"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.
As the producer of 25% of America's cheese (three billion pounds!), Wisconsin certainly earns its title of America's Dairyland. Most of this output is mass-produced cheese destined for supermarkets. But Wisconsin's—and the rest of the Midwest's—undercurrent of craft cheesemaking is well worth paying attention to. Here is where 4,000 years of European tradition meets American gumption, and the result is some incredible cheese.
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 locus for Swiss and washed rind (Limburger) production. The concentration of skilled cheesemakers 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 production process to lower the cheese's acidity (much like in Gouda). Brick was originally pressed with—you guessed it—bricks, and is a loaf-shaped, smear-ripened cheese (washed with bacteria, which helps develop its pungent, sticky, brown-bready in flavor) meant to be Limburger's more austere cousin. Third 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 cheeses of the population's European ancestors (Cheddar and Gouda, Swiss and Mozzarella, Havarti and Butterkase), smaller upstarts are making their own way.
Wisconsin Makers to Know
One such upstart is Andy Hatch, who 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 during the cows' grass-eating season, its dense, even paste delivers accents of cooked fruit and olive brine. His other cheeses don't slouch.
Then there's Willi Lehner, the mad scientist of Midwestern cheese, at Bleu Mont Dairy. 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.
Also get to know Mary Falk at LoveTree Farmstead Cheese, who's 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).
Caves of Faribault
Wisconsin's not the only Midwestern state steeped in cheesemaking 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" blue cheeses in the U.S. was Treasure Cave Blue, made and aged when the caves went by that name.
These days the Treasure Cave 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, moist, and 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 nine to 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 pineapple aroma and buttery, boiled peanut flavor.
Prairie Fruits Farm
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. The team also produces an extremely limited leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue called Huckleberry Blue that I hope one day to taste.