Midwest Cheese

“This is where the Prairie meets the Big Woods. Back in the 1800s a squirrel could run from here to the East Coast without touching the ground (if he could get across the Mississippi River).” So says Jeff Jirik, as I sit huddled outside the Caves of Faribault, watching a mid November snowstorm flutter down on the Minnesota sandstone cliffs.

It gives me a new perspective of the Midwest, as the crossroads between flat, endless plains and the wooded hills I associate with home (aka the Northeast).  In Cheeseland, “the Midwest” is often reduced to the great state of Wisconsin. Even Packers fans are identified not by their green jerseys but by the foam wedges of cheese lodged on their skulls. Making nearly 3 billion pounds of cheese annually (25% of the entire country’s production) Wisconsin may be America’s Dairyland but it’s not the only cheesemaker out there.

Wisconsin is, however, a critical foundation for understanding cheese in the region. Shaped by glacial movements during the last Ice Age, Wisconsin’s rolling hills and lush pastureland made it an extremely desirable farming and dairying location for European immigrants pushing ever Westward in the mid 1800s. While all major European styles of cheese are now made there, the state’s German, Swiss and eventually English immigrants made it the locust for Swiss and washed rind (Limburger) production. The concentration of skilled makers led to the creation of two new cheeses (known as “American Originals”): Colby and Brick cheeses, which are still made in quantity today.  Colby eats like a young cheddar but is actually a washed curd cheese, meaning whey is replaced with warm water during the make process to lower acidity (much the way Gouda is made). Brick was originally pressed with (you guessed it!) bricks and is a loaf-shaped, smear-ripened cheese (a little bit pungent, sticky, brown bready in flavor) meant to be Limburger’s more austere cousin. 3rd generation maker Joe Widmer of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, WI makes the best one, and still presses it uses his grandfather’s bricks.

While there are now 126 plants making cheese in Wisconsin, many of which focus on the cheese of the ancestors-- Cheddar and Gouda, Swiss and Mozzarella, Havarti and Butterkase—there are one-off upstarts doing cheese their own way. Andy Hatch makes the only three-time American Cheese Society Best of Show winner, Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Inspired by Alpine cheeses such as Gruyere or Abondance, and made only of raw milk when the cows eat grass, its dense, even paste promises layers of cooked fruit and olive-y brine.  Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy is the mad scientist—he doesn’t own or milk animals, nor does he have his own cheese house (though he manages a beautiful cave in his backyard). Instead he experiments in borrowed spaces using purchased milk, tinkering into the night and turning out brilliant cheeses like Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar, with its root cellar and celery aroma, and flavors of uncooked mushroom, parsley, and mustard. Mary Falk at LoveTree Farmstead Cheeese has been at it for 20 years, milking sheep and making cheeses that capture the terroir of northern Wisconsin (cedar makes multiple appearances as both rub and decoration). 

Wisconsin’s not the only place steeped in history, as my recent visit to Faribault, MN illustrated. There, the Caves of Faribault have been used for beer brewing and storage since the 1870s (as well as glass bottle production thanks to the unique sandstone cliffs and caves) prior to cheesemaking and aging. One of the first “best” blues in the U.S. was Treasure Cave Blue, made and aged when the caves went by that name. These days the name has been bought by cheese manufacturing giant Saputo, but Jeff Jirik and his team are making the authentic recipe under the name Amablu (Latin for I love blue) and St. Pete’s Select (aged 100 days). Wandering the naturally 99.9% humid caves, I was touched by the sweet, floral scent of ripening blue. Good enough to be perfume. And while the cheese looks like it will be acidic and peppery, it’s dense and moist, incredibly even, with high notes of red fruit and no burn at all. 

Down in Iowa, Rufus Musser and his family live near one of the country’s largest Amish settlements, folks who moved to Northeast Missouri in the 1970s for, as Rufus put it, “cheap ground.” He now runs Milton Creamery with his family, buying milk from local Amish farms and turning it into Prairie Breeze, the block cheddar of your fantasies.  Aged for 9-12 months, it’s intensely flavorful, like nearly burnt toast soaked with a heavy smear of butter. There’s nothing of mild, medium or sharp about it. Rufus has now partnered with the Flory family who make Flory’s Truckle, a clothbound cheddar in the squat cylindrical form known as a truckle. Rufus ages and sells the cheese, with its lush pineapply aroma and buttery, boiled peanut flavor.

And then, just outside Chicago, Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband at Prairie Fruits Farm ditched urban academia to take up farming, including the milking of 70+ goats. Their organic milk is transformed into some of the most whisperingly soft and delicate patties of cheese I’ve ever had: Angel Food, looking like a hockey puck with goo for insides and mushroomy Little Bloom on the Prairie with its dense core and liquid perimeter.  They produce an extremely limited, leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue called Huckleberry Blue that I hope one day to taste. 

The collective knowledge of producers in this part of the country tops 4,000 years of cheesemaking. It’s an extraordinary concentration of experience and hands-on work, and resources in Wisconsin have enabled farmers like Rufus Musser to become makers, following their gut and a dream. You can get fresh curd, or you can get a wacko invention of a Willi Lehner. There is truly something for everyone.