Local cheesemaker seizes chance to learn craft from Basque artisans

Jess Perrie

Story by Valerie Phillips
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Tue, Sep 10, 2013
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If you called Jess Perrie a little “cheesy,” you would be right. And she would probably take it as a compliment.

“Cheese people are fun, they care about what you eat and about their products,” said Perrie, who is the wholesale sales director for Beehive Cheese in Uintah.

As the first recipient of the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award, she will receive $5,000 to finance a trip to the Basque region of Spain next spring to study the cheesemaking methods there. Then she will share what she learns with other American cheesemakers at the 2014 American Cheese Society Conference in Sacramento, Calif.

Perrie’s award was announced at the 2013 American Cheese Society Conference in Madison, Wis.

Daphne Zepos was a Greek-born author, chef, educator and cheese aficionado. She was a co-owner of the Cheese School of San Francisco, and wrote articles about cheese for The Atlantic magazine.

“On her deathbed, she created a teaching foundation,” said Perrie. “It’s great because we need to learn and educate and teach our communities.”

Perrie has worked at Beehive Cheese for more than a year. She has an undergraduate degree in organic chemistry, and earned a master’s degree in cheese chemistry from Utah State University.

Perrie said her initial goal was to become a veterinarian, but she changed her mind while working at a large veterinarian clinic near Portland, Maine. She realized she wanted to be involved in the dairy industry, and her interest in cheesemaking was ignited when she began working at the Silvery Moon Creamery in Maine.

“It was a very small micro-dairy, making artisan cheese, and that’s what opened me to the cheese world. I’ve never looked back,” said Perrie.

Her love of skiing is one of the reasons she ended up moving to Utah.

In her vision statement to the Daphne Zepos selection committee, Perrie wrote that she wanted to explore the connection between Spanish Basque tradition and the American West where she lives. She pointed out that roughly 57,000 Basque immigrants live in the Western states, largely a result of immigration following the California gold rush.

“In lieu of mining, Basque-Americans raised sheep in the open lands of Oregon and southern Idaho, and by 1910, they spread into the Western open range,” she wrote. “Conditions in this area proved quite suitable for the Basque tradition, and their practice of sheepherding was passed down through generations.”

She hopes to learn about the Basque region’s 4,000 years of cheesemaking tradition, which includes the famed Idiazabal, made from whole unpasteurized sheep’s milk.

She will then pass along those principles of sustainable use of the local environment “through mantras like peaceful sheep create peaceful cheeses,” according to her vision statement.

“Idaho, home of the largest Basque American population, is the third-largest cheese-producing state in the country,” she wrote. “It was important for me to reconnect this area, which pushes out thousands of pounds of industrial cheese, with its Basque cheesemaking roots.”

She hopes to inspire the notion that, “Excellent cheesemaking is achievable in the dry, brutally hot climate of the American West if you work with the strengths of the environment, not manipulate it to fit your idea of cheesemaking.”

“It’s important to protect and preserve the connection we have through sustainable, traditional methods,” she added. “Sharing traditions keeps them alive.”

Valerie Phillips blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Cheese, Features, Food
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