Food - Farmstead cheese takes root in Georgia

A look at local cheesemakers

Turning milk into cheese may not be as miraculous as water into wine, but the transformation in taste bud impact can be almost as intoxicating. At least water and wine are both liquids - cheese is a whole other state of being.

Now think about turning Georgia grass into cheese. If you're a farmstead cheesemaker like Rebecca Williams at Many Fold Farms, that's exactly what you do every day, with major contributions from a herd of sheep. It's the sheep on Rebecca's farm that chew up the grass, take in its nutrients and flavors, and are then kind enough to share the milk that derives a good deal of its character from that Georgia grass. Without the grass, no sheep. Without the sheep, no milk. Without the milk, no cheese. Luckily, Georgia is benefitting from a growing group of zealot cheesemakers eager to shepherd that transformation from the grass and hay on their farm to the cheese on your table.

Most of the farmstead cheesemakers that now call Georgia home inhabit a band that stretches east and west around Atlanta. Not far from where I-20 hits the Alabama border, there's the Capra Gia Cheese Company and their four breeds of goats. A bit closer to Atlanta, into the verdant Chattahoochee Hill Country, you come across Many Fold Farms and their many, many sheep. Just barely outside the perimeter on the south side of town, Mary Rigdon and her goats make what is Atlanta's most local farmstead cheese at Decimal.Place Farm. To the east, a bit past Athens, you'll find Nature's Harmony Farm and their Jersey cows in Elberton. Finally, south of Augusta, Flat Creek Lodge manages to combine a dairy farm, cheesemaking, and a hunting and fishing lodge all in one place on the outskirts of Swainsboro. The proximity of all of these cheesemakers to the Atlanta market makes it (relatively) easy for them to tap into Atlanta's popular farmers markets, as well as the restaurants and cheese shops in town that put an emphasis on providing quality local products.

While further afield, Sweet Grass Dairy is clearly the big steer of Georgia cheesemaking, way down yonder in Thomasville. Sweet Grass can be excused their almost-in-Florida locale, now that they've reached their twelfth year of turning out the award-winning cheeses that put artisan Georgia cheese on the map. And despite their national presence, Sweet Grass still views the South as their primary market. Jeremy Little, owner and cheesemaker, said they wouldn't be where they are today without the support of Atlanta restaurants and cheese shops. And given their humble beginnings, Sweet Grass also welcomes the many newcomers now making cheese in Georgia, especially those with a strong stance on responsible farming and a commitment to showcasing great milk. "Georgia is like a blank slate for cheesemaking — especially since here in south Georgia we can have cows grazing lush pasture year-round. We try to capture the character of the southern Georgia soil, how milk produced by these cows that are eating these grasses in this part of Georgia influences the cheese. Overall, it's great to see newcomers. We welcome anyone who is working to improve the culinary landscape in the South."

The culinary landscape certainly seems attractive at Nature's Harmony Farm in Elberton, where Tim and Liz Young recently won a ribbon from this year's American Cheese Society awards for their rich and nutty Fortsonia Gruyere. They joined Sweet Grass Dairy and Flat Creek Lodge as winners hailing from Georgia, and Nature's Harmony is another example of a cheesemaker who is as much about the animals and the land as it is about the cheese. In fact, Tim has written a book — The Accidental Farmers — that details the challenges of moving from suburbia into the full-time life of starting up and managing a farm. Liz and Tim even host an amiable, almost weekly "farmcast" (available free on iTunes) to discuss the trials and tribulations of life on the farm. Typical quote? "Our life is a little different, isn't it?" (preceded by an in-depth discussion of animal birthing schedules).

Life on the farm, tending to a herd of dairy cattle or a flock of sheep, caring for the land they live on — it all adds up to hours both early and long. But it's not until the cheesemakers get their fresh milk that the actual cheesemaking can begin. Once the milk is present, a whole other bevy of things have to come together — deciding whether or not to pasteurize the milk*, having the knowledge and experience and equipment to actually make the cheese, having the space to properly age the cheese and the time to do so, and having the perseverance to see it all through from start to finish, over and over again. Maybe, just maybe, with all those things in harmony, something glorious will come of the land. Something like Many Fold Farm's Garretts Ferry, a remarkable taste of the farm being made not too far from the traffic and tumult of the city.

At Many Fold Farm, cheesemaker Rebecca Williams and her husband Ross, head farmer, tend to a flock of a couple hundred sheep, seventy of which are "milkers" doing their part in the cheese production. There are chickens, too, 400 or so of them who are constantly laying eggs and generally causing a ruckus, but unfortunately aren't much help with the cheese. Rebecca says she and her husband are "simply dairy people," meaning they work really hard. But that hard work is paying off in the form of sheep's milk cheeses that could sit confidently on any cheese tray in the country's best restaurants. That Garretts Ferry cheese is an exquisite little button of sheep milk magic, creamy and complex. Many Fold Farm's Condor's Ruin is denser, ash-ripened, a small shapely pyramid of stark milk white lined with dusty ash black that manages to pack in even more depth of flavor. Both of these cheeses, if you taste them thoughtfully, convey a good deal about all the work and attention that went into making them. And don't expect to find them come autumn - Many Fold Farms' milking season takes a break until February, and so the relatively young cheeses yield way to longer aged cheese.

With the clearly burgeoning farmstead cheesemaking scene in Georgia, one might expect there to be a good amount of sharing of ideas and best practices. The community is certainly supportive, but the one thing that gets in the way is the inherent lifestyle of the dairy farmer/cheesemaker. Says Williams, "with the long hours, working really hard, we don't get to see other cheesemakers that often. But we do try."

If there's one place you can find multiple Georgia cheesemakers in one place, it's the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. On a typical summer Saturday morning, for example, you're likely to see Mary from Decimal.Place Farm and Ross from Many Fold Farm, as well as booths from Greendale Farm and Izzy's Local Cheeses. For cheese lovers, the farmers markets provide an opportunity to sample the cheeses, meet folks from the farm or the cheesemaker himself/herself, and know that any dollars spent are going right to the cheesemaker. For the cheesemakers, it's obviously a great way to get out and meet interested consumers, and it's one of the main retail outlets for some of the smaller producers. But as far as having time to swap stories with their fellow cheesemakers? It's hard to squeeze that in between all the customers lining up.

It's worth pointing out that some of the new crop of Georgia cheesemakers don't go the whole farm route: they buy their milk. That's not to denigrate their cheese or to say that it's any less "local" or "artisanal" – for these cheesemakers, it's just a matter of trusting someone else to hand over good milk. CalyRoad Creamery, for example, makes their wide array of cheeses and operates a shop of their own in Sandy Springs, using milk supplied by Johnston Family Farm. Izzy's Local Cheeses, out of Newborn, Georgia, also gets their milk from Johnston, and focuses on fresh mozzarella. Greendale Farm actually is a farm, complete with cattle and pigs and chickens and more, but they partner with a neighbor for the milk supply necessary to make their many cheeses. A more unique partnership is the one that Udderly Cool Creamery has with Berry College, sourcing their milk from the nearby college's student-managed herd of Jersey cows. These non-farmstead cheesemakers are still contributing to the wave of carefully crafted Georgia cheese; they're just not waking up on the farm and raising the animals themselves in advance of making the cheese.

Beyond the farmers markets, the support for these Georgia cheesemakers has come most prominently from restaurants like Linton Hopkins' Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch, or from top cheese shops like the one masterfully curated by Tim Gaddis at Star Provisions. If anyone is qualified to speak to the quality of Georgia's crop of local cheese, it's Gaddis (AKA "Tim the Cheese Man"), who stocks some of the best cheeses in the world, whether from near or far. Gaddis noted, "the local cheesemaker scene is exploding — I can count five new dairies off the top of my head that have started up in the last few years in Georgia."

Fortunately, Georgia is not a place where everyone tends to jump on the same bandwagon. Gaddis points out the variety of different styles of cheeses being made by Georgia cheesemakers, "I'm happy to say there really isn't one single trend the local cheesemakers are following. Everyone seems to have their own style, which is nice for me because I can carry several of them without worrying if one will compete with the other. The best thing is these dairies are not just making average, run-of-the-mill cheese. They are producing some of the best in the nation. Just look at the result from this year's American Cheese Society." Better yet, head over to Star Provisions or the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, and try a few yourself.

* It's a long story, but per the FDA, raw milk (unpasteurized) can only be used legally in certain cheeses that are aged at least 60 days.

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