Cheese, like many culinary gems, was originally a mistake. Someone, somewhere, let the milk get hot and funky and the result was curds and whey. With a bit more manipulation, be it curing, aging, straining or stretching, the curd becomes the glory that we call cheese.
There are people in this world who find the process of making cheese a calling. These people need to be thanked—profusely—by those who simply want to purchase the finished product, be it a container of ricotta or a ripe wheel of Camembert. It is very physical work, and quite time-consuming. If you spend one day with a cheesemaker, you'll understand why it can cost upward of $20 a pound at the local market.
Burnt fingers, calloused hands and strained necks are a part of the process. That fresh mozzarella doesn't stretch itself. And just lifting the ingredients requires some serious muscular prowess, says Alessandra Trompeo, an Italian-cheese-making goddess from Torino, Italy. She converted her garage in Durham into a cheese studio, but she felt isolated, and now works with the gals at Chapel Hill Creamery.
The result is oh so good. Cheese is a go-to food: grilled, between bread, with a bowl of soup in the winter. It is often what makes salads edible.
I consider the act of eating cheese a calling, but that's just me.
615 Chapel Hill Creamery Road • Chapel Hill • 919-967-3757 • A website is in the making, but for now reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Portia McKnight and Flo Hawley decided about 12 years ago they wanted to make cheese, and that vision now finds them milking some 30 Jersey cows every morning. They claim to recognize every udder they see, even though the milking process is highly mechanized. All the cows have names, many sentimental, and their six employees care just as much about cheese, cows and milk as their employers do.
Though Hawley largely makes the cheese, it was a joint passion that compelled them to go through the rigmarole of pasture-raising dozens of cows. They also spent an entire year apprenticing with a generous milking family in Siler City.
"Both Flo and I are very happy that we milk the cows as well as make the cheese. It adds a level of responsibility and reward that we just wouldn't have if we'd gone with the original plan," McKnight said.
Favorites: In the summer, fresh mozzarella reigns, in addition to the Dairyland Farmer's Cheese and the Camembert-inspired Carolina Moon. The creamery also produces hard cheese like Asiago, Thunder Mountain Swiss and Hickory Grove, which McKnight swears makes the greatest grilled cheese in the history of the universe.
Where can I buy it? The Durham and Carrboro Farmers Markets, as well as a number of restaurants and retailers like Weaver Street Market.
9522 Hampton Road • Rougemont • 919-479-4606 • www.elodiefarms.com
This operation started in 2003 when Dave Artigues, a Citadel-educated psychologist, bought a herd of dairy goats, cheese-making equipment and recipes, and then taught himself how to make cheese. The offerings from Elodie Farms have expanded beyond your basic chevre. The monthly Dinners on the Porch, where a local chef makes a multicourse meal featuring, you guessed it, Elodie Farms cheese, often sell out.
They also make hard cheeses, though some still have a soft interior.
"I love making cheese," Artigues said. "Being involved in this business has opened so many doors for me. It has fostered lasting relationships with chefs and customers, taught me the real meaning of perseverance and has helped to nurture a creative and artistic side of me that would never have bloomed otherwise. I live the coolest life ever."
Favorites: Soft cheeses include feta, queso fresco, Camembert and of course traditional goat cheeses, many flavored with things like herbs, fruits, honey and vegetable ash. Hard cheeses like gouda, cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan are also available these days.
Where can I buy it? The Durham Farmers' Market, Weaver Street Market, as well as on the menu at many farm-to-table restaurants in town. A complete list is on the farm's website. Buy it at email@example.com.
4720 Bahama Road • Rougemont • 919-477-5653 • www.prodigalfarm.com
Husband-and-wife team Kathryn Spann and Dave Krabbe left New York City in 2007 for a simpler life in Durham County, where Spann had grown up. But they never thought they would become goat farmers and cheesemakers.
The goats first came into their life as a means of clearing some land. Now Prodigal Farm is one of the state's only Animal Welfare Approved dairies. The farm is located on 97 acres in Rougemont, where more than 50 milking does (some rescued) live. There are lots of babies, and the milk—and cheese—hath flowed.
Spann is chairwoman of Durham's Farmland Protection Board. The couple looks forward to a lifetime of cheese making, pasture management and practicing sustainable and healthy goat husbandry: the sorts of things that lead to happy goats, good milk and delicious cheese.
"As I see it, being a farmstead creamery is a labor of love," Spann said. "By working this worn-out bit of old tobacco land and encouraging others in the area to do the same, I work to keep farming viable in my home county, and save farmland."
Favorites: Many of their offerings are inspired by the bloomy rind cheeses of the Loire Valley, like Selles-sur-Cher, Cambozola, Crottin and of course, chevre. They also make breads and cakes with their cheese, using the whey as well.
Where can I buy it? The Raleigh State Farmers Market and Midtown Market at North Hills Mall in Raleigh. During the off-season they offer regular pickups in Durham at the King's Daughter's Inn and at the Midtown Market in Raleigh. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
198 Celebrity Dairy Way • Siler City • 919-742-5176 • www.celebritydairy.com
It all started with lactose intolerance.
Upon the recommendation of a friend, at 50, Fleming Pfann tried goat's milk and found she experienced none of the ill effects that she did from drinking cow's milk. The goats first appeared when she and her husband, Brit Pfann, borrowed some to clear overgrown pastures on their historic property in Siler City.
The goats multiplied, as goats tend to do. The Pfanns decided to find a use for the milk (and goats) Fleming had fallen so in love with. The result has been 22 years of commercial cheese making, during which time Brit spent a year apprenticing in France.
The couple is in the market for some creamery descendents. So if you'd like to make cheese, run an inn, live on a farm, you might want to give them a call.
"At this stage in our lives we need to be finding somebody else who shares enough of our dream to want to take over what we've started and make the business into their own," Brit Pfann said.
Favorites: Montrachet-style logs with varying coats of herbs and seasoning, as well as fresh-drained curd, feta and dried chevre when available. Mold-ripened cheeses include Brie, Cloud and Silk Hope.
Where can I buy it? Most farmers markets, all Weaver Street locations and five Whole Foods Markets around the Triangle.
3121 Rippy Lane • Hillsborough • 919-644-6358 • hillsboroughcheese.wordpress.com
They don't tend their own herd of animals, but they make a lot of cheese at the Hillsborough Cheese Company. This all started as a way for chef and founder Cindy West to spend more time at home with her two young children.
She left the hustle of restaurants (like Magnolia Grill) and started teaching herself by making small batches of handcrafted cheeses, largely inspired by the European tradition.
The outfit has stayed small, with only about five employees, but its offerings have grown to include a wide range of both traditional cheeses and experimental blends made especially for the local palate.
The cow's milk comes from Maple View Farm in Hillsborough, and the goat's milk from Wilderness Trail Dairy in Trinity, south of Greensboro.
"Its always fun, and nothing tastes better than hot, freshly stretched mozz," said Matt Lardie, manager of the company. It's well worth the burnt fingertips.
Favorites: Chevre, Bloomin' Sweet Ash, a goat milk feta, and Bloomin' Decadence, much like a Camembert, are just a few offerings. All summer long, a hand-stretched mozzarella is also available, and now and again they make an aged bleu cheese.
Where can I buy it? There is a complete list online, but some retailers include Weaver Street Markets, A Southern Season, Wine Authorities and many area farmers markets and restaurants.
3515 Jess Hackett Road • Climax • 336-824-2163 • www.goatladydairy.com
The name refers both to founder Ginnie Tate and the goats themselves. They are, after all, genteel lady goats and should be considered as such. The herd ranges from 50 to 75, including three breeds: the pure white Saanen, the long-eared Nubian and the colorful French Alpine dairy goats.
The Tate family started restoring the 200-year-old homestead in 1983, and now it is an events venue in addition to a working farm. There are Dinners at the Dairy throughout the month, but you must register in advance.
Tate, who passed away two years ago, raised goats long before her family farm was granted a goat dairy license in 1996. Her cheese-making tradition is being carried on by Carrie and Bobby Bradds. They hadn't planned on careers making cheese, but they know they are in the right place.
"If you visit, you'll understand the allure," said Carrie Bradds, who grew up down the road. "It's just the beauty of the place."
Favorites: The Goat Lady Gouda has won national awards, but the list continues with nine varieties of spreadable fromage, feta and various chevres. During the holidays, the farm sells chocolate goat cheese truffles.
Where can I buy it? You can buy cheese on-site, but orders must be called in ahead of time. Otherwise look for their cheese at the Greensboro Farmers' Curb Market and in various retail outfits and restaurants around the Piedmont, as well as Whole Foods and A Southern Season.