By John Lehndorff
(This story was originally published in Cheese Connoisseur magazine.)
(May 15, 2015) – David Gremmels knew when he and partner Cary Bryant bought Rogue Creamery in 2001 that the Apis mellifera would be as important as the cows in making great cheese. The grazing fields that would become milk needed to be bee-safe so they could be naturally pollinated along with nearly every nearby crop from raspberries to pinot noir grapes.
The 80-year-old cheese company in Central Point, Oregon produces award-winning blue cheeses from the classic Oregon Blue, distinctive Smoky Blue and creamy Oregonzola, to the aged TouVelle and memorable cheddars including La Di Da Lavender Cheddar.
As apiaries across the United States started reporting massive honeybee die-offs over the past decade, Gremmels and many others sounded the alarm that colony collapse disorder was a cascading crisis and one that could eventually impact the food supply for a hungry world, not just artisan cheese lovers.
Cheese Connoisseur Magazine quizzed David Gremmels recently about bees, cheese and the natural affinity Rogue’s famous blue cheeses have for the full flavored wildflower honeys the company now produces as a by-product.
How serious is the problem of bee colony collapse?
It has been a challenging year for many apiaries nationwide with over 30 percent decreases in colonies. Verona mites, climate change, pesticides including neonicotinoids, herbicides, and monocultures (corn, soybeans, canola and vineyards) are all serious problems affecting bees and bee colony health. The benefits of planting crops with patchworks or strips of biodiverse native plantings for foragers and pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds far outweigh the return from planting mono crops. Farmers that plant organically and provide strips allowing for natural habitat, migratory patterns and pollinators to flourish experience an increase in yields, a decrease in cost associated with pesticides and herbicides, and great market value. Climate is also a factor. Locally in Oregon we have experienced drought conditions which increase the responsibilities of watering and feeding bees.
Are there positive signs that the seriousness of the bee problem is being recognized?
“I see great progress. While there is increased awareness, much more work is needed. Organizations like beegirl.org are dedicated to educating the next generation of produce, fruit and cheese buyers about the benefits of bees. Cities across the United States are becoming bee-friendly and passing ordinances to protect bees.
Can the bee crisis impact the availability and cost of good cheese for consumers and cheesemongers?
It certainly can affect the cost of feed which includes peas, buckwheat, vetch, alfalfa, clover and others. Pollinators can impact these crops by efficiently pollinating and increasing yields and overall health of the landscape. Biodiversity is necessary.
What can consumers and cheese lovers do?
The greatest impact can be made by supporting regional sustainable and organic producers and growers as well as the beekeepers associations such as SOBA, the Southern Oregon Beekeepers Association. These dairy farmers and growers are working hard to preserve biodiversity in our food and landscape. Support and buy honey from regional sideliner apiaries; these are the small apiarists who have a dozen to a few hundred hives. They are passionately making a difference. Also, support local movements that are creating bee-friendly cities.
What are some of the things Rogue Creamery does to support bees?
Rogue Creamery maintains 50 hives on nearly 100 acres of organic land and varies its plantings. We support pollinators (including butterflies and hummingbirds) with acres of wildflowers, sunflowers, buckwheat and natural borders that include vetch, Himalayan blackberry, wild roses and star thistle. We are increasing the diversity of plantings with rosemary, lavender, thyme, clover and oregano. We are consciously leaving natural borders along the wild and scenic Rogue River untouched with an abundance of maple, madrone and fir trees providing necessary nectar for bee and pollinator health.
Are you producing enough honey yet to make it available to the public?
Rogue Creamery is producing honey under the Happy Honey label and it is available at rogue creamery.com, Rogue Creamery Cheese Shop, Rogue Creamery Farm Stand and Murray’s Cheese.
Do you have some favorite artisan cheese and honey combinations?
There is no better combination to me than wildflower honey and Caveman Blue. If you are a cheddar lover, I like Mount Mazama and honey. The Rogue Creamery Cheese Shop creates an epic grilled cheese with our wildflower honey and Oregon Blue and TouVelle cheeses. I limit myself to one a week! Pat Ford is keeping bees and utilizing honey in Beehive American originals; these cheeses were a success at Rogue Creamery’s table where we supported the January 2015 North American Beekeeping Conference in Anaheim, California. Arnaud Solandt of Montchevre is supporting a beekeeper in Wisconsin and creating a chèvre with honey that is rich and decadent.
Rogue Creamery: roguecreamery.com
The North American Pollinator Protection: nappc.org
Beekeeper information: southernoregonbeekeepers.org
Xerces Society (also protects butterflies, other pollinators): xerces.org
The Bee Girl (includes bee info for kids): beegirl.org
American Beekeeper Federation: abfnet.org
Make honey grilled figs sing the blues
Fresh figs get the savory treatment in this recipe that includes rosemary, lemon, bourbon, honey, butter and blue cheese. Additional cheese recipes are available at roguecreamery.com.
Rogue River Blue with Honey Grilled Figs
12 fresh figs, green or black
12 rosemary sprigs, 6 inches long each
3 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons honey
1 ½ teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon bourbon or brandy
6 ounces Rogue River Blue Cheese, cut into 4 wedges
Strip the leaves from the bottom 5 inches of rosemary sprigs. Cut the tip of each at a 45-degree angle, forming a point. Soak rosemary skewers in a shallow dish of water. Set aside.
In a small skillet, melt butter over medium heat. When melted, add honey and stir to combine. When mixture reaches gentle boil, add lemon juice, bourbon and six rosemary leaves, stirring constantly. Mixture will foam and froth. Cook, stirring constantly, for one minute. Keep warm over lowest heat setting until needed.
Cut figs in half from stem to bottom. Push two figs onto each rosemary skewer. Dip each fig skewer into the honey-butter mixture. Grill figs over medium-low heat for 3 to 6 minutes until warmed through. Use a grill basket for best results.
Plate skewers of figs and drizzle with remaining sauce. Serve with a wedge of Rogue River Blue Cheese. Makes about four servings.
John Lehndorff is a Colorado food journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today and Town & Country.