Over the next few weeks we'll be profiling the best of regional American cheese. First up: the South.
Though the South is home to many delicacies, a longstanding cheese-making tradition isn't among them. But that's starting to change, and while cheesemakers are following all kinds of roads to cheese, the region's particular climate makes for some interesting commonalities among its increasingly delicious cheeses.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Southern Cheese
When people talk food in the South, they generally mean as far West as Texas, east into the Deep South, the Florida panhandle, up north into the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and then Virginia into the suburbs of Washington D.C. The Mason Dixon line actually cuts through Pennsylvania, putting Maryland, technically, in the South.
Shading in these boundaries covers about a quarter of the continental United States. What general statements can we possibly make about such a large tract of land and its cheese?
A Blank Slate
The first thing to understand is that, historically speaking, cheesemaking wasn't a big part of Southern cuisine. New York started factory cheesemaking. Vermont's known for Cheddar. Wisconsin and Ohio were rooting grounds for German immigrants, while California cheese traditions have been massively influenced by Mexico and Italy. But there are few cheese styles or traditions associated with the South.
It's not that Southerners don't make cheese. Many farmstead dairies have, and individuals too, insofar as they'd keep a cow or a few goats for personal sustenance. But this does not a regional cheese identity make.
The best known "types" of traditional Southern cheese are pimento cheese (which is a dip, not a cheese itself), and hoop cheese, which is now a relative rarity, but was ubiquitous before the 1960s in local stores. It was made like farmer's cheese, from milk with the whey pressed out and set into a round (hoop), until semisoft to occasionally firm in texture.
All of which is to say that today's Southern cheesemakers aren't bound to a particular narrow tradition. Southern craft cheese is still a new concept, but its ranks are growing aggressively. 29 cheesemakers entered the American Cheese Society's competition last year, more than three times the previous year's entrants, and 15 took home awards.
The South's warm climate presents some particular challenges and some special opportunities to cheesemakers. While researching my book The Cheese Chronicles, my big revelation was that Southern dairy farmers could feed their cattle flavorful grass year-round, unlike their northern colleagues who rely on blander dried feed during the colder months.
Southern dairies are American pioneers in New Zealand-style rotational grazing, where cows feed on a new patch of pasture after each milking. Thomasville, Georgia's Sweet Grass Dairy was the first to pursue this on a larger scale; Virginia's Meadow Creek Dairy relied on pasture dairying for economic as well as environmental sustainability, and standout newbie makers like Tennesse's Sequatchie Cove Creamery and Georgia's Nature's Harmony Farm are devout in their commitment to grass-fed cows. And the flavor of that grass comes through in their cheese.
But warm weather comes with its downsides. Hot, humid summers are tough on several cow breeds, which is why most makers rely on Jersey and Jersey/Holstein crosses for their endurance. Cheesemakers who push the warm weather envelope, say, by milking sheep rather than cows, have to contend with parasites, and may have to use sheep that have lower milk yields but greater resistance to the little bugs. Rebecca Williams, the co-owner of Many Fold Farm, observed that a parasite-resistant sheep was preferable to a high-yield sheep for, as she put it, a dead sheep makes less milk than a low-yield sheep.
Not All Local
Third, while many farms have grown their business slowly and organically, selling at local farmers' markets, many cheesemakers, with their high production costs and unusual cheese styles, need to sell to dense urban areas farther afield. Meadow Creek, the largest cheesemaker in Virginia, sells 99% of their cheese out of state.
Southern Cheeses Worth Seeking Out
Here are some of the best Southern cheeses to look for, all available (at least regionally) through Whole Foods and Earth Fare, as well as some well-stocked independent specialty stores nationwide. If you're thinking of putting together a Southern cheese board, I'd recommend tasting them in the order listed below.
Paula Lambert of The Mozzarella Company (Dallas, TX) and Judy Schad of Capriole Goat Cheese (Greenville, IN) started making goat cheese in the mid and late '80s, well before there was a market for the stuff. They were both following their hearts and their dreams about what mattered. Paula's Hoja Santa pays homage to her Mexican neighbors, wrapping a fresh round in aromatic sassafras leaves. Judy's dense, tangy Wabash Cannonball was the cheese that made me quit corporate life for cheese when I first tasted it in 2000.
Jeremy and Jessica Little of Sweet Grass Dairy (Thomasville, GA) were among the first to master the bloomy rind. Their Green Hill is plump and buttery with a thin, pleasant rind that never separates or gets bitter.
Ross and Rebecca Williams of Many Fold Farm (Chattahoochee Hills, GA) have a seasonal round called Rivertown which, though pasteurized, captures all the porcini headiness one wishes for in raw milk Camembert de Normandie.
Nathan and Padgett Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery (Sequatchie, TN) are responsible for the closest thing you can get to Reblochon in this country. Their Dancing Fern is raw milk, limpid and gloriously complex with a soft, delicate texture.
Rick and Helen Feete at Meadow Creek Dairy (Galax, VA) make a seasonal raw milk square that will make you turn away from Taleggio forever. Washed rind Grayson is husky, intensely meaty, and nearly neon yellow thanks to grass-fed milk.
Tim and Liz Young at Nature's Harmony Farm (Elberton, GA) have raw milk Fortsonia, an aged Alpine style that, when left age for a year or longer, is redolent of toast and caramelized nuts.
That's just a few; of course there others to seek out. This ain't pimento cheese, y'all.