Chattanooga Cheese Culture

By Victoria Jocsing


The local food movement is already well-established, and its momentum has sparked the creativity and innovation of entrepreneurs throughout the Southeastern region. As a city that embraces the outdoors and offers a diversity of resources, Chattanooga has allowed for an abundance of opportunities for businesses to both produce and progress in ways that are unique to this quaint southern town. One such product is cheese.


Just thirty-five minutes outside of Chattanooga, Sequatchie Valley is situated among the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau surrounded by cascading hills and lush forestry. Sequatchie Cove Farm stretches across three hundred acres of this diverse landscape. Tucked into a corner of this sweeping farmland, Sequatchie Cove Creamery has made its home.


Although the soil there is rich, it is difficult to till; what grows well, though, is grass. Viewing this natural availability through the lens of sustainability made the Sequatchie Cove Farm’s transition from vegetable farming to animal husbandry smooth. Dairy cows freely roam throughout the farm, overseen by Bill Keener and Randall Tomlinson. The animals consume a diet primarily consisting of grass, making use of this widely available resource, supplemented by an occasional mixture of grain and alfalfa. They graze almost continuously, and this land-based diet directly affects the quality and taste of the milk.


Nathan and Padgett Arnold began researching and experimenting with artisanal cheese in 2007, with the hope that this craft might someday provide not only a steady source of income, but also contribute to the mounting evidence that sustainability can be profitable.


The relationship between the Keeners and Arnolds developed into a partnership, and with the support, resources, and amenities of Sequatchie Cove Farm, the Creamery was made possible. What started as a dream, inspired by French traditions in cheese-making from the Savoie region, became reality in 2010 that captures the essence of the farm and reflects the land itself. Crafted in this classical European style, the Arnolds cultivate their products to have a distinctive Tennessee flare.


Each and every cheese from Sequatchie Cove Creamery begins with fresh, unpasteurized milk. This sterilization process removes the beneficial and essential living organisms from the milk, and diverges from the traditional, old world method of cheese-making. The use of raw milk can be challenging, though, and comes with “built in limitations,” according Padgett. For example, cultivating yeast and molds creates the potential for cross contamination and must be strictly monitored. Not pasteurizing, however, allows the layers of flavor and complexity of the cheese, which is aged for a minimum of sixty days, to more fully develop.


Consistency is key in crafting a marketable product. However, seasonal changes, unpredictable weather patterns, and other environmental factors influence the flavor of milk produced by Sequatchie Cove dairy cows, and the cheeses made from it emulates these subtle changes in the milk. Attention to detail and an intimate knowledge of the land, allows farmers to embrace these slight differences as a means by which they are able to directly reflect the Southeast. In fact, Sequatchie Cove Creamery has been able to represent the region on a national stage, participating in competitions and showcasing their award winning product, which can be found locally through the Harvested Here Food Hub, or at restaurants and grocers including 212, Earthfare, Flying Squirrel, Main Street Meats, St John’s, Urban Stack, and Whole Foods.


Paul and Leslie Spell have also tapped into Chattanooga's cheese culture. Their family owned and operated farm, Humble Heart Farms, is located two hours outside of Chattanooga, in Northern Alabama. As the Spells initially pondered over how to develop their 20 acres and which type(s) of livestock they might raise, they considered the size difference between cows, which can grow from a 150 pound calf up to 1500 pounds, and goats, which can grow from a 5-10 pound calf up to 150-200 pounds.  So in 2006, the Spells began accumulating goats, and 40+ Saanen goats currently wander their land.


Humble Heart goats derive their primary sustenance from field grazing, which is supplemented with a custom blend of feed without alfalfa. Instead, alfalfa is replaced with crops such as cottonseed and cotton hull, a crop imported into the Southern region during early years of settlement. Leslie explains that the intense flavor most people associate with goat cheese results from alfalfa, and omitting this ingredient from the diet of these animals significantly alters the flavor of the milk.


In comparison to cow milk, molecules and proteins of goat milk are much smaller. As a result, these components are generally easier to digest, particularly for those who may be lactose sensitive. The goats on Humble Heart Farm are milked daily, and the milk is then pasteurized at the lowest legal temperature, which is sampled and inspected monthly by the state to ensure quality as well as safety. By 2008, the Spells began crafting this fresh milk into soft goat cheese, known as chevre, by adding a little culture after this gentle heating process, rendering milk into cheese overnight.


Due to the molecular structure and size, goat cheese is naturally very smooth and light. In addition, Humble Heart cheese is less pungent than some typical goat-derived dairy products. Its milder taste is highly adaptable and provides the perfect template for a variety of flavor combinations. The Spells attribute this adaptability to the regulated diet of the animals themselves. “What you feed the goat, will show up in the cheese,” Leslie says candidly. The Spells have produced a variety of savory, flavored cheeses, incorporating only natural ingredients such as herbs, never adding artificial flavors or colors. These flavors are reminiscent of Humble Heart Farm and its fields peppered with grazing Saanen goats.


The intention to remain a small business was a decision the Spells made early on in their endeavor and is integrated even into the origin of their name: Humble Heart. The couple adheres to strict standards of quality, not only in terms of the texture and taste of their cheese but also in the ways they manage their farm and production. They believe that their current scale allows them to be personally involved and intimately familiar with each part of the process of their cheese-making which enables them to avoid mistakes. The Spells directly participate in caring for their animals and land as well as their customers, and might not be able to do so with expansion. They prefer to remain exclusive to the Southeast, the flavor of which is infused into their artisanal cheeses. They enjoy the interactive relationship with individuals and restaurants, and this pleasure is stretched across their faces every Sunday at market. The Spells attend several markets throughout summer months, and each person who approaches the Humble Heart booth is greeted with a jolly smile.

According to their website, Humble Heart Farms also attends South Cumberland Farmers Market and the Farmers Market at Good Shepherd's Church in Alabama. Their cheese is regularly available at 212 Market Restaurant, Mean Mug Coffee House, Mooney's Market and Emporium, Pura Vida, Root Kitchens and Wine Bar, and is distributed through the Harvested Here Food Hub and Rooted Here.


As awareness of local food options continues to increase throughout the Chattanooga area, opportunities for farmers and food artisans are creating another dynamic in typical seasonal changing of farmers markets. Throughout the warmer months, markets flood with colorful, ripe veggies, fruits, and flowers. Unlike this kind of produce, however, some options, such as dairy products, remain available year round. Although weather and temperature changes can alter the complex flavors of cheese, these changes never completely disrupt production. This consistent availability provides yet another household staple that can can be obtained locally. Chattanoogans can, in fact, source a complete diet from local farms, and cheese is the evidence. 




Dairy Alternatives

With a background in nursing and a heart for healthy products, Nicole Justman founded Crumbleberry Cheese about a year ago. She combines organic ingredients, primarily cashews, to create a cheese option that is not derived from milk. Her recipes allow those with dietary restrictions or preferences to enjoy non-dairy cheese and support local food artisans.