I bolted out of the heat and into the air-conditioned 3CUPS in Chapel Hill clutching a brown paper bag. I didn't want to show up to my first cheese tasting with live cultures that had slipped into a mushy coma. I asked manager Jay Murrie if I should stick the bag in a fridge. It turns out cheese performs best at room temperature. "The whole ice-cold Budweiser thing is about not tasting the product," Murrie said.
He set the table with two large chunks of Chapel Hill Creamery raw milk cheese and my local options from Weaver Street Market.
Matt Lardie, manager of Hillsborough Cheese Co., unraveled stinky goat cheese that he made himself, telling us that in just over a year he has "made a lot of mistakes" in carefully crafting cheese. "I've had to learn how much cheese is a living, breathing thing."
April McGreger of Farmer's Daughter waltzed in with a crate full of her precocious, handcrafted canned products and a keen but humble sense of culinary authority.
We tried five local cheeses and paired them with jams, pickles, apple butter and geeky conversation.
Indy: What sort of notes are you looking for in cheese?
Matt Lardie: It's still something that I'm learning. It can be so personal and so subjective. I used to not be able to stand blue cheeses and now I'm getting really into them, so I know that's my palate is evolving. But I should be able to know what kind of cheese it is. If it's a goat's milk cheese, it's hard to explain to people, but it should taste goaty.
April McGreger: A lot of people think that's negative, too. It's not.
ML: I want to taste a particular smell or aroma when I taste the cheese. Like when I taste a glass of wine, I want it to hit at different points on my tongue with different notes. A lot of cheeses change tones and textures from the rind coming in, so exploring that: eating a whole piece and then eating little pieces of cheese. I almost always eat the rind.
Chapel Hill Creamery Raw Milk Asiago paired with sour cherry preserves and pickled sour cherry
INDY: The preserves smooth it out a lot. The flavor is far less salty.
AM: I think the pickled might be better. I like both, but it totally takes it in different ways. In the Basque region of Spain, sour cherry is generally paired with sheep's cheeses, and it's awesome. But it does really well with saltier, more aged cheeses anyway. Sour cherry generally works well with wine, too.
Jay Murrie: A lot of far northern European reds have that sour cherry flavor.
Chapel Hill Creamery Raw Milk Hickory Grove paired with green tomato chutney
AM: I think this Hickory Grove is my No. 1 favorite for grilled cheese. It melts at a fairly low temperature and has a really nice melted texture. It's one of the really high fat cheeses and that's why it does that. I like it with a really thin slice of country ham or prosciutto and green tomato chutney.
INDY: What do you think about cooking with these nicer types of cheeses?
ML: I cook with cheese all the time. Almost any cheese that you think has gone bad, you can cook. I've had ricotta that's two weeks old, which is so far past when you actually want to put ricotta in your mouth. I made some biscuits out of it and they were great—light and airy.
JM: I have a pretty consistent philosophy with my ingredients. It's like olive oil or wine. I'm not an April McGreger-type cook, so I have to rely on quality ingredients to bail me out. If you make a mac and cheese with awesome cheddar, it's gonna be great.
AM: My version of slow food, fast. Buy really great ingredients and you don't do much to them.
[We then try with the apple butter.]
INDY: It brings out more of the cheese's pungent taste at first.
AM: Yeah, I think so. It doesn't have the acidity of the chutney, so there's nothing competing with the cheese, but then it adds a gentle sweetness at the end.
Ashe County Cheddar with caraway seeds paired with spicy green tomato pickles
AM: This is nostalgic for me. I love that sharpness in cheese and I love pickles. The sharpness stands up to that pickle. This is actually a great combination. They nailed that sharpness.
ML: Oh wow. I think that it completely improves it, because it's very much a large-batch cheddar. The caraway improves it, too, but the green tomato pickle makes it a sandwich almost without even any bread.
AM: This is the perfect beer combination. And I love hard cider with cheddar and pickles.
Hillsborough Cheese Co. Tomme de Chevre
AM: The first cheeses we had were Jersey, the fattest cheeses, and take a super long time for them to even come off of your mouth. That one comparatively has a sharp, clean taste. And the texture is almost like Jell-O.
INDY: Yeah, it's slinky.
ML: It's soft. We got milk from a new farmer recently, and it was the start of that. I don't know if that had anything to do with what he feeds his goats, but it might have been the process, the weather that day, maybe not being pressed for a long time. Actually, we didn't press this one at all.
AM: Difficult to pair because it is mild. If I paired it with anything, I might try it with the apple butter again.
Hillsborough Cheese Co. Bloomin' Sweet Ash with spiced muscadine jam and scuppernong jelly
AM: I really like Sweet Ash with grapes, which is interesting because it already has that grapevine ash on it. This is a spicy muscadine, almost like a chutney, but it's a jam with shallot, a little bit of spice, white pepper, cinnamon, but the tiniest amount, and red wine vinegar.
INDY: What's that tiny punch in the jam, ginger?
INDY: When do you eat cheese?
JM: This cheese shop I loved in Montpelier, France, you go in and every piece is beautiful, and you order for that day. Even the best American shops have that conditional issue.
ML: I think that's an attitude that needs to change here. It doesn't have to be a special occasion. People think it's an abomination, but I will slap any piece of cheese between two pieces of bread, a slice of tomato, and call it dinner, lunch, breakfast.
AM: Cheeses, like wines and fermented pickles, are all living things. In France they say "Well, when are you going to eat this cheese?" If it's today, they'll select a different one for you than if it's tomorrow or two days from now. We just don't have that level of expertise, that kind of contact with cheesemakers, but it's happening. We're getting there. When I go to a place like Weaver Street Market or Whole Foods to buy cheeses, I select the one that has the most recent packed date. And then I decide what cheese I'm going to get because I want the one that's been cut most recently.
ML: One of my favorite snacks is the rind from parmesan. If you put it in the toaster oven it gets really crispy and then pair it with something sweet, like a raspberry jam—it's really good.
JM: One of my terrible secrets as a human being is that I'll eat all this and go home and eat a full dinner, and pretend I didn't eat all this cheese.
ML: Some people are addicted to drugs. I have cheese, when I'm feeling down or when I'm feeling happy.
JM: It's just as expensive.
ML: Oh yeah. I've totally drowned sorrows in high-priced meats and cheeses before. You're having a bad day, just go buy some jamon ibérico and a couple of pieces of good cheese.
JM: For me, with young kids, I can get home and cut some cheese and some good charcuterie and have dinner ready in 10 minutes, but still have a good dinner. It's fast food.
ML: I'll get kids at market too that will come up and say "I like stinky cheese." That just makes me so happy to see a 2-year-old chowing down on cheese.