Life On The Wire: John Wayne Pitching to Ted Williams While Hunter S Thompson Umps
Life On The Wire consists of dispatches from our ever resourceful "curdologist" and cheese wiz, Emilie.
America is the new kid on the cheesemaking block. We’ve only been doing it for 400 years, and most of that for personal consumption rather than commercial. As we are a nation of immigrants, we have very few cheeses that are distinctly American, not counting the sliced singles, but Shakerag Blue is one of them.
Shakerag Blue is made by Sequatchie Cove Creamery which is part of the larger Sequatchie Cove Farm, a 300 acre solar powered property 35 miles from Chattanooga. It’s a family-owned and operated farm that is invested in the health and well-being of the land and everything that lives on it. There’s no pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics or growth promoting hormones. Just earth, water, compost, and careful management. Shakerag Blue is made by Nathan and Padgett Arnold who started in the farm’s gardens moving onto the dairy herd before starting cheesemaking in 2010.
Cheesemaking wasn’t without challenges though, their first vat was too small for the amount of milk they had. Cheesemaking in the south is notoriously difficult because there’s everything from heat affecting milk yields (the composition of the milk gets thrown out of whack) to the natural microbial environment that will take your cheese in an unexpected direction. Then you’ve got to be able to sell your cheese, which means a lot of time on the road at farmer’s markets or delivering orders, and usually a painful FedEx bill to get cheese on cheese counters across the country. But when it works out, it’s a kind of magic.
Shakerag Blue takes its name from Shakerag Hollow, which had a rich history of moonshine production during Prohibition. It’s a fitting name as the cheese is wrapped in fig leaves that have been soaked in Chattanooga Whiskey’s 1816 Reserve Bourbon. In case you didn’t know, bourbon is one of America’s great contributions to human civilization, right next to Ted Williams playing baseball and John Wayne movies.
Wrapping cheese in leaves is nothing new, it’s been happening for centuries. First, as protection against critters, then as protection and flavoring. Soaking or washing cheese in spirits, wine or beer is also not new; it was and is a very popular thing that started in monasteries and took off with the masses and is still popular today. Blues are also not new to the ballgame. Since time immemorial there has been blue cheese, and there are a couple leaf wrapped ones from Spain. But a blue wrapped in leaves, that have been soaked in spirits, that is a much rarer beast. We know of two, Rogue River Blue (sadly out of season otherwise this post would be about it too) wrapped in pear brandy soaked syrah leaves in Oregon; and Shakerag Blue.
I know what you’re now thinking, that’s all well and good but what does it taste like? Shakerag Blue is a punch to the palate; cream and spice, salt and anise, fudge and pine, sweet corn liquor and fall leaves, bacon and rootbeer. It has a crumbly texture with deep pockets of blue, a faint hint of crunch from protein crystals and the flavors linger on the palate long after the last crumb is gone. Pair it with succotash or grilled corn, bourbon or lambic beers, it also likes steak and salads.
And yes, it is expensive but it’s not about the money, it’s about a taste of that scary french word, terroir (in case you missed it we talked about terroir a few weeks ago for Raw Milk Cheese Day which in this case is the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. It’s a taste of the south, it’s a taste of the Hollow and of whiskey, and of the fig trees that thrive in the Cumberland Plateau. It’s about treating your animals the best you can because when they’re not stressed or unhappy the farmer is happy and the cheesemaker is happy and in the end, you are happy. It’s about celebrating a uniquely American cheese (and spirit) from a uniquely American place.