The Southern Cheese Crusade
From the heat to the bugs, Southern cheese makers face a daunting set of challenges. But a growing number of them are proving they can stack up with the best
Since it started in earnest in the late 1990s, the South’s artisan cheese-making community has grown to about 150 members, a figure compiled from a survey by the American Cheese Society and estimates by the sellers and makers of Southern cheese. Southern farms and cheese makers are crafting new cheeses that are sometimes exceptional, sometimes quirky, but increasingly embraced by both Southerners and cheese experts around the country. “We’ve seen just tremendous growth in the South,” says Nora Weiser, the cheese society’s executive director. “That’s the area that is most ripe for it, and the quality is increasing with the quantity.”
Arnold was one of twenty-nine Southern cheese makers to enter the cheese society’s competition last year (up from only eight in 2008), and a record fifteen of them won awards. State fairs have started cheese competitions, and the South even has its own artisan cheese festival now, which will be held this year, its third, on September 28 in Nashville.
Arnold never went to college, but that was more about an aversion to institutions than a lack of intellect. He has a meticulous mind and loves art and science in equal measures. He is, a day with him makes clear, a perfectionist, and making cheese in the South, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, is Kryptonite for perfectionists.
Summer temperatures burn off the grass and make the cows lethargic. Stressed from the heat, animals give less milk. Warm winters mean insects and parasite populations never really get killed off. Sheep get weird parasites such as the barber pole worm. Crazy kinds of yeast float through the cheese house. But with the challenges also come advantages. Find a way to harness all that biodiversity and navigate year-round grazing, and you can make great cheese.
“If you want biodiversity, the South is the place,” says Padgett Arnold, Nathan’s wife and one of about ten people who live or work on the diversified Sequatchie Cove Farm, including its owners, the Keener family. “This climate will grow anything. It’s great, but it means making cheese is an art down here. Every day we’re learning just how complex it really is.”