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.
Rounding into Form
The South doesn’t have a long history of commercial farmstead cheese production. Certainly, farms have been turning out small batches for personal use as long as there have been farms. General stores have been selling hoop cheese, and sandwiches have been made with pimento cheese for a century. But now, dozens of Southern farms and cheese makers are crafting new cheeses that are sometimes exceptional, sometimes quirky, but increasingly embraced by both Southerners and cheese experts around the country.
Since it started in earnest in the late 1990s, the South’s artisan cheese-making community has grown to about 150 members, a figure compiled from a survey by the American Cheese Society and estimates by the sellers and makers of Southern cheese. “We’ve seen just tremendous growth in the South,” says Nora Weiser, the cheese society’s executive director. “That’s the area that is most ripe for it, and the quality is increasing with the quantity.”
Arnold was one of twenty-nine Southern cheese makers to enter the cheese society’s competition last year (up from only eight in 2008), and a record fifteen of them won awards. State fairs have started cheese competitions, and the South even has its own artisan cheese festival now, which will be held this year, its third, on September 28 in Nashville.
Arnold never went to college, but that was more about an aversion to institutions than a lack of intellect. He has a meticulous mind and loves art and science in equal measures. He is, a day with him makes clear, a perfectionist, and making cheese in the South, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, is Kryptonite for perfectionists.
Summer temperatures burn off the grass and make the cows lethargic. Stressed from the heat, animals give less milk. Warm winters mean insects and parasite populations never really get killed off. Sheep get weird parasites such as the barber pole worm. Crazy kinds of yeast float through the cheese house. But with the challenges also come advantages. Find a way to harness all that biodiversity and navigate year-round grazing, and you can make great cheese.
“If you want biodiversity, the South is the place,” says Padgett Arnold, Nathan’s wife and one of about ten people who live or work on the diversified Sequatchie Cove Farm, including its owners, the Keener family. “This climate will grow anything. It’s great, but it means making cheese is an art down here. Every day we’re learning just how complex it really is.”