The Jew And The Carrot

Cheese Runs in the Family

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Jen Stevenson
Cheesemaker Lisa Jacobs

With a wink, Lisa Jacobs likes describing herself as “the world’s only Irish-Jewish cheesemaker.” But that unorthodox distinction is just one facet of her unlikely ascent from frustrated law student to artisan-dairy star.

In just five years, her Jacobs Creamery has gone from sneaking cheese production off-hours in a rural Oregon milk-bottling plant to churning out 600 pounds of the stuff every week — and finding fiercely loyal fans at farmers’ markets across Portland. “My first batch of cheese was Havarti, mainly because my dad liked it,” she laughed. “But I sold all of it.”

Today, her offerings include exquisite ricotta, crème fraiche, farmer’s cheese and fromage blanc, along with dairy-based puddings and panna cotta. Jacobs voice rises as she describes each variety in almost sensual detail. “My blue cheese is exceptional, and I’m not even a blue cheese fan. My crème fraiche is like a farmstead sour cream you’d find in Eastern Europe,” Jacobs said. “My butter is a European-style cultured butter that I hand-churn. And there’s a bloomy cheese that’s exceptionally smooth and creamy. Its flavor layers change as it ripens.”

Born in Dublin, and now based in tiny Chehalis, Washington, Jacobs has food-love in her blood. Her maternal grandmother, Myra Gruson — who still lives in Dublin — would make homemade cream cheese whose recipe still influences Jacobs’ fromage blanc. Her parents, Irish-Jewish immigrants Michael and Rhona, run The Smokery, a beloved Portland purveyor of smoked fish prepared with traditional Irish recipes. They sell fish from a stand next to Lisa’s at a Portland market. But they’re not involved in the business. “I have Jewish parents. They always have opinions,” she laughs. “My mom and dad are not my first tasters. They’re a little too critical to expose cheese to in early stages.”

Michael, a technology marketer, and Rhona, an educator, have held onto their day jobs while they run the fish business. Lisa Jacobs, however, has made Jacobs Creamery her full-time occupation — literally. “On a typical day, I get up before 4am. I get very little sleep, and don’t do much aside from preparing, packaging, and affinage” — the care and maturation of cheese. “But deep down in every single cell of my being, I love it.”

After dropping out of law school in 2003, Jacobs was running a search-engine advertising business with her then-boyfriend. When she decided to split with her partner in 2005, “I wanted to be self-sufficient. Part of the intrigue of starting my own business was being able to get out of running the business with him.”

Jacobs happened to read a book (she can’t recall the title) about a family living off the land in Switzerland or France, and a grandmother teaching her granddaughter how to make cheese. Inspired, she set out to learn how, landing at the New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. in Ashfield, Massachusetts. “I loved the class,” she said. “And when I headed back West, I pretty much decided to open a creamery. But I had no idea what was involved.”

What she faced was a byzantine bureaucracy of certifications and licenses, and hugely expensive capital requirements for equipment. “So I thought, maybe I’ll start my own creamery, but use someone else’s licensed facility. It was not a common arrangement.”

Her first batch of cheese happened by accident. “The facility where I leased space was a milk bottler. One day, they got some water in a huge batch of milk, which means you can’t sell it. But you can make cheese with it. So the guy called and said, ‘We have a thousand gallons. Come make cheese.’”

Ever since, her business has blossomed. Jacobs now leases a forty-acre cheesemaking facility on a farm whose previous operators retired. She maintains an exclusive partnership with a local dairy farm for “high-quality” milk that enhances the flavors of cheeses. And Jacobs told the Forward she’d just made a presentation to a group of investors who may help her purchase her farm, which would mean a larger distribution network.

Has Jacobs considered kosher certification? “I’ve talked with some rabbis who do the process,” she said. “Since I’m not a large-scale producer, and I’m not in a heavily Jewish area, the benefit doesn’t balance the costs.

In the meantime, Jacobs still sells cheese at the Portland Farmer’s Market at Portland State University from a stall next to her parents’ Smokery stand. In warmer months, with help from part-time staff, her network of markets expands to 12 across Oregon.

But for now, Jacobs Creamery is still Lisa Jacobs. “When you have people over and cook for them, you put a little bit of you in that meal,” she said. “When you’re a producer crafting an artisan product, like I do, you put a little bit of yourself into each batch. I love it, it’s my livelihood, and it’s my passion. It’s unique because I’m unique.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: lisa jacobs, kosher, jewish food, cheese, jew and the carrot

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.