Cheese, like craft beers and coffee, has gone local.
No, I'm not talking about microwaved bowls of Velveeta mixed with you-know-what. I mean the real stuff, made by hand with milk from cows, goats and sheep that live here in North Texas, eating the richest alfalfa, the greenest grass, the freshest feed.
From Flower Mound to Granbury, over to Dublin and south to Waco, artisan cheese makers are working the old-fashioned way, without preservatives, additives or artificial ingredients, or fancy packaging, even.
And they're winning national awards. In 2012, the American Cheese Society awarded 14 Texas cheeses with first-, second- and third-place ribbons, and Texas currently ranks eighth among states with the greatest number of artisan cheese producers.
If that's not enough to make you crave a grilled cheese sandwich, I don't know what will.
Magnolia Cheese Company
Head to the city's new cheese (and sandwich) shop, Magnolia Cheese Company, for any of about 40 U.S. -- and lots of local -- cheeses, both melty and not, available on sandwiches to eat onsite or to take home and do with what you wish. Elizabeth Northern opened her corner France-meets-Fort Worth fromagerie in mid-December, and within a month had lunch lines out the door.
"We're here, the doors are open and we're happy," she says before the lunch rush one day. "I'm still playing catch-up in my head."
After working in sales for the Fort Worth Business Press, Northern, 35, knew that she wanted to open her own business, but wasn't sure what, exactly, it would be. "I didn't connect the dots until I was bringing cheese boards to my friends' parties, and one of them said, 'Do you realize ... ?' Then the annual convention of the American Cheese Society happened to be in Austin in 2009, and I attended for a couple of days and thought, 'I can do this.'"
So she did. She spent a year looking for the right location, then did the renovation and decor herself -- sort of a not-too-shabby flea-market chic with cheery turquoise walls. Along with her cheese-filled European-style cases, you'll find homemade crème fraiche, house-cured salmon and farm eggs from Prosper. She's also offering a casual cheese-centric menu, and plans to begin cheese education classes (Cheese 101) along with classes on wine and beer pairings with cheese, too -- all local, of course.
Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese
Eagle Mountain Gouda -- which stars on one of Magnolia Cheese Company's bestselling sandwiches (the Gouda & Pork) -- is one of Dave Eagle's favorites. He traded his litigator's briefcase for a cheese maker's apron four years ago, after spending time with friends in the south of France, nibbling on warm baguettes along with heaps of charcuterie and fresh farm cheeses. When he returned to Texas, he couldn't go back to his old life. Says Eagle, "I thought, 'I've got to change the way I eat.'"
Which led him to want to change how he was living, too. (Spend some time in France. It happens.)
He enrolled in cheese making school in Vermont, then enlisted his son, Matt, and his nephew, Corey, both now 36, to help make raw cow's milk cheeses in Granbury using milk from Sandy Creek Farms' Brown Swiss dairy cows, just down the road in Bridgeport.
Right now, Dave Eagle makes about a half-dozen or so raw cow's milk cheeses, including a hard cheese, like those found in the Swiss Alps, that he playfully calls Tomme de Hood.
"Tomme de Hood is named, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, after the many Tomme-style cheeses that hail from France, primarily from the French Alpine regions of France and Switzerland," Eagle says. "The most well-known Tomme is the Tomme de Savoie. Most Tommes [as most cheeses] are identified by their place of origin. Since Granbury is located in Hood County, Texas [named after General Hood of Civil War fame], we decided to name ours Tomme de Hood."
Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese also makes a Belgian Trappist-style cheese called Birdville Reserve (which took first place at the American Cheese Society's annual competition in 2010); Caraway to Heaven, a caraway seed Gouda; Cumino Royale, a cumin seed-spiked Gouda; and three aged Goudas, Granbury Gold (60 days old), Granbury Vintage (aged 5 to 7 months), and Old Granbury Limited, a year-old Gouda that tastes, Eagle says, "like a Parmesan."
"It's just damn good cheese," he says. "Plus, it's local."
Eagle sells his cheese all over Texas and makes the deliveries himself, in his gray 2007 Ford F-150 pickup (blinged out with refrigeration features). He's currently producing a total of 500 pounds of cheese a week; his goal is to double that amount. Nothing more. "I don't want to grow this to become a chain. That's not what I'm after. I just want to make a living and have a good time while I'm at it." Latte Da Dairy
Former veterinarian Anne Jones thought it would be fun to have a couple of goats to milk and make cheese with six years ago. But a pair quickly became seven when a friend offered her a few more. Now, the tidy 5.25-acre spread in Flower Mound that Jones shares with her husband, Johnny, a retired police officer, is home to nearly 50 floppy-eared Nubians and La Manchas; half of them are on the milk line three times a week.
Latte Da Dairy's take? That's 40 gallons of goat milk, times three, for 120 gallons -- which yields 75 pounds of chèvre (Latte Da's signature cheese), 30 pounds of hard cheeses and 15 pounds of feta each week.
On a recent far-too-chilly afternoon, I visited with Jones while she scooped the fluffy, just-made chèvre into plastic molds in the Latte Da Dairy goat cheese production facility -- a 12-by-15-square-foot cinder block building with just enough room for Jones, her cheese making equipment and the very occasional guest. "I've spent time in France and I've always loved chèvre," says Jones, who spoons her fresh goat cheese into dozens of holey plastic cheese containers, which look exactly like the ceramic ones I've snagged for myself at the flea markets in Paris.
Jones didn't intend to get into full-on cheese making. It just sort of happened, she admits, when one goat led to another, and then another.
"I fell in love with all of the cheeses and the goats -- they're like golden retrievers! -- they know their names and come when they're called, and they give us this wonderful stuff, milk, which we make into cheeses," she says.
Jones makes a straight-up plain chèvre, much like what I find in France, along with a few flavored ones -- dill, garlic and pepper. She also makes a creamy feta, along with a 3-week-old Argento Capra, which is slightly saltier than a chèvre and comes in a log; a goat's milk Brie; and two hard cheeses, both of which are aged for two months -- a Gouda and a Caerphilly, a cheddar-style cheese. All of her aged cheeses mature in the "cheese cave," a tiny shed built over what was once a hot tub.
She lets me taste them all, and they're lovely. But I'm a goat cheese freak -- it's probably one of the top three things that you'll always find in my fridge, along with butter and Dijon mustard -- and her fresh chèvre is my hands-down favorite.
And others agree, apparently. She often sells out of her cheeses at the weekly Cowtown Farmers Market in Fort Worth, White Rock Local Market and Coppell Farmers Market, and Central Market can't keep it on the shelves.
To be able to make and sell award-winning goat cheese -- and in small batches that she hand-delivers to Central Market stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area -- is everything Jones thought it would be.
"It's more about a lifestyle," she says, now washing up after sliding her cheeses on a shelflike rack to drain off the whey so they'll be thick and creamy. "It's very hard work. I'm not making a lot of money, but the biggest thing is the goats. I could hire more people, but if I get too big, I wouldn't be able to say about a particular goat, 'Yesterday, she looked at me funny, so I'd better keep an eye on her to make sure she doesn't get sick.' I'm right where I need to be. I don't want to get any bigger." Mozzarella Company
Paula Lambert (née Stephens of Fort Worth) started Mozzarella Company 31 years ago, and now makes more than 30 kinds of cow's milk and goat's milk cheeses, including chèvre, mascarpone, Caciotta, fromage blanc, Scamorza and, of course, mozzarella, and sells to retail outlets and restaurants nationwide. "It's about volume," she says.
Numbers plus quality have made Lambert one of North Texas' first -- and most recognizable -- award-winning cheese makers, but it wasn't easy. "Back when I started, nobody had ever heard of mozzarella and tomato salad. No one had ever heard of mascarpone; they didn't know what a tiramisu was. I knew I had to educate these people, but luckily, there was a group of young chefs in Dallas at the time -- Dean Fearing, Stephan Pyles, Richard Chamberlain and Jim Severson -- who were willing to learn."
Fast-forward three decades and here we are, smack dab in the middle of a mini cheese explosion in the U.S., and in North Texas, too. "It's become very chic," says Lambert. "You read in The New York Times about lawyers and yuppies becoming cheese makers, and I think, 'You're romanticizing cheese making. You have no idea!'"
Cheese making is thousands of years old -- it's thought to be pre-Roman -- but it's a process that's built on the details, and takes a lot of time and a whole lot of hands-on work to get right. "I had to learn how to make cheese," says Lambert. "I had to learn where to buy milk. I had to learn how to build a cheese factory. I had to find customers. It's still a challenge every day -- and I love it."
Lambert offers classes on cheese making and cheese pairing and takes small groups to Italy and France to experience European cheeses firsthand. As for today's mostly still-nascent North Texas cheese makers, all of whom share her great love of fermented and aged milk, Lambert is cautiously optimistic.
"I think it's going to be interesting," she says.
Looks like it's time for the cheese course to begin.
Dave Eagle's grilled gouda sandwich
Here's a simple recipe my grandkids really like (actually, everybody likes it) ...
1. Start with homemade sourdough bread that's a couple of days old. (I have a starter culture that allegedly came from San Francisco that I've been using to make great bread for the past two years). Slice bread into two 1-inch thick slices (or whatever thickness you like).
2. While heating a cast iron skillet on the stove, brush olive oil on one side of each bread slice.
Throw the bread slices on the grill, olive oil side down, and grill until slightly brown.
3. Flip bread slices over and top with a few slices of Eagle Mountain Gouda. (I like to use the Granbury Vintage, since it is a bit sharper than the younger cheeses).
4. Turn the heat down a bit and grill bread until toasted on the down side. In theory, if your heat setting was correct, the cheese will be nicely melted on the top and the bread nicely toasted on the bottom.
5. Place grilled cheese slices on a plate, and add fresh sliced homegrown tomatoes on top of the cheese. Salt and pepper to taste (I like to use fresh cracked black pepper). Top with fresh basil leaves and enjoy.