There are now 250 vineyards in Virginia feeding the state’s appreciation for wine, and to go with the grape, there’s a growing cheese trade here.
It’s Sunday, and 27-year-old Nadjeeb Chouaf is preaching the gospel of good cheese – leading members of the Afton Mountain Vineyard Club in a wine and cheese tasting event – one of three scheduled for this afternoon alone. He offers freshly cut wedges with a word of introduction:
“Next cheese we have up is called Rachel. Rachel is a washed rind, raw goats’ milk cheese from England. The cheesemaker named it after an x- girlfriend of his. He described the cheese as being sweet, curvy and a little nutty.”
As people sniff and nibble, he explains the making of each cheese – including his personal favorite, gruyere de compte. “I describe it as my desert island cheese. If I could only have one for the first of my life, this is it! This is compte aged by Marcel Petite, who has an old abandoned fort in the Alps called Fort St. Antoine where he has miles of tunnels that he ages these cheeses in. Compte is strictly controlled as far as of how it can be made. You have to have a certain amount of grass per cow. It can only come from one breed. The milk can only be 13 kilometers away from where the cheese is made.”
He delves into history and chemistry, explaining that specks of white on cheese are nothing to fear.
“You see like the vacuum-sealed cheddars in the grocery store – they get white. That’s calcium. I mean if it’s fuzzy, it’s mold. That’s probably not going to hurt you. If it’s green it’s probably not going to hurt you. Pink, orange, red – probably don’t want to chance it. If you see mold growing on it, cut it off. The VA Dept. of Agriculture guidelines – like if I have cheese that gets mold on it, you have to cut a quarter inch deeper into the cheese, away from the mold, and you can keep selling it, and they are incredibly stringent.”
He assures the group it’s fine to eat the rind, with two exceptions. “Goudas are usually wrapped in wax. Cheeses like manchego are coated in what’s called plastic coat. It’s a liquid plastic that hardens. It’s not going to hurt you, but it’s not very pleasant.”
And he explains good cheese hygiene. Refrigerators are too cold and dry, so cheese should be stores on the kitchen counter, wrapped in special paper from France.
"It’s micro-perforated to allow gas exchange, so that the cheese stays fresher much, much longer. It’s really the only way to keep cheese good. I mean cheese is alive. It’s the most important thing to remember so it continues to off-gas, and that gets trapped in underneath the plastic, and makes the cheese go bad much, much faster.”
In college, Chouaf majored in music, not cheese, but he gladly ditched his cello for the chance to become a certified cheese monger. He worked on a farm in Scotsville, tended a herd of goats and dabbled in making his own cheese before getting a job at the cheese counter of Whole Foods.
“And it took about a week – maybe two – of selling cheese – to know that this is what I want to do."
And then it was on to the annual Cheese Monger Invitational – a contest that honors true curd nerds. Chouaf was one of 60 people in competition.
“They bring out seven cheeses. You have to name what milk is used – pasteurized or raw, what country of origin, age, style of cheese and the name of the cheese. You have to sell cheese to the judges, cutting exact weights by eye, wrapping speed, and then at the end they did a pairing competition where the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery came out with two beers that had not been released yet, ran around this big warehouse, found a cheese to pair with one of them, got up in front of the two thousand people who were there and talked about why our pairing worked.”
When he placed second, behind his mentor, Chouaf knew it was time to open his own shop – Flora Artisinal in Charlottesville. In our next report, we’ll get his take on Virginia cheese and hear from another expert who say America is in the midst of a gooey, delicious renaissance – rivaling Europe for the quality of its cheese.
Najeed Chouaf isn’t the only curd nerd in Virginia. More people are learning the complexities of this ancient food, and more American farms are now creating.
If you went cheese shopping in the mid 80’s your choices were limited, and American cheese meant something orange that dripped from between two slices of grilled bread. Today, you’ll find hundreds of cheeses made in different parts of the world, aged for various lengths of time, washed in many different liquids, coming from a variety of milks.
“You have sheep, cow, goat, water buffalo. They’re even making cheeses out of donkey milk and yak milk in various places in the world," says Sara Adduci, the chief cheese monger at Feast in Charlottesville. She’s been selling cheese for a decade and last year served as a judge in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition. It was her job to try 35 different blue cheeses, and while she still likes the stuff, Adduci claims it was an intoxicating experience.
“I felt a very strange sensation after eating that much blue cheese. It was unlike any other feeling I’d ever had.”
Today, she continues to taste and buy new cheeses and says many more quality choices are coming from America.
“It seems like every week I’m learning a new cheese from another place. You know, we have a cheese from Maine that we got. I tried a couple of cheese from Arizona the other day when I was visiting. It’s impressive and astounding to see all the beautiful , beautiful cheeses that are being made today all over the U.S.”
“My generation is seeking out these great foods. They’re demanding higher quality, which is creating a market for these producers, and so American cheese is fantastic."
Najeeb Chouaf is founder of Flora Artisinal Cheese, a shop in Charlottesville. Like Adduci, he praises Caramont’s goat cheese from Albemarle County and Appalachian Cheese from the Meadowcreek Dairy in Galax. As American cheeses have gotten better, Chouaf thinks European cheese is in decline.
“You’re seeing consolidation of the dairy industry in Europe, where these small operations are being bought up by huge ones, and so you’re seeing a really fast decline in the quality of European cheeses as American cheeses are getting really better, and we’re almost to an equal point and at some point might even pass them.”
Adduci says cheese making has helped many small family farms to survive when milk prices were down, and she predicts American cheeses will flourish as more consumers discover the rich variety now available.
“I think it’s just a new and exciting field that incorporates love of the land, love of the animals, love of the process of cheesemaking, a love of eating and tasting, and trying and pairing, exploring and cooking. I think it’s just an exciting place to be.”
And at a recent cheese tasting in Afton, consumers Ruth Powell and Ellen McKenna agreed.
“I have never had anybody talk me through a cheese and what is involved in it, and then to taste it with that background was phenomenal. It’s great.
“Cheese on crackers you eat kind of mindlessly. Now it’s making me realize it’s good to be more conscious.”
Feast will host a cheese class on April 15 by reservation. Flora Artisinal offers daily cheese boards, and both shops say they’re happy to let customers sample before they buy.