Seattle Homes & Lifestyles
Written by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Like many small-business owners in the Pike Place Market, Kurt Beecher Dammeier likes to stand at the entryway to his shop hawking his wares.
"Two days ago, this cheese was grass," he boasts as he plies the crowds with fresh cheese curds. The pure white morsels are about the size of your thumbnail and "squeak" when you bite into them.
Some people in the crowd stare at the handsome, bearded cheesemonger in disbelief and rush away; others try a sample. Most, drawn in as much by the comforting smells of grilled cheese and French onion soup as by Dammeier's pleasant banter, step inside the Beecher's Handmade Cheese shop. The 3,000-square-foot space wears a homey patina, with the look and feel of an old-time country store.
This interplay has taken place since late 2003, when Beecher's opened for business in a prime location along Pike Place and quickly became one of Washington state's most visible and productive artisan cheese makers. In the past two years, the number of artisan cheese makers in the state has doubled, for a healthy total of 13; this is a welcome development, since the amount of cheese producers was stagnant for quite some time.
"Artisan" refers most any specialty food product, including bread, beer or coffee, made the old-fashioned way: from high-quality ingredients, in small batches and often by hand. Artisan cheese can also be referred to as "farmstead," but only if the cows, sheep or goats are raised, tended and milked right on the farm where the cheese is produced.
Artisan cheese is about as far away as you can get from the mass-produced, shrink-wrapped, bright-orange blocks you'll find in every grocery store in America. Many of these "factory cheeses" are produced in fully automated plants and have never felt the touch of a human hand.
"When it comes to artisan cheeses, it's all about the cheese maker," says Berni Cornish, a cheese expert with Distribution Plus Inc., the Puget Sound region's leading cheese distributor. "There's an attention to detail, with a lot more care and craft going into it, which is evident in the finished product. The neat thing about artisan cheeses is, if the cows have been dining on dandelions or lavender, that comes out in the cheese."
The cheese maker's ethnic origins frequently play a part, too. "Artisan cheeses usually reflect the people in the area," notes Martha Marino, food and health program director for the Washington State Dairy Council. "Gouda is often produced in Washington state because many cheese producers in Skagit and Whatcom counties are of Dutch ancestry. In New England, they produce cheddars."
Beecher's artisanal cheeses begin their journey when "Big White," the milk tanker, pulls up and pumps 1,000 gallons of fresh milk into the gleaming stainless-steel holding tank inside the shop at the intersection of Pike Place and Pine Street. The milk comes from a single herd of 170 healthy, free-range cows, none of which has been treated with the controversial bovine growth hormone (rBST).
Big picture windows overlook the cheese kitchen, allowing visitors to watch Beecher's top cheese maker, Brad Sinko, and his apprentices progress through the entire cheese-making process. The procedure, which takes seven to eight hours, begins when the pure, raw milk goes from the holding tank into the pasteurizer.
From there, it's cooked and stirred in open steel vats and cultures are added. The cultures determine which cheese is being made. Whey (the watery part of milk) is separated from the curds, salt is added and the curds are checked for moisture, acidity and butterfat.
At Beecher's, some of the curds are sold fresh and unflavored; others are mixed with herbs and seasonings. Still others are pressed into blocks and wheels, then aged for up to two years.
In addition to fresh cheese curds and special seasonal cheeses, Beecher's products include Just Jack (a rich, basic jack cheese) and the World Flavors line, which highlights such intriguing possibilities as Marco Polo (flavored with lightly crushed black and green peppercorns) and No Woman (named for a Bob Marley song and seasoned with Jamaican jerk spices).
Beecher's Blank Slate resembles a young, fresh cheese such as <I>fromage blanc.<P> With its high moisture content and tangy flavor, Blank Slate is particularly suited as a topping, as a spread or in place of ricotta in Italian dishes such as lasagna. One-year-old Flagship cheese, a semihard, cheddarlike variety with a creamy finish, was released with great fanfare last November.
Beecher's also makes rich cultured butter and (during the summer months) "real" (additive-free) vanilla ice cream that will remind you of ice cream socials. Sandwiches, soups and macaroni and cheese are available for takeout or dining in while seated on milk-jug stools that overlook the cheese kitchen.
Toward the back of the shop you'll discover shelves stacked with cheese boards, knives and books, along with a well-stocked case focused on artisan cheeses from the Northwest (Sally Jackson, Rogue Creamery, Willamette Valley) and Northern California (Cowgirl Creamery, Cypress Grove, Fiscalini).
"Our Northwest palates have become accustomed to the full flavors and freshness of local beers and breads," Dammeier explains. "Additionally, we are becoming more interested in how our food is made and where the ingredients come from. At Beecher's, customers can actually see the cheese coming to life right before their eyes. They appreciate the wholesome ingredients, artful process and passion for pure food that is evident in our entire product line."
Braiden Rex-Johnson is food editor for Seattle Homes & Lifestyles magazine, the food and wine pairing columnist for Wine Press Northwest, a bestselling cookbook author, and author of her own website www.northwestwininganddining.com.
Reproduced by permission of Seattle Homes & Lifestyles magazine.
Photo by Kate Baldwin.