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Best of the blue

By LEE JUILLERAT Freelance Writer

Capital Press 6/1/04


Curds get a bit of seasoning in the weekly blue cheese run at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Ore. Rogue began in 1935, and over the past two years it has turned into a high-end boutique cheese business with mail-order and Internet sales.
BONANZA, Ore. – It starts as raw milk in Arie DeJong’s Bonanza View Dairy, and after a 100-mile trip over the Cascade Mountains it becomes an award-winning, world-class blue cheese.

Rogue River Blue Cheese, made from milk produced at the Bonanza View Dairy and transformed into cheese at the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, was named the world’s best blue cheese for 2003 at the 16th annual World Cheese Awards in London, England, earlier this year.

Fastidious tasters, who judged more than 1,100 entries, liked the Southern Oregon cheese better than blue cheeses from England, France, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Australia and other countries. The decision, based on taste, texture and aroma, marked the first time an American blue cheese has won a world title.

David Gremmels, co-owner of Rogue Creamery, credited the success to several factors, but said the cheese making process begins with fresh milk.

“The quality of milk is very important,” said Gremmels. “We have to have excellent milk, fresh milk, to create our cheese.”

“He likes the stability of what he’s getting,” said DeJong, owner of the Bonanza View Dairy. “Our job is to get him the best raw milk product we can. If we do a bad job on our end, it’s going to affect the final product.”

Three times a day, 900 Holstein cows are milked by DeJong’s crews. At 5:30 each morning, about 7,000 gallons of chilled milk collected in the previous 24 hours is loaded into Farmers Cooperative Creamery refrigerated tankers and driven 100 miles over the Cascades to the Rogue Valley. Many days it goes direct to the Rogue Creamery, where a team of cheese makers led by Cary Bryant create an expanding variety of world-renowned hand-milled blue, Cheddar and other cheeses.

Bryant and Gremmels knew their cheeses were good, but the world title came as a pleasant shock.

“We didn’t think we had a shot at it,” said Gremmels. “It’s the most prestigious international competition in the world. We had no belief our cheese would even rank. We are still excited. It was a historic moment for our creamery.”

Rogue River Blue cheese is based on a recipe that creamery founder Thomas Vella retrieved from Roquefort, France, in 1956, with modifications.

“We actually discovered Rogue River Blue by accident,” said Gremmels.

The mold that created the trademark blue vein created a presentation problem in marketing the cheese. At the suggestion of a friend, Gremmels and Bryant wrapped the cheese in local grape leaves and macerated it with pear brandy made from Rogue Valley pears, “and to our surprise it enhanced the flavor.”

The Rogue Creamery has been producing fine cheeses from its unimposing cinder-block buildings since 1935. Vella emigrated to the United States from Italy and produced cheese in Sonoma, Calif. With World War II looming, Vella, with the backing of Kraft, bought a defunct cheese plant in Central Point and began making cheese from milk bought from local dairies. When war broke out, Vella produced 5 million pounds of cheese annually.

The creamery’s operations were later taken over by his son, Ignazio – “Ig,” known as the “Godfather of Artisan Cheese.” In 2002, just months before he planned to close the Central Point creamery, the younger Vella coaxed Bryant and Gremmels into taking ownership and continuing its hand-milling cheese traditions.

Those traditions are kept alive several days a week, when fresh milk from the Bonanza View Dairy is pumped into either of two vats. A 7,000-pound vat is used for blue cheese; a 10,000-pound vat, for various Cheddars. When reduced, the smaller vat will produce 700 pounds of cheese; the larger, 1,000 pounds.

During the cheese-making process, the mixture of raw milk, cultures and mold is variously stirred, allowed to coagulate and cut into curds, which are raked, shoveled, turned, salted and poured into hoops. Cured cheeses are placed in aging “caves,” where they are turned, waxed and, depending on the type of cheese, aged up to two years.

Several other Rogue Creamery cheeses have earned world, national and regional honors. Their creamery’s pesto Cheddars all won medals from the American Cheese Society and other competitions.

“Part of our concern is to keep a ‘hands-on’ attitude. We want to be true artisans,” said Gremmels, who believes the creamery is now also “creating the best Cheddars I think the Northwest has experienced.”

Gremmels oversees marketing and sales; Bryant monitors all phases of cheese-making.

Bryant keeps detailed records of daily production and the aging process.

“This gives you a way to have quantifiable records for the future,” Bryant said of the record-keeping. “You can answer, ‘What happened differently with this vat?’ You really rely on taste and feel, but the records help you determine what’s going on. You can’t see all the bacteria growing.”

Bryant and Gremmels have watched the Rogue Creamery’s reputation grow and gain more strength in just two years, but they plan to follow a slower pace when it comes to growing the size of their business.

“We do want to increase our size, but do it slowly,” said Gremmels. “We want to continue making the world’s best cheese. We want to please the judges, but that’s secondary. We want to please our customers – that’s our primary goal.”

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