how we get caught up in that over some items, while totally ignoring it for others! I have 4 dairy goats and have been making chevre for several months now, trying to branch out into a few others, but need a cheese press and cooler weather.

    I agree that once you get your body switched off the junk, it losses its appeal. I haven’t quite gotten there-but have experienced it short term from time to time. Our downfall seems to come when we are invited to a cookout or some other such event, and/or travel away from home. Guess I need to learn to prepare travel snacks for us.

  23. Elisabeth says:

    My family was just discussing today over whether or not we wanted to continue with a “compromise food” or if we wanted to take the time to create a real-food recipe that we all still enjoyed. While we aren’t buying artisan cheeses to replace Cheetos, we are on the cusp of replacing the little boxes of mac n cheese that we have every Sunday after church with soaked pasta and a cheesy white sauce. I’ve been hesitant, since I know that it will involve real cooking, instead of dumping 2 boxes for 35 cents each and a bag of frozen peas ($1). Somehow cheap and easy once a week still seems appealing. But the family is ready to move past this, so I suppose we all need to grow up those taste buds.

    • Heather says:

      Yay, Elisabeth! Under the food category of my navigation area I have a tab called “Real Food For Busy Moms.” You may find some quick and easy recipes worth working into your Sunday rotations there :)

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