Tami Parr fills in the holes of the regional craft's history

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF TAMI PARR - Sally Jackson's Cheese Early European settlers in the Pacific Northwest needed many things to survive: luck, determination, and — more than you might imagine — dairy products. As Tami Parr explains in her new book, “Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History,” cows and goats arrived with the first wave of explorers in the 17th century, and have played a crucial role in the history of the region ever since.

Parr, who lives in Portland, has been writing about cheese since 2004, when she founded her blog, the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project ( She quickly became an authority on the cheeses of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, during a decade that saw a surge in the number of small, artisan cheese producers throughout the region. She published her first book, “Artisan Cheese of the Pacific Northwest,” in 2009.

The book was a celebration of regional cheese, with profiles of artisan cheese makers, tasting notes, and recipes.

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF TAMI PARR - Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese“In doing that,” Parr says, “I started to see that that was just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, there’s a lot of great cheese out there, but how did it get to be this way?”

Parr set out to trace the history of cheese in the Northwest, and found that it parallels the history of European settlement in the region. “Pacific Northwest Cheese: A History” begins with a goat named Nancy, who traveled with Robert Gray, an American sea captain who explored the Columbia River in the 1790s.

Cheese makers responded to all the great events of the decades, from the world wars, to advances in chemistry, to the counterculture of the 1960s, to the current know-your-food movement.

Parr says that the great variety of cheeses she began to see in farmers markets was her first inspiration for becoming a writer. She was an attorney looking for a creative outlet when she began her blog. But she also had dairy in her blood. Both of her parents were originally from Wisconsin, and she spent a lot of time during her childhood in the famously cheese-centric state. Her aunt and uncle owned a dairy farm, and taught her how to milk cows.

“I kind of feel like I have this kinship with dairy people,” Parr says.

She wanted to go back to the roots of regional cheese.

“One of the things I was thinking about when I started writing the book was, how am I going to figure out who made the first cheese? How am I going to figure out who did it first?” she says. It turned out to be an easy question to answer.

by: COURTESY OF TAMI PARR - Pierre Kolisch works his product at his Juniper Grove Farm in Redmond.Before the Oregon Trail brought thousands of agriculturally minded settlers to the area, the fur traders of Hudson’s Bay Company had established extensive dairy facilities at Fort Vancouver.

“They had a huge farming operation,” Parr says. “I had no idea.”

Once pioneers arrived, they raised cattle, sheep and goats, and began to make butter and cheese. As time went on, they organized cooperatives to market products and stabilize quality.

Parr profiles many dairy operations that came and went over the years, following the forgotten trends of previous generations. The discovery that cows could transmit tuberculosis led to a surge in goat’s milk popularity around the turn of the 20th century. Consumer demand for blue cheese and the isolation of the mold that creates its unique marbling led to a rush of blue cheese production in the 1930s. Also in the 1930s, Portland was a test market for canned cheddar cheese.

A reaction against that push for convenience led to the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s — and cheese making became a means of getting off the grid. In 1970, the Mother Earth News published “Get a Goat!” which promoted goats as an “amusing and profitable addition to the homestead.”

These days goats are again in vogue, and a variety of goat, cow and sheep’s milk cheeses are made by small producers throughout Oregon.

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