Cheese maker Nathan Arnold — clad in knee-high yellow rubber boots, shorts, a cotton T-shirt and a white skullcap — hovers over a stainless steel tank the size of a kiddie pool. Here is where cheese happens. Inside this tank, heated raw milk will meet live cultures and rennet, causing the milk to sour and curdle in the most exquisite way.
There’s just one problem: The two dozen cows contentedly munching pasture grasses just outside the creamery building aren’t currently producing enough milk to actually make cheese. So the tank will remain empty for the next couple of months, while Arnold’s supply of his celebrated Alpine-style cheese dwindles. Demand has far outpaced supply this season, and he will soon have to break the news to loyal fans throughout the Southeast that Dancing Fern — his pungent and gloriously oozy washed-rind cheese — has sold out.
Sequatchie Cove Creamery is one of dozens of quality small farmstead creameries that have opened in the Southeast in recent years. Producers throughout the region — from the Appalachian Mountains to the coastal plain — are making quality small-batch cheeses from cows, goats and sheep raised on their own farms. Just a few years ago, the only cheese the South was known for was of the pimento variety, as Southern cheese production virtually ceased during the industrialization of the 1950s and 1960s. But all that has changed, and the region has a newfound cachet.
Amanda Parker of Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York says that her colleagues were blown away by some of the cheeses they tried at the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival in Nashville in early October. “There seems to be a lot more interest in the South, a lot more people being exposed to great cheeses.”
“The South is rising again in farmstead dairy,” said MaryAnne Drake, a professor of food science at North Carolina State University who’s a consultant for the many small dairies that have turned to cheese making in recent years.
In some cases, fluid milk producers find cheese making to be a profitable niche market. Johnston Dairy Farm of Newborn, Ga., teamed up with Italian cheese maker Antonio Lo Russo to produce the most tender and flavorful fresh mozzarella in the region.
Others build their cheese-making operations from the udders up. At Sequatchie Cove, Arnold had been a vegetable gardener who persuaded the farm’s owners to build a cheese program from the cows up. Working with a French consultant, he toured the Savoie region of Alpine France, where the rocky, mountain-ringed pasture was similar to that of Sequatchie, about 30 minutes west of Chattanooga.
“We visited a number of cheese makers in the mountains who had 20-to-40-cow operations,” Arnold said. He fell hard for a number of the cheeses he tried, including Reblochon, which inspired Dancing Fern.
Arnold began buying milking cows in 2006, starting with a historical breed called the American Milking Devon. Contrary to their name, these cattle didn’t produce enough milk, so he turned to a Jersey-Holstein crossbreed that tolerated the hot Southern summers better.
Arnold broke ground on the creamery in 2009 and — cows permitting — has been going full speed ever since. His wife and business partner, Padgett, sells the cheeses at farmers markets in Nashville and Chattanooga as well as every other Saturday at the Morningside Farmers Market in Atlanta. Fans learn that she usually sells out, so they get there early.
Old-timers might remember the days when small-batch Southern cheeses weren’t such an oddity. General stores throughout the region used to sell “hoop cheeses” often made in a small hoop mold on site. These large round cheeses came cut into wedges and had a simple flavor like a very mild colby.
But this tradition began to die out in the 1950s. According to Mat Willey of Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville, Ga., many Southern dairymen turned to selling fluid milk, which nutritionists of the period pushed for its nutritional value. Cheese making was time-consuming and particularly expensive in the South, where aging required refrigeration. Cheese making didn’t make economic sense in a hot climate.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, a few pioneers such as Sweet Grass Dairy and Fromagerie Belle Chèvre of Elkmont, Ala., began making small-batch cheeses. They would win the occasional medal at a cheese competition but were treated as curios — good cheese from the Deep South.
When Tim Gaddis took over the cheese counter at Star Provisions in Atlanta in 2004, he made it his mission to actively look for Southern cheeses.
“When you’re in Europe, all you see are local cheeses,” he said. “If you’re in Normandy, the cheese shop sells Norman cheeses. I thought more American cheese shops should be like that.”
There weren’t many Southern cheeses at first, but Gaddis made it clear to any and all regional cheese makers that he would be their champion.
“A lot of new cheese makers started to pop up within the last six or seven years,” Gaddis said. He frequently visits Southern creameries and casually consults the cheese makers. With his knowledge of the market, he knows what kinds of cheeses will stand out.
Star Provisions now sells the country’s best selection of Southern farmstead cheeses. Atlantans also can find quite a few at both Alon’s markets in Morningside and Dunwoody, as well as area Whole Foods and Harry’s Farmers Markets.
Here are some producers to look for. If you’re unsure where to buy them locally, contact the cheese makers. Not only will they be happy to speak with you, they might just invite you for a tour.
Sequatchie Cove Creamery, Sequatchie, Tenn.: The season may be over for Dancing Fern, but you can readily find Cumberland, a firm cheese modeled after Tomme de Savoie, and Coppinger, a semisoft cheese similar to Morbier.
Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, Ga.: The signature Green Hill is a bloomy-rind cheese like Camembert, but has an inimitably thick, nearly fudgy texture. The Thomasville Tomme is a fine firm cheese for cheese boards and sandwiches. It melts beautifully. The dairy produces six other varieties.
Nature’s Harmony Farm, Elberton, Ga.: This farm produces three cheeses, including the award-winning Fortsonia, a Gruyere with a fantastic grassy flavor.
Belle Chevre, Elkmont, Ala.: This Alabama goat cheese is now widely available. Look for their other products, such as goat cheese cakes and goat cheese cookies, as well as their flavored breakfast spreads. Owner Tasia Malakasis has an appealing new cookbook.
Looking Glass Creamery, Fairview, N.C.: This isn’t a farmstead creamery, as the owners buy milk from other local farms. Among the several varieties is Ellington, an ash-covered ripened goat’s milk pyramid with a crumbly-fudgy texture. Ridge Line, with a layer of ash representing the North Carolina mountain ridge, has a nutty caramel flavor.
Prodigal Farm, Rougemont, N.C.: The Hunkadora, an ash-ripened soft goat’s-milk cheese, has a citric lemony flavor. Other cheeses come with herbs rubbed onto the rinds.
Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.: The creamery at this mountain resort produces a number of excellent sheep’s milk cheeses, such as the firm, tangy Singing Brook.
Capra Gia, Carrollton, Ga.: Bright, lemony fresh goat cheese comes plain or with dried herbs or other flavorings. The short-brine feta is a wonder for salads.
Izzy’s Local Cheese, Newborn, Ga: Mozzarella so soft, milky and delectable you’ll want to eat it plain.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog