Al Howell and Russ Savadalena (l-r) with 23-year old Cougar Gold
cheese, cracked open on Aug. 12, 2010 at Ferdinand’s Creamery.
Photo by Tim Marsh, WSU Today
PULLMAN – When we reach a certain point in life, we all have regrets: The job never offered, the trip never taken, the can of cheese never opened.
For some things, it’s never too late. On Thursday, Al and Susie Howell finally opened a tin of Cougar Gold they’d been storing for more than 20 years.
Faced with a can of cheese stamped Oct. 9, 1987 though, you don’t just pull out a can opener. You want to share the experience with someone who can appreciate the historic, if not gastronomical, significance of the event.
Russ Salvadalena, manager of the WSU Creamery on the Pullman campus, got a call from the Howells on Wednesday, saying they would be passing through on their way to Coeur D’Alene and they had a can of cheese they wanted to share with him.
It seems their daughter, 1980 WSU alumna Teresa Howell Hoffman, had given them the can as a Christmas gift in 1987 and they’d just never gotten around to opening it. For some of us, opening a 2-lb can of cheese is a commitment. Sure, in hindsight, there were opportunities–potlucks, family reunions, birthday celebrations—but it never happened. Once they made specific plans with another couple to break the seal, but the other couple canceled.
And so the can traveled from their family home in Clarkston, where they raised their five daughters, to two different homes in Colorado, and then to their retirement home in Yuma, Ariz. All along the way, Al said, he was careful to keep the cheese properly refrigerated.
Their friends in Yuma wanted them to just open the can, but two years ago Al and Susie decided the cheese needed to take one more trip, back to the Creamery so that it could be opened among people who cared.
On Thursday afternoon, in the company of Salvadalena, a few Creamery employees and several visitors watching a video titled, “The Making of Cougar Gold Cheese,” they opened the can.
“It’s 23 years old and it tastes wonderful,” Al said this week from his summer place on Lake Coeur D’Alene. “It’s a good sharp cheese. If you’re a wine person, it would be good with wine.”
Al said he and Susie also have a can of WSU Viking cheese that is getting on in years. Not nearly as old as the Cougar Gold, Al said he plans to crack it open soon and he knows it’ll be wonderful. “Washington State makes good cheese that’ll last at least 23 years…that I know of,” he said.
Salvadalena agreed that the aged Cougar Gold had a kick to it. “To me, it was probably a little too sharp,” he said and laughed, “but I probably shouldn’t say that. We like to say it gets better with age.”
When the can was opened there was a little bit of moisture on top, which meant the cheese was a little drier and crumblier than normal, but otherwise the cheese–and the can–were in excellent shape.
Discovering that the integrity of the can was solid after nearly a quarter century was good news, Salvadalena said. “It gives us some credence to what we’ve been telling people.”
WSU developed the technology to package cheese in tin cans back in the 1940s, and the recipe for Cougar Gold has been consistent ever since. In fact, he said, the Creamery has been using the same bacteria culture for the past 70 years.
Salvadalena said the Howell’s cheese is the oldest Cougar Gold he’s ever tasted, but he does have two cans of aged cheese in storage. One is dated Dec. 1986 and the other is dated Aug. 1978.
The plan now, he said, is to open them at the Creamery’s 62nd birthday celebration in Septmeber. While it’s true that the flavor of cheese intensifies with age, at some point it just gets old. When it comes to opening that can of Cougar Gold, if not now, when?