The South adds artisan cheese to culinary culture.
A local cheese plate is one of the best ways to get to know a region. With the year’s major food holidays on the horizon, I have a particular vision — a modern twist on the Rockwell painting — a family sitting around enjoying a singular experience, tasting the fruits of the place where they celebrate.
Americans are now able to compose a cheese plate comprised of local and regional selections, something not possible just a decade ago. One of the most exciting is the burgeoning Southern cheese scene.
The key to any successful movement is achieving the right mix of passionate people at critical mass and then directing energy toward a common goal. Often slow and intangible at first, it can quickly pick up steam. Such is the case with Southern cheese.
Unlike northern states, the artisan creameries are new to the Southeast. “There is no history of small dairy here, and hard cheeses didn’t even exist,” says Alyce Birchenough of Sweet Home Farm in Elberta, Alabama. She is one of the pioneers of Southern cheese.
Birchenough, who farms and makes cheese on a small, sustainable scale with her husband, Doug Wolbert, began her cheesemaking operation in 1987. At that time, there was only one uniquely Southern cheese being made: Creole Cream Cheese, a lactic-set cheese covered in cream and sweetened with sugar — the cheese is one of thousands of products in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a commission that travels the world collecting small-scale quality foods belonging to the cultures, history and traditions of the world.
The Southern environment can be stressful for animals, and their milk contains slightly less of the prized “components” (fats and proteins) essential for cheesemaking. Another hurdle, because the soil never freezes, parasites that can transfer to ruminants are more common.
“There were obstacles,” noted Birchenough, “but it was not impossible.” Other regional cheesemakers began popping up in the ’90s. In the last few years, there has been a flowering of Southern cheese, similar to what has occurred throughout the Northwest.
Tim Gaddis is honored to be a part of this new movement. After a career in law enforcement, Gaddis found his way to the culinary world and was especially drawn to cheese. After training in New York City, he returned to Atlanta and worked the counter at Star Provisions, where he had regular interactions with regional producers featured at the shop.
“Early on, there was Sweet Grass, Belle Chevre and Sweet Home,” he recalled. “In 2005 and 2006, things start picking up — Nature’s Harmony Farm, Blackberry Farm — and in North Carolina, it was like someone set off a cheese bomb, and Southern cheese really took off.
“When you start thinking about a cheese shop in Normandy, they sell Normandy cheese,” he continued. “French customers know that what’s made down the road is often better than what comes from around the world. Since I’m from the South, I wanted to focus on Southern cheeses.
“There have been small, artisan producers out there who have always been phenomenal, they’re just getting more attention now,” he said.
The cheese renaissance also created opportunities for emerging small dairies like Many Fold Farm, the first sheep dairy in Georgia where Gaddis recently became Cheese House Manager.
The rising tide of Southern cheese is bolstered by a number of festivals. The Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, recently celebrating its fourth year, is held in Nashville on the last Saturday of September, and the Atlanta Cheese Festival just concluded its second event on the first Friday in October.
A growing cadre of great Southern mongers — and more favorable cheese distribution channels emerging in the last few years — places Southern cheese squarely on the map of great American food.
Whether you’re traveling this holiday season or welcoming family from afar, you’re closer than ever to great artisanal cheeses just waiting to be discovered. Don’t miss a chance to taste the place where you are!