The second annual Fete des Fromages includes a cheese class, a cheese and cocktail event and a tasting festival Nov. 13 and 15-16 in New Orleans. The tasting event is a mini-festival from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, and it includes more than 120 cheeses from the U.S. and Europe, live music and French wines and craft beer vendors. Tickets are $35 to $130.
The list of cheesemakers includes several from the southern United States. Unlike Wisconsin or Vermont, the South is not known for cheese production, but that is changing slowly with the emergence of dairies across the region.
Festival co-director Liz Thorpe, author of books including “The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You’ll Love,” says there are many reasons the South has lagged on the cheese front.
First, the climate can be tough on dairy animals mainly responsible for cheeses: cows, goats and sheep. They can thrive in hot and dry places, such as Provence or southern Spain, or cool and humid regions, but hot and humid conditions are challenging.
“Half the year here is perfect for cows, but half is pretty brutal,” Thorpe says.
In terms of economics, the South’s large urban markets are spread out so it is tougher for producers to build a clientele that can sustain their business without having to sell nationally.
“For a producer around here, Atlanta and Houston are too far away, and New Orleans isn’t big enough,” Thorpe says.
The unique conditions present in the South, like a warmer climate that allows many animals to be grass-fed year-round, shapes the cheeses that are produced. Thorpe compares it to the terroir of wine, but instead of grapes that grow from the ground and get pressed into wine, “grass has to get eaten and processed by an animal, then the milk gets pressed into cheese, so it’s more steps removed. But the unique attributes of a place definitely impact the flavor of the milk and cheese.”
Though cheese varieties historically evolved due to particular cultural or geographic circumstances, Thorpe says that today, many cheeses can be made virtually anywhere, and cheesemakers can meet the tastes of the local market.
In McComb, Mississippi, Mauthe’s Progress Milk Barn makes Creole cream cheese, a product rooted in New Orleans’ culinary history that the Mauthe family resurrected around 2000. The dairy had been solely producing milk for years but needed to expand its offerings in order to sustain the business for future generations.
“My dad dairied in the Lower Ninth Ward,” Kenny Mauthe says. “They made Creole cream cheese in the days before pasteurization. The more we researched it, we found it was a staple in diets from New Orleans to Lafayette. We never realized how important it was to people. We started out thinking we were just going to sell milk, and Creole cream cheese became our main product.”
Mauthe’s also produces limited quantities of fresh farmhouse cheddar, feta, fromage blanc and mozzarella curd, and the family hopes to expand cheese production as they expand the dairy’s facilities.
“When you start talking about mold-ripened cheese, you have to have the facility to do those types,” Kenny says. “Here in the South, we can make those style cheeses, even with the humidity levels. The greatest thing we have here is that we can grow grass 365 days a year. Grass-fed milk makes some very unique cheeses. Our cheeses could be well known because of grass we grow here, especially during the winter months.”
Hobo Cheese Company, a two-year-old micro-creamery located in the Piedmont region of north Georgia, also will be present at the festival. That creamery produces Italian-style cheeses that do well in warmer climates.
Cheesemaker Tyler Davis expects to expand Hobo’s selection over time. Davis says technology and ready access to information have made it easier for cheesemakers to produce new cheeses.
“Even 10-15 years back, a more remotely located cheesemaker didn’t have the opportunity to learn to make different cheese types,” Davis says. “Now information and opportunities to gain education are more accessible.”
Davis says the lack of a well-established Southern cheese tradition is a double-edged sword.
“There is more freedom to choose what you want to make and how to make it,” Davis says. “From a creative aspect that’s a lot of fun, putting your own spin and tailoring it to your area.”
But cheesemakers also have less experience producing certain kinds of cheese. At Hobo, Davis fills in the experience gap with science, unlike traditional European cheesemakers who have developed a “touch and feel” sensorial approach to cheesemaking over generations.
“You can read whatever you want in theory,” Davis says. “But you need to get your hands in the curd and go through the repetition to know what you’re looking for. You can’t wing it.”