|Photos by Nicole Lang.|
Part of my job at Richmond's Secco Wine Bar involves sampling a wide variety of cheeses. Lucky me! Even more fortunately, one of my favorite Southern cheesemakers, Gail Hobbs-Page, is just an afternoon’s drive down the road in Esmont, Virginia, at Caromont Farm.
Gail was raised on a peanut and tobacco farm in northeastern North Carolina, where, she says, “if you wanted French fries, then you grew a potato.” She fried her first chicken at 8 years old. Gutting a deer came not long after that. Gail's upbringing was centered around farm and family. She says that working the land and learning both self-reliance and sustainability from her parents and grandparents primed her for a career in food. In her house, “A souffle was just spoonbread. I pieced my culinary education together intuitively from my farm background."
After 26 years of cooking in restaurants in North Carolina and Virginia, constantly on the lookout for top-quality ingredients, Gail decided to try her hand at a different side of the food business. Before starting Caromont Farm, she says, “I knew I could make cheese, but I really didn’t know what I was doing." The experience was "a crash course in everything!”
Esmontonian, Caromont’s signature offering (pictured above), is an aged, raw milk goat cheese, bathed in a local Viognier vinegar brine. It's a stunner: nutty and complex with a gentle tang. Her cow’s milk bloomy rind, Bloomsbury, could hold its own against any French triple-cream. Gail attributes her success to the quality of milk her cows and goats produce. “I am a milk farmer," she says. "I can’t make good cheese until I know how to make good milk.”
Gail feels that cooking in testosterone-fueled kitchens prepared her for life as a woman farmer, yet she still has to deal with sexism. “Someone tried to sell me bad hay, because they assumed I didn’t know any better—stuff like that." She adds, “It’s a man’s world, but you have to get over it. That’s the reality of being a woman in this business. You can’t whine about it.”
Despite the challenges, Gail loves what she does. “Is it fun everyday? No! It’s a seasonal life, and you do the work in 104-degree heat, or in freezing rain.” She tells me that Southern cheesemakers, once isolated from one another, have formed an alliance and want to help each other succeed. Two of her cheesemakers have left to start a sheep’s milk farm of their own. In the years to come, I imagine Gail will be a mentor to others like them.
“Now that I’m older, I can look back and see the significance of my life in food; in the way I was raised," she says. "I don’t think folks raise people like that anymore—or maybe they do. I hope that they do.”