Daniel Ahern carefully unfolds the paper creased around Estrella Family Creamery’s rich Black Creek Buttery. The former chef of Impromptu Wine Bar Café is building a tasting platter of his six favorite Washington cheeses for his wife, to be served alongside homemade crackers.
Ahern places the next cheese onto the plate: a squat wheel of Mt. Townsend Creamery’s Seastack. The cow’s milk cheese is named for the blocky rock formations along Washington’s coast. “Oh Lord, we love this one,” he says, almost caressing it. “It’s ripe and earthy, soft as any good triple-cream cheese, with a smattering of ash and sea salt. Oh, yes.” I wonder if I should give him some time alone with his cheeses.
But I can’t—I’m just as smitten. Ahern moves down his list, making room on the dish for Beecher’s Marco Polo, with its peppercorn bite, and Sea Breeze Farm’s nutty Vache de Vashon next to the others. Unlike most cheese-producing regions, Washington doesn’t seem to have a certain specialty. We do it all. Matt Day, a cofounder of Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend says that’s because we haven’t been at it as long as, say, the Vermonters. “We benefit from not having a long history of cheesemaking here. People get to do more unique things.”
As proof, Ahern brings out some Quillisascut Viejo, a goat’s milk cheese that’s firm enough to grate. “Most people think of soft chèvre when they think of goat cheese. But this one is a little like Romano. It’s a perfect finishing cheese for those who can’t digest cow’s milk,” says Ahern, who made a name for himself tailoring Impromptu’s menu to people with special dietary needs. (He’s now working on a book featuring glutenless recipes with his wife Shauna James Ahern, the foodie blogger Gluten-Free Girl).
He squeezes a goat cheese from Sally Jackson, one of Washington’s first artisanal cheesemakers, onto his now-bursting platter, and slides thin slices of apple and pear in alongside. “So, at home, do you serve cheeses before or after dinner?” I ask. Ahern looks perplexed. “Before or after? How about for dinner?” he says. Great idea, especially in a stumbling economy, when splurgey Valentine’s meals seem like a lot to stomach. This year, some small hunks of Ahern’s favorite cheeses—lovingly arranged alongside homemade crackers and washed down with a good bottle of wine—might be just the thing.