David Lockwood of Neal’s Yard Dairy on a special cheese for Thanksgiving: Rogue River Blue
Image: David Gremmels
“It’s really nice that it’s won awards, but that’s not why we stock it,” says David Lockwood, a director of Neal’s Yard Dairy and a fellow compatriot of the cheese in question. Earlier this year, the US-born cheese Rogue River Blue beat 3,800 cheeses from 42 countries on six continents to be named the World Champion at the World Cheese Awards: the first American cheese ever to have been awarded such an honour. In the days that followed, this beloved blue—a rare but treasured seasonal guest at Neal’s Yard Dairy—became the most photographed cheese in the world.
“It is a very well-made cheese,” David says simply, when we ask why he thinks Rogue River did so well at the awards this year. “It’s not overly blue or overly strong and it’s quite sweet, with interesting flavours. It’s accessible,” he continues. “If you don’t like blue cheese, a mouthful of this is not going to put you off.” Though Neal’s Yard Dairy’s MO is British cheese, Rogue River Blue “is just so interesting and different” they decided to bring it over. “I knew about Rogue Creamery from way back, when I first started in cheese in Zingerman’s Deli in Michigan. We used to buy their Oregon Blue,” he remembers. When, years later, Rogue River expressed an interest in exporting the cheese to Neal’s Yard Dairy, “we decided to take a chance.
This was more than a decade ago. Since then, almost every Thanksgiving has heralded the return of the Rogue River Blue, at the request of hundreds of customers. “We bring it in mainly between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” says David, who remains “pretty hooked into” American cheese, serving as active member and regular judge at the American Cheese Society. “There are a lot of similarities: as opposed to France and Italy where you have producers making the same cheeses for generations, here and in the US, there are a lot of new producers and new types of cheese. We learn from them and vice versa.” Showcasing Stateside creameries like Rogue River Blue is a great way to be a part of that mutual appreciation society.
Heady with fruit and spice
So just what is it that makes Rogue River Blue so interesting as to be placed on a counter that is otherwise exclusively reserved for British territorials? Sure, it’s raw milk—and that’s unusual in America—but so are many other cheeses at Neal’s Yard Dairy. To stand out in this crowd you need something else. You need nine to 11 months maturation. You need cows on site, or in the immediate vicinity (“they have started running their own herd of cows, from which the majority of the milk comes,” says David) and you need milk at its peak—which is autumn, in Oregon, meaning Rogue River Blue is only made in this season. You need organic syrah grape leaves that have been soaked in pear liqueur, into which the mature cheese can be hand wrapped for a rind heady with fruit and spice, giving way to a “savoury bacon, yet also nutty and sweet” centre.
When Rogue River Blue won the World Cheese Awards, Neal’s Yard Dairy’s sales director Jason was present, having been one of the judges—and on hearing the news phoned the cheesemaker, also David, from the awards ceremony. He was in a field full of cows when he answered. Because the most vital ingredient in cheese of this quality, at home or abroad, is passion and dedication.