In a country with a strong diversity of delicious curds, labeling those brightly colored processed squares the all-encompassing “American” has always felt off-putting. So in my blog series, Pure Unprocessed American, I aim to detail what makes up the wide spread of real American cheeses, looking into the practical history of cheese in the States, reporting on official state cheeses and notable cheesemongers, and how different environments, from the Rockies to the Redwoods, affect the milk and the means for making cheese. Missed my introductory post? Check it out here!
A large focus of this blog has been terroir and the actual environments livestock graze upon. The weather of the land has a profound impact on the cheese, especially when you consider the one mild fault in northern cheese: the winter. What makes a cheese flavorful is whatever fills the animal, a much different task when the lush green fields are no longer there during the chilly season. This is usually when farmers switch to hay, giving the curds a much different flavor. For an extra boost silage, fermented fodder, is used to give a greater boost to that flavor and can be made of anything from alfalfa, oats, or corn. This seasonal switch doesn’t make the product tasteless, but it definitely alters the taste of the milk and therefore of the cheese. So, what happens with states that never really see a winter?
Well, constant heat comes with its own hardships. In the past, there was never a deep Southern tradition of cheese before refrigeration came to be. Due to the hot and humid climates in the Georgia-Tennessee-North Carolina area, dairy production of any kind tended to spoil. Simply put, the cows weren’t as adapted to the heat. In the South, an average milk-producing farm had just a handful of cows and mostly just shared with neighbors.
In recent years, this has lead to an increase in goat cheeses in the hotter states, as they are able to stand the higher temperatures. Even more important than dairy breed, however, has been developing methods of dealing with heat stress. Ensuring there is shade and plenty of water to cool off in is the most important—cows need places to rest in the heat just like we do. With the right precautions and no winters to cover the green grass, Southern farms are able to hugely benefit from the ability to produce a consistent flavor year-round.
These aren’t just smaller kinds of farms either—several are renowned award-winners that began at a smaller, local level before scaling up after showing the States what their cheese has to offer. Over the past few years, Southern farms like Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia and Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee have won big in the annual American Cheese Society’s Judging & Competition.
For Sequatchie Cove, it wasn’t until 2010 when one of the longtime employees of the farm, Nathan Arnold, turned a cheese passion into an actuality. Before Arnold began studying the art of cheese production around the country, Sequatchie devoted itself solely to meat production. The creamery now stands with seven awards from three different competitions, including the Good Food Awards and the United States Championship Cheese Awards.
Sweet Grass Dairy has been around since 2000, a family business that wanted to treat cows right. Opting for a New Zealand approach to grazing, they cut the barn out of the equation and gave their cows as much room as they desired in open fields. The past 15 years have been spent growing their business, and now the small-town Georgia farm distributes to 38 states, as well as to their own restaurant/cheese shop in Thomasville.
It is an artisan movement that is still growing, but this added diversity of flavors leaves a bigger impression than just good ol’ pimiento cheese, and I can’t help but look forward to more.