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Taste Greg Atkinson

The French Connection

Globally inspired, Mount Townsend Creamery promises "cheese with a sense of place"

When Mount Townsend Creamery launched its first three cheeses in April of 2006, the marketing materials promised "cheese with a sense of place." Handmade in Port Townsend using exclusively the milk from two local farms on the Olympic Peninsula, this cheese is definitely local. Even the art on the labels depicts scenes of the Olympics, the Washington Coast and Mount Rainier, reminiscent of Art Deco travel posters from the 1930s. But peel away the labels and close your eyes; take one whiff of the stuff and you will be transported not to Port Townsend, where the cheese is made, but to the milk room of a farm in France, or perhaps a Paris cheese shop.

The creamery is housed in an old office building just off the main drag that links this tiny peninsula town to the rest of the world. The Department of Licensing once used the building, and before it was transformed into an artisanal cheese factory "it was stuffed," says partner Will O'Donnell, with junk from floor to ceiling. "It took us quite a while to clean it out."

Now the impeccably clean building is home to a state-of-the-art cheese-making room fitted with state-of-the-art temperature gauges and timers that ensure consistency in the three distinctive cheeses made from local milk. The fresh milk arrives daily from one farm in Chimacum and one in Sequim.

"Originally," says O'Donnell, "I imagined that I would make cheese on a dairy farm." But the intricacies of Washington State Health Department rules forced him to alter his approach, and instead of making a farmstead cheese at a local dairy, O'Donnell ended up making an artisan cheese at his own creamery.

While O'Donnell was nearly stumped trying to find a farm where he could make his cheese, he was attending birthing classes with his pregnant wife, and there he shared his ideas with another expectant father, Ryan Trail. Trail, who had been plant manager for the New Belgium Brewing Co. in Colorado, partnered with O'Donnell to form the cheese company.

"Ryan installed all the equipment," says O'Donnell. "He saved us a fortune."

The cheeses all share the qualities of impeccable craftsmanship and attention to detail that have made them favorites with area chefs and cheese mongers. Farmers markets, Central Markets, Metropolitan Markets, Whole Foods and DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine in the Pike Place Market all stock Mount Townsend cheeses, and a number of local chefs proudly incorporate the cheese into their cheese plates. But while the cheeses have certain things in common, each one is distinctive.

"Inspired by the small, thin white clouds that hang over the Olympic Mountains," Cirrus is the creamery's most popular offering. It's a Camembert-style cheese, inoculated with penicillium candida and penicillium camemberti, the same molds that characterize France's most popular cheese. And just like Camembert, it's aged for three to four weeks to develop a soft interior before it's sold.

Seastack might be the creamery's most interesting offering. "Named after the gorgeous rock formations that dot the Pacific Northwest sea coast," the cheese bears the enigmatic mushroom-smell of a genuine French Chaource, the cheese after which it was modeled. Chaource is a soft cow's milk cheese from the Champagne region that melts into a creamy, almost liquid state as it ages. Seastack is all that and more. Rolled in vegetable ash and sea salt before it's aged, the cheese simultaneously pays tribute to its roots and pushes the boundaries to create something new. It's like that adage "Think global, act local," come to life.

Trailhead is a semi-firm cheese modeled after the rustic Tomme-style cheeses found in the Auvergne and Alpine regions of France. Made in five-pound wheels, it comes in two styles, a fresh version made with pasteurized milk and washed in saltwater brine, and an aged version that bears a thin coat of gray mold. The aged version offers a sharper, nuttier flavor and aroma than the fresh version. Because each wheel is so large, the Trailhead is typically sold in wedges.

Greg Atkinson is author of "West Coast Cooking." He can be reached at greg@northwestessentials.com. Barry Wong is a Seattle-based freelance photographer. He can be reached at studio@barrywongphoto.com.

Trailhead Aligot

(Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Cheese)

Makes about 6 cups

Aligot is a French version of mashed potatoes made super rich with Tomme-style cheese. Trailhead cheese from Mount Townsend Creamery lends the dish local flavor.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus additional salt, to taste

About 6 cups water

12 garlic cloves, peeled

8 ounces Mount Townsend Creamery aged Trailhead cheese

1. Scrub the potatoes thoroughly and cut them into 1-inch cubes. Put the cubed potatoes and the salt in a heavy, 3-quart Dutch oven and add just enough water to barely cover. Cook the potatoes until they are quite tender and beginning to fall apart, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, cook the garlic cloves over medium-high heat with just enough water to cover. As soon as the garlic is tender, take it off the heat and set it aside.

2. Drain the potatoes through a colander placed over another pot or a bowl to catch the cooking liquid. Put the drained potatoes back in the Dutch oven. Mash the cooked garlic cloves with a fork or push them through a garlic press and whisk the garlic purée into the potatoes, mashing the potatoes in the process. Add just enough of the potato cooking liquid to render the mashed potatoes smooth and creamy.

3. Stir in the grated cheese and continue stirring until the melted cheese forms long strands that stretch away from the spoon as you stir. Add salt to taste and serve hot.

Greg Atkinson, 2007

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