If you love cheese, you’ll want to know this: back in 2005 there were just six cheese makers in Washington State. Fast forward 11 years and we now boast a whopping 71 artisans who are passionate about their product, fastidious about the source of their ingredients and creators of some of the richest, creamiest, most satisfying cheese in the country.
Here in Whatcom County there are five cheesemakers hard at work. We visited them to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse at their work, their history and their passion, and we found if there’s one characteristic that binds them inextricably together, it’s modesty. These folks are true artisans, but they’re also incredibly humble about what they do. This is their story.
Appel Farms Cheese
Appel Farms Cheese owes its existence to the late Jack Appel, who grew up in the Netherlands with dreams of being a farmer, and as a young man learned the art of cheese making in France. The skills would serve him well in the US, where he immigrated in 1950, married and purchased a Ferndale farm. Making cheese was relegated to a hobby until friends and family, tasting his amazing cheese, urged him to offer it for sale. His original cheese making equipment, imported from Holland, is on display in the Appel Farms Cheese Shop – an antique cheese press and vat, milk cooler and cream separator. Today his sons own the business, milking the family’s herd of dairy cows and producing a tasty assortment of gouda and cheddar cheese including mild gouda, maasdammer, garlic and dill cheddar, jalapeno Greek gouda, bacon cheddar and cumin gouda. Most of the cheese is sold wholesale, with paneer heading to California and gouda and quark to Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere in Washington state.
The best way to experience Appel Cheese is by ordering an artisan cheese plate at the new shop and restaurant, which opened in Summer 2014. The 24-seat café serves breakfast, cheese plates and ice cream.
Pleasant Valley Dairy
Pleasant Valley Dairy cheese shop and tasting room in Ferndale is very much smaller, but don’t let its size dissuade you from visiting. Joyce Snook has been making and selling great cheese on the family farm since 1976 and today crafts 11 varieties, including nettles gouda, leyden, Province herbs, jalapeno, fine herbs, cumin, caraway, peppercorn and nokkelost. “This is open vat, Dutch-style cheese making with no machines,” says Snook, who learned the art of cheese making from her father, George Train. He, in turn, was assisted with recipes by Jack Appel. A few steps from the shop lies the cheese making facility and a cold storage room for aging the 130 lbs of cheese she makes each day. Behind the facility you can hear the bellows of the herd of 50 cows, whose raw milk goes directly to the vat.
Cheese lovers can purchase Snook’s cheese directly from the store March through December, or at select retailers in Seattle, Bellingham’s Co-Ops and Terra Organica at the Bellingham Public Market.
Twin Sisters Creamery
Twin Sisters Creamery is a relative newbie on the cheese block, owned by Lindsay Slevin and her spouse Jeff, who started making cheese November 2015. Today the couple manufactures a blue cheese (Whatcom Blue) and a creamy raw milk cheese (Whatcom White), and has plans to play with different flavor styles. Right now they have a gorgonzola dolce that’s aging and “we’ll see how it turns out,” Lindsay says. “If it’s great quality, we’ll sell it. But there’s lots of aging involved.” The 3500-square-foot Ferndale facility has a large tasting room in the retail shop where Lindsay showcases her cheeses alongside 70-80 other cheeses including the best of Washington state cheese, American cheese and her favorite imports. She also hosts a $30 sit-down, themed cheese tasting and pairing classes twice a month, where participants learn all about the cheese they’re trying. “We insist people taste cheese before they buy,” she says.
Ferndale Farmstead Cheese
Ferndale Farmstead Cheese has 650 cows, and a beautiful cheese making facility, but no tasting room, which means if you want to try its amazing mozzarella, or “mozz,” as its cheese maker Daniel Wavrin affectionately calls it, your best bet is a pizza at OvN in Fairhaven, where this rich cheese adds layers of sumptuous delight to the pizza bases.
Ferndale Farmstead is arguably the county’s largest cheese maker, producing seven vats of cheese (3,500 lbs) a week. And it’s just a year old. Back in 2011, Dan, just 19 at the time, decided he wanted to make cheese. He spent time visiting different creameries, worked at Mount Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend and did his due diligence. By 2013 his 7,000-square-foot Ferndale facility was under construction and a year later he’d partnered with Raphael Mascolo, an Italian artisan cheese maker who taught him the art of old world cheese.
Wavrin is a man with ambition and dedication to the craft, and he imports all his cultures and rennet from Italy. Today he’s making nine different cheeses, including asiago, fontina, romano, caciotta, scamorza and fior di latte, a mozzarella made with cultures as opposed to vinegar. We visited on a mozzarella manufacturing day, donning hairnets, white jackets and protective footwear to watch as large white lumps were transformed into incredibly tasty cheese in the immaculate facility. Ferndale Farmstead’s cheese is available at Edaleen’s Dairy, Haggen, Whole Foods, Co-Ops, the Bellingham Farmers Market and 125 Fred Meyer stores. This is a young company using old recipes and already achieving amazing success.