Katie Carter’s love of cheese started early.
“I remember my mother asked me when I was about 4 years old, ‘Katie, what do you want for lunch today?’ And I said, ‘Sparkling water and brie, please.’ ”
The preschooler’s unusual request served as a harbinger of the passion of a woman who would grow up to create a cheese of her own, become a cheesemonger at Arrowine, and place third in a cheesemonger contest.
Carter, a District native who attended Woodrow Wilson High before finishing high school at Arlington County’s Washington-Lee, grew up in the kitchen. Her father worked for 30 years at the Prime Rib, where Carter’s first jobs were washing flatware and doing flower arrangements at the restaurant. Her mother was a caterer and pastry chef, and her two brothers have long been in the restaurant business (one, Willie Carter, runs the popular Arlington food truck Willie’s Po’Boy).
But it wasn’t until 10 years ago, at 21, that Carter pursued her love of cheese in earnest, going to work at Oak Grove, an organic dairy farm in Marshall, Va. “It changed my life,” Carter said. “Once you feel that love, you’re hooked.” After her cheesemaking apprenticeship at the farm, she left to familiarize herself with other cheeses around the world, taking a master cheese course at the Artisanal Cheese Center in New York while working at Arrowine as a cheesemonger. She later passed an exam to become Arlington’s first (and only) certified cheese professional.
Two years ago, Carter returned to Oak Grove, renting the creamery to create her own soft-ripened, lactic-style cheese, which Carter described as having a “really pretty acidity, but also that mushroomy quality that you get from a lot of brie styles. Little, round, pretty guy. It was beautiful.” Her first batch of cheese was approved for sale and won praise, but another production — the impending birth of Carter’s second child — put further batches on hold.
But if parenthood slowed Carter’s cheesemaking plans, it proved inspirational in other respects. Earlier this year, while on an errand with her 6-year-old son, Carter picked up some Pop Rocks as a snack. Sharing them on the ride home, Carter wondered how they might pair with cheese: “I was thinking about what it’s doing on my tongue. The carbon dioxide is acting like a sparkling wine and has that same sensation and feeling, and I was thinking: This needs some dairy. It really needs something to play with.”
Carter’s “perfect bite” entry in the fourth Cheesemonger Invitational, held annually in Long Island City, Queens, was fashioned from a wedge of soft Cremont cheese topped with lavender seeds and pop rocks, all on a thin slice of radish. The explosion of sweetness against the creamy cheese and the earthy lavender crunch brought Carter the third-place win.
Back at Arrowine, Carter has one priority: “Taste. Taste every day. Even if you think you know a cheese, taste it again. They change from batch to batch. For example, the cows will literally just move to the next pasture. And their fodder has changed because that pasture’s in the shade, or has more sunlight. And that will change the milk.”
Carter says a recent trend at the store involves pairing cheese not only with wine, but with beer. “The beer side’s been fun. It has no tannins. So it’s easier to pair. And they’re cousins. They both came from grain or grass, and then fermented and aged, so they’re very similar. So, for example, fresh, clean styles [of beer] with a touch of yeasty funk, like a Saison, would go really nice with a younger, fresher style of cheese with a touch of earthiness. Although wine and cheese is classic, it’s fun to taste these new pairings.”
For Carter, the road ahead is delicious: “I love being a cheesemonger, because cheese brings so much joy. Even though it’s not alchoholic, or super-sugary, there is this unique pleasure we get out of it. Maybe it’s a mother-child thing, or maybe it’s the fats and proteins going straight to your head, or maybe our bodies just know that it’s really good for us. But it makes people so happy. It’s the best job in the world to do that.”