Belle Chevre Fromagerie, a tiny creamery nestled in the countryside of rural north Alabama, is a small business that packs a big punch. Just pick up any food related magazine this month and you may see Belle Chevre's energetic, not to mention photogenic, owner serving up her Sunday Suppers or just whipping up a goat cheese treat. Belle Chevre's handcrafted goat cheese made with goat's milk from local dairies has been featured recently in Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Taste of the South, and Cooking Light, to name only a few. The magazine Real Simple featured Belle Chevre marinated goat cheese (pair of gourmet cheeses for $20) in their "Great Gifts for under $50" holiday issue, and Garden and Gun magazine proclaimed Belle Chevre cheese to be in the "vanguard of the American artisanal cheese movement."
2009 was a landmark year for Belle Chevre Fromagerie. Owner/CEO Tasia (pronounced Ta-she-a) Malakasis was named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by Country Living magazine. The fromagerie also launched two new award winning products: Pimento Chevre and Belle & The Bees Breakfast Cheese (which won an American Cheese Society award). In addition to many other accolades and awards, the Today Show came to Belle Chevre Fromagerie near Elkmont, Alabama, and popular southern chef Paula Deen featured Belle Chevre. on her cooking show. (Photo of Tasia Malakasis)
Belle and the Bees (a Tupelo honey infused goat cheese) took first place in Cooking Light's new products competition. Hundreds of products were tasted and tested by the experienced and knowledgeable staff at the national publication, and Belle and the Bees was named as the Artisanal Winner of the Southeast-Miscellaneous category. The award winners were featured in the October 2010 issue of Cooking LIght.
Belle and the Bees breakfast cheese is just one of Belle Chevre’s new line of spreadable goat cheeses. Savannah Bees Tupelo Honey is swirled by hand into fresh goat cheese crafted in North Alabama. Unique in the world of chevre (rhymes with ‘rev’, French for goat cheese), the spreads also come in fig, coffee, and cinnamon flavor.The fig chevre, called Go "Fig"--ure is also an award winner. Regarding the names of her cheeses, Tasia remarked playfully "I like to be capricious with names." Tasia has a passion for product development “I want Belle and the Bees Breakfast Cheeses to change the way people look at breakfast,” says Tasia .who bought the creamery in 2007.
"At Belle Chevre we do what our mother's taught us never to do," says Tasia. " We play with our food!"
I visited Tasia at the small fromagerie near Elkmont, Alabama, where a staff of less than a dozen folks produce from six to ten thousand pounds of handcrafted goat cheese a week. Tasia told me that since returning to her native state and becoming an artisanal cheese maker, she has never been happier. Tasia believes in making food fun.
Regarding her handcrafted cheeses, Tasia said, "I could not be more excited to highlight a great product that is not only from Alabama but is of Alabama. The uniquely mild but distinctive flavor of our cheeses is directly related to the terrain on which the goats are raised and the cheese is created. Limestone County, Alabama, is a big part of what is special about Belle Chevre. The French use a term, terroir, to speak mostly about why wine is so special from a certain region – the soil, the climate, the chemical and alchemical sense of place – and it is the same with Belle Chevre’s cheeses. No other cheese can taste as good!"
Tasia first discovered Belle Chevre about ten years ago at Dean and Deluca in New York City. At that time she was a highly successful marketing executive with offices in NYC and Silicone Valley, but she could not get the fabulous goat cheese out of her mind. When she saw that it was made just a few miles from her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, she was even more intrigued. Then she learned that Belle Chevre had been served at the White House by President Clinton during his second term. She was hooked. "I wanted to know more about this goat cheese, " said Tasia, "I wanted to know how it was made."
Some people have to go around the world in order to come home again. Tasia just had to go to the tip of the world-- Patagonia, to be exact. It was in a bar in Patagonia that Tasia literally saw the writing on the wall.
On the wall of the Patagonian bar was written these words from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets ("Little Gidding, to be specific) “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Tasia, a former English major, knew that one could not ignore a mandate from the great poet. She took it as a sign. She went back to New York, packed up her two year old son and her belongings, and came back to Huntsville, Alabama. Tasia then went to the creamery and apprenticed herself to the founders of Belle Chevre, Liz and Tom Parnell.
That was 2006 and less than a year later, Tasia bought the creamery and began living her dream. She has a passion for her work that is contagious. Her employees enjoy working in such a cheerful environment.. " We laugh a lot, " Tasia says with a smile. (photo of kitchen at Belle Chevre)
Another of Tasia's many talents is creating new recipes using goat cheese. The possibilities are endless. A number of her excellent recipes can be found on the website and in the pages of this month's 12 page article in Taste of the South.
From soup to nuts (yes, there are numerous recipes out there for goat cheese soup and Southern Belle chevre is rolled in bourbon soaked pecans) or from pizza to dessert ( my current fave is creamy goat cheese on gingersnaps), goat cheese is one of the most versatile and most exciting touches you can add to a meal. To top it all off, goat cheese is not only scrumptious, it is also healthy because goat cheese is more easily digested than other cheeses.
Before I rave on about the wonders of goat cheese, I would to drop a few more names of prestigious Southerners (in this case Alabamians) who also love Belle Chevre, designer Natalie Chanin and chef Frank Stitt.
Internationally known designer Natalie Chanin (aka Alabama Chanin) writes in her 2008 blog : "I briefly mentioned Belle Chevre in a post from last week and feel compelled to talk more about this company today. I had the opportunity to meet Tasia recently and fell in love with her story, her passion and the Tuscan Chevre that she so kindly left at our studio. Last night, in a hurry to eat, read books to Maggie [her daughter] and generally manage life with a two-year old, I threw together a dinner from the fridge which was one of the best I have had in awhile. It literally took about 15 minutes and serves 4. Click here for Natalie’s Tuscan Chevre Salad."
Belle Chevre cheese is not only a favorite with artists but is also popular with famous chefs. Renowned superchef Frank Stitt serves Belle Chevre at his gourmet restaurants---Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fon Fon, and Bottega---in Birmingham, Alabama.
Tasia is a woman with a mission--to spread the word about goat cheese--and she is not a person to rest on her many laurels.. She has high ambitions for Belle Chevre which include purchasing property that will enable her to have her own dairy and also to expand the size of the creamery to include a tasting room. In addition to making and marketing the country's best goat cheese, she is in the final stages of editing her upcoming cookbook - Tasia's Table. Recipes and Musings from an Artisan Cheesemaker. The unofficial publication date, by NewSouth Press, is September 2011.
I left the happy creamery of Belle Chevre with a smile on my face and my arms loaded down with all manner of artisanal goat cheeses. From now on, I plan to have Belle Chevre send gift packages of cheese to my friends for every occasion. Meanwhile, I am going to petition all the food stores in my area to carry this marvelous cheese. If your grocery does not carry Belle Chevre, you may order directly from the website or you may suggest to your store manager that they add Belle Chevre to their line of cheeses.
Be sure to check out the online store and explore all the delicious varieties of handcrafted cheeses. If you can't make up your mind, just have one or two of everything. You may discover that you absolutely love goat cheese---or at the very least that you love Belle Chevre.
So spread on the cheese, spread the word, and spread the love!
PS--Shortly after I posted this article, Tasia Malakasis and Belle Chevre was featured in a photo essay in the Decatur Daily.
-----Penne J. Laubenthal
Meet Tasia Malakasis of Belle Chevre Alabama's Artisanal Creamery