ALABAMA

Savor the Flavor: Belle Chevre

Tasia Malakasis recalls it was a chance discovery.

In a middle of a career change, while attending the Culinary Institute in New York City, Malakasis happened to be browsing Dean & DeLuca gourmet shop one day. She found herself in front of their extensive cheese offerings, and happened to picked up Belle Chevre cheese - a cheese made in Elkmont, Alabama.

“Of all of the cheese from around the world, I chose the one that was made 15 miles from where I grew up.”

Intrigued (as well as proud and impressed that a quality product came from her state), Malakasis did some further research and discovered a “fabulous company” right in her own backyard that she didn't even know about.

Armed with this new knowledge, she knew her what her next steps would be. Once other factors fell into place, she called the owner, Liz Parnell of Belle Chevre and told her that she was coming home to make cheese.

“I worked with her for six months for free to learn the art before I took over.  When  I did, it was a good time for both of us.”

And today as the owner of the business, she does a little of everything.

“A typical day isn't so typical for me,” she says. “I might be packing-up gift boxes one minute and the managing customers the next minute. I'm the head of managing, head of marketing – it's a fast-paced, erratic, but fun environment.”

She adds she gets to have her hands in the creation of the food that she loves, too.

“Our whole attitude here is 'smile while making cheese.' We have fun doing what we're doing.”

And it's this is why Belle Chevre cheeses are not only the recipient of numerous awards, but also a favorite among fromage lovers.

“We make quality products,” Malakasis says. “The products are handmade, using real ingredients and hand-packaged. It's not a mechanical process. These are cheeses, not  cheese by-products.”

“The judges and customers can taste the pride in our cheese.”

When it comes to creating new flavors and products, she says her and her team don't do extensive marketing research, instead they go with “oh, that would be fun.”

“We do what our moms told us not to do - we play with our food.”

It's the playing that led to the development of one of their breakfast cheese.

“The concept started with one of our more popular cheese, fromage blanc, known for its freshness. Many did not know what to do with the cheese. One suggestion was to mix honey or figs in it, so we began to stir in honey or some other flavors with it, not having any idea it would take off.

“It won outstanding new product of the year.”

The next year, it won best cheese.

“We thought maybe we are on to something here, and thus breakfast cheese was created.”

There's also various cheesecakes (pumpkin, chocolate and lemon), which she says are “really fun,” as well as cookies featuring artisan goat cheese frosting. Malakasis also offers cooking classes, and has a cookbook coming out in early Spring 2012.

Even with all the awards and recognition the Belle Cherve has received, it's the personal feedback from customers that make the most impact.

“When people take the time to call or write to tell us that it was the 'best' cheese they've ever tasted, it makes it all worthwhile.”

Did You Know: Belle Chevre offers small group tours (limit 10 people) on specific days. Simply contact the company for more information. Tours are limited to 10 people; and are $8 per adult, $4 per child, age six to 13, and free per child, under six years old.

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