I was among a lucky group of Nashville food bloggers and writers who got to on a visit to Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheeses in Austin, KY, this weekend. A van picked us up in East Nashville around 7:30 a.m., and we started the scenic drive north. During the car ride we talked about almost nothing but food, recipes, cooking, restaurants — you name it. It’s really refreshing being with a group of like-minded foodies, I must say.
When we arrived, we were treated to an assortment of baked quiches from Roxy Baking Co., a regular vendor at the Nashville Farmers’ Market. After that we quickly switched gears to cheese. Kenny gave us a short history of his cheeses, explained the process of cheesemaking and gave us a tour of his facilities.
I always enjoy learning the story behind a product and meeting the people who make it. It gives whatever it is — chocolate, bread, homegrown meats — more meaning. Kenny started making his cheeses as a way to add value to his dairy farm. He was first inspired to try his hand at cheesemaking from what he saw on family farms in Europe. Then, between his mother, who made cheese on a small scale for the family when Kenny was a child, and a family friend and mentor in Canada, he began to try his hand.
To differentiate himself from his competitors, Kenny uses vegetable-based rennet in his cheeses. (Rennet is a naturally occurring enzyme in the stomach lining of mammals, and is meant to aid in digestion of milk.) Kenny also does most everything by hand. He says this helps ensure quality as so much of cheesemaking is about “feel.”
During their first year of cheese production they made 4,000 pounds of cheese. Last year it was nearly 70,000. They started out making gouda, and now have everything from asiago to cheddar to havarti. The havarti variety, he says, was actually an accident. He started with a batch of cheddar. When it was time to add in the live cultures, he realized he was out of the kind he needed for cheddar so he added in some gouda cultures. After awhile, he realized he was making something very different than cheddar, so he called up his mentor in Canada and she said simply, “well, it sounds like you made havarti!” And they’ve been making the variety ever since.
|Kenny with the family dog, Cheddar.|
Two things really struck me during this visit. Because of the way his production is set up, Kenny’s cheese leaves a very small carbon footprint. Milk needs to be around 90 to 100 degrees to begin the cheesemaking process. Since the cows that provide the milk are right next door to the facility, the milk doesn’t have to travel far, and, because the cows are milked that morning, it’s already at the right temperature when it’s pumped into the cheese “laboratory” so it doesn’t require additional heating. Because the milk is so fresh, it doesn’t require pasteurization, which some say can change the flavor.
The other thing that struck me was the crafsmanship behind the cheeses. I’ve often thought that my generation has really lost interest in creating something with our hands. For so many people, typing on the computer is the only thing their hands are used for. Plus, so many things are mechanized these days. Where there was once an art — furniture-making, embroidery, sewing — we now have a machine-based process. However, Kenny, and many other artisan food producers are following their passions and creating a truly beautiful product. It’s really refreshing.
When Kenny first started making his cheeses, he says it was a confusing and challenging process. At one point his mother realized he was getting discouraged, so she sent him up to the Louisville Farmers’ Market where his cheese was sold. He’d built up a strong following among his customers there, and his mom thought it would do him good to see the excitement from their perspective. She was right.
After the tour, we got to sample about eight varieties of Kenny’s cheese. My favorites were the Brie, Norwood and Kentucky Blue. The Brie had the most delicious rind on it. It wasn’t too hard or soft, and had the perfect “bite” to it. The inside was so creamy and soft, but not too runny. The Norwood was a harder cheese that I’m told is like a gruyere. It would pair excellently with a grainy mustard. I purchased some and intend to make grilled ham and Norwood sandwiches, with a grainy mustard and maybe some chutney or apple slices. They call the Kentucky Blue a “gateway” blue. It’s not as stinky as some blue cheese can be, but it definitely has a blue cheese essence, even if it is a bit muted. I loved the flavor of this cheese.
After our cheese tasting, we went inside for lunch from a couple of aspiring food truckers. B.J. and Carlos, of Riffs Food Truck, cooked up quite a feast for us, featuring some of Kenny’s Cheeses in their dishes. Our lunch started out with a panzanella salad with cornbread croutons. It was followed by mini grilled brie sandwiches with jerk-seasoned pork tenderloin and homemade chutney, and cheese grits with salt cod fritters and homemade lime aioli with a kick. YUM! If that wasn’t enough, they served us a savory bread pudding with tomato marmalade for dessert. It was really a spectacular day.
It’s days like this that remind me how sweet life can be. Good food, great people and a beautiful sunshiny day in the South.