written by Ryn Pfeuffer | illustrations by Danielle Davis
Washington State is a highly coveted region of the country for cheesemaking. Rich soils, diverse climates and access to clean water and rainfall make it one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, producing more than 300 different crops. Among those crops are grass and alfalfa, which make for happy cows, goats and sheep.
Washington even has a soil that’s been legislatively established—the Tokul series. The name “Tokul” comes from a small community and creek in King County. There are more than one million acres of the Tokul series soil throughout the state.
In 2005, Washington had just ten cheesemakers. Now it has more than fifty such artisans and small family farmers who make more than 200 cheeses. Many of these cheeses are only available at farmers’ markets (yet another reason to shop local).
Neighbor Lady Cheese
Cheesemaking has come full circle for Jan Addison. In 1856, Ansel Sachli landed in Ohio from his home country of Switzerland and opened a butcher and cheese shop. Eventually, he passed the business along to his son Charles. More than 150 years later, Addison, the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Sachli, stumbled into the legacy, thanks to her neighbor—hence the name “Neighbor Lady.”
Addison and her neighbor were fond of taking different classes across many subjects together. Finally, the neighbor asked if she wanted to take a cheesemaking class. So, they did and came home and tried to make cheese. “It didn’t go well, so we went back for a second class and a third class—quite a few, actually,” said Addison. “There’s a reason we all don’t make cheese; let’s put it that way.”
In one of the classes, the instructor asked if anyone was taking the class to start their own business. Addison’s neighbor raised her hand, and being the competitive sort she is, she raised her hand too. As Addison practiced making cheese at her Maple Valley home, she remembered having a recipe from her childhood. “I thought, well, it’s supposed to be for cottage cheese, but I’m going to put it in an aged cheese and see if it works, and if it does, I’m going to start my business,” she recalled. She made a wheel of jack cheese and let it age. “When I cut into it and smelled all the beautiful aromas, and then tasted it, I said, ‘Yes, I’m going to do this.’”
Addison sold her first cheeses at the Wine and Chocolate Festival in Enumclaw in 2013 and has returned for nearly a decade every February.
A Nevada transplant, Addison sings the praises of Washington, saying the state has everything needed to produce quality cheese. From the abundance of grass for the goats, sheep and cattle to beautiful dairy (Addison buys milk from Jersey cows from Twinbrook Creamery in Lynden), Washington has many things that make cheesemaking more cost-effective than in other places. And then there’s the rain and water.
“We’ve got the mountains, we’ve got the lakes, we’ve got the Sound and the trees and the grass,” she said. “When I first moved here, I used to call home and say, ‘Oh my gosh, if you don’t drive on the street enough, it’ll grow grass on it.’”
Addison observed that the pandemic spurred an uptick in interest in shopping more locally—for everything from meat and eggs to produce and cheese. “I think people want to know where their food comes from, and they want it local,” she said. “I know the attendance at farmers’ markets has gone way up since the pandemic.” In winter, look for Neighbor Lady Cheese at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Farmers Market. In spring, Addison starts selling at the Maple Valley Farmers Market. By summer, she sells wherever she can based on how much help she can hire for the season. If you’re lucky, you might even meet Addison’s pet cow, Gwendolyn, who’s attended thirty-three farmers’ markets. Look for a variety of different flavors and the occasional specialty wheel. When nudged, Addison admits if she had to play favorites, the gouda has her heart.
“I have a sweet tooth, and it’s a milder, sweeter, buttery cheese. Every time I open a wheel, those flavors bring me right back to my childhood,” said the artisan cheesemaker.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, farmers’ market patrons mourned the halt of their weekly lactose fix, Kings Mozzarella. Think stretchy balls of mozzarella, burrata, queso Oaxaca and those tasty orbs bathed in caprese, chipotle or habanero marinades. In Columbia City, the community was so sad that they banned together for large orders that would be delivered, masked and gloved, out of the back of their van in a nearby parking lot, then distributed by one dedicated neighbor to buyers’ doorsteps. Neighbors dubbed the makeshift distribution network the “Underground Cheese Mafia.”
You can find Kings Mozzarella at several area farmers’ markets, including Ballard, Capitol Hill, Columbia City, Maple Valley and Burien.
Tieton Farm & Creamery
The small town of Tieton has seen a lot of change over the past decade. Former tech workers Ruth and Lori Babcock have been integral to its agricultural growth since coming to town in 2018. The couple cares for a few dozen goats on their 21-acre farm in Upper Yakima Valley, plus cows, ducks, geese, sheep, chickens and turkeys. In addition, the couple shares duties: Lori makes the cheese, while Ruth tends to the herds. In 2017 and 2019, Tieton Farm and Creamery won first place at the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival for their Rheba, the Babcocks’ cave-aged take on Reblochon cheese, using goat and sheep milk. Find their goat and sheep milk cheeses at PCC Community Markets, Whole Foods (Seattle area) and Downtown Yakima Farmers Market.
Each spring, dozens of lambs are born at Lynn and Stan Swanson’s grade-A dairy farm on Whidbey Island. Eventually, they will produce milk for Glendale Shepherd’s yogurt, brebis frais, and award-winning cheeses, including Good Food Foundation winner Island Brebis. The farmhouse-style, long-aged raw sheep’s milk cheese is beloved for its versatility, especially when grated over pasta or salad.
You can find the Clinton couple’s artisan sheep milk cheeses at Ballard, Bayview, Capitol Hill and University District farmers markets. Or visit the farm store on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (year-round); no appointment is necessary.
Samish Bay Cheese
For more than 25 years, Suzanne and Roger Wechsler have farmed roughly 200 acres in Skagit County. Their mixed herd of mostly Milking Shorthorns produces some of the finest milk, cheese, yogurt and kefir in the state. On weekends, the tiny storefront is packed with people buying cheese, meat and specialty foodstuffs from regional purveyors. Then there’s the display case of desirable fresh and aged cheeses. Samish Bay Cheese posts its farmers market schedule online. Or, swing by the farm store in Bow. Shipping is also available via UPS.
When chef Kurt Timmermeister bought a small plot on Vashon Island in 1991, becoming a farmer wasn’t part of the plan. It took roughly a decade until he sold his Seattle restaurant, Café Septieme, to try his hand at growing and raising livestock. Eventually, he got his first cow, Dinah, which sparked an interest in cheesemaking. A French Camembert-like cheese named for the Jersey cow was born. (Sadly, it was announced in January that the last wheels of Dinah’s Cheese were made as Timmermeister shifted his attention to other projects.) The farm hosts weekly workshops from May to September on everything from ice cream-making to a southern seafood boil. Go to www.kurtwoodfarms.com for class schedules.