A Locavore's Cheese Tasting Weekends
Virginia and Maryland cheesemakers are a tight-knit bunch. They are largely artisanal, small-batch producers that got started with the most basic, homegrown means. Many are self-taught hobbyists that went pro. Others followed their passion for dairy together with a passion for the local landscape. These cheeses are diverse, unique and delicious, running the gamut, from cow milk to sheep and goat milk cheeses.
There has been enormous headway within the community since the local industry got off the ground in the 1990s. According to Adam Smith, manager of Cowgirl Creamery cheese market in Penn Quarter, there is a hugely impressive array of cheesemakers within a stone’s throw of the District.
“I love introducing people to cheeses from around the area,” says Smith, who spent years in the California cheese industry before relocating to oversee Cowgirl’s flagship East Coast shop. “It isn’t just because it’s local, but because of the quality of the product. The diversity and quality of cheeses in the region allows people to find what they want.”
Smith, who promotes local cheeses through his shop, is not alone in his opinion. Cheeses from the area have been taking home national and international awards. They are now on par with France, Vermont, Spain and Switzerland as world-class artisans and producers. For those who are interested, there are opportunities to get to know their local, cheese-producing community. Everona Dairy, Firefly Farms and Caromont Farm are three regional dairy farms that bring visitors into the process of cheesemaking.
Don’t be fooled: These are working dairy farms, not tourist attractions — but the cheesemakers here offer us a chance to see into their process and get a better understanding of what is being accomplished just beyond the Washington area. With locations in the historic Maryland and Virginia countryside, surrounded by vineyards and bed-and-breakfast inns, it’s well worth carving out a cheesy weekend in your travel schedule.
“There would be no cheese in Virginia if it weren’t for Pat Elliott,” says Gail Hobbs, owner of Caromont Farm. “She’s a pioneer.”
Pat Elliott is the owner of Everona Dairy in Rapidan, Va. — just an hour south of Washington by way of Charlottesville — one of the country’s most acclaimed producers of sheep’s milk cheese. Elliott’s frank, casual disposition belies her achievement in the industry. You probably won’t hear her waxing poetic about divine dairy inspiration or the rejuvenating aroma of a windswept countryside. She’s more likely you to tell you that you just stepped in sheep manure and show you the most effective way to clean your sneakers.
A doctor and family practitioner by day, Elliott got her start in the cheese industry rather unusually. “I bought a border collie in the early '90s,” she says, “and eventually had to get something for her to do. So, I got sheep for her to wrangle! And then I decided the sheep needed to pull their weight. So, I started to milk them and realized we could make cheese.”
By 1996, Everona Dairy was up and running. Easy.
Many of us consider cows to be the dairy- and cheese-producing animal — and in America that’s largely true. But Elliot points out that sheep’s milk is the predominant milk for cheeses throughout the Mediterranean, Italy, Britain, France, Belgium and Denmark. “It’s a good trivia fact,” she says. “There is actually more sheep’s milk being made in the world than cow’s milk.”
Everona’s signature cheese is the Piedmont, which won the Farmhouse category for sheep's milk cheese at the American Cheese Society's annual competition in 2005. “It’s unique to its category,” says Smith over at Cowgirl Creamery. “We’re constantly selling out of it. It has an insane amount of depth — when people taste it, they’re awed by it.”
Its Shenandoah (the cheeses all have place names), created in 2008 by Elliott and cheesemaker Carolyn Wentz, is the only Swiss-style sheep’s milk cheese in the world. In 2009, it received a Bronze award in the United States Cheese Contest and placed tenth in the world at the 2010 World Cheese Championship.
Open Wednesday through Sunday in the afternoon hours, Elliott invites guests to come see how Everona Dairy works. Visitors are taken through the cheesemaking process, shown where the milk is made and the cheeses are ripened, and invited to a tasting afterward.
Guests should call ahead if they plan to visit. “There’s almost always someone here,” Elliott says. “But we want to be ready to host.”
With Charlottesville just down the road, as well as the Caromont Farm cheese folks, make it a wine and cheese weekend.
Continuing past Everona Dairy and passing south of Charlottesville, you will find Caromont Farm in Esmont, Va. Owner Gail Hobbs started out producing and distributing her fresh goat’s milk cheese through her community, but soon expanded and began experimenting with aging her product. “People tend to think of goat’s milk cheese as only fresh cheese around here,” says Hobbs. “But in Spain and France, goat’s milk cheeses are frequently and successfully well aged.”
Caromont’s raw, aged goat cheese is unique in its category, with wonderful flavors and textures. “It’s a very well crafted cheese,” says Smith at Cowgirl Creamery. “And there are not a lot of people making and aging mid-sized wheels of raw goat cheese for several months. It’s pretty cool.” Another mission for Hobbs is to bring out the distinct flavor of the local land — or terroir — into the cheese. “That’s why we work so much with raw milk,” she says. “More terroir is expressed in the final product with less water and electricity used. We’re so new that it's really uncharted territory. But I was encouraged by what our area has to offer: big farms, lots of grass, and it’s not industrial. It’s just very new for this area. But we’ve come quite far.”
Caromont recently decided to utilize the great resources of cow’s milk in the surrounding area and has since started sourcing milk and making cow’s milk cheese as well.
And while the cow’s milk cheese is very good, their goat cheese is ethereal. The Esmontian, Caromont’s premier raw goat’s milk cheese, is a dense cheese with a runny interior that tastes faintly acidic and slightly sour, with a delicate, sweet overtone.
The Alberene Ash is a small, aged pyramid of cheese with a thin layer of ash through its center and dusted on its outside, which is aged in a wild blue mold-filled cave for three weeks. When the pyramid is perfectly covered in wild blue, they’re ready. This one is as pretty as it is tasty.
Caromont doesn’t have the open door policy for visitors the way some larger dairy farms do. However, if you call them, they’re usually happy to take cheese enthusiasts around the farm. “We don’t really have an area for visitors,” says Hobbs. “But we try to accommodate people who are interested in seeing what we do. By appointment only, we say. If you’re interested, give us a call. We want to encourage people to see what we’re about.”
“A lot of these places are very small,” says Hobbs about her fellow cheesemakers and their facilities. “And it can be a very sensitive area — hair nets, boot covers. It’s not like going to a petting zoo or a chocolate factory. That’s why our goal is to have something in town where people could learn about cheese and experience it there. It’s in the works.”
Cheesemakers Michael Koch and Pablo Solanet started to make goat cheese in their home as a hobby in the late '90s, taking the milk from their neighbor’s goat. When they went to submit their two varieties of homemade cheese in the annual American Cheese Society’s amateur competition, they accidentally entered them in the commercial category. The cheeses received gold and silver ribbons.
Needless to say, Koch and Solanet decided to give cheesemaking a go. By 2003, FireFly Farms was off the ground.
FireFly Farms offers nationally and internationally award-winning goat cheese that features the distinct regional flavors of Maryland’s Allegheny Plateau. “Our cheese is flying off the shelf,” says Andrea Cedro, director of marketing for FireFly Farms. “We just moved into a new creamery in July of last year after we outgrew our last barn.”
This summer, FireFly plans to do more tours of the back of the house. Meanwhile, its market in the front has windows that look into the “make room” (where the cheeses are made) and the aging room. Cheesemakers are always around to answer any questions. “The store has really given us an outlet in the country for people to stop by and visit,” Cedro says. “But soon we will be able to bring you in to see the back of the house if you’re interested.”
Besides selling Firefly Farms cheeses, its new storefront offers cheese from around the country, selected by Firefly’s cheesemakers. Also available are regional boutique wines and beers. Wine and cheese pairings are offered on weekends. “We want a place where people can visit us and get a taste of cheesemaking,” says Cedro. “A place to experience the artisan cheese world.”
Cheese around the District
If you can’t make it out to the country in pursuit of the perfect cheese, these locations across the Washington area have great selections, including a variety of local cheeses (including the ones mentioned above). If you’re looking for something specific, we recommend calling ahead and asking about it:
Cowgirl Creamery 919 F St. NW
La Fromagerie 1222 King Street Alexandria, Va.
Arrowine and Cheese 4508 Lee Hwy Arlington, Va.
Whole Foods Various locations in DC, Virginia, and Maryland
Wegman’s Various locations in Virginia and Maryland