Katie Moore stocks a display case with cheese from around the world. Parmigiano-Reggiano from Italy. Brie from France. Manchego from Spain. Gruyère from Switzerland. At her cheese shop in downtown Asheville, the selection is extensive — confusing, even, for the cheese novice. So you ask her to help you choose.
“Let me show you some of my favorites,” she says, motioning to the front of the glass case. That’s where she keeps local cheeses, made in western North Carolina. The wedges and wheels shine like dolled-up mannequins in a department store window. Each cheese is marked with a small sign that tells you its name and where it’s from.
Among them, there’s Chocolate Lab from Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, Bailey Mountain Tomme from Spinning Spider Creamery in Marshall, and Amber Moon from Round Mountain Creamery in Black Mountain.
Sure, the names of our cheeses are unusual, Moore says, but that’s because the cheese we make here and the cheese they make in Europe are two different things. Cheesemakers across the ocean get downright mad if someone calls a soft cow cheese Brie if it didn’t originate from the historic Brie region of northern France. Down South, we’ve always used milk to make butter and biscuits, not cheese. Cheese is new to us. We’re just now putting our own stamp on it.
Moore operates The Cheese Store of Asheville inside Weinhaus, one of the first specialty wine and beer stores in North Carolina. Its big-windowed storefront looks out on Patton Avenue, where cars and pedestrians stream by. When Weinhaus first opened in the late ’70s, Asheville wasn’t so busy. But by the time Moore needed a home for her cheese shop in 2012, the city had become a booming enclave of new restaurants and bars. The owners of Weinhaus asked her if she’d consider joining them. The pairing of cheese and wine is a logical marriage. “What goes with cheese better than a glass of wine or beer?” Moore says, nodding to the shelves stacked deep with brown longnecks and corked wine bottles. She grabs one of those wine bottles to pack in a “Parkway Picnic,” a meal she assembles with cured meats and local cheeses.
In the picnic, Moore tucks something else: a map of the WNC Cheese Trail. A few years ago, cheesemakers in western North Carolina decided it’d be easier to promote their individual cheeseries if they worked together. If we work together, they thought, we can tell people who we are. The trail is the result. Today, if the cheese Moore packs in one of her picnics is from one of the trail’s 10 member cheeseries, a person curious about where their cheese came from can meet the people who made it.
Not that long ago, you wouldn’t have heard about a cheese trail in North Carolina. In Vermont, yes. In Wisconsin, certainly. But not here, where red-wax hoop cheese and that amalgamation of shredded Cheddar, mayonnaise, and jarred pimientos once reigned. Not that long ago, you wouldn’t have walked into a cheese shop in North Carolina, either. Yet today, there has never been more cheese made in North Carolina, and there have never been more people willing to spend good money to eat it.
Perhaps in a different time, people wouldn’t care as much about cheese. In a different time, they wouldn’t care as much about where their food comes from. It used to be, around the turn of the 20th century, that almost half of the U.S. population lived on a farm. At the moment, though, no country in the world has fewer citizens involved in farming than the United States. Farm and ranch families make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. With so few hands involved in growing food, everyone else is left to ponder where it comes from.
Here in North Carolina, where agriculture is still our top industry, every year the state loses thousands of acres of farmland while gaining about 100,000 new residents. Yet, when we shop at the grocery store, there are more choices than ever before. We think about how this can be and where our food comes from. So we turn to farmers markets, independent grocery stores, and specialty food shops like Katie Moore’s, hoping they can direct us to the stuff that’s made locally.
At any number of them, you’re likely to find a cheese that’s made in the Piedmont hills of Randolph County at a place named Goat Lady Dairy. That’s where Steve Tate and his wife, Lee, continue a tradition of cheesemaking they started with Steve’s sister, Ginnie, in 1995.
Ginnie moved to the area in 1984. She was a woman who kept goats, and who didn’t have any familial connections to speak of. In a community where roots run deep, Ginnie was the odd neighbor. The goat lady, people called her. Meanwhile, Steve was a marriage and family therapist, and Lee was a preschool teacher. They lived a good life in Minnesota. But something had always bugged them. They were green people, environmental people, ’60s hippies who aspired to a lifestyle and a line of work that would reflect their values. So they joined Ginnie in North Carolina on a spot of land near rural Gray’s Chapel. They started milking goats and making cheese.
Steve Tate makes cheese in a barn. Or, at least, what looks like a barn from the outside. On the inside, his cheesemaking room is as immaculate as a chemistry lab, with its fluorescent lights overhead, whitewashed walls, and stainless steel tanks and tubs. He’s standing in one corner of the room, using a pH meter to check the acidity of milk and whey. “You’d never know that this is where we used to keep the goats,” Steve says.
In the beginning, Goat Lady Dairy had just the necessary space to make cheese. There was a milking parlor to milk the goats, a cheesemaking room, and cheese-aging rooms. Goat Lady produced mostly fresh spreads to sell at farmers markets and chèvre, or fresh goat cheese, which became popular with chefs at restaurants in nearby Greensboro.
They still make both of those cheeses, but they’ve expanded to produce new varieties now. “And we don’t milk goats anymore,” Steve says. “We work with several partner farms that supply us with milk, both goat and cow.” That was always part of the plan, to build a network, a community of local people who depend on one another to make something. Community builds a movement. And that movement is visible when the Tates open Goat Lady Dairy in the spring and fall for biannual open farm days and monthly on-the-farm dinners. People come from North Carolina and beyond to hear Steve tell the story of how Goat Lady Dairy got started.
At the dinners, guests sit down in a rustic dining room that’s paneled in oak and cedar. The cheesemaking room is on the other side of the wall, but you’d never know it. Here, guests listen to Steve rhapsodize about cheesemaking and sustainable farming. Cheese started many thousands of years ago, he says, when early humans invented pottery, started dairying, and figured out that they could store surplus raw milk in ceramic pots. The stored milk quickly fermented naturally, separating into curds and whey, the process that’s the foundation of cheesemaking. The difference today is that, instead of milk fermenting naturally, rennet — the tissue from the lining of an animal’s stomach — or some other enzyme is added to kick-start coagulation. Cheesemaking is as much about chemistry now as anything else, Steve says. Then he starts talking about farming.
He tells the audience that the produce, meats, and cheeses they’re about to eat all came from Goat Lady Dairy’s property. In 2003, he says, he worked to place the property under a conservation easement to ensure that the land is always used for agricultural purposes and is never lost to development. He goes on to talk about Ginnie, saying that she passed away after battling Lou Gehrig’s disease, and how that solidified his and Lee’s commitment to Goat Lady Dairy. They know that they can’t stop all pollution, or reverse the trend of disappearing farmland, or save the planet, but they can save one farm. People sit there, listening, and they’re mesmerized. This is where my food comes from, they marvel, and these are the people who make it.
If not for the South, cheese might not have made it in America. Because when English settlers in New England started trying to replicate English cheeses, like Gloucester and Cheddar, they ran into a problem. To make cheese, you need the right climate. You need a moderate amount of dry air for Cheddar to form a hard rind. But summers in New England were too hot and too dry to age cheese. Instead of forming a natural rind, surface drying and cracking invited maggots. Northern cheesemakers found a solution on Southern cotton plantations.
They began wrapping their cheese with cotton cloth and brushing it with melted whey butter to reduce evaporation. Cotton solved the problem. But future technological advances created problems. Today’s mass-produced Cheddar is rarely aged; most of it’s wrapped in plastic as soon as it comes off a factory line.
Convenience has resulted in mediocre cheese, says Jennifer Perkins. She’s a cheesemaker and founder of Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, outside Asheville. She and her husband, Andy, make cheese inside an unadorned, white frame building that they constructed next to their home in 2008. Jennifer walks into one of its rooms and points to a metal rack holding a cheese wheel with a pale red rind. “I take my time with that one,” she says. She named it Chocolate Lab, because once the cheese is finished aging, its exterior will be rubbed with crushed cocoa and sea salt to give it a beautiful, caramel-brown color. That’s an extra touch, she says. And, really, every step in the process of making cheese is an extra touch. The temperature and humidity of this room are precisely controlled. The air hangs with salt and condensation.
Looking Glass Creamery’s hard work has been noticed. Chocolate Lab is among a collection of cheeses that Williams-Sonoma sells in its catalog. Katie Moore recommends it to people who visit her cheese store in Asheville.
Jennifer invites cheese connoisseurs to pick up a quarter of a cheese wheel, or the whole thing, at Looking Glass Creamery’s on-site cheese shop. The shop is housed in the same building where Jennifer and Andy, along with two employees, handcraft cheese from local goat and cow milk. After the couple built the place in 2008, they made their first batch of cheese the next year.
They’ve made a name for themselves among cheesemakers, so much so that Jennifer is currently the chair of the WNC Cheese Trail. When people receive a map of the trail at The Cheese Store of Asheville, Looking Glass Creamery is usually the first place they visit because it’s close by. “We’re excited for more people to stop in,” Jennifer says, “because we’re almost finished with our patio.” She steps outside, where, adjacent to the building, stone pavement has been laid and bistro tables set up. The sun is descending behind a mountain in the distance. Soon, out here, people will gather over wine and cheese. This is where my food comes from, they’ll marvel, and these are the people who make it.
In a different time, a time when most of us weren’t so far removed from a farm, a time when we didn’t worry as much about where our food comes from, we wouldn’t care as much about cheese. But now, when we sit down to eat, we think about what we’re putting into our bodies. We think about how it got to our table. We’re skeptical people. Who or what can we place our faith in?
But we trust North Carolina cheesemakers, like Steve and Lee Tate, and Steve’s late sister, Ginnie, and Andy and Jennifer Perkins. We trust cheese shop owners like Katie Moore. We trust them because we’ve gotten to know them, and that’s how a relationship forms. People with names and faces and stories — they give us something to put our faith in. They make us believe.
The Cheese Store of Asheville
86 Patton Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801
Goat Lady Dairy
3531 Jess Hackett Road
Climax, NC 27233
Looking Glass Creamery
57 Noble Road
Fairview, NC 28730