Virginia-made cheeses take on the characteristics of local land
A cast of international characters is ready for the spotlight.
Funky, nutty, rich or smooth—the personalities of Virginia-made cheeses are a showstopper, and the state’s cheesemakers are continually rewriting the script. Distinct styles of old-world cheeses are infused with the essence of Virginia’s seasons—a production you don’t want to miss.
“Seasonal changes, the weather, humidity, the vegetation, it really makes a difference,” said goat cheesemaker and chef Gail Hobbs-Page of Caromont Farm in Albemarle County. “Your job as a farmer is to navigate those changes successfully and keep your stock healthy, and then as a cheesemaker, channel the components of that milk into the right cheese at the right time.”
Inspired by a smattering of Virginia goat cheesemakers, Hobbs-Page opened Caromont in 2007. She produces 25,000 pounds of dozens of styles of goat cheese each year.
Hobbs-Page said she wants to produce quality crafted cheeses that take on the distinctive qualities of the land where the goats are raised.
“I was familiar stylistically with cheeses I loved from the South of France, from Spain, Italy, but I’d never made them,” Hobbs-Page said. “It all starts with that milk.”
Milk from Caromont’s 100-goat herd on 25 acres in Esmont is used to make four styles of cheese, depending on the season.
“Some cheeses are not good at certain times of the year,” Hobbs-Page explained. “In breeding season, it’s so goaty, it tastes like a male goat smells. But there’s actually a cheese like that in Italy called Casu Becciu, and they embrace that.”
She said spring is the time for fresh cheeses. Blues and dense cheeses are produced in the heat of the summer. Then the composition of the milk changes, with more fat and less protein—perfect for holiday cheeses or washed-rind cheeses, also known as stinkers.
“One thing you do when you make a batch of cheese is sit around and stare at it,” Hobbs-Page said. “I love the aged goat cheeses, how they change from a flavorless mound to something so rich, complex, salty and yeasty.”
Locksley Farmstead creates traditional cow cheeses
Other cheesemakers have made their debut more recently, like Locksley Farmstead Cheese Co. This sister company of Chrysalis Vineyards in Loudoun County was established in 2018.
Holstein, Jersey and Brown Swiss cows produce hundreds of gallons of milk a week for a list of cheeses that reads like cast credits.
Locksley creamery manager Erin Saacke names the cheeses after fictional Robin Hood characters because proprietor Jennifer McCloud is a fan of the English folklore. But the repertoire of Virginia’s seasons is revealed in the unique attributes of each batch.
“With the grass they’re eating, it’s fantastic cheese,” Saacke said. “Our cheese has this nice yellow color. Beta carotene is released in the cheese-making process, and the color carries through. Our cheese might look a little whiter or milder yellow in the fall and winter months. But in the spring, it’s so gold because of the fresh, green grass.”
That perceptible connection to the land is part of a broader vision for the business.
“Any of our products, we can point and say, it came from right here,” Saacke said. “Then to see consumers enjoy it is the most rewarding part.”
The King Richard blue cheese is aptly named for royalty, with a spreadable yet crumbly texture. The Little John black wax cheddar is crumbly too, the result of a stirred-curd process. Nottingham gouda is smooth and nutty, listed beside Friar Tuck’s tangy, salty fromage blanc. Locksley’s pungent washed-rind cheese is named for the villain, Prince John.
Familiar flavors of Virginia and the influence of international cheese-making styles set the stage for real drama.
“Each cheese has such a character to it,” Saacke said. “Like people.”