The Rise of the Southern Artisanal Cheese Makers

A cheese renaissance is blossoming in the South, from Tennessee down to Georgia.

Dancing Fern. Say those words to cheese obsessives and they will talk about a cow’s-milk exemplar so oozy that it gushes across the countertop when it’s cut. Top notes of crushed walnuts and freshly mown grass hover; so does a pleasant under note of mushrooms. Made by Nathan Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Farm (320 Dixon Cove Rd., Sequatchie; 423-619-5867), a four-year-old creamery some 30-odd miles north of Chattanooga, Tennessee, the cheese is a phenom recognized with a first-prize ribbon from the Denver-based American Cheese Society, the cheese world’s most prestigious and influential governing body.

Thirty-eight-year-old Arnold arrived at Sequatchie in 2003 to farm vegetables but stayed to practice cheese making. Now that he’s earned a national reputation with Dancing Fern, he’s burnishing that renown with an outstanding roster including Coppinger, a moist semi-firm variety in the French Morbier style, and Nickajack, a semisoft washed with hard cider to enhance the fruity notes.

Sequatchie’s dairy rounds are a far cry from what most Americans associate with the South: pimento cheese, which is a mixture of shredded cheddar, mayonnaise and red peppers that tastes great troweled on bread or crackers. It’s the region’s go-to spread. But recently attention has shifted to the world-class cheeses, like Dancing Fern, that Southerners are crafting under the farmstead marker, meaning small batches produced on the farm where the cows are milked. After years of being overshadowed by traditional dairying states like Wisconsin and Vermont, Southern cheeses are finally on the map.

It’s not that good Southern cheeses didn’t exist before now. In fact, I have been eating remarkable ones from several long-established producers for a couple of decades. First came Capriole (10329 New Cut Rd.; 812-923-9408), a goat farm­stead run by Judy Schad in Greenville, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Her Wabash Cannonballs, which won the best-of-show prize from the American Cheese Society in 1995, taste of lemony sweetness, with delicate, bisque-gray rinds that look like the raku work of a Japanese ceramicist.

Then came Sweet Grass Dairy (19635 U.S. Hwy. 19 N.; 229-227-0752) in Thom­as­ville, Georgia, almost at the Florida border. Owners Jessica and Jeremy Little have been winning medals for their cheeses since 2001. Their Green Hill, a Camembert-style double cream that tastes like an exultation of hay and sunshine, is one of the most widely available Southern cheeses of merit and is featured at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York.

For a while I bought Smoky Mountain Rounds, puffs of goat cheese that Steve Tate of Goat Lady Dairy (3531 Jess Hackett Rd., Climax; 336-824-2163), near Greensboro, North Carolina, smokes over apple wood. And I was briefly obsessed with Sweet Home Farm (27107 Schoen Rd.; 251-986-5663), down near the Gulf Coast in Elberta, Alabama, where they steep some of their rinds in must from muscadine grapes.

So why, then, is the South having a cheese moment? It’s due, in large part, to Southern cheese aficionados banding together to celebrate the possibilities of Southern dairy. At Many Fold Farm (7850 Rico Rd.; 770-463-0677), in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, Tim Gaddis, the foremost farmstead-cheese advocate in the area, hosts hands-on instructional classes and tastings. A new crop of pioneering Southern cheese shops now promotes its re­­gion’s own. Kathleen Cotter, of Nashville’s Bloomy Rind (501 Gallatin Ave.; 615-429-9648), founded the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, a fall gathering of more than 20 artisans. In New Orleans, St. James Cheese Company (5004 Prytania St.; 504-899-4737) owners Danielle and Richard Sutton sell local rounds to more than 100 restaurants across the South. There’s also Charleston’s Goat. Sheep. Cow. (106 Church St.; 843-480-2526) and Atlanta’s Star Provisions (1198 Howell Mill Rd.; 404-365-0410), where Gaddis once served as the monger.

Much of the energy behind the artisanal cheese movement is driven by the new guard, such as Nathan Arnold at Sequatchie, whose creamery I recently visited to gain a better understanding of what makes Southern cheeses so great. When I talked to Arnold, he said that his success lies in the grass. At first that refrain rang falsely modest, like an all-star basketball player who claims to owe his dribbling prowess to the quality of the maple flooring. Though as I listened closer, I heard a compelling case for Southern cheese. Great dairying, Arnold told me, requires taking advantage of Sequatchie’s pasture lands, which yield grass almost year-round, instead of for just six months, which is common in more conventional dairy states. Cows fed on grass, instead of on barn-stored hay and trucked-in feed, produce milk that is often lusher, one of the main qualities that shines through in Southern cheeses.

Across the South, Arnold and his 50-plus colleagues are forging an identity for their cheeses. Because distinctions are hard to make in a crowded marketplace, trends abound, the biggest of which right now is rind wraps and washes, which activate bacterial growth and coax out complexities in the finished product. Bonny­clabber Cheese Company (804-621-0530) of Tidewater, Virginia, wraps its Bonnyclabber Moonshine cheese, made from goat’s milk, in moonshine-soaked corn husks, which give the cheese a yeasty top note. Over in Dallas, Paula Lambert, of the Mozzarella Company (2944 Elm St.; 214-741-4072), covers goat cheese in hoja santa leaves, which impart an herbal punch that’s almost akin to sassafras.

None of that is new, of course. Back at Capriole, Judy Schad has been wrapping cheese in bourbon-soaked chestnut leaves since the 1980s. But as Southern makers have worked to establish compelling provenances for their cheeses, some have adopted comparatively extreme techniques. At Star Provisions, I sampled a new absinthe-washed variety. It wasn’t from the South. But knowing New Orleans’s love affair with that liqueur, I’d predict that it’s only a matter of time before someone in Louisiana starts making a wormwood-glossed Crottin.

Compared with those bruisers, Dancing Fern, with its pillowy white rind and golden­rod interior, is an unfettered expression of the milk from which it’s made. When restaurateur Frank Stitt, of Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, first told me about Dancing Fern, he compared it to Reblochon, a French cheese that, owing to U.S. Department of Agriculture import bans on some raw-milk cheeses, has not been available­ in the States since 2004. I didn’t share the point of reference. What I do share now is a love of that hauntingly beautiful Tennessee cheese.

Today, when I talk to cheese wonks like Gaddis, they tell me that Dancing Fern is the best substitute possible for true French Reblochon. They’re correct. But that’s not the right frame of reference. Soon, I hope, we’ll be judging Sequatchie and other producers on their own terms, as great American cheese makers.