Thanks to the many farmers markets around the Yellowhammer State, it’s now relatively easy to find Alabama-grown vegetables and fruit. Cheese? Well, that’s a bit more challenging.
Dairy farming is tough and ever-demanding. Once an ultra-local product, mass-production of cow’s milk and related goods has squeezed out most family farms.
Eighty years ago, the state had 100,000 dairy farms, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. By 1987, only 330 were operating. Now, fewer than two dozen remain.
But while we lack in quantity, we still enjoy the quality and creativity of small-batch production, and a bit of variety. Curds from cow, sheep, and goat milks are made here.
Here is who makes cheese in Alabama, and a couple of their products.
Belle Chevre (Goat)
Liz Parnell established Belle Chevre in 1989 to make French-style goat cheese. North Alabama native Tasia Malakasis purchased it in 2007 after discovering Belle Chevre in a fancy food shop in New York City while attending culinary school. Malakasis built the brand, adding a line of spreadable goat cheeses and widening distribution. Now owned by Arab native and entrepreneur Foster McDonald, Belle Chevre remains based in Elkmont, with a shop and tasting room attached to the production facility. The cheese is sold online and in some groceries.
Greek Kiss – A nod to Malakasis’ Greek heritage, discs of soft goat cheese are wrapped in brined grape leaves. It won silver in the 2022 World Cheese Championships.
Montrachet-style cheese logs – The original and a longtime customer favorite, this versatile cheese is good for cooking and baking, adding to cheese boards, and spreading on rustic bread.
Dayspring Dairy (Sheep)
Greg and Ana Kelly opened their creamery in 2012, making cheese from some 100 sheep raised without antibiotics that graze on pasture free of pesticides or commercial fertilizer. Dayspring, a Biblical reference, produces feta and a variety of other cheeses, milk caramel spreads, and shortbread cookies. Praised by Garden and Gun, Southern Living, NPR, and the New York Times, Dayspring’s wares are available online, for pickup (by appointment only) at the farm, and at the Saturday market at Pepper Place in Birmingham.
Angry Ram spreadable cheese – part of a line of spreadable fresh cheeses, Angry Ram is spiked with roasted peppers – habanero for heat and red poblanos for fruity flavor – both locally grown when possible.
Halloumi – You can sear it, grill it, or fry it – this cheese doesn’t melt. The folks at Dayspring call it “the steak of cheese,” and recommend their halloumi as a meat substitute in burgers, kabobs, and stir-fries. Halloumi, which has a chewy texture and creamy flavor, also is an interesting addition to cheese and charcuterie boards. Sometimes made with a mix of milks, Dayspring Dairy’s version is sheep-only.
Working Cows Dairy (Cow)
The family-owned farm and dairy originated in Florida in 1985, relocating in 1991 to its current home that now totals more than 400 acres. Jan and Rinske de Jong graze some 750 milk cows (plus a bunch more) on pasture that is certified organic. The Netherlands natives have made cheese since 2017, including an award-winning farmstead variety that is aged 60 days. Some are flavored with unusual ingredients like green peppercorn, nettle, and Slocomb’s famous tomatoes. Milk, cheese, butter, eggs, and grass-fed beef are sold at the farm store; most can be shipped. Working Cows products also are sold at specialty stores in Birmingham, Huntsville, Pelham, Enterprise, and Dothan. The Birmingham area farm-to-table delivery service, till, has carried Working Cows cheese and butter.
Wiregrass Tsiis – Tsiis means “cheese” in the de Jongs’ native language, Frisian. Based on a traditional Dutch style, Wiregrass Tsiis is their farmstead cheese aged with chives, parsley, onion, and garlic. Another version, Griene Tsiis (Green Cheese) is spiked with celery, celery leaf, along with chives, onion, and garlic.
Italian Melange – The farmstead cheese is infused with Slocomb tomatoes, garlic, onion, paprika, basil, thyme, and pepper.