An Oregon cheese tour is heaven any way you slice it
From left: The Grilled Cheese Grill food cart, local collection of artisan cheese at Chizu’s in downtown Portland, a farmer’s market.(Barbara Albright)
Bikes, helmets and locks are complimentary for Hotel Monaco guests in Portland.(RRD / Kimpton Hotels)
Nathan Hall, left, and William Steuernagel proprietors of Cheese & Crack Snack Shop in Portland.(Barbara Albright)
Iconic Tillamook cheese factory on the Oregon coast.(Barbara Albright)
Award display for goat cheeses of Briar Rose Creamery in Dundee, Ore.(Barbara Albright)
My daughter and I recently noshed our way through the Willamette Valley, a 150-mile-long, massively productive agricultural area in Oregon. The abundant rainfall in the Pacific Northwest makes for lush pastures, and the cows and goats grazing here produce the creamy cheeses that were the focus of our trip. We visited a few small dairies (Willamette Valley Cheese Co., 8105 Wallace Road N.W., Salem, Ore.;  399-9806) where informative cheesemongers unwrapped several varieties for us to sample. We also took a day jaunt to the Tillamook cheese factory on the coast, where we enjoyed the self-guided tour of this huge cheese-making co-op.
The tab: $696, excluding taxes and fees, for two nights at the Hotel Monaco; $168.50 for meals and drinks; $72 for a rental car; $27 on cheese purchases and no charge for our indulgent cheese tastings (although we did leave tips when we could).
The Hotel Monaco (506 S.W. Washington St.;  207-2201) tops my list of hotels that capture Portland’s character. It’s quirky yet luxurious with colorfully decorated rooms, each with a bit of whimsy. We splurged here but wanted to be downtown so we could walk and cycle in this pedestrian-friendly city. Hotel Monaco offers complimentary use of its bikes and provides helmets and locks for each cyclist. Valet parking costs $41 a night; hybrid vehicles get a 50% discount.
Our hands-down favorite meal was at Chizu (1126 S.W. Alder St., Portland, Ore.;  719-6889), which is similar to a sushi bar. Although you can select from more than 30 cheeses to create your own cheese board, we let the cheesemongers select local fare for us. The result was an artistic arrangement of goat and cow cheeses, organic honey, quince paste, crostini, house chutney, local blueberries, nuts and drizzled goat cheese caramel. Every bite was exquisite: Both my daughter and I will remember and savor that board for a long time. For a more casual meal, a hotel employee recommended Cheese & Crack (22 S.E. 28th Ave., Portland, Ore.;  206-7315). Using hotel bikes, we meandered our way across the Burnside Bridge to this neighborhood snack stop and shared the Beecher’s Board (its most popular). The brie brûlée was fantastic — brie topped with burnt sugar. We also dined on macaroni gratin made from the finest fromage at the charming Little Bird Bistro (215 S.W. 6th Ave.;  688-5952), only a few blocks from our hotel.
We were told at one of the dairies that there were several cheese booths at the Portland State Farmers Market (1825 S.W. Broadway;  241-0032) every Saturday, year-round. We loved the artisan cheese booths scattered amid the produce and flower stalls. Each offered several varieties to taste and some were seasonal, such as pumpkin stout and tomato chèvre in the fall ( Portland Creamery booth,  858-3241). Here we sampled more of what the valley has to offer in one setting, with fresh produce and breads to accompany whatever we bought.
The lesson learned
Next time we’ll take a freezable ice pack in an insulated lunch bag to tote our perishables.There’s also a shipping station at the Farmers Market from which you can send non-perishable finds or gifts. This trip is not for the lactose-intolerant, but for a cheese lover, this region is paradise any way you slice it.
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