This is a story about some of Washington state’s finest cheeses and the fairytale-perfect land where they are made.
If you drive south on Interstate 5 from Seattle until you cross the Columbia River into Oregon, take Highway 84 East at Portland. The highway meanders along the south bank of the river, treating you to breathtaking views.
Perhaps it is because it is autumn, but the landscape feels particularly magical.
The river is salmon-skin gray beneath cloudy skies, and wisps of fog reach their fingertips down and through the extremities of the gorge on both sides of the river. Evergreens are massed up and down the hillsides, but so, too, are deciduous trees that are marking a change in the weather with bright orange leaves.
These pops of fiery color dot the hillsides and the mists, and even small estuaries that break off of the river with sandy tongues of earth sticking into them, playing host to yet more trees. But there are also waterfalls—tall ones, waterfalls that almost blend into the mist except that it looks like somebody turned on a faucet somewhere at the top of the hill, which you can’t even see because there is fog there and your car is taking you down the road too quickly to stop and stare.
But this road takes you only so far, as you have to cross north again, back across the river and into Washington, up over the hillsides, and straight toward Mt. Adams. You can’t even see the old volcano, but you know it is there, somewhere ahead, blanketed in clouds.
A fire has visited the landscape this summer, and evidence is all over the sides of the road as you drive north on Highway 141: large patches of felled trees with blackened logs trade places with forests so overgrown they appear to have known neither fires nor logging since the dawn of time.
During the summer, John Shuman and Marci Ebeling had watched the fires, only 10 miles from their home and their creamery, with trepidation. They said the smoke blew directly over the creamery, which meant that had the fires not been contained, Cascadia Creamery’s operations for the rest of the year would have been toast.
The fires were contained, and cheese is still being made.
And that’s what took three Seattle cheesemongers along that glorious stretch of fairytale highway and up through the half-burned forest to Trout Lake—from city to city, misty riversides and forests, to snow-covered fields sitting atop a part of the earth that is riddled with caves.
Because, 255 miles southeast of Seattle, John and Marci are carrying on a piece of Washington cheese history as they make raw, organic cheeses and age them in natural lava tube caves.
Standing in a cozy room with observation windows overlooking the make room, Marci shows us old newspaper articles about cheesemaking in the foothills of Mt. Adams. The tradition is more than 125 years old and reached a high point during World War Two thanks to a shortage of imported French cheeses during World War One.
The USDA had done a geological survey of the US, looking for caves that were similar to the Roquefort caves in France. They found two such caves—and one of them was in Trout Lake, Washington.
The discovery turned area cheesemaking to the production of Roquefort, and a miniature empire grew and grew—until, in an almost-charming twist of extramarital fate—the cheesemaker slept with the dairyman’s wife, and it all disappeared—as did much of the cheesemaking industry in Trout Lake by the 1980s.
John and Marci say there used to be 30 creameries in Trout Lake, but now there are only four.
Today the main caves from Washington’s Roquefort-making heyday are out of commission and held by a family trust, but that doesn’t mean other caves aren’t being put to good use in the name of cheese.
According to Marci, everyone in the area has a cave on their property. She said they learned of their own cave while they were camping in the backyard one night. They startled some deer that had come into their yard, and as the deer ran away, the ground beneath their hooves made hard thuds and then hollow thuds, announcing the presence of open space below.
But that’s not where John and Marci age their cheeses.
We don’t know it yet as Marci is telling us their story in this upper floor of the wooden barn where Cascadia Creamery’s cheeses are crafted, but as we are watching the two cheesemakers below hoop and press the curds that will soon become wheels of Sleeping Beauty, already-made batches of the cheese are aging two stories beneath us in the cave.
Before we get to that cave, we learn that John and Marci moved to Trout Lake from Portland 10 years ago, just as they were getting ready to start having children. They wanted to live somewhere rural, but with good schools and not too far from the city.
They also didn’t want to live near commercial agriculture where crop dusters spewed pesticides into the air, which they had witnessed in other rural locales.
Trout Lake was the site of Washington state’s very first certified-organic farm—for herbal supplements—and as John and Marci looked at homes and property in the town, it became clear that this was the place for them.
So they bought property and moved. Marci continued to telecommute to her job in Portland, but John had agricultural ambitions from the outset.
The original goal was to have a farm and start a CSA. They did have the CSA, but things took a slightly different turn when John began interning at a local fourth-generation dairy farm, learning all aspects of the business.
Instead of earning money, John earned milk. And then cows. And then space in the milking parlor.
He looked for something to do with that milk, and started learning to make cheese. Then he started selling the cheese at the local farmer’s market. And then things took off.
The field where Cascadia Creamery’s cheese barn is located used to be the maternity pen for the dairy farm for which John was interning. He said that one day, he was out checking on the cows and looking for new calves when he noticed a blast of air blowing up grass on one side of the field.
It was a cave vent, and when he later tested the humidity and temperature inside, John noted that it was the absolute perfect environment for aging his cheese. The dairy farm allowed him to excavate the cave, and they discovered that it was part of a system of lava tubes that had collapsed.
That cave is where the cheeses are now aged, beneath the barn that John is working to expand so that they have room for more cheeses in order to meet their growing demand.
But wait. How did they manage to convince the FDA to let them age cheese in a cave?
Well, John says the FDA was not thrilled. “No cave!” they had said firmly.
So he asked for the specifications for a cheese-aging facility, created that environment, invited the FDA out to inspect his “cheese-aging facility,” and passed muster. And then he told them it was a cave.
The FDA agreed they had been proven wrong, and that it could be sanitary to age cheese in a cave.
“What is the saying?” John says, “Act first, ask for forgiveness later?”
The walls are white-washed and everything is sanitary, but it is most certainly a cheese cave. Cold, humid air from the lava tubes is fed into the aging cave by way of pipes and vents that John installed. He was smart enough to install extra vents from the get-go, just in case they would ever need to expand and get more air out of the lava tubes.
That air not only helps to age the cheeses with its perfect humidity and temperature, but it graces the cheeses’ rinds with flora that is native only to this cave. John says experts have come out and tested the air, and there is totally new, unknown stuff in there.
So the cheeses John is making at Cascadia Creamery are a product of volcanic Trout Lake terroir—they cannot be made anywhere else.
Add to this that the milk is raw, and that the dairy cows are pasture-fed with a premium mixture of native plants, that they are humanely treated, and that the milk travels only about a mile from the dairy to the creamery. You can taste a sense of place in Cascadia Creamery’s cheeses.
John is a minimalist when it comes to cheesemaking. He says, “the less you can do to the milk and the curd, the better.”
They don’t standardize the milk, which John says is part of what makes their cheeses “artisan.” They have to adjust each batch of cheese to “the vibe of the milk” from week to week—seasonally, according to the cows’ lactation cycles, and even based on where in the pasture the cows were eating that day.
Marci adds that the day of the year can make a difference. For example, she says the milk on July 5 is very different from the milk on July 4, because fireworks scared the cows the night before and that fear affects the composition of the milk—just as it does when a mountain lion is roaming outside the pasture or there are wildfires nearby.
The cheeses are made with raw milk, so there is no pasteurization process disrupting the milk’s natural makeup and flavor. They also use gravity to get the milk from the truck to the vat, they don’t cool it before the cheese make begins, and they do as little to the curds as possible within the realm of each recipe. For example, the only cheese that they press is Sleeping Beauty, a natural-rind tomme that is aged for 75 to 100 days.
The other cheeses are hooped, set, and sent to a drying room. The drying room allows the natural-rind cheeses to set a little before they meet the flora of the caves, which allows for the selection of certain cultures to perform better.
Washed-rind Sawtooth and Celilo receive spa treatments in a brining tank before they are sent to dry. They are brined daily and quarantined in a separate area, so that their yeasts don’t get all over the other cheeses. These cheeses need higher heat and humidity, so they are not aged in the cave; both are aged for about 75 days.
When they are ready, the natural-rind wheels go down to the cave. Entering the cheese cave is like going down into Wonderland, or into a hobbit hole. It is pretty damn cool.
In the cave, John ages Sleeping Beauty with Glacier Blue, a natural-rind blue that is aged for 75 days. The two cheeses get along just fine, even with blue mold in the mix.
Cloud Cap, a bloomy-rind cheese that is aged 60 to 75 days, hangs out in the other room, growing a mottled, fluffy white rind. It can be aged with Sleeping Beauty, but it is more temperamental.
The cheese batches are arranged around the two rooms of the cave in order from youngest to oldest, so you can see the progression from week to week of how the rind is developing.
Cascadia Creamery does three makes a week: Glacier Blue on Monday, Cloud Cap or Sawtooth on Wednesday, and Sleeping Beauty on Friday. Celilo, a Reblochon-style cheese washed with Bainbridge Distillers’ Heritage Organic Doug Fir Gin, is only made seasonally—until the spring milk runs out.
Right now they can’t sustain doing more than three batches a week, as they are out of space for all the wheels.
John, who makes the cheese that Marci markets and sells, is definitely up for expanding their line. He’s been testing out an Alpine-style cheese, Pahto—which we saw in the cheese cave with a sign that said “Not Sleeping Beauty!” He was experimenting by aging it with a natural rind or rindless, sealed in cryovac.
John even has a little laboratory, which makes him giddy to talk about–although he acknowledges he doesn’t spend much time there. Vials, flasks, and miscellaneous bottles litter the table. One says Annatto, suggesting the ponderance of an orange cheese.
There is plenty of work to do with the current line, and they want to grow at a rate that is sustainable.
John and Marci are conscious of how their work affects the environment, from the cows grazing the earth to the waste created during cheesemaking and aging. They try to use sustainable practices wherever they can; even the disposable gloves are made from recycled materials.
It is really easy to get excited about Cascadia Creamery.
All of the cheeses that John and his assistant cheesemaker, Dan, create are delicious. They are truly artisanal cheeses, as every wheel is different. Marci said that not only does every batch turn out slightly different, but even wheels from the same batch will age differently.
The mark that Cascadia Creamery is making in Trout Lake, and in Washington, is certainly exciting. Carrying on the region’s history of cheesemaking is an important task. And doing it sustainably is even more significant.
But the creamery’s cheeses are unique, both in their composition that can only be a product of Trout Lake and the foothills of Mt. Adams, and in the strict framework within which the cheeses are made.
After all, how many certified-organic, raw-milk cheeses are in your average cheese shop’s cases?
At our shop, the only cheeses carrying that designation are made by Cascadia Creamery.