Rockin' a Little Cheese
Kent Walker is setting the bar for the Mid-South artisan cheese scene
When no less than seriouseats.com and the august John T. Edge hisself recently lauded Southern artisan cheeses and splashed their respective noshy write-ups, I had to wonder — where the hell was I and why wasn’t I told to bring the crazy-looking cheese knife with the pointy things on it? I am not one who generally misses these kinds of things — not because of the whole local thing, but because of the whole Cheese thing.
Maybe I am not tuned into all of the post-it-while-you-eat-it sites that seem to be a chef or meal or artisan behind everyone else. But when a hugely popular and widely respected online site like seriouseats.com goes up with something, well, something’s up. Likewise with John T.: a single nod from him in the general direction of any Southern culinary standout is akin to dropping the green at Talladega. The race is on to see who can get there first, go three or four wide into the turn, eat the same thing, touch the counter he touched, and generally miss the whole point of why he was writing about it.
Both have written of the wonderful farmstead cheeses found across the South — comparing them rightfully to their style among the farm-made cheeses of Europe. But these are farmstead cheeses, made on the farm with milk from the farm. These are the artisans of bucolic landscapes and cheeses bespoken to their source. The lexicon of grass is applied liberally to the flavors of these cheeses within their source — be it sheep, goat, or cow. Little goes into the description of these cheeses other than the perfection of the raw ingredient, careful processes, and adequate aging, as it should.
The farmstead cheese artisan is making use of what they have, that is, an abundance of milk at certain times of the year. They may also sell milk and other farm-based products, with cheese being a profitable sideline for the farm. Sequatchie Cove Farm, north of Chattanooga, and Bonnie Blue Farm in Waynesboro produce prime Southern farmstead artisan cheese that is more than just a sideline business for each.
Not every cheesemaker has, needs, or wants a farm, but every milk-producing farm has a need for cheesemakers. Likewise, not every milk-producing farm wants to get into the cheese business and would rather sell its excess fresh milk to cheesemakers. The balance is the same as in the wine business, where not every winemaker has a vineyard, but every vineyard needs a winemaker.
Here the cheesemaker is sourcing locally, looking for flavor profiles within milk that can be nuanced, nudged, heated, beaten, drained, pressed, and somewhat tortured into something worthy of where this all started; that whole Cheese-with-a-capital-C thing.
At this end of Southern artisan cheeses, there is room for the interpretation, exploration, and innovation of cheesemakers who are not tied to the farmland but are highly aware of and dependent on it. And among these Southern artisan cheesemakers and their cheeses, there is growing noteworthiness. There are accolades, even if every article about Southern cheese and Southern cheesemakers has to somehow mention pimentos. To paraphrase John T., maybe one day we won’t have to compare ourselves to other places and just be okay with what we are, what we have, and what we make. Our cheese won’t have to be compared to French cheeses — it can just be damn good all on its own and without a whiff of Duke’s or a red pepper in sight.
And this is where Kent Walker comes in.
At first glance, Kent is perhaps what everyone expects an artisan cheesemaker to be these days. He came to his knowledge of cheesemaking by way of the craft-brewing and winemaking traditions and their similarities to the art. He enjoys the scientific, calculating part of cheesemaking, but seems perfectly okay with winging it as needed, improvising and doing it his way. There is not a put-upon air about him or the slightest wheeze of snobbishness in his approach to cheese or how he goes about sharing it with others. And he has the unstoppable optimism of someone full of youth and passion. “This is absolutely what I want to do with my life,” he says.
You would also expect — and be right — that the process for Kent and his Little Rock–based Kent Walker Artisan Cheese has not all been a skip down a golden-yellow, Gouda-bricked road. Even with early success and acceptance of his cheeses by local chefs, shops, and consumers, he is locked into fronting all the costs of producing an item that must sit for 90 days or more before it can be sold. He has suffered through a mechanical failure in his cheese cave that resulted in the loss of his entire inventory. He has driven the miles for opportunities to introduce his products to new areas and new enthusiasts. He has spent the hours and money to work toward preparing a new location in downtown Little Rock that allows for a cheese-tasting room (with beer and wine), production observation area, aging cave, and retail shop.
Kent is also someone who, like many of his beer, wine, and food artisan brothers, is all about the process and the product. There is a similarity among these artisans when it comes to the process of their discipline — an infatuation with stainless steel parts, racks, and über-sized pumps and hoses. They are unlike their idyllic brothers afield who are, by necessity, more inclined to use the time-worn and practical approach of the farm.
Kent is not unlike any other artisan these days: He’s high-tech driven (it was in his background before the whole cheesemaking thing kind of took over his life) with laptop always at the ready to search for a part or technical bit. It has led him to making his own Dutch-style cheese presses (the part that smashes curds into the form needed for aging and then eating) that use the weight of water and are essentially unchanged since, well, whenever the Dutch invented them. It all comes around in the process — old leads to new leads to old.
But the artisan process never overwhelms the ingredients or the finished product. Kent’s raw dairy comes from local fresh cow milk and fresh-frozen goat milk that make their way into the process within 72 hours. Beyond the raw dairy, the process only requires cultures, rennet, natural flavorings (like roasted garlic), and quite a bit of hard work to turn hundreds of gallons of milk into the sublime wheels of cheese that line the shelves of the aging cave.
To age, each wheel requires specific temperature and humidity control, airflow, and hand-turning every day. There is none of the make-it-and-forget-it-for-a-while that might be found in wine or craft beer making. Each wheel, every day, is touched and turned, its changing condition and complexities felt, judged, and considered. At any one time, there are hundreds of wheels of a variety of types, mostly the styles made available on a constant basis, plus any number of experiments and wheels that require longer periods of aging.
Mostly uniform wheels line the shelves, but it’s the oddly shaped cheeses that cause the pulse to bounce. Small wheels, huge wheels, flat floor-tile shaped bricks, cones, pyramids, and tight cylinders — each has potential for a magical experience. The shapes are traditions to the style of cheese, for the most part, and certainly in artisan cheesemaking. The shape defines the surface area, which is exposed to air and moisture, thereby influencing aging and, yes, flavor.
Some of these are bound for Kent’s unique “reserve” program, where consumers pre-purchase a wheel of cheese that is then aged by Kent with periodic checks for flavor and texture. Once the cheese is ready, it can go home with the buyer or age longer, as the owner sees fit. It’s a program Kent keeps limited for now but will grow once the new location and expanded cheese cave is completed in 2015.
Others cheeses are seasonal or are unique offerings destined for farmers’ markets, tasting events, or perhaps — eventually — the regular production cycle. Every experiment and oddity is carefully considered not only for its production and aging characteristics, but for commercial appeal.
One unique wheel is a behemoth of aging bliss — somewhere near 25 pounds. Roccina is a Parmesan-style hard cheese that is aged for 18 months or more. Italian for Little Rock, Roccina is hand rubbed with olive oil to develop a supple, flavorful rind. At 18 months to age, the commercial success of Roccina remains to be seen, but the expense has already been paid. It’s now just a matter of time for both.
In cheese tasting so many factors come into play: how long has the cheese been out of the cave; how is it packaged; what temperature is the cheese when tasted; and so on. Tasting cheese by itself is only one way to go. Cheese, like wine, changes in combination with other foods and beverages. The purist, myself included, considers the cheese in its natural condition as a starting point for the aroma and flavor. Other items can be added to bring out a complexity within the cheese, but the starting point is always as natural and as close to the cave as possible.
In the styles Kent produces year round — Leicester, Gouda, Munster, Feta, Montasio, and Cheddar — each is true to its respective flavor origins, but different from those produced in other areas — as they should be, given the differences between milk in Arkansas and milk in Vermont or Wisconsin. But the differences are not just because of the milk. Approaching Kent’s Ophelia, a Munster-style small wheel, you are immediately drawn to the aroma. Ophelia is brine washed to promote growth of the correct bacteria desired for color and flavor. The aroma is distinct but not overwhelming. The surface of the wheel has a stickiness that lingers and a texture that foretells the earthiness within. The complexly herbal, toasted hazelnut, and caramel flavors nuanced in the cheese sets Ophelia apart and sets Kent Walker Artisan Cheeses apart. You have to try them.
Artisans are constantly challenged by sales and distribution — processes that seem completely opposite of their passions. A tasting or demo is the best way to get people to enjoy, appreciate, and buy, but that time in front of potential customers is time away from the cave. Finding the right packaging material and boxes so wheels can be shipped and stored by chefs and retailers is a part of the process, too. Sales require an endless schedule of moving tubs, coolers, tents, and products into and out of vehicles. Setting up, tearing down, and the prospect of being overrun with customers or not having enough of them all figures into the artisan life.
Kent is one of those artisans who seems to truly enjoy what has become an all-encompassing life defined by what he makes and how he goes about doing it. It resonates with customers and chefs across the Mid-South who have taken to his cheeses and now feature Kent Walker Artisan Cheese on menus and cheese boards. The proof of his enjoyment is in the entire process, from the ingredients and equipment to the schedule and packing tape. But it is mainly proven in the remarkable Cheeses that come from it. Yes, that’s cheese spelled with a capital C — and rightfully so.
Kent Walker Artisan Cheese
1515 East 4th Street, Little Rock, Arkansas
501-301-4963 • www.kentwalkercheese.com
Order cheese online at www.directeats.com
Wholesale ordering is available through Ben E. Keith Co., www.benekeith.com
Kent Walker Artisan Cheese is available locally at City Market, Miss Cordelia’s Grocery, Thomas Meat & Seafood Market in Collierville, and on several restaurant menus. His new tasting room on 6th Street in downtown Little Rock is slated to open in 2015.
Kjeld Petersen is a writer and consultant. He prefers to eat artisan cheese on its own. Bread and crackers just get in the way.