Monday, January 3, 2011

A Tribute to Sally Jackson

Retiring after 31 years.

Sally Jackson of Oroville, Washington made her cheese the way it has been made for centuries in other parts of the world - that is to say, in somewhat primitive conditions.  She has been a widely respected pioneer in the American artisinal cheese movement.  Using the milk from her small herd of cows, goats and sheep, she quietly helped to raise the bar on what cheese can be in this country.

Courtesy of Madame Fromage
If you haven't had the pleasure of tasting her cheese, here's part of a short review by Madame Fromage (   She begins:

Splendor has a new name: Sally Jackson. This small-batch producer from Oroville, WA makes one of the most glorious goat cheeses I've tasted to date. Talk about nuance, talk about flavor notes, talk about a cheese that pairs so beautifully with ripe apricots I nearly crumpled to the kitchen floor, weeping. Oh heaven, it comes in grape leaves. If you are reading this, log off. Get into your car. Drive to Oroville now . . .

Unfortunately, her career has ended sadly.  In November, the Washington State Dept of Agriculture gave her 30 days to upgrade her facilities or be forced to close.  Then, coincidentally, a month later, the FDA claimed to have found evidence of e-coli in her cheese and they asked her to do a voluntary recall.  She cooperated and issued a recall on December 17th.   A few days later she decided to retire from the business.

We don't know the facts about all this, but we do know she will be missed.  This exerpt from one of her retailer's blog articles expresses our sentiments well:
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
The end of an era
. . .The sliver of a silver lining in all of this is that the public is just as saddened by this as I am. Customers have been coming in to ask after her, and the general feedback that I've received is that of sympathy and great love for what she has accomplished. She is quite simply a legacy in American artisan cheesemaking, and her cheese will be dearly missed.

I've also had many people ask what they might be able to do to help. I don't know Sally very well, in fact I've never met her in person or seen her amazing farm, but I do know that she needs our support as she goes through this incredibly difficult transition. I do know that she is among the most humble people I've come across, and it would mean the world to her to hear from you, so please take a few moments during this crazy time of year to write her a postcard or a letter, send her an email, and tell her how much you have loved her cheeses over the years. You can find contact information for her on her website.

Twenty one years ago, we published an article about Sally in our Cheesemakers' Journal (now called our Moosletter).  Bob Carroll visited her farm and captured her personality and her lifestyle in Issue 30, 1989:

Sally Jackson of Washington State
By Robert Carroll

I first met Sally Jackson on a crisp, sunny day in November.  The drive from Spokane, Washington to Oroville had been a long one; however, the countryside was magnificent, especially the ride over the Cascades.  Sally's farm was on the western side of the Cascades looking down over a large valley.

The countryside immediately surrounding Sally's farm was something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting.  There was an overwhelming sense of openness confronting her property, and I had a sense that if residents from Lake Woebegone had ever migrated west, this would be a community with appeal to them.

As I drove down Sally's unmarked dirt driveway, having spent the last hour and a half looking for it, I asked myself why was I making such a long side trip to visit someone who did not know that I was even coming.  Sally has no telephone.

Sally Jackson is a legend in Washington state.  She makes a variety of farmstead cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk.  I had just given a cheesemaking workshop at the American Dairy Goat Association Annual Meeting in Spokane and had heard many stories about Sally's cheesemaking.  A year previous to this, I was a lecturer at a workshop at the University of Washington and had listened to a number of dairy regulators who spoke of her cheesemaking with a certain amount of awe, admiration, irritation and chagrin.  Sally Jackson does not make cheese to the sterilized standards of American dairy regulations.  She makes cheese as it was made for thousands of years in the mountains of Europe.  I had heard she was a class act and I just had to visit this cheesemaker in the mountains of Washington who lived with no electricity.

As I drove down her dirt driveway two friendly dogs came running down to greet me and lead me on.  I first saw Sally Jackson coming from a wood pile laden with a prodigious armful of wood.  She was of medium stature with short black hair and was wearing a blue parka soiled on the bottom from many trips to the wood pile.  She glanced up at me with a certain amount of irritation and I immediately understood why Sally had no phone.  In a Woody Allen type gesture, I introduced myself and held out my hand in a token of friendship, which if accepted would have sent an armful of wood spilling onto the ground.

Upon learning who I was and that she had written to me for cheesemaking equipment in the past, Sally said that she was just heading down to the cheese house with the firewood and that I should follow her down.

The cheese house was down below the main house nestled in a small hollow with trees on the hillside above it, which, according to Sally, provided shade and coolness in the summer months.  The path down to the house went past the dairy goat barn which had a yard in front of it holding a variety of dairy goats, sheep, cows, ducks and geese.  Sally said she was milking 16 goats, several cows and several Dorset sheep.

The cheese house itself was a small structure made out of wood with a side shed attached.  A stove pipe popped out of the middle of the roof directly over the only window on one side of the building.

We went through the door of the side shed into the cheese house.  The center of the building was dominated by a white enamel wood cookstove which was roaring away, yet the room was still somewhat cool.  Sally had brought more wood down on a small cart which also held several tall and thin cream cans containing sheep milk and goat milk.

The cream cans of milk were quickly poured through a milk filter into waiting buckets.  Then the buckets of milk which were still body warm from the recent milking were poured into an old fashioned milk cooler.  I had heard of these coolers but had never actually seen one in action.  The cooler contains a large reservoir which holds the milk and below there is a series of pipes through which cold well water flows.  Sally opened the lever on the milk reservoir, and the milk poured out in about 30 small streams over the cold pipes until it was directed to a spout which sent the cold milk into a bucket.

On the cookstove top, there rested three stainless steel pots of milk which were being warmed for cheesemaking.  Sally added cheese starter culture from a Ball canning jar to the milk, and then a short while later she added rennet with the milk at about 90F.  She does not use a thermometer and checks everything by hand, sight and smell.  Today she was making a number of goat and sheep milk cheeses.  Aftdr adding the rennet, Sally waits 30 minutes and then cuts the curd up with a knife.  As she cuts the curd Sally explains to me that she has been making cheese in eastern Washington for 15 years now.  She moved from Connecticut and her husband is originally from Washington.

She tells me how the region has been in a drought situation for four years now as I could attest to by the thousands of acres of burnt forest I had seen coming through the Cascades.  She explains that her operation is ecologically sound for the area for she uses a minimum of water in her production and no electicity.

I ask her what is the name of the cheese she is making and she tells me a sheep cheese.  She says people always want her to give her cheeses a special name, and then, while still stirring the curd says, "Heck, I had a hard enough time just naming my four children when they were born."

"I was going to call my sheep milk cheese a Pecorino, but I was once in a fancy cheese shop in Seattle and the store owner was tasting a small wheel of my sheep cheese with enthusiasm.  She asked if there was any more of this cheese available and I told her that I had a much bigger Pecorino at home.  There was a noticeable silence in the cheese shop and then all present broke out into hearty laughter.  I have never called my sheep cheese a Pecorino since that day.  In fact, my cheeses are simply known as sheep milk, goat milk or cow milk cheeses."

Sally has heated the curd to 105F and is slowly stirring the curd.  She lets it set about 30 minutes and then dumps the whey into pots to feed to the animals.  She ladles the warm curd into cheesecloth-lined molds and then presses the cheese in three homemade presses.  These are lever presses with 45 pound cement blocks for weights.  She presses the cheeses overnight.

There are two windows in the cheese room providing light and a view overlooking the garden with a scarecrow and dairy barn in the distance.  A shelf to one side of the stove houses spices and herbs which are added to some of the cheeses.  These include dried tomatoes, garlic, dill, basil, black pepper, etc.  Three sheep milk cheeses wrapped in chestnut leaves lay to the right of the spices.  Sally explains that she has an elderly neighbor raising nut trees nearby who saves her chestnut leaves.  "They are better than grape leaves which become bitter when dry.  Chestnut leaves can be dried and then when soaked in water they will become soft again."  Next to the sheep cheeses sits a scale which is used to weigh the cheeses.

There is a doorway off the cheese room which goes into the cheese aging room. This room has a wonderful smell to it, and Sally’s aging cheeses lying shelf upon shelf are a tribute to her craftsmanship. There are six to seven wooden shelves laden with a variety of beautiful cheeses. Some are slightly rounded. There are yellow cheeses from cow milk, cheeses made with dried tomatoes and herbs, dark brown rinded cheeses, all creating a pattern of bright colors. The one window in the aging room has a number of cheeses lined up in a row in front of it. There are small two-pound wheels of dark brown rinded sheep milk cheeses. Sally explains that she rubs the rind with cocoa and olive oil. She gives me a taste of the cheese and it is truly outstanding. I immediately buy a two-pound wheel, which she sells more as a favor for she has much more demand for the cheese than she has time to make.

Sally explains that she and her husband go to Seattle every five to six weeks to sell her cheeses to restaurants and cheese shops in the city. She sells as much cheese as she can bring. She is now making a smoked cow milk cheese which does very well. The smoke house is homemade and consists of a little stove once used by the military (officers, of course) during the Korean war. Her husband lights this up with apple wood chips. The smoke goes through a long expanse of pipe (10 feet long) into a small cabinet made of sheet metal with five or six shelves on it. It is an efficient little smoker. After spending several hours watching Sally make cheese, I must leave for Seattle. As we go back towards her house from the cheese house, I ask her about the building outside which is in the form of a huge mound and looks like something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth Trilogy. It is a building with a magical quality to it with a touch of elves, gnomes and dwarves. Sally explains that it is a wheat chaff building which was to have been used as a cheese curing room but due to shifting chaff it is now used as a shelter for the cows.

Photo courtesy Tami Parr, Pacific Northwest Cheese Project
As we walked away from the cheese house, I have been feeling that I have been through time travel and have seen something as it was practiced long ago. And I feel fortunate. Sally Jackson makes a superb variety of cheeses and they have a distinct character to them. And character is something that is sadly lacking today in the American market place. The dairy inspectors from the state of Washington are nonplussed by her operation. It goes in the face of the standardized drive for antiseptic and sterile conditions of today’s cheese factory. Sally explains that on a recent inspection a state dairy inspector was bit on the behind by one of her geese. Hopefully a place can be created in the regulations to encompass a farmstead operation such as Sally’s. It is more of a historical farmstead cheese operation.

Sally is a true artist. She is amused to see her fame spreading to articles in the New York Times but is not impressed. Her roots and temperament are solidly grounded in the earth. She is not on a quest to make a great deal of money. She is simply making the best cheeses that she possibly can in an environmentally sound operation.

Photo courtesy Tami Parr, Pacific Northwest Cheese Project
She has as much of a market as she needs. She has no phone and usually will not respond to inquiries sent by letter for she says she has little enough time to do her work as it is. She works very hard seven days a week. Sally Jackson has a refreshingly blunt and honest approach to life. Nothing pretentious. No equivocation. No apologies. This is reflected in her cheeses. They are superb examples of a farmstead cheeses made by a true artist.

Thank you, Sally, for all you have accomplished.  We wish you the very best.

Sally's website-
Sally's e-mail:

1 comment:

Madame Fromage said...

Beautifully done, Jeri!