There are a few things I love in life – my family and friends, my dogs, travel, the mountains, and cheese. I feel like that list really defines me as a person. So what happens when you combine all of these great things? Only the best birthday surprise ever! Otherwise known as the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail.
If you’ve never heard of the WNC Cheese trail, join the club. Only in it’s second year, the trail showcases local artisan cheese-makers from across the Western Carolina region. Andrew just happened upon an article in an airline magazine featuring the cheesy excursion. In hindsight though, I’m amazed I didn’t come up with the idea myself – what could be better than a day spent driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains sampling some of the regions finest dairy offerings?
We began the trek with a night in Asheville, one of our favorite weekend destinations. After an evening dining on tile fish, lemon thyme risotto, scallops, and coconut custard cake at the incredible Black Bird restaurant in downtown Asheville, we set off to explore.
As we left the city limits, I had no idea where we were going or what was in store. Winding down country roads, the options became ever more limited – based on the road signs we were either going to one of a dozen Freewill Baptist churches or we were going to a creamery. I’m happy to report it was the latter. We pulled up to a small farmhouse with the most beautiful view of the mountains in the distance and a couple goats and sheep standing guard.
Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, NC was our first stop. Upon entering the small shop, we were greeted by the delightful Ashley, who didn’t hesitate to offer us endless samples their dairy delicacies. Their soft creamy chevre goat cheese served on local Roots & Branches crackers invited us to indulge. The plain chevre is fantastic, but the unique flavors they offered really took the cheese to the next level. Not wanting to choose between sweet and savory, we picked a chevre flavor from each category – delicately sweetened coconut chevre and tangy garlic & chive. The real standout cheese, though, was their signature award-winning Ellington. This lovely pyramid of goat cheese covered in a thin layer of ash tastes to me like the most delicious hybrid of goat cheese, brie, and blue cheese and is perfect on it’s own or paired with a freshly cooked steak.
Beyond cheese, Looking Glass has a few other tasty treats. Most tempting for me was their Bourbon Vanilla Carmelita – a rich sweet caramel sauce expertly balanced with the unbeatable flavors of bourbon and fresh vanilla. It’s my new favorite addition to coffee, but I would also gladly eat it by the spoonful on it’s own.
After our tasting session we went outside to meet the goats of Looking Glass and thank them for their goods. Apparently they were interested in what we could offer them to eat in return.
As much as I would like too, one can’t survive on cheese alone. So we went to find lunch at the Local Joint. The Local Joint is a Fairview, NC gem hidden in plain sight – it’s connected to a gas station. But don’t let it’s location fool you. They serve up some of the freshest, most delicious homemade food with a side of southern hospitality. I ordered The Local, an impeccable burger with bacon and blue cheese embedded into the patty on a fresh bun smothered with garlic aioli – truly one of the best burger’s I’ve had in a while. Andrew got the pastrami sandwich, which is made with local Lusty Monk mustard on a pretzel bun – also a delectably great option. And Bella certainly enjoyed the sweet potato fries and house-made chips.
Fully satiated, we headed on to Hickory Nut Gap Farm to explore, and of course buy more food.
Hickory Nut Gap, also in Fairview, NC, is not just a farm or store, but a full experience. Spanning endless acres across a beautiful valley intersected by a fresh mountain stream, we could have spent a day just enjoying Hickory Nut Gap.
We wandered around the farm picking blueberries, meeting baby chicks and piglets, and tromping through the cool stream (Bella’s favorite).
Back at the Hickory Nut Gap market, the friendly and knowledgeable staff welcomed us and didn’t hesitate to make recommendations on their favorite cuts of meat and other local treats.
While Hickory Nut Gap is not a creamery, they offer some of the region’s best meats to accompany your cheesy finds. I could easily make a meal of their flavorful Sweet Sopressata salami and any choice of cheese.
Stocked with a cooler full of our fresh finds, we wound further east to Round Mountain Creamery in Black Mountain, NC.
As a fully functioning goat farmstead, dairy, and creamery, as well as home to it’s owners, visiting Round Mountain is by appointment only. Fortunately the passionate owner, Linda Seligman, was kind enough welcome us to her farm on short notice.
Round Mountain is the only producer of Grade A goat milk in all of North Carolina, so we knew their milk and cheeses were bound to be great. Linda gave us a private tour of the creamery, walking us through each step of the painstaking process – from prepping the goats to milking to processing the milk, and finally to making a delicious assortment of cheeses. Round Mountain Creamery has been a labor of love for Linda, 12 years in the making, so it was incredible to see the work and detail that goes into every aspect of making the highest quality goods.
After the tour she set us free to explore the farm and meet the hard-working goats before rejoining us in her tasting shop.
Like a loving mother, Linda offered us endless samples of Round Mountain’s fresh cheeses, giving us the rundown of what ingredients were added and the process for making and aging each variety. To top it off, we got our first taste of goat milk, which is fairly similar to cow milk, but with just a bit to that tasty tanginess that makes goat cheese unique. We took with us a bit of everything – goat milk, various flavors of soft goat cheese, and (at Andrew’s request) a whole wheel of their award-winning Amber Moon aged goat cheese.
Bidding farewell to Linda, we headed north to enjoy the afternoon light and view of the mountains along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.
Andrew had one final birthday surprise in store – going to one of my favorite places in the world, Valle Crucis, NC, to visit my dad. Upon arrival my dad greeted me with the most delicious birthday cake from Valle Crucis Bakery and Cafe, with none other than cream cheese icing!
What a wonderfully unique birthday! Those who know me certainly know that cheese is the way to my heart…
There were a few other creameries we wanted to get to, but you can only do so much cheese in one day. Next trip we hope to make it to the cheese cave at Blue Ridge Mountain Creamery, as well as English Farmstead, OakMoon Farm, and maybe even the Western Carolina cheese mecca of Ashe County Cheese. For a full list of cheese trail participants, visit www.wnccheesetrail.com.