Gail Hobbs-Page was given her first pair of goats as a young child growing up on a farm in North Carolina. Her father gave her the animals because he wanted to try goat's milk. Little did he know, that decision would mark his daughter's life.
"I loved their milk, and I loved the idea that I could make many things from their milk," Gail remembers. "Once I started tending to the goats, they became very precious to me because they nourish us. I guess they kind of got into my blood."
Today, Gail and her husband own Caromont Farm in Esmont, Virginia. Tucked away in the rolling hills of the Piedmont with a herd of more than 50 Nubian, La Mancha and Alpine goats, she produces farmstead, artisan cheeses.
Yet, Gail is not just making cheese. She is seeking to cultivate a flavor that is distinctly Virginian. And Gail knows a lot about flavor.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Gail became a chef and entered a food scene in Chapel Hill that, like the farm of her childhood, also marked her life and how she thought about food.
"I began forming a food philosophy," she explained. "As a professional chef, your style grows, and I realized that I was flavor-based."
Gail worked as a chef for 25 years before buying her own goats and experimenting with cheese-making. Now, entering her fifth year as a licensed dairy at Caromont Farm, she brings the same passion she had for flavor as a chef into her work as a cheese-maker.
Gail speaks passionately about the potential for Virginia's terroir; a wine-making term meaning the expression of a place through the taste of the produce grown in that area. Gail explained that, for example, clay soils produce a specific type of mineral taste in a grape that is later expressed in the wine.
"That happens in cheese too," she said, "and as our cheese making area expands, as our cheeses get better... then that terroir is expressed here in central Virginia, and it can never be reproduced...It's the way great food traditions are built."
As business has grown for Gail, she has made some changes at Caromont. She recently hired a second cheese maker, Bridge Cox, who has a science background and just completed a course at the Vermont Institute for Artisanal Cheese. Another big change: Cow's milk cheeses.
"We started out just making goat cheeses," she explained. "However, in the last year, we have been developing a new project which we call 'Caromont Cow,' where we are sourcing local, high quality cow's milk and turning it into artisanal cow's milk cheeses."
So, we can expect to see some new additions to Caromont's menu, full of all sorts of local flavors. The cow line will include "Red Row," a cheese that will be washed in local apple cider as it ages. It will be released in a year. For immediate release, Gail is making a cow's cheese, very similar to a brie, called "Bloomsbury."
In addition to the classic goat's milk cheeses, Caromont will now be offering their first blue cheese, which they call "Alberene Ash." This pasteurized cheese is made in a pyramid form and coated with black pepper and vegetable ash and aged on local lavender boughs.
"During the season," Gail said, "I work everyday... but the trade-off is the beautiful relationship that you have with your product, with your animals and with your community... That is the most fulfilling part."
This farm profile was included in The Piedmont Environmental Council's 2011 Buy Fresh Buy Local guide for the Charlottesville area.