Paul Inserra knows cheese—from sharp cheddar to sweet, tangy manchego—and regularly shares that knowledge through American Meltdown, a Durham-based food truck that sells cheese sandwiches. But Inserra wants to offer more, so he launched Artisan Cheese Fest to feature area cheesemakers and vendors.
Although the South is not known for its cheese, mongers have taken note of the Triangle. Last August, the American Cheese Society held its annual conference in Raleigh—its first-ever appearance in the South—and brought hundreds of cheesemakers, distributors, writers and enthusiasts, a who's who of the cheese industry. The capstone event, held in a ballroom at the Raleigh Convention Center, presented some 1,700 platters of sample portions. The admission was $55 (a steal for the array of cheeses), including unlimited samples. "It was an amazing thing," Inserra says. "But I thought there was room for a more casual, edgy party."
The Cookery in Durham is an ideal setting for that vibe. Its Front Room bar will sell drinks at the Artisan Cheese Fest while American Meltdown—a member of The Cookery kitchen incubator—will park on the patio to sell sandwiches that feature many of the on-site cheeses.
Inserra points to the Pigs 'n' Figs, which combines speck with Black Mission figs, a balsamic reduction and goat cheese from Holly Grove Farms of Mount Olive. "I'll go through 12 or 14 pounds [of that cheese] a week," Inserra says.
According to Rochelle Johnson, co-owner of The Cookery, additional participants will include Chapel Hill Creamery, Goat Lady Dairy of Climax, Hillsborough Cheese Company, La Farm Bakery of Cary and Wine Authorities of Durham. Alongside American Meltdown, other Cookery members will also attend, such as Milk & Honey Bakery and This Little Piggie Charcuterie. All will offer free samples and items for purchase from the Cookery's main floor. Johnson says though the event is free, she does want to "encourage the public to come ready to buy a product."
Throughout the festival, several demonstrations will be held on The Cookery's mezzanine. For "Dueling Ricottas," Billy Cotter of Toast will take on Matthew Daniels of Triangle Raw Foods to create the best fresh "cheese." Daniels' version incorporates cashews, which Inserra promises will not disappoint. "The first time I tasted Matt's cashew ricotta, it was mind-blowing," he says.
A team from Wine Authorities will offer tasting demonstrations, and folks from Durham's Whole Foods Market will explain how to craft the best cheese plate. (Slateplate of Raleigh will be present as a vendor if you're in need of a sleek, new cheese board.)
Just as the presence of the American Cheese Society in Raleigh confirmed last summer, Inserra's small festival is a testament to the rise of Southern cheesemaking, which has long been deterred by our warm climate. It presented a major challenge before refrigeration and still creates hurdles, including mild winters that fail to eradicate a wealth of bugs and parasites. But over the last 20 years, and particularly over the last few, those efforts have increased. As Kim Severson recently reported in "The Southern Cheese Crusade" in Garden & Gun magazine, many Southern state fairs now hold cheesemaking competitions, and Nashville, Tenn., will soon host its third Southern Artisan Cheese Festival.
The Piedmont isn't lagging in cheese. There are goat's milk cheeses—from the fresh chevre of Elodie Farms in Rougemont to the Smoked Round of Goat Lady Dairy; the latter garnered first place at ACS last year in the smoked open cheeses category, which featured goat, sheep and mixed milk varieties.
And there is an increasing number of non-goat's milk cheeses, from Chapel Hill Creamery's Carolina Moon—a take on traditional, buttery Camembert—to The Cultured Cow Creamery's Red Heifer Cheddar.
The Durham-based Cultured Cow opened in April 2012 and is among the Triangle's newest cheesemakers. "It's cool to see some more cheeses," Inserra says of that addition. He plans to feature one of Cultured Cow's products on his truck at the festival.
Although the Triangle no longer has a standalone cheese shop (Durham's Reliable Cheese, which closed last year, was perhaps ahead of its time), local markets feature plenty of well-stocked cheese counters and cases. Several bars and restaurants also serve first-rate cheese offerings, including Fox Liquor Bar, Six Plates Wine Bar and Crook's Corner.
Inserra hopes the community will continue to grow and sees his festival as a step: "We just want to contribute and build on some local cheese culture."