A Whey With Cheese: Chapel Hill Creamery
Drive out into the countryside beyond the city limits of Chapel Hill, NC, and you’ll find yourself traveling through a rural landscape of rolling hills and endless fields, bordered with wild persimmon trees, blackberry canes and tall pines. Meandering along roads with names like “Homestead” and “Dairyland,” you’ll see hints of the pastoral life of Orange County in days gone by, when tractors outnumbered lawnmowers, and Interstate 40 was just a gleam in a DOT planners’ eye.
But, if you’re lucky enough to be headed out to Chapel Hill Creamery, you’ll see that you’re not on a nostalgia tour, but rather en route to a small-is-beautiful, 21st century agricultural operation, where morning milking is hardly a thing of the past. Those contented cows chowing down on that grassy pastureland are central to a savvy, twenty-first century business plan crafted nearly ten years ago by two women who did not grow up on a farm.
Flo Hawley and Portia Knight founded Chapel Hill Creamery in 2001, with the plan of making great cheese from milk they would purchase from local dairies.When they couldn’t find the kind and quality of milk they wanted, they took it to the proverbial next level and invested in cows. Passing on the black-and-white Holstein breed commonly chosen by mainstream dairies due to their prodigious yields of milk, Hawley and Knight purchased Jersey cows, a smaller breed prized for the high butterfat content and delicious richness of their milk.
Jersey cows adore grass, and that’s what Flo and Portia love to feed them, cultivating their grassy pastureland so that their cows can feast on grass for much of the year.With their intensive rotational grazing system, in which they tend and nurture the kinds of grasses Jersey cows love, they keep their herds happily grass-fed for much of the year. They supplement the cows’ diet as needed with hay and a grain mix, rather than silage, and are rewarded with an abundance of superbquality milk from the 26 cows they milk nowadays.
The farm has grown over the course of its first decade, from 20 acres to 37, and from 9 cows to the more than two-dozen milking mothers they have today. They also have 8 heifers, 9 calves, and since this spring, a team of oxen, which are male twins born this past spring and being hand raised and trained by Allison, who has worked for Hawley and Knight since the early days.
Originally a two-person operation, Hawley and Knight’s business grew quickly, and they now employ four people, two inside and two outside, along with an additional helper in the summertime when the workload of their farm is at its peak. In addition to milking, cheesemaking, wrapping and packaging cheese for local restaurants and markets, Flo and Portia run two farmers’ market stands every week, in Carrboro and Durham. They began working with a distributor, Cornucopia Cheese of Graham several years ago, so that they could concentrate on the farm they love, caring for their animals and making superb cheese, while Cornucopia gets their products out to a grateful wider world. Their appealing logo is a souvenir from the early days, drawn by artist, Sue Snedden, and featuring Miss Ada, the first heifer born on their farm.
Getting away from a working dairy is never an easy task, so not surprisingly, their travels tend to be cheese-related. Longtime supporters of the Slow Food movement, Flo and Portia have made two journeys to Italy, one to attend Slow Food’s international Terra Madre conference, and another this past summer focused on cheese-making. They’ve also hosted the Southern Cheese-makers’ Guild for a small workshop-and-fellowship-centered gathering, and attended a few of those events over the years in order to learn from fellow cheese-makers while enjoying a brief respite from the demands of dairy farming and cheese-making as a way of life.
It’s a life they clearly love, having chosen it completely from outside their childhood worlds. Both North Carolina natives, Flo grew up in Winston-Salem, and Portia is a Sandhills native. Both came to Orange County to become students at UNC-Chapel Hill. They met while working at Durham’s Somethyme Restaurant, and moved on to work at Wellspring Grocery, which began as a “health food store” in what is now the location of Magnolia Grill in Durham. Both enjoyed the food business, and came to see cheese-making as a way to work with food while also indulging their love for working out of doors and having room for lots of animals. In addition to their herd of cows, Flo and Portia keep pigs as a means to use up the considerable amounts of whey produced in the process of cheese-making. They also raise chickens and have no shortage of farm cats and farm dogs, some invited and others, who have found the farm by chance (or good luck) and made themselves at home.
After ten years and wide acclaim for the wide variety of cheeses they’ve brought to market, they love where they are now, having just finished the second major expansion since they opened their doors in 2001. Their first batch of fresh mozzarella disappeared from their farmers’ market table in a flash, and they’ve been keeping an ever-growing circle of fans happy and clamoring for more ever since. “We want to grow, but we don’t want to get caught up in making so much cheese that we can’t keep up the quality,” Flo notes. They add new varieties along the way, such as the fresh Indian cheese known as paneer, which they developed on request of Andrea Reusing, nationally acclaimed chef of Lantern in Chapel Hill.
Holiday season keeps them busy, with the boost in entertaining and celebrating increasing the already high demand for their hand-crafted cheeses. Their Carolina Moon is particularly popular, for both delicious flavor and beauty on a celebration table. Like a small round of brie or camembert, it shines whether you serve it plain with bread, accompanied by fig jam, or baked in puff pastry. Another treasure is their Thunder Mountain Swiss, a hard cheese which calls for a series of tricky steps to create the extraordinary sweet, nutty flavor of which they are most rightfully proud.
After almost 10 years of this intense and hands-on worklife, these two women wear their multiple hats as dairy farmers, cheese-makers, entrepreneurs and business owners with pride and delight. “It keeps me intrigued,” says Flo, “the cheese-making process where we start with just the milk and take it through all the steps and see all the changes that happen every step of the way.” Portia loves the chance to work outdoors, as well as the moments of discovery and celebration that keep coming, even after all the batches of so many kinds of cheese over this first decade. “I still love it,” she smiles, “when we open up a cheese for the first time—like the Thunder Mountain Swiss, that we age for 6 or 7 months, in 25 pound wheels—and we cut it, and it falls open and it smells really, really good…“ It’s a magnificent moment, even for those of us who had no hand in making the cheese, because the anticipation of feasting on it is so high. Good thing they are enjoying what they do, because the appreciation for their efforts shows no sign of ebbing, and another ten years at least for Chapel Hill Creamery sounds like a mighty good thing. eP
Born in Burlington and raised in High Point, Nancie McDermott spent three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. Her nine cookbooks include the new classic Southern Cakes, Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, and Quick and Easy Chinese. She lives with her family in Chapel Hill.
NORTH CAROLINA CHEESES
MAP ILLUSTRATION BY ANDREW ROMINE
Ashe County Cheese
West Jefferson, NC
Black River Farmstead
Bosky Acres Goat Cheese
Calico Farmstead Cheese
Siler City, NC
Chapel Hill Creamery
Chapel Hill, NC
Goat Lady Dairy
Hillsborough Cheese Co.
Orange Co., NC
In The Red Farm
Nature’s Way Farm and Seafood
Ripshin Goat Dairy
Blowing Rock, NC
Sleepy Goat Farm
Spinning Spider Creamery
Yellow Branch Farmstead Cheese
LOCALLY IN TRIANGLE:
Carrboro Farmer’s Market
Durham Farmer’s Market
Chatham Marketplace – Pittsboro
Whole Foods Market – Chapel Hill and Durham
Weaver Street Market – Carrboro
Crook’s Corner Restaurant, among many others
Chef Bill Smith put them on the menu from the
start, and there they have stayed ever since.
REGIONALLY AROUND THE PIEDMONT AND THE STATE OF NC:
Earth Fare stores
Fresh Market stores
Pietown restaurant in Charlotte, NC
Distributed regionally in Asheville, Wilmington,
and beyond, by Cornucopia Cheese, based in
A Sampling of Chapel Hill Creamery’s cheeses
Asiago • Calvander • Carolina Moon
Dairyland • Farmer’s Cheese • Fresh Mozzarella
Gruyere • Hickory Grove • New Moon • Paneer
Pheta • Quark • Thunder Mountain Swiss