Cultural affairs: Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest spotlights local cheesemakers

SAY CHEESE: Christine Owen, owner of the award-winning Spinning Spider Creamery in Marshall, is among local cheese artisans who will highlight their craft at the inaugural Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest on Sunday, April 26. Photo by Tim Robison

You’ll rarely catch Katie Moore in her office these days; she’s in and out, always a blur. Since abandoning the idea of a fixed downtown location for her company, The Cheese Store of Asheville, and going mobile, Moore is much more likely to be spotted at tasting events and pop-ups around town. A wine store one day, a winery the next, at festivals and shops across town, she keeps busy curating and selling quality local cheeses, as well as some from farther afield.

“There are a lot of great cheesemakers in this area, and it would be nice if people knew about them,” she says. “A lot of people don’t go to tailgate markets, so another way to get to get to know them is to create a special way that people can learn and be educated about who the cheesemakers are.”

Lately, Moore and colleagues Jennifer Perkins of Looking Glass Creamery and Rachel English Brown of English Farmstead Cheese have been working hard on a project aimed at raising awareness of the region’s artisanal cheese crafters: the Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest. Slated for Sunday, April 26, at Highland Brewing Co., the event will shine the spotlight on the WNC Cheese Trail, which promotes local cheeses and profiles their producers.

“The WNC Cheese Trail was put together by a group of cheesemakers who hardly have enough time to make cheese, let alone promote this larger picture of what we are all doing,” Moore explains. “So what we’re hoping is to raise some money and awareness, so that we have the capital to do bigger things.”

As a cheesemonger, Moore has worked closely with many of the state’s nearly 40 cheesemakers, helping organize the trail and create the festival.

“It’s not just about educating people about cheese — it’s about letting people know that it’s here and that it’s local,” she notes. “This is an industry that has sustained itself for a number of years now. It can grow and it can add to the economy of Asheville. It’s not just that locally made cheese that isn’t wrapped in plastic for months and isn’t highly processed is actually good for you; it’s that there’s an industry right here in our backyard that is viable and needs our support.”

A legacy of cows and curds

In the dim light of dawn, the little farmhouses’ lit windows have halos. Dew coats the grass as the 70-some head of cattle start waking up — the first stirrings of the workday at English Farmstead Cheese, tucked away in the valley below the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Chestoa Overlook.

“I was out here around 5:30 to get the raw tank and get it down to the barn to get the milk,” Terry English reports, adding, “My day usually ends around dark.”

He and his wife, Susan English, are the fourth-generation keepers of this legacy dairy farm in Marion. “In 1926, Carnation built a receiving station for sour cream in Spruce Pine, just across the mountain,” Terry says, with a drawl that slows and curves slightly south at the end of each phrase. “So they started raising cows for a living, because there was always a buyer for sour cream.

SPOTLIGHT ON CHEESE: Katie Moore, owner of the Asheville Cheese Store, and local cheese makers organized the Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest as a way to raise awareness of the region’s artisanal cheese crafters. Pictured are products from English Farmstead Cheese.
SPOTLIGHT ON CHEESE: Katie Moore, owner of the Asheville Cheese Store, and local cheese makers organized the Carolina Mountain Cheese Fest as a way to raise awareness of the region’s artisanal cheese crafters. Pictured are products from English Farmstead Cheese.

“In the ’40s,” he continues, “it became clear that electricity was coming.” With it came the promise of refrigeration, which led them to begin producing milk as well. But that meant they needed more cows. As Terry tells it, “By 1950, they’d done their research, and when they turned the power on for the first time, they started milking with electric milkers instead of by hand, and they went from collecting 6 gallons a day to 12 gallons. It doubled their production.”

And three generations later, the family farm is still scrambling to keep up with the times. “Right now our income is decided by the world’s [milk] market. We just want to develop some kind of stability in our income,” says Terry.

A couple of months ago, he explains, the going rate for their product was roughly 28 cents a pound; last month, the price dropped to 21 cents. This month, he expects it to be around 18 cents. In short, it’s a steadily declining market in an increasingly expensive industry, and a lot of those sales hinge on seasonal demand. Think about it: How many schools serve milk at lunch? And how much does that demand drop in the summertime? And meanwhile, the more the price per pound declines, the higher the losses mount up. So in order to make up the difference in a falling market, the Englishes realized that they’d have to find some other way to utilize their product.

“I don’t really know how to say it. … It’s a tough business, but at the same time, it’s an enjoyable lifestyle — most of it, at least!” Terry says with a laugh. “This cheese thing was a big investment. We just raised cows for milk for so long, and it just kept getting tougher every year, and something had to change. We saw the writing on the wall, we did some research, took a gamble, and it’s paid off real good.”

“Terry made a mistake one year by giving me a cheesemaking kit for Christmas,” says Susan, “and for years, I made cheese every Saturday. I even had a little minipasteurizer. I have friends that are rudely honest, so if it was bad, they’d tell me.”

In 2013, the family launched their commercial creamery and began handcrafting cheese. After 30 years as an operating room nurse, Susan traded in her scrubs for a droll little hairnet spattered with cow spots. She and her sister, Luanne Graham, a biology teacher at the local high school, actually have matching hairnets.

“It’s always been just the two of us,” notes Susan. “When Luanne comes in here, she doesn’t say a word; she knows exactly what she’s supposed to do and what I need to do.”

The English farm still ships grade A milk to Milkco in Asheville (an Ingles subsidiary) and PET in Spartanburg, S.C. But a significant amount of the family’s income now comes from handcrafting artisanal cheeses.

And that change denotes a broader shift in demand that’s increasingly convincing local dairy farmers that it’s time to start creating their own alternative products with their milk. The WNC Cheese Trail now represents 12 farms, helping expand the market for the region’s cheeses.

“Our family decided to make cheese as a way to keep the farm going,” explains Rachel English Brown, Terry and Susan’s daughter, who now serves as public relations director for the Cheese Trail. “My family has been farming for a really long time, and that is a huge part of who we are and what we do. So cheese is just one way to keep that going into the future.”

Goats and kids

Christine Owen — farmer, mother, wife, cheesemaker and proprietor of the award-winning Spinning Spider Creamery — says, “I just needed to make cheese for the family. My kids were intolerant of cow’s milk, so having a few goats evolved into us looking around in 1999 and realizing there were very few licensed cheesemakers in Western North Carolina. We started to evaluate that and decided that it was a worthwhile enterprise.”

Like many artisanal cheesemakers, the Owens eventually saw a business opportunity in the expertise they’d developed at home. “We’re a farmstead dairy, meaning all of our cheese comes from our own animals,” she explains. “We milk a herd of about 75 to 90 doe, and we regularly have about 125 animals on the farm.”

For Owen, it all started with those animals. “They just have such great personalities!” she gushes. “We take a lot of pride in our herd, and we actually have several national champions. I think one of the main reasons we got into this in the first place was because of the goats.”

Lke Susan English, Owen has a scientific background. “Cheesemaking, she notes, “fits a scientific mind perfectly, because it isn’t just following a recipe: It’s understanding the chemistry of the milk and its seasonality as it changes, and putting it into the product that I want. It’s a constantly evolving and changing analytical process that really appeals to me. That’s one of the reasons we’re always making so many cheeses. I just really want to push myself and see what we need to tweak and refine.”

Owen mainly functions as the cheesemaker, leaving it to her three sons to raise the animals while husband Jeff handles distribution, market sales and marketing strategy. And having her boys on the farm “makes such a difference,” she maintains. “This is their lifestyle now; this is what they’ve known since they were tiny. It’s not me trying to convince my children that this is what they want to do: It’s something they’ve chosen.”

Cullen, the eldest, attended UNC Asheville but returned to work on the farm after graduating. “He’s been doing this since he was really young, and he’s had such good feedback!” she observes, adding that he was selling Spinning Spider’s cheese at local markets when he was 12. “That’s a family farm to us: We didn’t inherit this farm, but it is still entirely family-run and family-built.”

“It’s not an easy thing to become a cheesemaker anymore,” says Owen. Thanks to the Food Safety Modernization Act, “There are a lot more hoops to jump through and a lot more record keeping. I may want less oversight and less regulation, but at the same time, I can’t fault my customers for wanting the safest products possible.”

All in the family

“What has really amazed us is how many people come here and, yeah, they buy cheese, but they also feel like they’re reconnecting,” Terry English reports. “They can look out there and see the heifers in the pasture, the cows at the barn; they can see the tractors and the people working. It’s like they’re buying the experience as much as the cheese.”

English Farmstead Cheese

And on a warm spring day — cattle grazing in the pasture, the sun hanging over the mountains, smiling down on you — it’s just about impossible not to buy into that. But beyond the magnificent vistas, such farms may represent the future of WNC’s rural economy, an opportunity to keep these communities self-sustaining.

“Our goal is to have people come and learn about cheese and then, ultimately, to support these local businesses and buy some,” Moore says about the Cheese Fest. “When you think of a cheese board, that’s who the vendors are going to be. We have cheesemakers, bread-makers, cracker companies, jams, charcuteries and everything you’d see on a cheese platter.”

But the festival will also serve up lectures and discussion panels, including a presentation on Old World versus New World cheeses by Peter Dickson of Vermont’s Parish Hill Creamery. “It’s a good chance to learn about the kind of cheeses we’re making now and where they came from,” notes Moore.

Add to that the promise of Highland beer, a grilled cheese cook-off and the “Cheese Olympics” — including, rumor has it, a bicycle-powered butter churn and a mozzarella pull — and you have a four-hour, family-friendly event that’s hard to turn down, especially at this price.

“The reason tickets are only $12 is because we want people to buy cheese,” Moore explains. “The entire reason we’re doing this is to support these cheesemakers.

In addition, Susan English points out, “It’s really nice that the cheese trail is cooperative instead of being competitive. Everybody has their own niche around here, so there isn’t really a big need to compete. I don’t make what they make, and they don’t make what I make. We’re all in this together.”





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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of Follow me @jonathanammons

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