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Representing Raw

There's more to celebrate at this year's Oregon Cheese Festival than a bigger event with new foods, beverages and demonstrations.

Fears about the future of raw-milk cheeses almost have evaporated following a meeting of artisan cheesemakers last week with the Food and Drug Administration in Washington D.C., says David Gremmels, co-owner of Rogue Creamery. For more than a year, about 120 creameries nationwide have undergone surprise audits by government officials, says Gremmels.

"That's what raised the alarm," he says. "It seemed to be targeted at the small artisan."

At issue is the government-mandated aging period of 60 days for cheeses from unpasteurized milk. Under review, the regulation is intended to ensure raw-milk cheeses are free of harmful bacteria by the time they reach consumers. At least one study, however, found that E. coli can survive in cheese for more than a year, according to The Associated Press.

Cheesemakers say using raw milk retains naturally occurring, good bacteria while imparting unique flavors and regional identity often likened to a wine's "terroir." An American ambassador for artisan, raw-milk cheeses, Rogue Creamery's famed Rogue River Blue gets much of its flavor from the pastures cows graze in autumn, as well as its signature brandy-soaked grape leaves and smoked hazelnut shells, says Gremmels. The cheese's aging far surpasses government requirements and attains its peak after a year in the cave, he adds.

"I don't think we're in danger of losing our tradition."

Winner of numerous international prizes, Rogue River Blue recently was added to the roster at iconic Parisian cheese shop Laurent Dubois. Rogue Creamery, in 2007, was the first U.S. cheesemaker to export raw-milk cheese to the European Union.

"They were very pleased that our exports are doing well, says Gremmels of talks with federal officials.

Last week's long-awaited meeting of FDA policy makers and regulators with members of the American Cheese Society came just a day after the latest food recall, this time of Skippy brand peanut butter possibly tainted with salmonella.

"I think they have other priorities," says Gremmels of food-safety officials. "Cheese isn't even on their radar with these major, major recalls they're dealing with in other industries."

However, the FDA is taking its environmental samples from audited creameries to test the science behind its 60-day rule, says Gremmels. The agency's recommendations are expected by the end of the year, he says, adding that depending on the type cheese, the required aging period could be shortened instead of prolonged.

"There's science out there that supports raw-milk cheesemaking," he says.

It's unlikely given recent talks that an outright ban on raw milk — cheesemakers' biggest fear — would come to pass, says Gremmels. Cheeses most affected by new government regulations, he says, would be soft, blooming-rind cheeses, already pasteurized by major Oregon cheesemakers. In fact, he's aware of no Oregon creamery subject to the past year's surprise audits, adding that the state is at the forefront of cheesemaking science and risk management with help from Oregon State University.

"We welcome auditors and regulators," he says. "We're very transparent about the purity of our ingredients and the traceability."

Visitors to Saturday's festival can taste cow- and goat-milk cheeses from 18 of the state's certified creameries. Those join more than 60 other vendors of beer and wine, chocolate, baked goods and other prepared foods. Free this year are roasted Klamath Basin potatoes from one of the creamery's dedicated farms.

Drawing more than 3,000 people last year, the festival doubled in size for the second consecutive year, says Francis Plowman, the creamery's director of marketing and president of the Oregon Cheese Guild. Space for vendors and classes has expanded to the opposite side of Front Street, where traffic will be slowed to 20 mph during Saturday's festival hours, and participants will use temporary crosswalks. The Britt Festivals trolly will shuttle people between parking lots at Mae Richardson Elementary, Central Point Cold Storage and Quality Fence Co.

Because the busiest time is noon, this year's festival is providing a free, "mini brunch," for the first 200 visitors before 11 a.m. Included is Human Bean coffee, orange juice and three, "small bites," each prepared with Rogue Creamery cheese by The Willows Bed and Breakfast of Central Point and The Winchester Inn and Ashland Springs Hotel, both of Ashland.

Admission to the festival, a special "meet-the-cheesemakers" dinner and beverage-tasting tickets benefit the nonprofit Oregon Cheese Guild, founded to educate consumers, legislators and regulatory agencies on artisan cheesemaking practices.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

A touch of sweetness from apricot preserves balances this sandwich with blue cheese and prosciutto. See the accompanying recipe. - AP