“These are my girls,” says Lorie Arnold, as she introduces the five milk goats by name.
One of the does stands on her hind legs to nuzzle Arnold’s neck; the others lean against her looking for some love. Ten baby goats frolic nearby, hopping on and off the hay bales testing their new legs.
The goats are milked by hand twice a day, and the babies are bottle fed around the clock. Arnold, who owns Heron Pond Farms with partner Shannon Meagher, uses the milk to craft goat cheese on their 20-acre farm near Tower Mountain, just minutes from the busy South Hill.
“This is harder than I’ve ever worked, but I love it,” she says.
Washington is home to dozens of artisan cheese makers, most of which are located on the Western part of the state. Over the past five years, a number of small cheese operations have sprung up in Eastern Washington as well. Many of these are farmstead goat cheese producers, like Heron Pond, which means they make cheese exclusively from milk produced on their farms.
Goat cheese gaining acceptance
“People are becoming more aware of local products and willing to try goat cheese,” says Arnold. “Spokane is ready,” she continued, noting that local chefs have been very supportive. Santè restaurant regularly features Heron Pond Farms’ cheese, as does the Davenport Hotel.
In their first year of business last year, Heron Pond produced 500 pounds of cheese and hopes to produce 800 pounds this year. The cheese production schedule follows the natural cycle of the animals, ramping up in spring when the goats’ milk is plentiful.
After just one season, Heron Pond offers an impressive variety. Creamy chèvre, feta, and herbed cheeses are just a few of their fresh cheeses. “The garlic chèvre is like a drug – people crave it,” says Arnold.
Heron Pond’s aged cheeses include Gouda and a beer-soaked cheddar. The Truffled Tower – a hard cheese flavored with shaved truffles and black truffle sea salt – is one of the most popular.
Arnold likes to serve her hard cheeses with dry salami and a glass of wine – crackers distract from the flavor. The Cabra Alvino, a wine-soaked cheese, is perfect when paired with a Spanish red wine, and all of the cheeses make excellent pizza toppings. Try grating the cheeses onto pasta, or mixing them into a burger before cooking, Arnold suggests.
The Spokane-area’s newest cheese maker, Chattaroy Cheese Company, just became licensed in December. Located on 80 acres on the confluence of Dragoon Creek and the Little Spokane River, the farm just begged for a cottage industry, says Becky Jasper.
“At one time cheese making was common, like bread making. You just have to learn the process,” she says. “My focus for now is on the fresh cheeses. It’s a nice little niche for the Spokane area.”
Jasper’s initial products will be chèvre and fromage frais, made from her farm’s goat milk.
The fromage frais is similar to cream cheese, and Jasper plans to sell different herbed varieties. She’s also experimenting with Spokane Family Farms’ milk, and hopes to offer cow’s milk cheese in the future. All of the cheeses are made with pasteurized milk, which Jasper feels is safer.
When produced properly, goat cheese should taste fresh and clean, not “goat-y” says Jasper. She encourages those who are unfamiliar with it to give it a try.
“Number one – it’s great in salads,” she says. “But it’s hard not to eat it just fresh.”
Jasper likes to top a dried apricot with a dab of chèvre, a drop of sesame oil, a walnut and a sprinkle of smoked paprika. “It makes the perfect little hors d’oeuvre,” she says.
Starting May 14, Jasper will be at the Spokane Farmers’ Market twice a week and hopes eventually to gain local restaurant and grocery store interest.
Strict government regulations
“It would have been hard to pick a more difficult business,” says Pine Stump Farms’ cheese maker Carey Hunter. Hunter raises 60 goats on her 174-acre farm east of Omak, producing artisan goat cheese and yogurt.
“Milk is highly regulated in the United States. It’s almost considered a hazardous food here because the bacteria propagate so well,” she explains.
It’s those same bacteria that are vital for making cheese.
Hunter is required to have five different permits to operate her business, and is subject to monthly inspections from various agencies. The law requires that if cheese is not made with pasteurized milk it must be aged for 60 days to kill any harmful bacteria.
Hunter thinks the 60-day aging period is fairly arbitrary.
“Other countries eat fresh cheese. Raw milk is available everywhere in Italy and pasteurized products aren’t popular,” she says. “I am a proponent of beneficent enzymes in raw milk cheese. They have lots of flavor and health benefits.”
She’s still working on educating people’s palates.
“Some people wrinkle their noses and say ‘Ooh, goats stink.’ There are a lot of misconceptions,” says Hunter. “It’s very exciting to raise awareness and educate people.”
Pine Stump Farms’ flagship cheese is an Asiago, which Hunter describes as a cross between cheddar and parmesan. She also produces havarti, parmesan and is introducing a Malbec-soaked Asiago in partnership with RockWall Cellars winery in Omak.
Hunter likes to make a cheese plate with apple and pear slices and serve it with a Cabernet-Syrah blend. The havarti is great for sandwiches and pairs well with fresh dill or mango chutney as condiments.
Larkhaven Farm’s cheese maker Clare Paris expects that government inspection will become more stringent at her farmstead cheese operation near Tonasket.
Last winter, there was a cheese recall and subsequent closing of fellow farmstead cheese maker Sally Jackson. According to Paris, it is unclear whether raw milk was to blame, or another mysterious bacterial contamination.
Paris, who uses only raw milk in her cheese, is just as sure she’ll pass the inspection.
“Healthy raw milk is its own best defense against contamination. If the animals are well cared for and the milk is handled appropriately, the cheese will be tasty and safe,” she says.
In addition to goat milk, Paris also uses sheep milk to make cheese.
She describes her semi-hard Shepherd’s Gem cheese (made with sheep milk) as a full-bodied cheese which showcases the richness of sheep milk. Pair it with a dry red wine and you’ll have a complete meal, she says.
Larkhaven Farms also produces a soft, Camembert-style goat cheese called Full Moon Goatling and several other aged cheeses.
Cheese with terroir
With almost 25 years in the cheese-making business, Quillisascut Cheese Company near Rice is one of the longest-running artisan cheese makers in the region.
Owners Rick and Lora Lea Misterly were driven by the dream of farming and Lora Lea’s fond childhood memories of her mom’s homemade cheese.
Lora Lea says that the move currently being considered by the government to require all cheese milk to be pasteurized would make it impossible for them to produce cheese that is a true reflection of the flavor of the land, known as terroir.
“We feel that with proper handling and precautions raw milk cheese is a safe traditional, healthy product,” she writes in an email. “My goal has always been to make a traditional handmade farmstead cheese.”
Quillisascut produces about 5,000 pounds of cheese per year, all made from the farm’s raw goat milk.
The flavor of the cheese changes throughout the year; the goats’ diet, the natural cycle of the milk and even the temperature play a part.
“That is one of the biggest features of this cheese. I want it to be an honest representation of this place – to be real with rustic nuances,” Lora Lea explains. “Even when it is mild I want there to be lots of flavor.”
Cheese-lovers who want to be “co-producers” with the Misterlys can buy into a share of the business this year with Quillisascut’s Community Shared Agriculture program.
Sign up on the farm’s website and you’ll receive 3 pounds of farmstead cheese shipped to your door, including the traditional Curado with a sweet, nutty flavor; the Viejo, a grating-style cheese with a spicy tang similar to Romano; and the Farmer cheese, which is a crumbly cheese similar in style to feta.