The first rule of cheese club is that you don’t talk about cheese club.
Wait, no, that’s totally wrong. Talking about cheese is the whole point. And there’s only one rule for members of the Savannah Cheese Club, and that is that you must share your cheese with others.
Last week more than 50 people patiently passed around wooden trays laden with aged cheddar, truffle-scented brie and baby Havarti at the club’s 2016 kick-off at Lulu’s Chocolate Bar. Taking small tastes and excitedly exchanging flavor profiles, some claimed traces of hazelnut and other palates sensed fresh hay.
“That’s why we started this, because it’s always more fun to eat cheese with other people!” exclaims club president Grace McWilliams, who founded the gourmet group in 2012 with her best friend and partner-in-rind, Hannah Harrison.
These délice devotees have always shared a love for the culinary arts, but McWilliams was the first one to get serious about cheese after a decade in the fine dining industry.
“I wanted to further my food knowledge, so I explored the possibility of earning a certification from the American Cheese Society,” she says. However, when she discovered that would require 4000 hours of industrial education, she decided the best way to learn about cheese was a hands-on approach.
“I figured ‘let’s start by eating a whole lot of it and go from there,’” she laughs.
She and Harrison hosted casual meetings in the first few years, exploring the tastes and textures of different forms of fromage: Creamy bries, sharp cheddars, tangy petit banques, pungent blues.
The club also surveyed the landscape of Savannah’s cheeseboard offerings, rating the thoughtfulness and complexity that restaurants put into their plates.
Last week’s meeting was a celebration for their 2016 pick for best cheeseboard. This is Lulu’s second win based on variety, value and assortment of accoutrements, and it’s easy to see why: Chutneys, relishes, mustards, olives, nuts, berries, honey and several kinds of crackers adorn a real wooden board around a rotating selection of cheeses.
“The best part of eating cheese is how it pairs with all of these other tastes,” explains Harrison, who loves matching up a strong blue cheese with candied pecans.
“Every combination brings out a different flavor, and it’s so exciting to find a delicious cheese and say, ‘try it with this!’
“Local honey is always a win. And then there’s wine—cheese always goes great with wine,” she adds.
Harrison makes the five-hour commute for cheese club meetings from Donaldsonville, GA, where she keeps a small hive of bees and harvested 50 pounds of honey with her father last fall. A children’s portrait photographer by trade, she hopes to start making her own cheese this year.
“I live in the country, the real sticks,” she says with a laugh. “You’ve got to have hobbies!”
Donaldsonville may be rural, but it’s fairly close to Thomasville, where Sweet Grass Dairy crafts its artisan curds. Harrison loves visiting the family farm and nearby market, stocked with its nationally-acclaimed cheeses like Asher Blue and Georgia Gouda. Sweet Grass products can be found at local restaurants and shops, notably Smith Bros., which will partner with the Savannah Cheese Club for events this year.
Flat Creek Dairy in Swainsboro is also a cheese club favorite, and an emphasis on regionally-crafted cheese is on the agenda for 2016. Interest in the club has soared, and McWilliams expects another big turnout at the next event, scheduled for April 22 at 39 Rue de Jean.
Such cheese communion is very exciting for new member Nancy Radke, a culinary consultant and Italian food specialist who retired to Savannah a year ago. Radke spent part of her career promoting the particular attributes of Parmesan-Reggiano and is well-versed in a breadth of European cheeses.
While she says Savannah has a ways to go to catch up with larger foodie cities, she appreciates the passionate arena provided by the Savannah Cheese Club.
“I’m glad to see a group like this on the culinary landscape here,” she said, spreading a delicate dollop of chevre on a cracker and passing the tray.
“Savannah is definitely on the upswing when it comes to cheese.”