The factory flavors many of its cheddars with garlic, jalapeño and Cajun seasoning. Ashe County Cheese also makes jack cheeses, such as pepper jack and Monterey jack, as well as jack-based cheeses like tomato-basil and garlic-parsley-chives. They’re similar to cheddar but have a lower moisture content, Williams said. The company also makes gouda cheese and a Scandinavian baked cheese called juusto, which caramelizes when it is run through an oven. Local restaurants buy it to serve as an appetizer with a jelly, chutney or salsa. Ashe County Cheese also makes a Romano, a hard cheese often grated over pasta.
“And cheese curds,” Williams said, looking at bags of pale yellow curds in the refrigerated case in the center of the store. Ashe County Cheese has cheese curds every time it makes cheese, which is four to five days a week. “Most people eat them right out of the bag, like popcorn,” he said. “It’s very popular in Wisconsin, and it’s getting more popular here. We sell a lot of it to restaurants.” Cheese curds are big in the Canadian dish poutine—cheese curd and French fries, with brown gravy ladled on top. Some people batter the curds and deep-fry them. Many local residents time their visits to get the curds warm, just over from the factory.
Williams doesn’t really know where most of his visitors are from. The only way he finds out is when the shop is out of curds. People will tell him they drove hundreds of miles to buy them. The store has only so many bags to sell each day, but it always has plenty of other cheese, as well as cheeses imported from France, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Kraft started Ashe County Cheese in 1930 when the county was full of dairy farms. Then called Kraft Phoenix Cheese, incorporating the name of a nearby mountain, the factory consolidated several local cheese-making operations to help them distribute nationally. Most of the milk came in on the back of flatbed trucks in the type of milk can people associate with small dairies back in the day.
The Kraft factory produced about 30,000 pounds of cheese a week, about the same that Ashe County Cheese makes currently. There are only a couple of dairy farms in Ashe County, neither of which supply the factory with milk. It buys its milk—about 300,000 pounds of it each week—from milk cooperatives in Piedmont North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. Trucks carrying 60,000 pounds regularly pull into the bay beside the factory, pumping milk into the three holding tanks outside shaped like cows.
Williams’ father-in-law bought the factory in 1994. Williams and his brother-in-law bought the factory in 2010. Their employees make the cheese in four large vats, the two largest of which turn about 20,000 pounds of milk into 2,000 pounds of cheese. The curds not bagged for immediate sale are pressed into round forms to produced 11- and 22-pound wheels. The large rounds spend the next two days in a cooler before they’re waxed and packaged. The factory makes about 300-400 rounds a day. Ashe County Cheese sells to grocery distributors all over the Southeast, from Texas to Northern Virginia.
“If you drew a line from Texas to Northern Virginia, we sell beneath that line,” Williams said.
ENGLISH FARMSTEAD CHEESE
Far smaller is English Farmstead Cheese on U.S. 221 near Marion. Susan English was making buttercup cheese recently in the kitchen behind the creamery’s shop on the English family farm. She and her husband of 36 years, Terry English, milk about 80 Holstein cows in the North Cove community, a narrowing slice of valley that ends at the English place in the shadow of Humpback Mountain, a whale of a ridge that soars about 1,400 feet above the farm. The creamery uses only a portion of the milk the dairy produces. The rest is sent off to the milk cooperative that they belong to.
The wife of a dairy farmer, Susan English made cheese in her kitchen for years before she took it on professionally. She was an operating room nurse at McDowell Hospital for 30 years before she quit last summer to turn her hobby into a career. Once their children graduated, got married and found work, the Englishes planned and built their creamery, opening it last May.
On a chilly afternoon in February, Susan English and Luanne Graham, a schoolteacher, were “cheddaring” the curds, cutting and stacking them so that the rest of the whey is pressed out. English said the heavy work would yield 13 pounds of cheese from the 130 pounds of milk she started with. She and Graham also had to package up some curds to overnight them to Nashville to a customer who sells them to chefs from Atlanta. The curds are one of English Farmstead Cheese’s biggest sellers. “We get two kinds of folks—those that don’t know what they are and those that love them,” English said during a recent visit, her hair held in place by a hairnet printed with the distinctive black and white splotches of a Holstein cow.
English uses equipment custom-made by cheesemakers in Wisconsin to make Ashford Cheddar, the sharper Ashford Reserve Cheddar, a jalapeño jack, a gouda and the buttercup, which husband Terry said makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches. She also makes a variety of cheese spreads flavored with bacon, cucumber, Key lime, pineapple, garlic or sun-dried tomato.
Terry’s grandfather, Jay English, started the dairy in 1926, extending roots the Englishes have in the valley that date back to the late 1700’s. Terry, a natural-born storyteller helping his wife out in the kitchen that day, launched into a story about the family patriarch, Gabriel English, who moved his children and their mother into the house he shared with his wife. “He said if having a concubine was good enough for Abraham, it was good enough for Gabriel,” Terry said.
“But you don’t have to put that in the story,” Susan English said, laughing. She was struggling to flip the thick slab of curd. She makes cheese three times a week during the busy summer and fall months. She misses nursing a little, but she loves that her time is now her own. She has been delighted by the creamery’s success. “It’s been wildly successful,” she said. “At first, we were overwhelmed. We sold out every weekend all summer, until we got cheddar old enough to where we could sell aged cheddar. I’d sell 300 cheese spreads a week.”