For the second year, Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest event director Katie Moore is transforming Highland Brewing Co.’s outdoor venue into one massive charcuterie board, complete with fresh and aged cheeses handmade from the milk of sheep, cows, goats and water buffalo. That’s in addition to a selection of breads, meats, jellies, jams, pickles, pretzels and additional regionally made foods. The taste-and-buy smorgasbord takes place Sunday, April 24.
“The cheese that we make here in Western North Carolina has a special flavor, and artisanal cheeses are really designed to build upon that,” says Moore, noting air composition and characteristics of local milk as two factors among many that affect the terroir.
It also takes a certain set of resources to support a region’s cheese-making culture. Mountains and less densely populated areas are particularly suitable environments because there’s ample space for animals to graze, Moore explains, making milk available without added monetary and environmental costs. “We’re so lucky in Western North Carolina, because we do have this industry right here,” she says.
The April 24 festivities celebrate that presence. Though a handful of the festival’s cheesemongers hail from neighboring states, the majority are regional purveyors, including eight members of the WNC Cheese Trail: Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery, English Farmstead Cheese, Looking Glass Creamery, Mountain Farm, Oakmoon Farm & Creamery, Round Mountain Creamery, Spinning Spider Creamery and Yellow Branch Farm & Pottery.
Like the festival it’s putting on, the WNC Cheese Trail — a nonprofit cooperative of area cheesemakers for which Moore serves as the executive director — has a multifaceted mission that includes educating folks about artisan cheese and producers, stimulating economic interest in that niche industry and boosting tourism to the area. “This is about people having a chance to taste food that is made locally and then supporting those makers,” Moore says of the event.
Moore notes that the event’s $12 entry fee, which benefits the Cheese Trail, is designed to encourage purchases from participating businesses. “You can get samples just like when you go to the tailgate market, but this is not an event like the [Asheville Wine and Food Festival]. You’re not paying $45 or $75 and then going down a line and filling up a plate with a bunch of samples,” she says.
General admission tickets grant access to demonstrations on milking, butter-churning, mozzarella-stretching and soapmaking; workshops (register to reserve a spot) on raising healthy goats, charcuterie basics and ethical eating; and kids’ attractions, including a variation on a cakewalk plus live goats and a calf. Adults who prefer to head home with a full belly can opt in to one of four educational workshops on beer-and-cheese or wine-and-cheese pairing ($10 fee, registration required).
Extra activities are one corrective response to the festival’s overwhelming turnout its inaugural year, which brought roughly 1,500 cheese seekers to the brewery. Shuttles got backed up once on-site parking was exhausted, and inside, lines interrupted the excitement.
“We sold about three times as many tickets as we anticipated,” Moore says, but “this year, we’re limiting the number of tickets.” Her team has also invited more vendors and coordinated additional shuttles to handle the spike in traffic. “We’re working really hard to alleviate those line issues that we experienced last year,” she assures.
Despite those hiccups, or perhaps because of them, Moore sees growth potential for the festival in the coming years, including the possibility of expanding it to include multiple days and fulfilling a common request: hands-on cheesemaking classes. But for now, she’s sticking to a single, informal day, “where you’ll see all ages, all types of people. It’s just a really fun time.”
Visit mountaincheesefest.com for more information or to buy tickets.