I Went Looking for Cheese, and Found One of the Best Small Food Towns in the Country Right Now
A place of pine forests, wild waterways, and carefully-preserved plantation lands, the Red Hills Region is better known for quiet, for solitude, for what you will not find there, rather than for what you will. Stretching north from the state capital of Florida, Tallahassee, into a relatively remote corner of Georgia, the region is largely a place for lovers of the great outdoors, as well as for hunters, who have flocked here for over a century, some of them very rich and famous, to shoot birds.
All fine reasons to find your way here, particularly during the colder months, when the weather is typically mild, at least compared to whatever they're suffering through, back north. The path to the region is well trodden, going back to when you could first get here by railroad, a century ago. This is nowhere near the Florida of your feverish mid-winter escape fantasies, but on a sunny winter day, more than a hint of pine on the slightly chilly air, it will do, and quite nicely.
The civilized small city of Thomasville, Georgia may not lie directly at the heart of the Red Hills, but it lies very much at the heart of the Red Hills experience. Vivacious, effortlessly attractive, Thomasville is one of those towns that could easily coast on looks alone. There is a well-preserved downtown, filled with shops and restaurants, there are glossy spread-ready neighborhoods dotted with appealing homes, plus absolutely giant live oak trees, everywhere. (One of the oldest in the country, dating back centuries, can be found just a block east of Broad Street, the commercial hub.)
Honestly, I had no idea what Thomasville looked like, or what it was known for, or even where it was, when I first decided to visit—I just knew it was a really long drive from Atlanta, where I had just been, and I also knew that some of the Southeast's most popular cheeses were being made there, at Jessica and Jeremy Little's award-winning Sweet Grass Dairy. Jessica grew up local on a farm, moved away, and vowed to never come back, which apparently didn't stick, because the Little's are two in an impressive group of makers that have turned up in Thomasville in recent years, sometimes for the first time, sometimes for a second run. From coffee roasters to jewelers to winemakers, just think of it, and someone might be making it, either here or somewhere close by. Something, apparently, was in the water over there in Thomasville, and I was going to find out what.
The first morning in town after a late arrival, waking up to blue skies, chirping birds and a tree hanging low with ripe Satsuma oranges outside my window at The Paxton, a pleasingly modern bed and breakfast in a smartly restored Victorian home near the center of Thomasville, I had a pretty good idea. At breakfast in the sunroom, proprietor Carol Whitney, a transplant from Savannah who owns The Paxton with her husband Charlie, a fourth-generation local, introduced the morning's offerings as "just" some Southern-style breakfast. Along with eggs, bacon, toast and other things I'm probably now forgetting, out came a goblet of locally milled grits. They'd been smoked over American cherry wood, which was exciting enough—just to take things slightly over the top, she'd added a bit of Thomasville Tomme, a raw, nutty Pyrenees-style cheese made over at Sweet Grass. There was Satsuma juice, too, squeezed fresh from the bumper crop out back. Just some breakfast, indeed.
Ten thoroughly pleasant minutes on foot later, I was on Broad Street, the heart of Thomasville's historic, and immaculately-kept commercial district—on a weekday morning, there were visitors staring into appealing shop windows, locals standing on street corners exchanging pleasantries, and a steady stream of everyone, it seemed, coming to and from Grassroots Coffee. Founded back in 2009, they roast in-house here, and the espresso is expertly pulled; a couple doors down, The Bookshelf, a rather alluring independent bookstore, has been a local institution for a couple of decades now; the owners host a podcast, From the Front Porch, as well as occasional Pen to Plate dinners, each time featuring a different cookbook. If I didn't know it already, I'd figured it out by now—Thomasville might be out in the sticks, but this is not a town facing any sort of trouble keeping up with the times.
Delightful distractions aside, the main reason I was in town, however, was directly across Broad Street. The cheeses made by Sweet Grass Dairy can be found in places as far flung (and rarified) as the food hall at Harrods in London (yes, that London), but if you're looking for the full experience, you come to their shop in downtown Thomasville.
Open at 11 a.m. most mornings, this isn't just a shop, but rather a full-service destination, a pilgrimage-worthy spot along the lines of Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or the Cowgirl Creamery outpost in Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. In those places, you get long lines. Here in Thomasville, things are still relatively mellow. You can pop in and out at will, for all sorts of reasons—a glass of wine, a pint of beer from the tap, a scoop of homemade gelato, a barrel-aged Negroni, snacks, a full-blown meal (and a very good one at that), a cheese plate (of course), a charcuterie board, or simply to just stock up on a well-curated selection of exceptional product, including, naturally, the full range of Sweet Grass cheeses. Which, of course, I was more than ready to sample.
Ducking into the shop an hour or so before the official opening, I found Jessica waiting for me, along with Randy Harvey and Harry T. Jones, the men behind Blackberry Patch, another brand that's made Thomasville famous in faraway lands. The dynamic duo's fruit syrups, preserves and condiments are innovative enough to have sailed straight onto the shelves in hundreds of Marks & Spencer food halls in the United Kingdom, for example; Harvey and Jones have collaborated with Sweet Grass, creating a range of unique preserves to go with their cheeses—the men behind the likes of Peach Bourbon Cardamom preserves, you kind of want to meet.
A table had been laid, with every cheese, every accompaniment, and every preserve it could possibly hold, and even though it was just ten o'clock in the morning and I'd barely recovered from breakfast, I was extremely excited for cheese, and probably could have devoured the whole board, if I'd been sitting there alone. (Upon reflection, I would not recommend doing that—the board, called the Taste of Thomasville, sells for $23 and is best shared.)
First up, was the Little Moo, a fresh, spreadable cow's milk cheese, made from whole milk, rather than cream.
"Our cows are on grass year-round—not only do we have mild winters, but we also sit on a large aquifer; we have insane amounts of water that can grow an insane amount of grass," Little tells me, as I go in for a spoonful. "We make the Little Moo every three days, so it really shows off the grassy, tangy quality of the milk. "
This, it turns out, is absolutely true. Simple, spreadable and utterly delicious, you could pile it high it on a bagel as if it were cream cheese, if you were feeling decadent enough.
Next up was the Green Hill, a soft-ripened double cream, made in the style of a Camembert. It's the top seller.
"This is the cheese that will send our kids to college," jokes Jessica. "We have predominantly Jersey cows, and we wanted to show what we're best at."
In its category, this is an excellent, very mellow cheese, but pairing a small wedge with the Peach Bourbon Cardamom preserves from Blackberry Patch sends things into the stratosphere. It's good, so good, like, feel your toes tingling good. The slight funk of the cheese, the brightness of peaches and warmth from bourbon and cardamom—sheer bliss.
From there, we move on to the Thomasville Tomme—nutty, bold, with a good bite, this is an everyday gem. To get it right, Jeremy studied with a cheesemaker in the Pyrenees—this year, it came in as a finalist at the Good Food Awards. Alongside was a Blueberry Lemon Thyme preserve.
"We probably spent more time on that one than any other," Randy admits. "Batch after batch after batch, to get the balance right."
The effort clearly paid off—the cheese itself stands alone, but the preserves once again drove things straight over the top, in the best possible way. There are southern Georgia blueberries at the core, and just the right amount of thyme and lemon to make things exciting. It is a thing of balanced beauty. Pairing this with the nutty Tomme might not have been your first thought, but perhaps it should have been.
There seems to be a lot of this thinking outside the box going on, around here—who would think, for example, to take something as good as this raw milk Tomme, shred it, and make pimento cheese? Mixed together with piquillo peppers and imported pimentos (and Duke's Mayonnaise, naturally), the cheese has become a cult favorite wherever people can get their hands on it; here, they are served with house made bread and butter pickles. Pairing or no, this is terrific stuff.
"It's such a great ice breaker," says Jessica, describing one of her sales trips to New York, where she met with a bunch of chefs from around the world. "None of them had grown eating pimento cheese, but they were all like, 'I get it! I understand what Americans are talking about!'"
From here, we switch gears, and hard. I'd been eying the next one on the board since we sat down—a crumbly bleu, the bluest bleu I had ever seen. The French cheesemaker they'd worked with on the Tomme had warned them—whatever you do, don't make a blue cheese. It's too hard.
That bit of advice, said Jessica, only spurred Jeremy on, not that the Frenchman wasn't right to warn them.
"This has been our labor of love, and it's the one that gives us most of the fight," she admits.
Whatever they'd had to get through to make it work appears to have been worth any attendant heartburn—aged for three to four months, the Blue comes out crumbly, crunchy, brimming with funk. A Strawberry Fig preserve from Blackberry Patch, one Randy and Harry T. have been making for about four years now, once again proves a perfect pairing.
Hearing their stories, learning more about how they got to where they are now, which is pretty much at the top of their game (the list of awards and nods both Sweet Grass and Blackberry Patch have accumulated in a relatively short time is truly impressive), it's clear that a lot of hard work and effort have gone into getting here—it's just that they all make it seem so easy.
This, apparently, is not unique; I didn't have much time left in town, but I'd been told that just up the street, there was a couple making wine that would change the way I thought about Georgia wines. I hadn't even said that I didn't like wines made in Georgia, but everyone seemed to know, instinctively, that the right place for Muscadine grapes is jam, or preserves (yes, Blackberry Patch does that, too). Not in wine barrels. Not ever.
"We'll close this place up, break it down and sell it before we sell Muscadine," laughs Renee Moss. Moss, along with husband Clayton, owns Farmer's Daughter Vineyards, not far from Thomasville; they operate a spacious tasting room on Broad Street, just a block or so away from the cheese shop. I could tell we were going to get along.
Wineries in hilly Northern Georgia, where it's not necessarily a thousand degrees all summer long, have a hard enough time avoiding the usual Southern traps—what on earth were the Mosses doing, way down here, barely half an hour from the Florida line?
"We've got the right elevation, the right sandy loam, which is like the Grade A, Prime Rib of soils," says Moss. "Most people don't appreciate that we can grow pretty much anything we want to down here."
The couple are part of a third-generation farming family, which tends to thousands of acres of cotton and peanuts; a team comprised of her husband and five farmhands do all the wine making. Everyone's cool little side projects should be so successful—they launched with four wines not all that long ago; when I stopped into the tasting room, there were six on offer, plus a cider.
While the two bestsellers are still the sweetest, Moss tells me that they've been secretly pushing the wines slightly drier each time, in hopes of nudging local palates. The wines have names like Bombshell, made from Blanc du Bois grapes; that's just one of the American French hybrids they grow, that are designed to do well in the region.
There's the Troublemaker, which Moss describes as a New Zealand-style sauvignon blanc; the tasting notes are "tropical fruit, citrus and honeysuckle." I braced for an assault of sweetness—it came out crisp, dry and bright. Moss admits to more subterfuge—the descriptions are designed to appeal to a crowd that typically comes in expecting a certain kind of wine. So had I, honestly. (Sometimes, being completely wrong feels really good.)
By now, it was past time to go—I hadn't had time to dig properly into the local restaurant scene, quite notably brimming with talent for a city this size; there were so many other people I'd have loved to meet and ask the question, why here, why now—the coffee roaster at Grassroots, the folks making grass fed yogurt at Dreaming Cow Creamery, or the guy down the road, on the way to Tallahassee, smoking his grits over cherry wood.
Heading back to The Paxton to collect my things, I looked back at my notes for the answers I'd managed to get from the people that I was able to spend time with. Each time, there had been some sort of lure back home—family, opportunity, a partner—but these almost felt like excuses. On that brilliantly sunny December day, not a cloud in the sky, there had been local cheese and wine, interesting people with stories to tell—I didn't really need much more of an answer, no further interpretation was required. Thomasville, it turned out, spoke rather well for itself.