The stately city of Richmond lies at the heart of Virginia’s agricultural region. Given that local chefs and food producers have access to the finest fresh ingredients, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the community of 220,000 is experiencing a renaissance in its food culture — one that includes a growing interest in, and appreciation for, cheese.
“The Richmond scene was on the cusp of really evolving into a true foodie scene when I moved away several years ago,” says Dany Schutte, CCP, the cheese specialist at the local Publix supermarket and a long-time participant in the local cheese community. Since she returned in 2008, she’s seen her hometown really bloom.
“There are microbreweries popping up, the food truck scene has exploded, and the farmers market scene is vibrant and active,” she says. “People have really gotten on board with the whole farm-to-table concept, understanding where your food comes from, and exploring food and flavors. It’s an exciting time.” The American Cheese Society seems to agree; it plans to hold its 2019 annual conference and competition in this vibrant city.
To consume cheese in Richmond is to pay tribute to seasonality and locality, a combination that makes for many outstanding eating experiences. Whether you consume cheese in one of the region’s excellent restaurants, at your accommodations or on a farm, expect to find rich and robust delicacies that taste of the seasons and region.
Many of the city’s best cheese destinations are conveniently located along Main Street, which later becomes Ellwood Avenue. At the east end is Nota Bene, which is known for its wood-fired pizzas with house-made Mozzarella.
Executive chef Randall Doetzer has also seen the culinary scene in Richmond take off in the past decade. “People are becoming more aware of what they’re eating and who they’re buying from,” he says. “They’re much more willing to go the extra mile to get something locally produced, or go outside of their comfort zone with cheese.”
Nota Bene often hosts wine dinners or serves Europeans who are in town on business. Because of that, and because of the general growth and interest in cheese, Doetzer keeps a supply of local products on hand. The Bonnyclabber Cheese Co. product from Sullivan’s Pond Farm in Wake, VA, is among his favorites. “It’s all goat and very small,” he says. “They do a lot of weird one-off aged cheeses I can get my hands on every so often.”
Twenty Paces is a newer dairy in Charlottesville that’s become very popular. “They make a Ricotta that I really like that’s a blend of goat and sheep,” says Doetzer. “It’s really tasty.” The flavor changes depending on the time of year and what the animals are eating, but that’s one of the things he likes about it.
Bistro Bobette, located further down Main Street, is a prime destination for those who favor French food. Owner Francis Devilliers used to have a restaurant in Washington, D.C. When he sold it, he had a non-compete clause that prevented him from opening another eatery in the city. “Richmond was the next booming town,” he says. “It’s a nice location for the farms and seafood and wild products like mushrooms.”
People come to Bistro Bobette to eat cheese, and they sell a lot of it, Devilliers says. He keeps 24 different kinds in house at any given time. It shows up in dishes such as oxtail ravioli and buckwheat crepes as well as on cheese and charcuterie plates.
Devilliers is from Europe, so he’s a big fan of imported cheeses. However, “The cheese in America is fantastic. I’ve been here a long time, and the quality has really improved.” Among his favorites are the Bayley Hazen Blue and washed-rind cheeses from Greensboro Bend, VT’s Jasper Hill Farm. He also likes the Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, which is a soft-ripened, double cream cheese similar to Camembert.
Heritage is a family-owned restaurant known for its eclectic American food, impressive cocktail program and dedication to sourcing ingredients locally. Winburn Carmack is the pastry chef, which means she’s the one assembling the eatery’s popular cheese plates. She often includes the Blue & Black goat’s milk cheese from FireFly Farms in Accident, MD. “For those who like Blue cheese it’s a little different, but it’s robust and creamy and salty, like you’d expect from Blue cheese,” she says.
She also likes the Mountaineer, an Alpine-style cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, VA. “They have their own Jerseys, and it’s aged for six months,” which gives it rich flavor and character, she says. “They make a really good Grayson, too.”
Other area restaurants worth checking out are Pasture, which serves elevated southern food; Secco Wine Bar, which has small plates, along with an excellent wine selection; and Lemaire, a new American restaurant at the historic Jefferson Hotel.
Anyone who wants to purchase cheese for snacking or cooking should check out Ellwood Thompson’s, a locally-owned grocery store that’s renowned for its cheese section. Keith Crayton has been running the department for the past 11 years and brims with recommendations.
One of Crayton’s favorite cheeses is the Alp Blossom, an alpine-style cheese from the Hay Belt region of western Austria that’s encased in a layer of dried herbs and flower petals. He’s also a fan of an Italian La Dama Sagrada, an aged goat’s milk cheese, and Tilsit, a Danish cheese that has just the right level of funk. Pair any of these cheeses with olives and spreads from the cheese case or fresh bread from the bakery. Ellwood Thompson’s also has scrumptious Whoopie pies and other desserts, a salad bar, deli, hot food bar, and a vegan bar.
Wine and cheese lovers should consider a detour to Barrel Thief Wine Shop and Cafe. The brick-walled den in the northern part of the city carries over 400 wines from all over the world. Shop the selection or stay a while to enjoy a glass of wine and a bite to eat. The menu includes a cheese plate, excellent mac and cheese, and — if you’re in the mood for something southern — a David H. Witkowsky sandwich with country ham, pork butt and pimento cheese.
A DETOUR TO CHARLOTTESVILLE
Charlottesville, located an hour northwest of Richmond, is perhaps best known for historical sites, such as Thomas Jefferson’s primary plantation, Monticello, and James Madison’s Highland Estate. But it also has a rich agricultural history; it’s where Thomas Jefferson first planted wine grapes and is home to several of modern-day Virginia’s outstanding cheese retailers and producers.
Smack in the center of town is JM Stock Provisions, a whole animal butchery that also carries cheese, wine and beer, produce and pantry items. Supporting local farmers, the economy and the environment is deeply important to all of the company’s staff, including general manager Alex Import. He cites products from Meadow Creek Dairy and Twenty Paces as some of his favorites in the cheese case.
Owner James Lum definitely sees local consumers getting more interested in cheese. “They ask questions about milk types, why certain cheeses aren’t available at different times, where things come from and how they’re made,” he says. “A lot of customers are realizing they’re way more interested in the back story of our cheeses than they thought. You can clearly see they’re getting more engaged with every question.”
A few blocks from JM Stock is Feast!, a market and deli inside a food-focused shopping center (other stores include a spice shop and bakery). Head cheesemonger Sara Adduci brims with enthusiasm for the store’s wide variety of offerings, which can be purchased along with dry goods, wine, sandwiches and other prepared goods. “Foxglove is my current cheese crush of the moment,” she says, referencing a product made by Tulip Tree Creamery in Indianapolis. “It is a gorgeous, pink-orange, soft, fat, beer-washed square of stinky, creamy perfection.”
When it comes to local cheese, Adduci loves the Gouda from Our Lady of the Angels Monastery. Her favorite Twenty Paces cheese is the Commander Chicory, which she says is heavenly atop ripe summer tomatoes. She also calls out Caromont Farm, a goat and sheep’s milk dairy in Charlottesville. “Their citrusy, fresh Chèvre is my first sign of spring every year, and their aged Esmontonian just gets better and better.”
Get those cheeses from the source at one of Caromont Farm’s weekend open houses. Depending on the time of year, guests at the ticketed events can snuggle baby goats, view work by local artists, or learn about local efforts around hunger relief and other charitable causes. All of their products are available for sampling and purchase.
“Our cheeses are 100 percent totally farmstead, made in small batches and rustic,” says owner and cheesemaker Gail Hobbs-Page. “They’re not factory cheeses, and they never will be.” That’s a sentiment that’s increasingly well-received in these blossoming cheese meccas.