The roster of new American creameries willing to work with raw milk and tolerate the heightened scrutiny of the FDA is not long. The search results get even shorter if you add “certified organic milk” to the criteria. Washington State’s six-year-old Cascadia Creamery has chosen this challenging path, and its aged cow’s-milk wheel, Sleeping Beauty, is certifiably delightful.
Cascadia’s husband-and-wife owners, John and Marci Shuman, buy their milk from a farm two miles away, which makes them almost farmstead producers. (Farmstead creameries own their herds.) John, the cheesemaker, favors minimal manipulation, hence the raw milk. I’m certifying the “delightful” part but think you’ll agree.
Sleeping Beauty, one of this couple’s first creations, is now its flagship, accounting for almost three-quarters of the creamery’s tiny output. Shuman makes Sleeping Beauty all year, but typically fewer than 100 six- to seven-pound wheels a week. The cheese retails for about $27 a pound, and both retailer and distributor take their cut. Do the math and you won’t give up your day job to start an artisan creamery.
“We were just trying to find out what the local environment would manifest,” says Shuman when I asked about Sleeping Beauty’s inspiration. “It’s not inspired by any traditional cheese. We were just allowing a local cheese to happen.”
Shuman, a self-taught cheesemaker, uses a variety of cultures to ferment his milk. Some of these cultures produce carbon dioxide, which accounts for some of the wheel’s open texture. The coagulant is animal rennet, an increasingly rare choice because it’s costly and turns off vegetarians, but many traditionalists believe it enhances aged cheese. Shuman heats the curd only slightly, presses the wheels lightly and brines them for seasoning. The wheels spend about three months in the aging room, with only an occasional brushing to control the mold. “We let them do what they’re going to do,” says Shuman.
I’ve tried this cheese several times in the past few months and found it consistent and consistently delicious. It has a thin, dimpled natural rind liberally dusted with mold and a firm, brittle interior. The hue is mottled—a pale butter color at the center, darker near the rind. My favorite feature is the aroma—a clotted-cream, crème fraiche scent with a hint of damp cave—but the tart, tangy finish and unusual texture please me, too. On first impression, the cheese seems dry and almost crumbly, but let it sit on your tongue and the creaminess emerges.
I can’t seem to find a familiar cheese for comparison, although Sleeping Beauty bears some resemblance to British Caerphilly. “That’s always my most difficult question,” admits Shuman. “It’s similar to a French tomme because it’s round and has a natural salt rind. But the make procedure”—cheesemaker lingo for the recipe—“is a grab bag of processes.”
Perhaps Shuman is the cheesemaker equivalent of the hands-off “natural” winemakers who profess to let grape juice take its own course. (If they really did that, they would have vinegar.) In any case, the aptly named Sleeping Beauty appears to validate his minimalist approach.
Look for Sleeping Beauty at Pasta Shop in Berkeley and Oakland; Whole Foods in Capitola, Coddingtown (Santa Rosa), Los Altos, Napa and Petaluma; and Fish Lady in Soquel. What to drink? It’s not an easy match. That cultured-milk aroma challenges wine. A medium-intensity red variety with good acidity, like Merlot or Nero d’Avola, would be where I would head.