It's alluring, it's sublime, at once humble and luxurious, both universal and quite personal.
This enigma, this phenomenon, has just one name: cheese.
And denizens of our area, from chefs to pub crawlers to indie grocery shoppers, are smitten with the stuff.
While it's usually tough to put into words such a heartfelt admiration and affection, to explain how one came to be bowled over by a product that's simple milk, salt, cultures, rennet, and artistry, that is not the case here. There are nine clear-cut reasons cheese has soared in local estimates, and many, many disciples and artisans willing to speak on the record about why fromage is so fabulous:
Good cheese tastes great. Dustin Busby is a 26-year-old graduate of Le Cordon Bleu who has been executive sous chef at Blackberry Farm's The Barn and has staged at restaurants around the world like The French Laundry, The Fat Duck, and Le Manoir. But when he and his wife vacation in their hometown of Charleston, after a much-anticipated visit to chef Sean Brock's McCrady's restaurant and Husk, they spend most of their dining out hours snacking on cheese and bread at a friend's store in Sommerville. "I could easily eat like that rest of my life," he says. "I get excited just thinking about eating cheese."
Busby, who assumed the job as farmstead manager at Blackberry just three months ago and thus oversees research and development for the farm's cheesemaking, has a current favorite: "It's from Northern France, Ossau Irapty—it's ivory, and nutty, and it's sweet and buttery, a sheep's milk cheese."
Busby and the cheesemaker at Blackberry make a fine sheep's milk cheese themselves, the award-winning Singing Brook, which is a pecorino made from farmstead-sourced sheep's milk, and arguably both Blackberry's and East Tennessee's flagship artisan cheese. "We can make the cheese only in batches of 18 wheels at a time," says Busby. "It takes three days, and that's only the beginning. When the wheels are moved to the caves to age, they're flipped and washed with olive oil almost daily over a 12-month life span. They're definitely cared for."
Self-taught gastronome Laura Sohn, co-owner of Mockingbird Events and the Public House, has more to say about Singing Brook. She features it among the rotating cheese plates she designs to serve at the Public House, which opened in 2010. "It's super flavorful, and it's nice that it's aged a bit," she says. "Its flavor profile is complex, but accessible—it's not quite a stinky cheese. What's nice about it, it encompasses what Blackberry Farm is so good at. It tastes like it's from Tennessee in some way. It feels warm—it tastes fresh and crisp. It really encompasses all the things more and more people are looking for in their food."
Lots of places serve great cheese now. Did the Crown and Goose begin it all with the Ploughman's lunch board ($10 for one), featuring classic Stilton and some other very flavorful dibs and dabs? That was almost four years ago, February 2008, but now a cheese-seeker has a board at places as varied at Cru Bistro, the Public House, and the Grill at Highlands Row. Each features four or five cheeses and the variety is heady, like Highlands Row's Cherokee Cold Plate, with its seasonal selection of Sweet Water Valley and other artisanal cheeses, fresh fruits and crudite matched with housemade seasonal preserves. Their standout is a chef-smoked cream cheese. "There's just nothing like it anywhere else," says Highlands partner Chad Barger.
When Cru opened in 2010, a cheese plate was offered on the rollout menu, and has become a "go-to" starter on the menu of "chef-inspired small plates," says executive chef Anthony Fowler. "It is the only menu item that is constantly evolving. The chefs purchase cheese from local farms and all across the world. The many different flavor profiles of cheese are a great training session for the palate. Together they test all of the senses that guests will utilize through the course of their meal—taste, texture, smell, sight."
And should a person want to branch out from just a few cheeses at a time, Chez Liberty has the mother lode, with dozens of cheeses on the menu, soft to bleu to hard, and including Locust Grove La Mancha Reserve, which Chez bills as "sheep, TN, nutty, sweet, tangy, handcrafted."
We like to share. Snacking and chatting are the pasttimes at the Public House, and cheese has certainly played a part in ushering in this revised definition of the Knoxville bar scene, says Sohn. "It's something you can share easily with friends, a way to try new things easily, without committing to a $20 entrée."
Regional offerings are expanding. They're not exactly stirring up the curds and whey on Market Square, but Knoxvillians can draw from several cheese brands made in our area, including the Blackberry Farm offerings, sheep's milk cheeses and goat chevre from Locust Grove Farms, opened in 2006 and now in Vonore, and Sweetwater Valley Farm cheeses made about an hour from here in Philadelphia, Tenn. Besides the curtailed transportation cost and lowered carbon footprint of buying from Locust Grove, another advantage is that the farm's sheep and goats receive no artificial or processed feeds, hormones, or growth supplements. As the label says: raw sheep's milk, cultures, rennet, salt and nothing else.
All three brands have found a home at the new location of Three Rivers Market, where deli manager John Askew has used his expanded refrigerator space to assemble an impressive array of regional, European, and even vegan cheeses, most with careful signs as to their origins. All the cheeses made nearby are free of growth hormone milk and made with vegetarian rennet, says Askew—but some of the European style cheeses are made with animal rennets, which he notes in plain view for customers. Askew's personal favorite may be the Coffee Gouda made by Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese in Austin, Ky., which is still close enough to Knoxville to be considered within our "foodshed." Mostly, he says he's just happy that the cooperative now has more refrigerator space, which means they can offer more cheeses, which means they sell more and can expand their selection—a win-win-win situation since the new place opened this past August.
Baaaaa. Who cares about New Zealand? Turns out East Tennessee is pretty great for sheep, between the availability of affordable pasture and the short winters—and sheep produce pretty great milk that's critical in several artisan cheeses. "They're awesome creatures, and that's one of the reasons we chose to make some of the cheeses we do, because sheep's milk is so much better for cheesemaking, with so much protein and fat," says Busby.
Being a cheese-avore is like stamp collecting. Only tastier. But like stamps, while you might utilize the standard local to mail your electricity bill, you can also enjoy a really unusual issue from a far-off land without anyone glaring at you for being disloyal to the locals. Or hardly anyone. Cheeses of the world, like the Drunken Goat from Spain, aged in red wine for two to three days and sold at Three Rivers, are to be enjoyed, collected almost, like so many life experiences. "Two artisan cheese-producing farms can be one mile away from each other and produce very different types of cheddar," notes Cru's Fowler. "The entire process is so incredibly specific and detailed. The type of cow, the cow's diet, the schedule, the duration, the aging process—all unique. That's what makes cheese so amazing, why we should all try to sample as much as we can."
Sohn adroitly balances local cheeses and standouts from other states at the Public House. She'll often feature a Sweet Water Valley cheese, and is a big fan of Singing Brook and other Blackberry offerings, like Brebis, its "first taste of spring" cheese with flavors of clover and alfalfa, or Blackberry Blue cheese. But her culinary heart sings for another brand, too: Murray's Cheese out of New York. "I have family in New York, and I loved going there to shop—it's super small and amazing. I knew when I opened the bar that I wanted to do some wholesale from them. One of my favorites of theirs is Cabo Romero. It's pasteurized goat cheese that riffs on the popularity of herb-crusted cheeses; in the final days of aging, they rub it with a fair quantity of rosemary and lard. The essence of the herb permeates and complements the tangy-sour cheese, and the herbs are really pretty."
At about the same time Sohn started patronizing Murray's Cheese, Kroger independently inked a deal with them. Sohn approves. "Their shop [within the Bearden Kroger] is amazing, a beautiful reproduction of what their shop in New York is like."
Our chefs have access to good cheese and they know how to use it. Artisan cheeses may be best enjoyed unsullied. But you can't blame a chef for turning a great ingredient into another great dish, and that's what happens with fromage in these parts. Like the Crown and Goose's goat cheese fondue. Or the smoked gouda grits and Sweetwater Valley mac n' cheese at Highlands Row. Or the Plaid Apron's grilled cheese of Locust Grove's Clinch River Chevre, Cheddar, sprouts, Tennessee peaches, and pickled red onion.
Perhaps the best chef-inspired dish to start with an artisanal cheese ingredient is also one of the oldest: Fowler's pimento cheese burger, featured when he was executive chef at La Costa and migrated to the menu at Cru, with a few tweaks. It features smoked pimento cheese, which also anchors a new Cru favorite: Smoked Pimento Cheese Corn Bread—homemade cornbread squares, topped with smoked pimento cheese and broiled and topped with scallion.
"We" are making a name for ourselves in cheesemaking. No one in East Tennessee seems averse to identifying super-tall, fit football and basketball recruits who mostly come from places like New Jersey as "our" team; surely with the same mentality we can claim Blackberry Farm, which is owned by locals (old money, successful beyond our wildest dreams locals, these Bealls, but locals nonetheless) and just an hour or so from the heart of Knoxville. Once we've done that, we can love cheese all the more because "our" team is producing awesome stuff. Busby and the squad at Blackberry are being recognized by everybody who's anybody, like chef Sean Brock in Charleston, who had Busby present four Blackberry cheeses at a summer 2011 tasting at McCrady's, and Southern Living, which named the farmstead's Trefoil one of the South's authentic flavors, describing it as a "dramatically assertive washed-rind specialty, made for stinky-cheese connoisseurs by the anointed artisans of this farmstead inn."
Super exciting, no matter who you are, are two products in the works: a basil pesto and onion jam that will be sold, like other farmstead products, through most Williams-Sonoma stores and through their catalogs and direct shipped from Blackberry Farm. "Instead of using Parmesan, we're using Singing Brook. How many people can just walk across the farm for such a distinctive ingredient?"
And the biggie, the one that combines another Knoxville lust with the allure of cheese: Busby is "playing around" with (ooh! ah!) Benton's bacon in the context of cheese. "During the winter when our sheep stop producing, we get local Jersey cow's milk and we're going to make Cheddar. Traditionally, that means bandaging the wheels with cheese cloth and wrapping it with lard to flavor. But I've been speaking with Allen Benton [of nearby Madisonville, Tenn.] and he's going to sell us 30 pounds of bacon scraps to render down and use in place of the lard."
"We" are going to stay in the lead. Next up for Blackberry Farm, and this just really makes you want to root for them: Busby and another cheesemaker are approaching improvements to the cheesemaking from its origins, the sheep that produce the milk. "We're studying the genetics of the herd, and the difference that feed makes. It's all in the details; even one degree of temperature different yields a very different product. We do still feed the sheep some grain, but we're trying to get to all pasture, studying different cover crops. We're also trying to use the least amount of diesel output—instead of cutting the hay and bringing it to the sheep, our end goal is to turn the sheep out to pasture and let them do all the work."
* Disclaimer: There are a few not-so-fabulous aspects of a full-blown love affair with cheese, that must be mentioned, though no one's gonna dwell on them in the midst of this lovesong to fromage. For one thing, lactose intolerance. You can't have it and be a soft-cheese connoisseur; it just doesn't work unless you stick only to hard cheeses. And that obesity thing. While you'd have to have a sharp eye to find someone with even a few extra pounds exiting, say, a beer/cheese pairing at Chez Liberty, these cheeses have a hefty fat/calorie content for the most part. And last, and this is the only real drawback that slows us down even a whit in our cheese admiration: the Euro-styles are not vegetarian. The tradition there, and this figures into all the Blackberry Farm cheeses except Singing Brook, is veal rennet.