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Originally published Saturday, August 14, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Taste

Darigold co-op keeps small Northwest dairies churning

Since 1918, the Seattle-based Darigold co-op has been producing an array of dairy products that keep the region's small farmers in business. The co-op keeps adding products to its extensive line of standards such as milk and cottage cheese. Among the newer products are Crema Agria, a Mexican-style sour cream, and European-style butter, which contains 1 percent air as opposed to the standard 4 or 5 percent.

For Fresh ideas

Published twice yearly, Fresh magazine contains stories about Darigold farmers, interviews with chefs who use Darigold products and a trove of Northwest-inspired recipes. Cost is $5; to order online visit www.DarigoldFresh.com.

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CHANCES ARE you've seen the friendly faces of Joe and Montana, Gerald and Jasmine, Roger and Triple T — the dairy farmers and their cows featured in Darigold advertisements. It's also likely you've pulled a carton of the company's milk from the dairy case or used its rich, European-style butter for holiday baking.

But who knew that this Seattle-based dairy cooperative is made up of more than 500 regional farmers and dates back to 1918?

Or that the company is the fourth-largest agricultural cooperative in the country, collecting 2 million gallons of milk each day to produce the equivalent of 7.2 billion pounds of milk every year?

For sure, this company is a local icon, its corporate digs (complete with gleaming test kitchen) corralled along Rainier Avenue South. But its 11 processing plants are spread across Washington, Oregon and Idaho. And its customers are all over the world, accounting for annual sales of more than $2 billion.

The company makes and distributes milk, butter, cottage cheese, yogurt and other cultured dairy products under both its own label and private labels. Its farmers agree not to use the controversial genetically engineered bovine growth hormone rBST.

Such impressive facts begin at the dairy level, with farmers such as Larry and Cheryl DeHaan, owners of Storm Haaven Farm, north of Lynden in northwest Washington.

The DeHaans began dairying in 1973 on 60 acres with 40 cows. Today they farm more than 300 acres; their herd consists of 400 Holstein and 70 Brown Swiss cows; the couple's four adult children are all involved in the dairy industry.

"We have shipped our milk to Darigold for our entire 37-year history," Cheryl DeHaan says. "Darigold has been a wonderful partner that definitely adds value to our products as they leave the farm. Through Darigold, there is an assurance of end-product quality that starts at the farm."

Earlier this year, I sampled many of Darigold's farm-fresh products at "Dairy 101," a blind comparative tasting led by senior product manager Jan Roberts, who's been with the company a whopping 30 years.

The energetic, 50-something's face lights up when she talks about Darigold's Simon Frères butter churn, the largest European vacuum-style churn ever imported to North America. Installed in 2003 at the plant in Issaquah, the giant churn was made by a family-run company that has been, uh, churning out such machines in Cherbourg, France, for 140 years. It can produce more than 50,000 pounds of butter an hour.

The European-style butter that emerges contains less air than conventional butter. When you compare 1 percent air content to 4 or 5 percent, you quickly realize why this dense, well-emulsified beurre is a baker's dream.

"Cottage cheese is the most artisan product made in a dairy," according to Roberts. And after visually comparing Darigold's small, pillow-shaped curds with "Brand X's" irregular, smashed curds, I can now claim to be a cottage-cheese curd nerd. As for taste, Darigold's clean, creamy notes and sour/tangy culture flavors won hands down over the bland taste and mealy texture of the contender.

The company appeals to the Latino market with its unique new Crema Agria, or Mexican-style sour cream. Thinner in consistency and with a higher salt content than regular sour cream, Crema Agria brings out the spicy flavors in Mexican cuisine while simultaneously cooling the palate.

Darigold Extra-Rich Sour Cream, a super-high-fat sour cream, is a revelation. Last November, after I'd transformed my leftover Thanksgiving turkey into turkey chili, just a dollop provided the perfect pleasant tanginess and rich mouth feel I craved.

In a state such as Washington, where virtually every dairy is family-run, Darigold's innovative product lines, worldwide customer base and high-volume business model allow many small dairy farmers, such as the DeHaans, not only to remain on the farm, but to continue to build the social fabric of their rural communities.

"Being a member of the co-op frees us as dairy producers to do what we do best — milk cows!" Cheryl DeHaan says. "The co-op offers power in numbers that alone, we simply would not have. We truly believe that being a member of the Darigold family of producers has allowed us to stay in dairy farming for these many years."

Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author and food and wine columnist. Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com.

Dill Compound Butter

Makes about 1/2 cup

The basic elements for compound butter are good butter and a tablespoon or two of chopped fresh herbs, dried fruits, mushrooms, nuts or just about anything that strikes your fancy. A plump pat of dill butter works its magic atop a slab of simply grilled white fish (such as halibut or Petrale sole) or melted over a cut baguette.

1/2 cup (1 stick) Darigold butter, softened

1 tablespoon freshly chopped dill weed (fronds only)

1 tablespoon chopped shallots

1 teaspoon cracked black peppercorns (See Cook's hint, below)

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

1. Combine the butter, dill, shallots, pepper and lemon zest in a medium mixing bowl; stir to mix well.

2. Spoon the butter mixture onto the long side of waxed or parchment paper (cut to 10 by 12 inches).

3. Wrap the edge of the paper over the butter and roll it into a log about 10 inches in length. Refrigerate until firm.

Cook's hint: To crack peppercorns, place peppercorns between a sheet of folded plastic wrap or wax paper on a cutting board; hit the peppercorns with the side of a heavy knife.

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