I have eaten a lot of cheese this year. I have eaten a lot of truly wonderful, life-changingly good cheese. But to my mind, the best cheese I have had is a cheese I can’t get enough of—and every time it hits my tongue, I feel euphoric.
So marinated labneh and alpine-style and washed-rind glories aside, the best cheese my mouth has met in all of 2017 is a little black pearl of ash-coated, bloomy-rind sheep and goat’s milk.
Aged for a very short one to two weeks, Black Pearl is a morsel you want to try once proteolysis has taken over and the creamline has started to liquefy, and the whole round is soft and squeezable.
That’s when you can cut it open, press the sides, and slurp up the cream that pools out—and not even be ashamed about it. Go ahead, eat the whole thing yourself.
Black Pearl has a bloomy rind that is furrowed with Geotrichum candidum wrinkles and made black by a sprinkling of grape leaf ash. Although the bloom on the rind obscures a totality of blackness, the rind does indeed present a striking contrast to the snow-white center beneath.
When you bite into this cheese, the center is pure cream. It is silky on the tongue, tangy, but faintly sweet, milky, and much milder than you might expect from a cheese that is partly made with goat’s milk. It doesn’t have that kick-you-in-the-teeth barnyardy-ness that normally scares my boyfriend away from the refrigerator when I bring goat cheeses home.
The rind is stronger, mushroomy, a little bit spicy even, with an earthiness that surely comes from the grape ash. I can taste leather and grass in the rind, which creates a truly wonderful counterbalance for the wondrous cloud of supple white paste it encases.
It is the type of cheese that you take a bite of, ponder, and then say, “Oh god.”
It. Is. So. Good.
The first time I tried Black Pearl was in September, at the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers’ Festival. PCC Community Markets was sampling the cheese paired with Snowdrift Cider Co,’s Red Cider. The cider was lovely, the cheese was wondrous, together they were fabulous—but as I wandered through the festival, I kept thinking about that cheese.
At the time, I had only ever seen Tieton Creamery’s cheeses at the festival, and never in stores. I feared that I would have to make a pilgrimage to Tieton in order to satisfy my future cravings for Black Pearl. Now, a field trip really isn’t such a bad thing to have to plan for, but the key word here, of course, is “plan.” (Tieton, which is near Yakima, is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from Washington, each way.)
But then I started working in a shop (PCC, that is) that carried Tieton’s cheeses, and now I can get my Black Pearl fix whenever I need to. Sometimes the creamery even sends us testers—dangerously ripe rounds that we can share with our customers to create new disciples of the cheese. The cheesemongers must, of course, taste them first to ensure that they are safe for the public.
(No one is safe from this cheese. It’s too good for us all.)
Tieton—which is pronounced Tie-uh-tun—is a rural community where fruit, cider, and cheese are all grown on the same land. Ruth and Lori Babcock moved there in 2010, leaving behind tech jobs in the greater Seattle area for 20 acres of farmland and a herd of Nubian goats, Katahdin and East Friesian sheep, as well as pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese.
The farm’s focus is on sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry. The care that Ruth gives to the animals is evident in Lori’s handmade cheeses.
We can all taste it; this year, Tieton won a first-place people’s choice award at the Washington Artisan Cheesemakers’ Festival, for the washed-rind Rheba. Last year, Rheba won the third-place people’s choice award at the festival.
Rheba is really good. And so are all of Tieton’s cheeses.
But Black Pearl is, by far and away, the best cheese I have eaten in 2017.