Must-Try Artisanal Cheeses from Virginia Cheesemakers
SOUTHERN ARTISAN CHEESE IS ON FIRE right now – the new hot thing. Smack in the middle of the inferno is a whole lot of delicious, grassy creaminess being handcrafted right here in Virginia. Approaching 30 cheesemakers across the state, Virginia has been slowly but surely building itself a bona-fide artisan-cheese industry, winning accolades at cheese counters across the country, as well as in national magazines, cookbooks, and television shows. They're also racking up the ribbons from the prestigious American Cheese Society (ACS) awards – the Oscars of the cheese world.
"My dairy is only six years old, but it's considered one of the older ones," says Gail Hobbs-Page, farmer-cheesemaker at Caromont Farm in Albemarle County, the recipient of one such ACS award this past summer for her Esmontonian, an aged goat cheese that has been sold out for months (she promises to produce even more of it this year).
Caromont is definitely one of the success stories, now selling its products at the prestigious Cowgirl Creamery in Washington, D.C., and at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City – where if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Also reaching celebrity status is Everona Dairy in Rapidan – which was founded by Pat Elliot, an energetic Virginia family doctor, sheep farmer, and pioneering cheesemaker who died in May after almost 15 years of running Everona, passing the torch to her son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Carolyn Wentz. (At the ACS awards, Everona's Williamsburg took third in its category, and Pride of Bacchus took second.)
And at Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Helen and Rick Feete have been raising their Jersey herd using sustainable pasture-rotation methods long before it was cool – 34 years to be exact. (Last summer, the ACS awarded Meadow Creek's Appalachian second place in its category.)
With this cheesy brain trust right in our backyard, and more and more cheesemaking and cheese-selling operations starting up every year (at least three in Central Virginia last year alone), it's only logical to establish an official organization – like a Virginia Cheese Council – to help the nascent industry grow. Virginia wine went through the same sort of growing pains about three decades ago, and look how far it's come.
"We need to define what the Virginia Cheese Council's role will be, and develop a standard of excellence," says Hobbs-Page, who is working with other cheesemakers and mongers – Dany Schutte of Ellwood Thompson's grocery store in Richmond and fellow cheesemaker Rona Sullivan of Bonnyclabber Cheese in Wake – to establish the Council. The goal is that the organization would help the folks who make and sell Virginia cheeses by facilitating the sharing of knowledge and sometimes even equipment.
Right now, the ETA on the Council is still in flux (in fact, the name isn't even a sure thing), but there's certain interest. "It's definitely going to happen," Hobbs-Page says. "Everyone is excited about it, it's just a matter of finding the time and resources to get it off the ground."
Edible Blue Ridge readers are pretty excited about Virginia cheeses too. So we thought it was high time to shout it from the mountaintops – or at least from the pages of this magazine – with a little help from some of our favorite cheesemongers. Of course, there are many other stellar local cheeses (and cheesemongers), but we thought these three were a great place to start. And as every cheese-lover knows, once you start with the good stuff, you really can't stop.
MEET THE MONGERS
WHO: MEG HALL
WHERE: Cheese to You (Lexington)
SAY CHEESE: "If we want the local cheese industry to be healthy, we have to support it in these early years. My role is to educate the public – and having local cheesemakers doing it right makes my job that much easier."
OUTLOOK ON VIRGINIA: "It's challenging to get people over the sticker shock. They're often confused why domestic cheeses in general are more expensive than imported ones. The reason is because dairies here are relatively new and are still paying off their land, their pasteurizer, their vat. But in Europe, all that stuff has been paid off for generations. After they hear my spiel, people seem to be onboard. They get it."
WHO: JEFFERY MITCHELL
WHERE: Culpeper Cheese Company (Culpeper)
SAY CHEESE: "Virginia's climate can be fickle for making cheese. You can have one year with ample rain and then the next year it's dry until October. And that's really hard – on the herd and on the people dairying them. It's one of the challenges I see in the South in general."
OUTLOOK ON VIRGINIA: "I came from a startup technology business, so I see a similarity in the early adopters. But for Virginia cheese to grow, there's going to have to be a stronger sense of communication and possibly a way to age the cheese at the retail level. I'm hoping to set up a cheese cave at my shop so I can age, finish, and brand local cheeses."
WHO: SARA ADDUCI
WHERE: Feast (Charlottesville)
SAY CHEESE: "I really wanted to see cheesemaking first-hand, so I contacted the Feetes at Meadow Creek and stayed a few days there in an old farmhouse they have on the property, touring the facilities, observing the grazing and breeding habits. Later, I interned at Caromont for a month and lived in a trailer next to the goats. Those experiences gave me such an appreciation for how much work is involved."
OUTLOOK ON VIRGINIA: "Virginia cheeses and Southern cheeses in general are expanding every year. We have so many great people making fantastic cheeses in the state – and more on the way."
MEET THE CHEESES
>> Everona’s signature cheese. Semi-firm raw sheep’s milk. ACS award winner in 2005.
WHY THEY LOVE IT
HALL: "Piedmont is very much about the quality of the raw sheep's milk. It's much higher in butterfat than cow's or goat's milk – fat being a good word when talking about cheese. When it hits the palate, it melts on the tongue – because doing it by hand produces a much airier texture."
MITCHELL: "The smoked Piedmont is one of our favorites. We love when the wheels come in because it smells like bacon, thanks to the fact that it's smoked with beautiful local hickory."
ADDUCI: "Slightly nutty, this cheese is in line with a manchego, but with a Virginia character. I also really like the smoked Piedmont, even though I'm not usually a smoked-cheese person."
WHAT TO PAIR IT WITH
HALL: "It's a wonderful match with Marcona almonds. And you can't go wrong with a sparkling wine or a lighter red. But you have to watch out for tannic wines – you don't want a big, heavy red."
MITCHELL: "I'd go with Raven's Roost, a Baltic porter from Parkway Brewing Company in Salem – something a little nutty, to bring out the dark smoke of the cheese."
ADDUCI: "This is great with membrillo [quince paste] or pretty much anything from the Virginia Chutney Company – I'm a particular fan of their spicy plum. It's also great drizzled with honey – again, for that salty-sweet dance. And all cheeses make a really happy pairing with local hard ciders."
Meadow Creek Grayson
>> Raw-cow’s milk stinky cheese, aged two to three months.
WHY THEY LOVE IT
HALL: "I've used euphemisms for Grayson like 'earthy,' but the bottom line is that it's a stinky cheese. It has been known to chase people out of the shop. Meadow Creek now does a smaller version of it called the Mini, which is washed in local beer to soften the punch. The Mini and the Grayson have taken different paths, so I like to carry them both."
MITCHELL: "Grayson is a polarizing cheese. I've had some customers shocked that anyone would buy a cheese that smells so strong. But I've also had people cup it in their hands so they could breathe it in. The taste, though, is really not as strong as the aroma, which over time will increase in intensity (the cheese also gets more runny). What you get in April is lighter – when there are plenty of fresh green things out there for the cows to eat. That will put certain characteristics in the milk and subsequently in the cheese."
ADDUCI: "I call it my beautiful Virginia stinker. It's one of my favorites, but I love all of Meadow Creek's cheeses. They're finely made, and very consistent."
WHAT TO PAIR IT WITH
HALL: "Anything in the fruit family does well with the Grayson: dried apricots, chutneys. But this one is powerful enough that you don't need a whole lot of accompaniment." MITCHELL: "I'd steer toward the savory side – olives, onion chutney. Really good might be a caramelized-red-onion and rye sandwich with Grayson. Pairing it with Parkway's Magella Belgian Dark Abbey Ale will bring out the sweetness of the beer. Or Ox-Eye Vineyard's riesling – something with a sweeter note to balance the saltiness of the cheese."
ADDUCI: "I'd go with a sweeter hard cider. But if someone doesn't like the funk, Meadow Creek's Mountaineer or Appalachian will be milder but still with a complexity of flavor.
>> Bloomy-rinded pasteurized cow’s milk, in the style of chaource (soft).
WHY THEY LOVE IT
HALL: "Caromont's cheeses are all very, very clean. Unlike most commercial cheeses, they've got a very sweet cream taste and very little acidity. So you get a very smooth rounded palate with it."
MITCHELL: "I find Bloomsbury to be addictive. Inside the nice wrinkly exterior is a cheese that is light – with bright tones – and rich at the same time."
ADDUCI: "This is a beautiful cheese, in the style of a brie, but with way more flavor. It's got a good, creamy richness, but is definitely kickier than a regular old brie. I love Gail's respect for the animals, her respect for the land, and just her whole philosophy of life."
WHAT TO PAIR IT WITH
HALL: "I would pair Bloomsbury with hard cider, hoppy beer, or sparkling wine, like Thibaut-Janisson's Blanc de Chardonnay or Virginia FIZZ."
MITCHELL: "You could macerate yellow raisins in port, saute them in butter, and then pour them warm over a room-temperature Bloomsbury. A hard cider would be really nice too, acting as a foil for the richness of the cheese. Bloomsbury in particular is going to coat your palate, so a cider – something with some effervescence – will cleanse the palate. Along those lines, you could also try a beer – Blue Mountain Brewery's Kolsch is what comes to mind. It'll ride along nicely with the cheese."
ADDUCI: "Boy, I'd like it served with some of the port-wine-steeped cherries that we make here at Feast [as pictured]. They're decadent and delightful, and so good on top of cheese. It'd also go well with a nice dry chenin blanc or a local sparkling wine from Thibaut-Janisson."