In honor of American Cheesemakers Month in May, the Local Palate is exploring the artisanal cheese and cheesemakers creating a fresh and creamy way of exploring the South.
The slow and steady rise of artisanal cheese in the United States has long been dominated by businesses in Wisconsin, Vermont, and California. In the past decade, however, Southern states are releasing first-class creations that are stealing the spotlight.
These pressed, washed, ripened, and fresh cheeses acts as reflections of their home environments—from rural Appalachia to green pastures in the Southeast—combining terroir, agriculture, and craftsmanship. “The fact that [a specific type of cheese] can’t be produced anywhere else in the world is such a romantic notion,” says Padgett Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery in Tennessee.
Drawn to the notion of elusive, edible terroir, cheeseheads are hitting the road in search of award-winning fetas, decadent double-creams, stinky taleggio, and Alpine-style wheels. Some creameries are even destinations in and of themselves, with offers like farm days, creamery tours, or Airbnbs housed within the barn.
It’s a funky, fresh, gastronomical adventure. Let this be your guide to the cheesemakers and creameries offering top-rate tastes of what makes the Upper South’s artisanal cheese scene so special.
Where to Find Artisanal Cheese in the Upper South
Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia were once driven by agriculture. But the increase in populations flocking from cities to rural areas has increased the value of agricultural land and outpaced many family farms. As a result, hundreds of cow creameries have dwindled to just a few dozen. The changed landscape meant that selling milk alone could not sustain a business, and artisan cow and goat cheeses provided a new revenue stream that creameries could pursue without having to completely reinvent the wheel (cheese pun).
Today, of the small producers that do exist, many, such as Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese, make limited batches of “farmers cheese” (cheddars, fresh goat cheeses, and herbed, firm cheese) that are sold in regional farmers’ markets. True artisan cheeses are much rarer. One such place is the preeminent Blackberry Farm, which has built a reputation for highlighting gourmet opportunities within the natural surroundings. Their cheesemaking is particularly unique, as it is one of the only sheep’s milk producers in the Upper South—most use only cow’s milk.
Places like Sequatchie Cove Creamery and Noble Springs Dairy, both in Tennessee, and Shepherd’s Whey Creamery in West Virginia operate at a much more boutique level.
“The dairy industry has been in decline, but it’s something important to save,” says Padgett Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery, located in a sweeping valley outside of Chattanooga. “How a cheese shines has to do with the root of where it comes from. Also, it brings economic value to a local area with something that’s truly unique. We want to show off what’s so special about this valley, creating a deep connection between the land and animals and finished product.” As the only producer in the state making ripened or aged cow’s milk cheeses, Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s practices hone the milk’s flavors so that they come through as a direct link to the environment.
Three Artisanal Cheese Shops in the Upper South
Blackberry Farm | Walland, Tennessee
The South’s darling for ecotourism boasts an award-winning cheese program with bloomy, firm, and spreadable sheep’s milk cheeses from their on-site flock.
Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese | Austin, Kentucky
This creamery’s farm offers Airbnbs inside the farmhouse and apartments over the barn for a pastoral escape that includes a section of farmstead cheeses upon arrival.
Sequatchie Cove Creamery | Sequatchie, Tennessee
Dancing Fern, a supple and buttery Reblochon-style cheese, put this little creamery on the map more than 10 years ago. Find it at Sequatchie Cove Farm Trading Post (open Saturdays) or the Main Street Farmers Market in Chattanooga (Wednesday afternoons).
What We’re Eating: Shakerag Blue
Chattanooga whiskey-soaked fig leaves encase this fudgy blue cheese, flavored with notes of pork-fat-meets-baking-spice, giving it an unmistakable Tennessee flair.
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