Dinner guests don’t usually bring me cheese. Coals to Newcastle and all that. But recently some friends showed up with a new Oregon creation, and let me just say they are welcome back any time. The wedge was luscious, aromatic and unusual—potentially a great new American cheese. But could the cheesemaker repeat the feat? Yes. Would I love it as much the second, third and fourth time? Yes.
Am I surprised? No. I’ve been president of cheesemaker Sarah Marcus’s fan club for a long time. Her Briar Rose Creamery makes the lovely goat’s-milk Lorelei, washed with beer. Maia (pictured above) is a family relation, but maybe more like a first cousin than a sister.
Marcus established Briar Rose Creamery, near Dundee, ten years ago after being priced out of Northern California. She envisioned it as a goat-cheese enterprise but hasn’t been able to secure enough milk year-round to meet demand for her cheese. Last summer, bowing to reality, she began developing some new cow’s milk cheeses using milk from Oregon’s only herd of organically fed Ayrshires.
“This is the best milk I’ve ever used,” Marcus told me via e-mail. “I don’t know why more cheesemakers aren’t using this heritage breed for their creations.”
A Scottish breed, Ayrshire cows produce atypical milk, says Marcus. (She calls them “magic cows” but I’m not going there.) Their milk is partially homogenized, like goat’s milk, so the cream doesn’t float to the top. “I don’t have to work as hard to keep the fat blended into the milk,” Marcus wrote. “I can feel the difference in the curd.”
Ayrshire milk also has smaller fat particles than, say, Jersey milk. To a cheesemaker, that means less potential for bitter flavors as the cheese ages. And Oregon’s mild, damp climate allows these ladies to be outdoors, dining on grass, almost year-round.
Maia is a 1-1/2-pound washed-rind disk matured for a little over two weeks at the creamery. The wash is brine only—no beer. For the geeks: Marcus also inoculates the milk with Geotrichum candidum and Brevibacterium linens. All these happy microbes create a soft, damp, wrinkled rind with a pale flesh color and occasional speckles of blue. The blueing is normal, says Marcus, who calls it “the kiss of the cave.”
At six to eight weeks, Maia should have a creamy layer just under the rind and a supple, tender, custardy texture. To me it smells of yeast, sour cream and cheesecake and has a tart, lactic flavor. The interior is pale, and to be honest, I initially thought it was goat cheese. The cheese pictured above is a bit young for my taste—it hadn’t gotten to custard yet—but a fully mature Maia is a cheese you won’t soon forget.
Etude Pinot Gris, or a similarly dry Alsatian-style wine, makes a nice match for Maia. For now, distribution is primarily on the West Coast. Briar Rose Creamery Maia is available at fine cheese shops in the Portland area, Eugene and Seattle; in California at Woodlands Market (Kentfield); Oxbow Cheese Merchant (Napa); Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op; Cowgirl Creamery, Little Vine, Mission Cheese and Rainbow Grocery (San Francisco) and New Moon Natural (Truckee); in Idaho at Look’s Fine Foods (Sioux Falls); in Massachusetts at Bacco’s Wine & Cheese (Boston); and in Texas at Scardello’s (Dallas).
Taste the Nation
Thursday, July 19
Trefethen Family Vineyards
1160 Oak Knoll Aveune,
Napa, CA 94558
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m
Join me for this cheesy road trip as we sample world-class wheels from seven states. Thirty-five years into America’s artisan cheese renaissance, the nation is chockablock with amazing cheeses that win international awards. On this evening, I’ll introduce you to some of the creations I admire most. Vermont, Missouri, Georgia, Indiana, Oregon…who knows where we’ll go?