The Next Best Thing
Making a new cheese through trials and tenacity
Sometimes when a new cheese is born, it is purely a child of happenstance. But at other times it is the offspring of painstaking and prodigious work by a gifted cheesemaker. Or a whole team of them. Such was the case in the making of Flora Nelle, a new blue cheese darling from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery. Challenged to push beyond the boundaries of their already acclaimed lineup of blue cheeses, the cheesemakers at Rogue, led by Jason Garcia and co-owner Cary Bryant, proved their fortitude as much as their skill in making Flora Nelle.
When you first meet her, you will be charmed by Flora Nelle’s many-hued natural rind and Jersey cream–colored paste evenly freckled with tiny caves of blue. Further inspection by nose and palate will tell you that, while this cheese may be young, it’s no ingenue. The taste is of browned butter, sweet cream, and deeply layered blue flavors that are more akin to those of a longer aged wheel. When I tasted Flora Nelle, accompanied by tender, dried Oregon Comice pear rings and slices of a nutty-sweet Paley Bar (made by Oregon star chef Vitaly Paley), I didn’t stop until the large wedge of cheese was nearly gone. (It didn’t hurt that a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir was uncorked and at hand.)
Flora Nelle is the latest in a line of new blues to come from the 83-year-old southern Oregon creamery since Bryant and partner David Gremmels took the helm in 2002. This cheese, however, represents a stylistic departure by Bryant and Garcia, who wanted to create a blue with dramatically different characteristics from the existing Rogue Creamery blues. Beyond a unique flavor profile, the team set several other specific goals for the cheese: it needed to be pasteurized (the existing Rogue blues are made from raw milk and therefore cannot be exported to Australia); have a natural rind (only one other Rogue blue is completely aged au naturel); have a sliceable texture (most blues are crumbly); and have a ripening age of “delicious in 90 days and fantastic by four to seven months.”
Sitting in his office, in a building near the creamery that is fondly known as “the cottage,” Bryant discusses other deciding factors. “We had to come up with a good production cheese that not only met the flavor and aging goals but would still be viable laborwise; it had to be reasonable to make by hand on a commercial scale.” Furthermore, the cheesemakers had to think about custom packaging so the cheese would travel to the consumer in prime condition.
With all these parameters in mind, Bryant and Garcia set about formulating the recipe from scratch, by way of Rogue’s “layered, detailed, cumbersome, and exacting organoleptic cheese development process,” Gremmels states. “As a preamble to creating a pasteurized cheese, it 5was critical that the flavor and composition of the milk be clearly understood,” he adds. The milk comes from Noonan Farms, an organic dairy farm in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The resident 200 cows are pastured most of the year but get winter supplements of hay, alfalfa, and grain. Gremmels worked closely with the dairy to create a milk profile that has flavor notes of grass, straw, and flowers, as well as sweet cream and buttery qualities after pasteurization.
For more than five years the cheesemakers conducted a series of side-by-side blind sensory evaluations. Both pasteurized and raw-milk cheeses were simultaneously handmade, aged, and then tasted over a 12-month period. As differences were documented and compared, the cheesemaking team scored each batch, then nudged and tweaked the recipe and affinage process accordingly. (Bryant, by the way, has systematically cataloged flavors and sensory analysis over the last ten years, creating a road map for the diversity of Rogue’s all-American blues.)
Without even knowing it, customers and blue cheese fans from all parts of the world also had a hand in developing Flora Nelle. As experimental wheels would reach a target age, they would be sent to the Rogue Creamery Cheese Shop, where customer feedback was carefully noted by the store’s master cheesemonger, Tom VanVoorhees, and his staff.
After this epic trial and error process, the recipe was at last fine-tuned in September 2010 and first released at Thanksgiving. Before even reaching her first birthday, Flora Nelle had already won an award, second place at the 2011 U.S. World Cheese Championships.
In contrast to the making of the cheese, the naming of Flora Nelle happened almost by itself. “Flora” both describes the bloom on the surface and interior of the cheese and is the shortened name of Bryant’s grandmother (Florence); the Rogue Creamery’s mascot-logo cow is called Nellie and Gremmels’s grandmother was named Nelle. The word combination draws serendipitously from the history of the creamery, the people, and the cheese itself.
Back in the cottage, surrounded by bookshelves lined with what looks to be every tome ever published on cheesemaking practices, I ask Bryant if there are any new cheese children incubating in his head. With a laugh and an impish grin, he enigmatically replies, “Oh, there are always new cheeses. . . .”
Text and photography by Gianaclis Caldwell, author of The Farmstead Creamery Advisor (Chelsea Green Publishing), makes cheese, tends goats, and appreciates her creative freedoms at the Caldwells’ farm, Pholia, in rural southern Oregon.