photographs ©2012 by Linda Popovich
When Tom Vella, owner of Rogue River Valley Creamery visited Roquefort, France in 1955, to learn the secrets of making blue vein cheese, he had no idea that he was sowing the seeds of today’s flourishing artisan creameries in Southern Oregon.
Clustered around sunny Medford, in Jackson County’s Rogue River Valley, four artisan creameries are making some superb cheeses and chevres to accompany the marvelous Merlots, cabs, Syrahs, Zinfandels, Pinots, and Chardonnays produced in the surrounding area.
Tom Vella had been making cheddars since 1935, but his Oregon Brand Blue Vein Cheese (later shortened to Oregon Blue) launched the platform that would make the Rogue Creamery renowned globally. At the time this was a bold move, and Tom’s Blue Vein was the first produced west of the Missouri River. His son, Ig, continued in the same vein, producing a zesty Gorgonzola, appropriately named Oregonzola, in 1988, using an Italian recipe, even using proprietary molds from Italy.
After purchasing the creamery in 2002, David Gremmels and Cary Bryant, have continued to offer the creamery’s two traditional blues, adding a third generation blue, the Crater Lake Blue. Named after one of the area’s most beautiful natural attractions, Crater Lake, because of the intensity and variety of blue shades in the lake’s deep waters, this rich, broadly profiled blue, has great depth and creaminess. A mixture of several strains of blue molds from France, Crater Lake Blue has added a new dimension to the company’s selection.
Now renamed Rogue Creamery, the former Rogue River Valley Creamery has become an institution for blue cheese lovers, winning 4 trophies and 30 medals and awards around the world, from London to New York.
Different and tasty artisan blues have been added over the years, and Rogue Creamery now boasts Caveman Blue, award winning Smokey Blue, and some creative hand-milled cheddars including Sharp, TouVelle, and Dry Jack, plus some herbal-infused cheddars with Rosemary and Lavender. Still operating out of its original concrete façade building, fronted by bushes and flowering shrubs, on a busy commercial strip, Rogue Creamery has managed to keep the personal touch on a creamery whose product has become virally popular.
Another fall or spring favorite, the Hillis Peak is a 6-8 month aged, washed curd cheese that develops complex flavors and aroma during its aging. Its natural rind is formed by hand rubbing the wheels with olive or vegetable oil and smoked Spanish paprika. This semi-firm chevre is earthy, and reminiscent of a Basque sheep’s milk cheese.
Mookie Moss and Stu O’Neill have operated the 64-acre Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy in nearby Jacksonville since 2007. They hand milk their herd of 50 goats, with 20 milking in any season. The two participate in a herd-share coop program and are dedicated to helping rural economies and community service. The high butterfat content of their goats encourages a nice variety of feta, fresh Chevre and aged cheddar cheeses.
Gabe and Robin Clouser, owners of Mama Terra Micro Creamery, located in the small Applegate Valley town of Williams, use Nubian goats for their cheeses for their high milk butterfat content. Producing fresh and aged farmstead cheeses, they manage the dairy using local organic hay and grains for feed, and are rated a grade A goat dairy.
In these creameries, Southern Oregon has set a uniformly high standard for cows and goat’s milk cheeses. A visit to these farms or storefronts is recommended and cheese aficionados will not be disappointed.
But fine cheeses are not the only handcrafted gourmet foods abundant in Southern Oregon—the region boasts some superb chocolatiers; jam, syrup, and pastry makers; and beef jerky smokers.
Pennington Farms offers a mouth-watering array of tasty jams, all from fruit picked from their orchards in the beautiful Applegate Valley. I met Sam Pennington at his farm. He greets me warmly, his fruit stained hands grabbing my in a bear grip, and tells me about his family business. His wife, Cathy, started baking and selling fruit pies using her grandmother’s recipes. Soon, she could not keep up with the demand, selling them at farmer’s markets and from their rustic barn storefront.
The Pennington Farms family business has expanded and they now have some part time help. One of their girls was making Tayberry Jam in a huge pot, when I visited. Sam is proud of the fact that they grow, pick, and process their own fruits and berries herbicide free from their 90-acre farm and then bake them, transforming them into wonderful jams, pies, and cookies—all except for pears and peaches, that are grown in the next valley over.
Cathy has expanded her baked goods line to include savory turnovers with the Spinach Mushroom Swiss Turnover (spinach and mushroom); the Santa Fe (rice, beans, tomatoes, and onions); Asian (rive, vegetables, onions, sweet & savory sauce); Broccoli Pepper Jack (Broccoli, onions, pepper jack, spices); and Italiano (summer squash, Zucchini, onions, basil, Marinara sauce, cheese, spices)—quite an selection!
But it’s their jams that are famous: Tayberry, Olallieberry, Raspberry, Blueberry, Loganberry, Marionberry, Strawberry, Rhubarb, Wild Blackberry, Cascade Berry and a fig conserve, plus a large variety of other jams than space permits me to mention here.
The next day, I visited the Pennington Farms booth at the Medford Farmer’s Market, and the line to the Pennington Farms booth was backed up 20 yards past the other booths; their cookies (chocolate chip, butterscotch, oatmeal raisin, molasses, citrus tea cake, and poppy seed cake) were flying off the shelf.
Located right next to the Rogue Creamery, on Central Point’s North Street, Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates is a must-visit, to meet master chocolatier Jeff Shepherd, his daughter Lillie, and his wife, Belle (Get it?).
His chocolates are exquisite. Jeff has studied the art intensely and taken it to a whole new level, creating some very eclectic varieties of chocolate and chocolate artwork, in designing his rich, creamy, delicacies. He’s renowned for creating amazing chocolate sculptures that he exhibits at shows, including The Chocolate Forest, Octopus’s Garden, Freak Show, Spring in Bloom, and many smaller creations that he sells from his shop.
Bestowed with a great sense of humor and a strong passion for his work, Jeff will tell you about his artisan creations: Ganache, bon bons, truffles, nuts and chews, and bars, made with organic ingredients, and he’ll give you all sorts of samples to try. Jeff’s fruits are grown on his own 2-acre Lillie Belle Farm in the Applegate Valley. His organic Raspberries, Marionberries and Strawberries are all used in his chocolates, or should I say, Ganache?
Jeff’s creativity extends to his Ganache flavors: Chipotle Ganache (dark chocolate
infused with smoky hot sweetness of Chipotle pepper); Black Pepper Ganache (dark chocolate infused with a hint of earthy black pepper, decorated in white paisley); Coffee Bean Ganache (fresh roasted coffee beans that pack a wallop, with dark creamy Ganache); and Smokey Blue Cheese (a combination of Rogue Creamery’s Smokey Blue Cheese, blended with dark chocolate, buttery Ganache and finished with finely chopped almonds).
The Lillie Belle Farms bon bons are equally tempting. Try the Marzipan Fig, Raspberry Cordial, Passion Fruit Caramel, and Peanut Butter Pattie.
A few miles away, in the historic town of Jacksonville, Gary West Meats has established itself as the premier purveyor of smoked meats and jerky in Southern Oregon, and perhaps the whole state. A visit to the Gary West Jerky Factory and Tasting Room on N. 5th St. is highly recommended. Here you can sample their delicious, sweet, spicy, and peppery world famous jerkies including Original Beef, Angus Beef, Cracked Black Pepper, Cajun, Buffalo & Elk, and Silver Fork Natural Jerky, all smoked over hickory and pear wood.
The Gary West range of foods has increased since it started in 1966, and now includes an outstanding Sweet Hot Mustard (terrific!), Smoked turkey, German Sausage, Smokie Link sausages, hams, and much more. We had an excellent lunch in the tree-lined outdoor garden next to the store, complete with hanging flower baskets and metal deck furniture. We thoroughly enjoyed our grilled sausage, Tavern ham, and burgers, all Gary West products.
Gary West’s commitment to supporting local food artisans is evident in the wide range of locally made foodstuffs in the store.
Southern Oregon is a haven for wine and food lovers of all stripes, whether you prefer fine wines, gourmet cheeses, handcrafted chocolates, or smoked meat jerkies. To visit these places you’ll need several days, depending on how many wineries you visit, so be sure to plan carefully.
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