Meet five virginia producers known for making cheese based on place
While Chouaf and Adduci have garnered much attention by consistently topping the winners’ board at the national Cheesemonger Invitational, meanwhile, producers like Caromont Farm and Meadow Creek have been chalking up National Cheese Association awards for their excellent farmstead cheeses. What follows is a list of five amazing farmstead cheese-makers that, taken collectively, have put Virginia on the map as a hotbed for terroir cheese-making.
9261 Old Green Mountain Rd., Esmont
One of Virginia’s most notable cheese producers, Caromont got its start in 2005 when 56-year-old owner and founder Gaile Hobbs-Page took a gig making goat cheese at Dave Matthews’ farm. “I’d spent my career as a chef and was looking for a change and figured if I could cook then I could make cheese,” she says. “Looking back on it, that confidence was a little naïve.” And while the operation ultimately wound up getting nixed in favor of beef cattle and heirloom apples, walking away with a consolation gift of a dozen goats, the ex-Hamilton’s on Main chef and her husband decided to go into the cheese-making business for themselves.
That was nearly a decade ago now, and what seemed a crazy idea has proved, well, a pretty smart move. In that time Caromont’s herd has increased to 150 goats, allowing the company to leap from producing 350 to 30,000 pounds of cheese a year. In 2012, its flagship Esmontonian—a raw-milk tomme-style cheese that’s aged for 90 to 120 days—won second place in the American Cheese Society competition, catapulting Caromont into the national limelight and leading to a stream of orders from retailers all around the country.
For those looking to visit, the farm is located on Route 6 in Albemarle County a few miles west of Scottsville and offers monthly events, cooking classes, open houses and, yes, snuggling sessions with the goats.
5209 Bellair Farm, Charlottesville
Founded in 2014 by a team of four partners including former Caromont head and assistant cheese-makers Bridge Cox and Kyle Kilduff, as well as husband-and-wife duo Tom and Melanie Pyn, Twenty Paces is seeking to become the South’s preeminent producer of sheep and goat cheese. “We wanted to differentiate ourselves by bringing a more scientific and innovative approach to cheese-making in Virginia, and with very few producers in the U.S.—and especially in the South—making high-quality sheep’s cheese, we saw that as an opportunity,” says Kilbuff.
Leasing land from 800-plus acre agricultural incubator Bellair Farms, which is situated about 13 miles outside of Charlottesville in the rural hamlet of Keene, the team invested $321,000 in rebuilding the farm’s creamery, where they now produce eight varieties of artisanal small-batch cheeses from goat and sheep’s milk Kilduff says is as land-specific as it gets. “One of the things that’s particularly special about what we do is how, through the incorporation of management-intensive grazing—” that is, using no toxic sprays or artificial fertilizers and implementing meticulous rotational grazing schedules—“our raw milk cheeses are made with milk that’s free of the extensive use of hay or grain, and are true to the area terroir,” explains Kilbuff.
In 2016, the creamery’s first production year, the Twenty Paces crew—all of whom are well under 40—sold mainly to restaurants and artisanal markets in Richmond and Charlottesville. In 2017, working with a Washington D.C.-based distributor, they look to expand into Northern Virginia markets.
VA Monastery Gouda
3365 Monastery Dr., Crozet
Probably story-wise the most interesting of all Virginia’s offerings, this gouda is produced by a cloister of a dozen nuns living in Crozet’s Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. As Trappists, the sisters believe in rigorous self-sustenance. Thus, when sent by Massachusetts’s Mount Saint Mary’s Abbey to found the U.S.’s youngest house of the Cistercian Order in 1987, the nuns planned to provide for themselves via making cheese. The first batch of VA Monastery cheese was produced in 1990, when the sisters transformed 6,500 pounds of milk into 650 pounds of what was to become a luscious gouda cheese sealed in red wax. Since then, while producing only what they need for financial sustenance, the sisters have crafted more than 730 batches of cheese, and now average around 19,000 pounds a year.
According to 79-year-old Sister Barbara Smickel, the monastery’s gouda is made from an heirloom Dutch recipe and uses a mix of Holstein-Friesian, Swedish Red and Brown Swiss milk from Green Hills Farm in nearby Rockingham County, as well as cheese culture shipped fresh from Wisconsin. “The milk is heated and the culture is added to produce curds, which are cut by hand, packed in forms and pressed,” she says. “The finished cheeses are immersed in salt brine, then cured in a refrigeration room where we turn and inspect them daily. During the first four days of production, a special rind is hand-painted on each cheese. This allows the cheese to breathe while it ages. During the natural process of aging, the cheese takes on a richer flavor and color, ranging from soft yellow to a deep gold. Prior to shipment, we dip each cheese in a protective red wax coating.”
Meadow Creek Dairy
6724 Meadow Creek Rd., Galax
Arguably the commonwealth’s oldest and most revered producer, since getting into the cheese-making business in 1998, Meadow Creek Dairy has established itself as a Virginia cheese-making trailblazer and powerhouse. Located in the mountainous landscape of Galax County, Meadow Creek secured its reputation by creating the state’s first line of nationally-recognized, place-based cheeses. “Meadow Creek’s Appalachian and Grayson varieties were the first to establish Virginia as a center of terroir cheese-making,” says Dany Schutte, a Richmond-based cheese consultant and former cheesemonger at Southern Season and Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market. So prominent is the brand that, at a recent welcoming dinner with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gov. Terry McAuliffe served the dairy’s Appalachian cheese—a variety which has won both Best Farmstead Cheese and Best of Show at numerable American Cheese Association events—as an example of the state’s artisanal prowess.
“The Appalachian was our original recipe and the first cheese we ever made,” says Rick Feete, who co-owns Meadow Creek Dairy with his wife, Helen. “Our goal with the Appalachian has always been to develop a cheese that showcased our milk, which comes from a herd developed to fit our farm’s mountainous terrain, rather than picking a benchmark cheese and struggling to match the farm to it. To this end, we’ve kept the make simple and focused on affinage, allowing the Appalachian to form a white coat of penicillium molds that complements its unique flavor.”
The Bonnyclabber Cheese Company at Sullivan’s Pond Farm
1754 Mill Creek Rd., Wake
This second-generation family farm and cheese-making operation was established in 1990 and in 1998 garnered regional attention when its goat cheeses began to win blue ribbons in numerous contests across the state. Founded by Tim and Rona Sullivan and assuming the vernacular Irish term for “clabbered milk” as its namesake, Sullivan’s Pond is located on the Middle Peninsula in Middlesex County where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay, which Tim says leads to “verdant pastures that allow for year-round grazing, which in turn leads to better milk.” Seeking to capitalize upon the area’s unique terroir, in 1999 the Sullivans diversified their herd, adding Alpine and Toggenburg goats—French and Swiss breeds acclaimed for superior milk production—and further upped the ante in 2003 by building the state’s first Grade-A micro goat dairy, which, according to Rona,“allowed us to expand our production and begin to supply regional grocers like [Richmond’s] Ellwood Thompson and a number of Whole Foods stores.”
Concerning the couple’s cheeses, Rona says they specialize in crafting aged raw milk cheeses, made with warm raw milk, without starters or rennet, cooking or freezing. “Our Bonnyclabber cheeses are created in small batches, where the lightly salted curd is hand-ladled into molds, then light-pressed,” she says. “All wraps and rind treatments are grown on the farm, with the exception of cloth for bound wheels.”