A handful of cheesemakers are trying to make a regional cheese trail into Asheville tourism’s next big thing.
story and photos by Naomi Johnson
“Winter is the cheesemaker’s time to try new things,” Jennifer Perkins said one day in mid-February, her hands busily flipping row after row of wheels of cheese.
The aging room at Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview is cool, windowless and profoundly humid, the tile floor wet and the air redolent with the pungent smell of cheeses. They fill the racks and shelves with squares and pyramids, large and small. The basket-textured rounds she’s working on will be turned and rinsed in brine every day for six weeks, then dusted with bitter chocolate, which gives the cheese its name: Chocolate Lab. It’s a mainstay of their business, along with fresh chevres, the brie-like Pack Square and the ash-coated triangles of Ellington. But way in the back, high up, are a few shelves devoted to this year’s experiments. Perkins points out a new cheddar that’s not working out so well; its rind is pocked with defects. Still, she says, “It’s important to keep experimenting. You never know when you might hit on the next big thing.”
This winter, Perkins is certainly working on something new. And she hopes her latest experiment will reach well beyond the walls of the cheese room. In fact, her idea could change the face of agriculture-related tourism in Western North Carolina. Perkins is spearheading an effort to create a regional Cheese Trail, a variation on a form of culinary tourism that’s popular around the nation—from Louisiana’s Boudin Trail to the wine trails of upstate New York to New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. A big influence: the successful Vermont Cheese Trail, which runs the length of that already tourist-friendly state and has turned it into a veritable cheese-adventure destination.
In late February, nine of Western North Carolina’s two dozen goat, sheep and other artisan cheese producers plan to meet to see if they can get the cheese trail off the ground. They'll be talking with officials from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, along with Martha Glass, manager of the state’s agritourism office (part of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services), among others. Steve Lathrop, Glass’s colleague and a dairy marketing specialist for the Department of Agriculture, says he thinks the idea is a great one. “There’s not anybody else in the Southeast doing it right now,” he says, explaining that North Carolina—never known as a cheesemaking spot—actually has 40 farmstead cheese producers, more than any Southeastern state. “Once we get [the Western North Carolina trail] started, we can do one for the Eastern half of the state as well.”
Now might be just the time. “Some big things are happening in the cheese industry,” says Perkins. In fact, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the world of cheese in America is undergoing a transformation, much like what happened with U.S. wines in the 1970s: long dominated by industrial-scale, corporate production, our cheeses were scorned by the European cognoscenti until recent years, when American artisanal cheeses began surprising the skeptics by winning high-profile prizes at European festivals. Stateside, the boom in all things local and handmade sees small-scale American producers quickly gaining respect and market share.
WNC is particularly well-situated, both geographically and culturally, to benefit from this shift. For one thing, the mountains prevent industrial-scale dairying (like what happens in the best-known cheesemaking state, Wisconsin). Our geography sets the stage for some really interesting cheeses: every cove, after all, has its own specific terroir; that combination of microclimate, soil, and site-specific plant life that gives a vineyard its unique personality applies equally to milk and cheese, with the added factors of naturally occurring local molds and bacteria. “Even if two cheesemakers use the same recipe, they don’t end up with the same cheese,” says Perkins. And of course there’s our much-lauded local food scene: what better addition to Foodtopia and Beer City, USA, than delicious gourmet cheese? Glass, who is skeptical that the cheese trail would appeal to high-end tourists, says one way to pitch it is as Western North Carolina’s wine and cheese trail.
From Perkins’ perspective, making WNC into a cheese destination would both create a stronger market for cheese (and, by extension, the milk, soaps and other products) that are already being created here. It would attract new producers to the region, creating a more varied cheese landscape, with more to offer visitors and locals alike. Indeed, Perkins has already been contacted by a Leicester woman who owns a small herd of water buffalo and wants to sell buffalo-milk mozzarella. As far as Perkins is concerned, the more the merrier: “I think we can work together and strengthen the industry in a way that will help us all.”
Chris Owen, who founded Spinning Spider Creamery in Marshall in 1999 with her husband Jeff, agrees that the cheese trail could benefit the regional group. But she also seems rather fierce about trying to differentiate herself and her farm’s offerings from newcomers to farmstead cheese. In she and her husband’s case, the goats came first, and then the couple—both graduates from Duke University’s School of Environmental Studies—tried to figure out a way to make both their goats and their land profitable. Today, the water at Spinning Spider is heated by solar panels, and its cheeses are sold at posh downtown-Asheville restaurants like The Market Place, Table and Posana. But that wasn’t always the case. Owen has worked hard to make a living at cheesemaking, convincing chefs to choose her cheese over a growing crowd of other farms. “The truth is, if we’re all doing chevre, it will be hard,” she says. “It is not easy to compete with this many cheese-makers in a small area. It does bite into our bottom line.”
Still, she says, if any town can support a cheese trail, it’s Asheville. When Owen got into the dairy business, she knew a little about cheese and a lot about lactating. For years, she worked as a lactation consultant in Avery County, helping new mothers breastfeed. (“I’m making cheese but still managing a herd of lactating females,” she quips.) As she and her husband have rolled out new cheeses at Asheville-area farmer’s markets, they’ve found Ashevilleans to be utterly studious about goat cheese. “They would start to educate us—saying things like, ‘This is what we had in Spain or France,’” she says. “We were always getting positive feedback. In this region, there’s an educated clientele—a customer base of smart and receptive cheese eaters.” Foodtopia, here we come.
For more on Looking Glass Creamery and the Cheese Trail project, see www.ashevillecheese.com. For Spinning Spider Creamery and others, check out www.southerncheese.com. This month, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project features local artisan cheese. Details: www.asapconnections.org.