In honor of American Cheesemakers Month in May, the Local Palate is exploring the artisan cheese and cheesemakers creating a tasty way of exploring the South.
Over the last 10 years, Southern states have been steadily rising through the ranks of artisanal cheesemaking, an industry previously dominated by states like Wisconsin, Vermont, and California. Garnering inspiration from the land, from rural Appalachia to the marshy waters of Florida, their production practices and tasty results reflect their region’s heritage and culture.
There’s a precise craftsmanship to cheesemaking: pressing, washing, ripening, and each step is distinctly tied to the terrior and agricultural practices of where it is forged. “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, creamy sheep milk cheese, 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 Gulf Coast‘s artisanal cheese scene so special.
The Gulf Coast Cheese Scene
Like much of the country, the Gulf Coast has its share of goat and cow creameries, including Belle Chevre and Working Cows Dairy in Alabama. Sheep milk cheese, on the other hand, are among the rarest in the country. Sheep, after all, are not exactly resilient to Southern climes and pests. However, when you look at the nation’s southernmost states, you find a handful of people—including those at Dayspring Dairy in Gallant, Alabama, and Sunshine Farms in Paisley, Florida—making such fresh and aged sheep milk cheese exceptionally well.
Greg Kelly and his wife, Ana, lead the flock at Dayspring Dairy. They gravitated to sheep in order to define their niche. (Also, they admit, they’re just not fans of goat cheese.) The region’s native Gulf Coast sheep arrived by way of Spanish colonists and eventually evolved to thrive in the hot, marshy terrain. The Kellys bred French Lacaune ewes with a Gulf Coast dairy ram to create a biologically diverse—and resilient—herd. Sheep dairying still poses its own set of challenges: You can only milk the sheep five to seven months of the year, and they yield less milk than cows and goats. The solution for many American sheep cheesemakers is to craft fresh milk cheeses, which have minimal aging time, so feta, halloumi, and spreadable cheeses are ready to sell within the week.
A Quick List of Cheeses We Love in the Gulf Coast
Dayspring Dairy | Gallant, Alabama
Kelly Jeffus creates photogenic aged, semi-hard, and soft-ripened cheeses in her Mississippi cheese caves. You can shop the cheeses from the creamery’s market or attend a guided tasting or cheese-board-making workshop.
Artisan Cheese Company | Sarasota, Florida
Cheese shopping hits a granular level at this specialty market. Shop domestic and international cheeses, yogurt, butters, and more based on animal, style, and nationality.
What We’re Eating: Pimento Garlic Fresca Cheese
From Dayspring Dairy
This whippy, spreadable cheese tastes like Boursin and pimento cheese got together and had a party. It packs rich flavor and saltiness and gets depth from the herbs along with a little warmth from the pimentos.
Take a funky, fresh gastronomical tour of the Southeast through its artisan cheese and cheesemakers, including where to go and what to eat.
- by Erin Byers Murray