Southern food and culture have gotten lots of attention in the past few years, and many chefs who practice their art in Asheville and throughout the South are featuring the region’s flavorful foodstuffs in the dishes they send out of the kitchen. That includes the surprisingly large number and wide variety of cheeses made here in the mountains.
“Southern cheese is kind of hot right now,” said Jennifer Perkins at Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview. “It’s the cool thing in the cheese world.” But despite the makers’ increasing presence at farmers and tailgate markets, many people are unaware that cheesemakers exist in Western North Carolina. Some producers, like Yellow Branch Cheese and Pottery in Bakersville and Ashe County Cheese in West Jefferson, have been making cheese for decades. Others, like English Farmstead Cheese, started only in the past year.
[dropcap]“F[/dropcap]armstead” cheeses are made on the farm that produces the milk, whether it’s from a cow, goat or sheep. Artisan cheesemakers make small batches in the traditional way, by hand. Ashe County Cheese makes its cheese in large stainless steel vats that can hold as much as 20,000 pounds of milk. Its owners believe it may be the biggest and oldest creamery in the Southeast.
There are some two dozen cheesemakers here in the mountains, Perkins said. She helped devise the WNC Cheese Trail, which provides maps to many of the creameries in the 33 counties west of Interstate 77, from Ashe to Yadkin to Graham counties. The trail covers 10 creameries and a dozen cheese shops, restaurants, inns, breweries and food makers that support the industry locally. The WNC Cheese Trail is a tasty tour, one that takes you long distances into beautiful countryside. A week wouldn’t be long enough to visit all of the creameries that entertain visitors. Here’s a taste of three of them.
LOOKING GLASS CREAMERY
Looking Glass Creamery started making cheese in January 2009. Jennifer Perkins had been making cheese for about 15 years before she and her husband, Andy Perkins, opened their creamery about a 15-minute drive from downtown Asheville. Jennifer Perkins had apprenticed at a small farmstead goat dairy in Southern Virginia and been an assistant cheesemaker at Blackberry Farm in Eastern Tennessee. She and her husband moved back to the Asheville area when her son became old enough to start school.
Looking Glass Creamery doesn’t have any animals, other than four pet goats and sheep and the big, friendly dog that watches over them, Moses. The creamery buys cow milk from a dairy in Polk County and goat milk from Round Mountain Creamery in Black Mountain, another local maker of goat cheese. Looking Glass makes its cheeses in a sunny, spotless kitchen in the back of the shop where racks gleam with stainless steel equipment and are stacked with forms used to press curds into rounds and other shapes.
The creamery makes a wide variety of cheeses, from fresh chèvre and soft-ripened pasteurized kinds to hard, aged cheeses. Its Ellington goat cheese (pictured to the right) won an award from Cooking Light in 2011. Another award-winner, its brie-style Pack Square cheese, is named for the family who supplies the milk as well as the park in the center of Asheville. Its Chocolate Lab is pungent, and its Ridgeline is mild. The Alpine-style Bear Wallow is a raw-milk cheese. The Carmelita, a sweetish goat cheese reduced to a rich caramel sauce, won a Good Food award last year.
Perkins and her help work throughout the week, making about 300 pounds of cheese a week. Much of which they ship throughout the country through an arrangement with the high-end food purveyors Williams-Sonoma. A lot of it they send to local restaurants such as Red Stag Grill, Posana Cafe, Biscuit Head, Rhubarb, and The Market Place. And on Thursdays and Saturdays, they sell it to people who drive to their handsome barn in Fairview to buy the cheese, other local products and perhaps wine by the bottle or glass. Looking Glass Creamery has plans to add an outside patio this summer that will allow tasters to enjoy nibbles and wine al fresco while their children play with the Perkins’ animals. The shop sits on a bit of a ridge, affording long-range views of Little Pisgah and Ferguson mountains, as well as Hickory Nut Gap.[quote float=”left”]The creamery makes a wide variety of cheeses, from fresh chèvre and soft-ripened pasteurized kinds to hard, aged cheeses. [/quote] Looking Glass is also taking the long view. Vermont, California, Wisconsin and Washington state all have vibrant industries centered around cheese tourism. There are cheese trails in Vermont, New York, Wisconsin, California, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. Perkins and other organizers of the WNC Cheese Trail are hoping the trail brings similar exposure to the cheesemakers and their supporters in the mountains. Many local residents are unaware of Yellow Branch Cheese and Pottery, she said, even though it has been making cheese for almost 30 years and may be one of the oldest artisan cheesemaking operations in the country.
The trail and the map that guide foodies around are already paying dividends. “About half the people that come through the door have heard about us through the cheese trail,” Perkins said. “It takes all the small dairies and the small cheesemakers working together to grow this industry.” But it seems to be working—the cheese trail maps proved so popular last year that trail participants ran out of them. This year, the state department of agriculture is printing them.
That will be one fewer thing for Perkins to do, now that the warm season is inspiring food-lovers and cheeseheads back out on the road. She has lots to do in the creamery. “We have some of the best cheeses around, if I do say so myself,” she said.
ASHE COUNTY CHEESE
On the other end of the volume scale is Ashe County Cheese, a large factory and shop that take up two of downtown West Jefferson’s historic buildings. Ashe County Cheese makes about 25 different varieties and sells them in the store across the street from the factory. The store sells about 1,200 other products, such as old-fashioned candy, North Carolina wine, and its own fudge. It makes 30,000-40,000 pounds of cheese each week.
The refrigerated case in the center of the store is crowded with the various cheeses that Ashe County Cheese makes. Most of its cheeses are cheddars whose sharpness varies with the age of the cheese. A mild cheddar has been aged one to three months, and a sharp cheddar will be aged a year. The company’s extra sharp is two years old. It currently has cheddar that has been aging for six years. “We call it five-year-old cheddar, but it’s actually six years old. We just haven’t changed the labels,” said Josh Williams, co-owner of the factory and manager of the store, during a recent tour of the factory.
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