Researching cheesemakers and their cheeses doesn’t grow old. There are as many stories to tell as there are cheeses, and Sally Jackson’s Renata makes for a great one.
Country of Origin: United States (Washington state)
Milk: Cow (Swiss brown)
Age: 3 months (approx.)
Generally, it takes about 1 gallon of cow’s milk to produce 1 pound of cheese. Usually, cheesemakers have a herd of cows at their disposal. Not Ms. Sally Jackson, who produces both her animals’ milk and cheeses on a 140 acre farm in rural Washington state. She only has one Swiss brown cow, and that cow’s name is Renata. That’s right, Renata the cow alone produces the milk for the Renata cheese. If you click here and click on over to the third picture, you can see the sweet cow herself. Just to be clear, the Jacksons do have a couple other cows, but only Renata produces the milk for the Renata cheese. For obvious reasons, this cheese is thus extremely rare!
The isolated Jackson farm is situated on 140 acres of tillable land, which gets rather inhospitable during the winter months. You can catch a glimpse of the snow-covered fields and buildings here.
Nevertheless, average annual rainfall around here is 8 inches. Despite whatever the elements toss at them, renowned veteran farmers and cheesemakers Sally and Roger Jackson perservere, and even thrive. They keep their land fertile by applying manure collected from their livestock, and maintain wells to maintain their water supply. If you have been seeking the romantic image of the “Lone Cheesemaker,” well, this may be it. The Jacksons do all of the work themselves, in the middle of nowhere, and until fairly recently, did not have electricity. They care greatly for their small herds and few “pets,” though. Based on my research, they seem to be people of few words and much action, although they have managed to pass on their knowledge to other well-known cheesemakers like Kelli Estrella from the Estrella Family Creamery in Montesano, Washington, and M. Clare Paris of Larkhaven Farmstead in Tanasket, Washington (this last information was gleaned from the PNW Cheese Project blog).
The love that Ms. Sally and Mr. Roger give to their animals is apparent in the extraordinary quality of their cheeses. The Renata is a true gem among the store’s selection. It arrives wrapped in grape leaves and tied with white string. A small white tag labeling the cheese as RENATA is so precious, I want to keep it after the cheese is gone! The paste is semi-soft, so it feels springy if you press on it lightly. It is a bit shiny with a uniform buttery yellow color and peppercorn-sized eyes throughout. The overall visual impression is elegant, especially since the cheese is wrapped with so much care.
Renata’s rich aroma is a good indicator of the high quality of the Jacksons’ farm and pastures. All at once, the cheese is earthy, woodsy (imparted from the grape leaves), but pastoral most of all. One sniff can transport a person to Oroville, Washington in no time.
With regard to taste and flavor, I am not sure if everyone will love this cheese. Renata is the type of cheese that has more flavor than taste. That is to say, it is not so much sweet, salty, sour or bitter, as it is pastoral, and evocative of the environment from which it came. If I had to explain Renata’s taste, I would use the word savory, or umami, in the sense that mushrooms are savory. When I tasted the Renata, its pronounced flavor made up for its mild taste. Very quickly, I sensed a powerful earthy, grassy quality that was quite unique from any other cow’s milk cheeses I’ve tasted in the boutique. Renata’s mouthfeel is elastic and springy, and will keep its form in your mouth. However, the texture is smooth and the cheese goes down easily. The cheese’s finish is short, but memorable and grassy.
The subtlety and delicacy of the cheese would probably best be served without any condiment pairings, but I decided to try a few anyway. I found the store’s Armenian preserved whole walnuts have a comparable delicate flavor, and their sweetness will not overwhelm the Renata. Moreover, I felt the nuttiness of the walnuts complmented the cheese’s grassy/pastoral flavor well. The other decent pairing, the fig chutney, brought out the savory flavor of the cheese.