Cream of the Crop
written by Corinne Whiting
Long before the sun has climbed above the horizon, dairy farmers across the state have begun their morning routines, commencing a daily mission of creating high-quality milks, cheeses and other creamy delights. This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart. At Duvall’s Cherry Valley Dairy, about 30 miles northeast of Seattle, a typical production shift involves working from 4:45 a.m. until noon (with other chores and deliveries completed after that). The cows get milked at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., head cheesemaker Blain Hages explained, and workers have fourty-eight hours to “use or lose” what they’ve collected.
Five dedicated employees and a few volunteers run this thriving property that Hages describes as a “classic hillside dairy” set on 122 acres of beautiful Washington land. A farm for eighty-seven years, it was bought in 2005 by eco-preneur Gretchen Garth. She envisioned a smaller operation with a focus on “keeping a healthy, meadow-grazing herd, crafting traditional, natural dairy products and employing innovative, environmentally friendly principles to manage the historic farmstead.” Initially a bulk milk supplier to local favorite Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, the venue began its creamery renovations in 2009 and made its first wheels of cheese and butter in 2012.
Today the refurbished dairy—and designated “salmon-safe farm”—has a single herd of forty jersey cows, employs an impressive list of “green” practices and churns out fifteen to twenty delicious products (all pasteurized), depending on the season. Cherry Valley currently produces 12,000 pounds of cheese each year and 9,000 pounds of butter, and its received top honors at national competitions for both their aged cheeses and top-notch butters.
Buzzworthy products range from curds and fromage blanc to cultured ghee and cultured buttermilk. Its Dairy Reserve semi-firm cheese has an enticing description of “tangy, sweet and buttery with a smooth, nutty finish,” while the Meadow Bloom is “a luscious, tangy, unctuous, mushroomy double-crème bloomy rind cheese.”
Butters come in innovative flavors like “coffee” and “herbed rose,” in which a French blend of dried green herbs, dried lavender and rose petals get folded into the signature Gray Salt Butter. Those with food sensitivities love that Cherry Valley breeds for an A2 milk supply, limiting leaky gut symptoms and other stomach ailments often associated with allergies. Hages’ personal favorite? The whey ricotta, which he calls “very true, nice, grainy … It’s fluffy and smears like ice cream.” This high-protein product also happens to be the “most guilt-free cheese you’ll ever eat,” he promises, further adding to the allure.
Hages grew up in Ellensburg’s “cow land,” but never partook in 4-H activities or anything of the sort. In fact, he knew nothing about cheese until joining the Beecher’s team in 2003. He reminisces about his career’s “humble beginnings” in which he “started at the bottom, had a really good boss and did all the work no one else wanted to do.” While consulting in 2010, he met Cherry Valley’s Garth, who brought him onboard. After commuting from Seattle for seven years, Hages finally relocated to Duvall, a move that allows him to walk to work, and his 5-year-old daughter to go to school across from the farm.
Although the farm offers scheduled tours, “we’ve never turned away anyone who’s walked up curious,” Hages said. “It’s nice to explain to people what we do, to take some of the mystery out of it.” While some who call ahead ask to take a full tour, others simply focus on photos of calves.
Cherry Valley keeps standing orders with Kirkland’s bustling Deru Market, and they’ve sold their delectable buttermilk and cream to Seattle’s Canlis, perhaps the most lauded restaurant in the Emerald City. In Eastsound, Rosario Resort & Spa exclusively serves Cherry Valley’s Gray Salted Cultured Butter at The Mansion Restaurant, where servers field queries about the butter on a regular basis. Products can also be found online through the Puget Sound Food Hub, as well as at the Duvall Family Grocer, Match Coffee & Wine Bar and the seasonal Duvall Farmers Market.
On Bainbridge Island, head to Bay Hay and Feed and Pane d’Amore. In wine-centric Woodinville, book a coveted table at The Herbfarm. For Woodinville’s Matthews Winery, Cherry Valley provides herb butters as well as cubed, sliced and already-prepped cheeses to fill convenient grab-and-go boxes. In Seattle, peruse spots from Central Co-op and Kurt Farm Shop to Pike Place Market’s DeLaurenti and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Cherry Valley has recently begun its first foray into bigger markets like Issaquah and Redmond’s PCC, too.
“If you can cook,” Hages insisted, “you can make cheese. A lot of the job is repetition, doing the same thing over and over. Boredom sets in, and you find a way to turn it into a game,” testing new variables and creating new recipes. Sure, sometimes the end result has to be discarded. Other times, Hages happily reported, “mistakes turn into really good things.” And, might we add, really delicious things.