The Southern Cheese Crusade
From the heat to the bugs, Southern cheese makers face a daunting set of challenges. But a growing number of them are proving they can stack up with the best
You think you’ve got job pressure. Here on a rocky three hundred acres of Tennessee grassland tucked into the wilderness northwest of Chattanooga, Nathan Arnold is not having a great day.
For one thing, his cheese tank is too small. The room in which it sits is too drafty. And he’s got milk problems. The clean, raw milk he works with at Sequatchie Cove Farm is precious, in part because he has cows that sometimes won’t give enough of it. What’s worse, it looks like one of the animals has a slight infection.
The problem is, he doesn’t know which one, and since all the raw milk he uses is blended together before it’s tested, one cow with even a slight jump in white blood cells can affect the whole batch. And that means he will have less of what he needs to make his Dancing Fern cheese, the most coveted round of milk proteins and microbes in the South.
Dancing Fern, which goes from milk to market in sixty days, has the velvety rind of its inspiration, the beloved Reblochon of the French Alps. Its inner belly gets softer and more complex with time. The whole thing tastes of milk and mushrooms and a Tennessee cow.
In its sophomore year, Dancing Fern was judged the best farmstead soft cheese at the American Cheese Society competition last fall in Raleigh, North Carolina, the first time the competition was held in the South and the first time a Southern cheese proved so popular. Some experts, including Tim Gaddis, the well-regarded cheesemonger and unabashed Southern cheese fan from Star Provisions in Atlanta, thought it should have taken best of show. And that was out of 1,711 entries. (The title went to Flagsheep, an aged cheddar made from a blend of cow’s and sheep’s milk from Beecher’s, a Seattle-based company.)
Anne Saxelby, whose cheese shop in Man-hattan’s Essex Street Market has a devoted following, bought as much of the 2012 Dancing Fern as she could. “It struck me as one of the best cheeses I had had in a long time,” she says. And at Sequatchie, Arnold and the others who help him make it are feeling the pressure to create cheese that is as special in its junior year as it was as a sophomore.