In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Cheese Abounds…
“Virginia is for Lovers”. And today the state’s slogan has never rung truer than for lovers of cheese. During the artisan cheesemaking boom of the past decade, some three dozen makers have been handcrafting award-winning cheeses in the Old Dominion state.
What makes Virginian cheese so special? Just like wine, the cheese develops its distinct character from its terroir—the sense of place (i.e. environmental conditions) which is distilled and conveyed through flavor.
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, with their fertile soil and mild climate, create an ideal terroir for raising dairy. Pure mountain water, clean air, and a diverse array of grass and flora contribute to high-quality milk, which in turn results in complex, noteworthy cheeses.
For all you curious cheese lovers, here are a few Blue Ridge cheesemakers that are making the most of their idyllic surroundings.
Meadow Creek Dairy Galax, Virginia
“As a farmstead producer, we have control over the entire process—from the land to cows to milk quality to cheese,” says Helene Feete who, along with her husband Rick, has been crafting cheese for 19 years on the family’s dairy farm. Committed to sustainable agricultural practices from day one, the pioneering couple has garnered national acclaim for their embrace of terroir and the resulting raw cow’s milk cheese. Both their Appalachian and Grayson have won blue ribbons from the ACS and, along with their Mountaineer, are distributed across the country. This September the Feetes put Virginia truly on the map when their raw-milk cheesemaking was recognized at the Slow Food Cheese festival in Italy.
Caromont Farm Esmont, Virginia
Caromont Farm—known for its goat-cuddling sessions that went viral—is overseen by Gail Hobbs-Page and her husband, Daniel Page. It all started when Gail, burnt out after 27 years of cooking, turned to cheesemaking and a dozen or so of Dave Matthew’s goats for a change of pace. Fast-forward 10 years and a few stints with the likes of Jasper Hill Farm, Gail, along with her small team, now produces about 30,000 pounds of cheese a year. In addition to her flagship chévre, Mount Alto feta, bloomy-rind Chabi, and second place ACS winner Esmontonian, Caromont has just released a new cheese. “We are calling it Pepato di Esmont. It is an aged, peppercorn studded goat’s milk cheese that we will wash with red wine,” says Caromont’s Sales and Event manager, Isabella Zecchini.
Our Lady of the Angels Monastery Crozet, Virginia
Cheese can be heavenly, sure, but when it’s made by a group of nuns that go by Our Lady of the Angels, well, that’s a different story! The Trappist monastery, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has been making its Monastery Country Cheese since 1990 as a means of self-support. The Dutch-style Gouda starts with milk from local, grass-fed cows and is aged for two months before coated in a bright red wax. Sister Barbara Smickel, the monastery’s business manager and cheesemaker, also adds that the cheese has a special secret ingredient: “The love and prayer of all the Sisters!” The result is a golden, semi-firm Gouda that is mild with hints of grass and sweet milk—a true Blue Ridge cheese indeed!