If your idea of dessert is an artisanal cheese plate instead of chocolate pot de crème, you’ll want to head to Cyril’s at Clay Pigeon Winery, Portland’s newest cheese-wine bar. The rustic-chic space located in industrial southeast Portland houses a petit urban winery with an adjoining café-like-space that begs you to sit for an afternoon snack of cheese and charcuterie. Sasha Davies, the resident cheese guru, is the co-owner along with her winemaker-husband Michael Claypool.
Davies started her cheese career in New York City as an apprentice in the cheese caves — temperature and humidity controlled spaces for aging cheese — of Artisanal Premium Cheese. She further honed her skills managing the caves at the renowned Murray’s Cheese, then moved to Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as the resident cheese expert. In 2010 she published her first book, The Guide to West Coast Cheese: More than 300 Cheeses Handcrafted in California, Oregon, and Washington, and recently released her second book, The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice: An Insider’s Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese, Taught by the Masters.
I met with Sasha recently to get the scoop on finding one’s passion, her wildly successful cheese club and the etiquette of eating (or not eating) the rind.
Kerry Newberry: What was your inspiration or ah-ha moment that led you to work in cheese?
Sasha Davies: When I was living in New York City working in financial services, I had that moment of ‘Wow, I can do this for a really long time and have hobbies on the side that are interesting or I could try to find work that lights me up the way things outside of work do.’
I got to a very short list: cheese and radio documentaries. I found an internship that was in New York in cheese working with Daphne Zeppos. She was the first person in the nation carrying the title affineur (an expert in ageing cheese). At the time, I didn’t even know what it meant.
During the internship, I realized that cheese satisfied a lot of my favorite areas of information — it was an agricultural product, so it has some connection to the environment. It also had a connection to animals. I knew that I loved eating cheese, what I didn’t expect was the people and culture element — there really is story and cultural relevance to so many cheeses.
KN: In 2006 you embarked on a cross-country adventure visiting 45 American cheesemakers, a project documented online here. What were some of your key takeaways from that trip?
SD: The biggest takeaway for me from that trip was realizing the thing that would impact cheese, or artisan cheese in the U.S., is the encroachment of urban areas moving out into farmlands. The cost of starting a farm, of buying farmland was something you realize creates an imbalance for American producers versus some of their European counterparts who may have subsidies in place that help them and are also working with land that has been transferred from generation to generation.
KN: What do you think sets Oregon apart in the cheese world?
SD: I think of Vermont as a state with a reputation for high-quality, beautiful handcrafted cheeses. I remember in 2006 when Michael and I did our cross-country tour, the impression that I left the Pacific Northwest with was that Oregon and Washington are really nipping at Vermont’s heels in that category. Not only do you have a lot of growth in cheesemaking, you also have people that are making really beautiful cheese.
Carine Goldin from Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese models her cheese on French cheese and is an amazingly skilled cheesemaker. Rogue Creamery is a classic. They picked up a creamery that was on its last legs and really brought it to the forefront of American cheese — winning Best in Show at The American Cheese Society twice. As for growth, there are a lot of new producers making high-quality cheese like Briar Rose Creamery which just won a Good Food Award in San Francisco.
KN: What are some of the more common questions you get asked by patrons at Cyril’s?
SD: In terms of people that shop for cheese, two or three questions come up all the time. One is: Am I supposed to eat the rind? The answer is there is no rule. If someone tells you a rule, you should ignore them because you should eat what tastes good to you — and don’t eat it if it doesn’t taste good to you. I tell people to start at the center of the cheese and work your way to the rind and stop when it doesn’t taste good anymore.
KN: Anything else?
SD: Don’t eat the wax!
KN: What sparked the idea for your very popular Cheese Club/CSA — and how does it work?
SD: I used to work at cheese shops that did really high volume on the East Coast and got into the habit of buying entire wheels. That’s the best way to buy cheese because you know it hasn’t been sitting on a shelf in transit. Think of it like an open bottle of wine that next day — it’s not undrinkable; it’s just diminished in some capacity. Same goes for a wheel of cheese.
When I did my initial ordering for Cyril’s I bought a 54-pound wheel of Montgomery’s Cheddar, a beautiful traditional English cheddar. When it got here I had a moment of reckoning — the idea that I would sell this piece by piece on cheese plates would take forever. So we had a party for the launch of The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice and I cut open the wheel of cheddar. People were really into it and asked a ton of questions. I realized if I presold cheese orders, I could buy big wheels of cheese that are near and dear to my heart.
Now I use Kickstarter — each month you can choose to buy a pound of cheese; inclusive in that is a Cheese Pick-Up Party invite. We pair the cheese with beer and wine and make appetizers using the cheese for the party. Another perk for participating is you get to vote on the cheese for the next month.
KN: Your new book The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice: An Insider’s Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese, Taught by the Masters features interviews with worldwide experts, cheese fundamentals and 16 step-by-step recipes. What was the process for writing this book and what will the reader learn?
SD: For this book I got to do what lights me up — talk to my cheese industry heroes like Jamie Montgomery of Montgomery Cheddar. I had a reason to call all these people that I really admire that I thought could impart some knowledge to a burgeoning home cheesemaker or someone thinking of becoming a professional cheesemaker. Readers will learn the basics of how cheese is made and also the techniques that allow cheesemakers to produce various types of cheeses (fresh, aged, surface ripened, blue). If a reader is so inclined they could absolutely use this book to learn to make a variety of cheeses.
The interviews with industry experts are there to offer additional support for cheesemaking — to help readers avoid pitfalls experienced by veteran cheesemakers and provide some hints on the artistry involved in production — but also to help place cheese in a larger cultural context by demonstrating how deeply ingrained and meaningful cheese is in certain cultures, and even exploring some of the key issues in our industry today like food safety concerns, cheese mites, the potential loss of biodiversity, and how those issues affect actual cheesemaking and cheesemakers today.
Personally, I also loved offering readers some guidance on how to not only store and serve cheese, but how to wrap it beautifully. Especially for people making cheese at home and wanting to give it to friends — how nice would it be to be able to hand it to them in a parcel that honors the hard work they put into making that cheese.