While outsiders might associate mountain cuisine with ramps and corn liquor, Western North Carolinians know the region's most iconic local-food product of the 21st century is goat cheese.
It's not surprising that a region as devoutly locavore as ours would embrace goat cheese, which elegantly encapsulates all the best attributes of local food. Goat cheese is fresh, affordable and terrifically versatile — even those who can't figure out how to cook with it can spread it on a cracker and revel in distinctively local flavors. Unlike some value-added products, goat cheese can be made entirely on the grounds of a family farm. (And it certainly doesn't hurt that goat cheese comes from cheek-squeezingly cute goats, who'll happily pose for agritourists' photographs.)
There are now more than half-dozen goat dairies in the greater Asheville area. Amazingly, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project reports the industry doesn't seem to have reached its saturation point. Propelled partly by chefs seeking to establish their dedication to local food without having to absorb too many stringing, peeling, slicing and processing tasks, the goat-cheese market is apparently growing.
With so many local goat cheeses now available, it can be difficult for the average consumer to distinguish among them. Of all the cheeses that regularly surface at tailgate markets, which one is best for stuffing figs? Which should be saved for dessert? Is there an ideal local goat cheese for grilled-cheese sandwiches?
Sufficiently stumped, Xpress recruited cheese expert Montserrat Almena-Aliste (see sidebar) to evaluate goat cheeses from local dairies, which gamely participated in the process. The cheese-makers themselves chose which cheeses to submit.
Almena-Aliste, a native Spaniard who's on the faculty of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, obliquely confesses to a smattering of European snobbery on her Web page: "One of the things that surprised me most about Americans (in a positive way) is their appreciation for gourmet foods," she writes. Her evaluations of cheeses from three area makers are printed here verbatim.
Dark Cove Pottery and Farm
Dark Cove uses milk from a small herd of 10 Alpine goats for its cheeses. The farm also produces honey, trout and wildflowers.
Lightly salted plain chevre: Very pleasant goaty flavor, with tangy and lemony notes. Dense and creamy texture with very smooth mouthfeel. (Note: not so lightly salted!)
Garlic chive: Thick and creamy texture. Very pleasant and balanced flavors. Fresh chive aromatics with delicate garlic notes and perfect levels of acidity and sweetness.
Looking Glass Creamery
Helmed by a former cheesemaker for the Inn at Blackberry Farm, Looking Glass Creamery is the latest addition to the area's goat cheese lineup.
Plain chevre: Delicate texture, moist texture yet slightly chalky. Granular mouthfeel. Dominant acidic flavors with very pleasant lemony aftertaste.
Peppercorn chevre: Gorgeous appearance, with a luxurious creamy texture mottled with peppery bites. Rich mouthfeel with outstanding flavoring.
Ginger chevre: The first-taste experience is a surprising intense sweetness, followed by spicy ginger notes and some tanginess. Interesting blend but not my perfect combination!
Early bird: Beautiful little cheese with a perfectly developed velvety white rind, edge-coated with delicate orange tones. Cutting reveals a cheese perfectly ripened with creamy texture, almost semi-liquid appearance and silky mouthfeel. Clean flavors in the mouth, with delicate goaty notes and slightly salty taste.
Ellington: Another gorgeous delicious cheese from Looking Glass Creamery! Perfect ash-coated rind contrasting an immaculate white interior. The cheese interior is intentionally unevenly ripened, resulting in a contrast of two yummy layered textures: a creamy exterior and a dense slightly chalky center. Delicate taste of fresh goat milk.
Three Graces Dairy
Three Graces Dairy, whose founders drew their inspiration from France's Burgundy region, employ Swiss Saanens, Nubians and Nigerian Dwarves as milkers.
Small bloomy rind cheese: Strong aromatic and powerful cheese, shelf life at the very end. Rind with characteristic ammonia smell, meaty and "cooked" notes. Cheese mass with piquant taste, ammonia and "cabbage" notes. Soft and smooth texture.
The Bee's Knees: Surprising aromatics in the noise, combining fresh lactic notes with characteristic floral aromas (wild daisies-like notes and delicate lavender). In mouth, very rich texture, sticky but soluble with very acid taste and dominant floral notes.
Plain Jane: Very pleasant aromatics, mainly fresh lactic notes. In mouth, fine texture and great taste (nice combination of acidity and saltiness) with a spicy and peppery aftertaste. Overall a very well-made cheese that includes a perfect blend of delicate and fresh aromas with spicy and peppery notes.