One of the most astonishing turns local Minnesota food culture has taken lately is a sudden passion for cheeses which, to the untrained eye, look exactly like French Brie or Camembert, and, to the trained palate, taste as good as anything an American can get that's imported from the land of Brie.
First, a primer. "Brie" and "Camembert" actually mean the cheeses that come out of particular regions. Camembert, for instance, is a city and region due west of Paris, in Normandy, and Brie is a region that's essentially the eastern side of greater Paris. (Think of it like a Coney dog or a Chicago deep dish -- when everyone is familiar with the regional style of doing something, the place name can suffice.)
However, that style of cheese -- that soft, white-and-fuzzy outside, creamy-and-melty inside, has actually been popular in France since the fifth century B.C. or so. Legend says it was a favorite of the Emperor Charlemagne.
Generically, this sort of cheese is called a soft-ripened cheese, or a bloomy-rind or mold-ripened cheese -- all of which sound terrible, but taste great! Which is why most dairy-oriented European nations have their own version of such a soft cheese. Italy has dozens, and you can also find them in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.
The reason all these places have them is that making them isn't terribly hard. It is hard, and it requires skill and art, but it isn't rocket-science hard, it's just skilled-artisan-hard.
Here's how it's done: To make bloomy-rind, Camembert- and Brie-like cheeses you make cheese in the usual way, using cultures and enzymes to transform fresh milk into curds and whey. Then you ladle the curds and whey together into a mold. Most of the modern molds are plastic cylinders dotted with small drainage holes.
Once in the mold, the excess water and whey drain away, leaving a very, very soft cylinder of cheese, which is then removed from the mold and salted. Now, here's what makes the bloomy-rind cheeses bloomy: A penicillum mold (yes, like that penicillin, but different) called Penicilium Candidum grows on the outside. It gets there because the cheesemaker sprays it on after cheesemaking, or mixes spores in with the milk, which is called inoculating the milk.
Those penicilium spores mature into the bloomy white rind we're all familiar with, and, as the weeks pass, the cheese transforms from something like a cheese curd to something like Brie.
The biggest local success story in bloomy cheese has been Alemar, a one-man cheese shop in Mankato. That one man is Keith Adams, who has a rather touching story. He had a chain of bagel shops in Mankato, called Brothers' Bagels, but it went bankrupt during the Atkins, no-flour craze.
He came out of that experience convinced he wanted to do something great, something nationally important, something of his own. He thought about what that was and concluded that Minnesota has great dairy farms that were underappreciated, and he admired Cowgirl Creamery in northern California, and wondered why a great American Camembert-style cheese couldn't be made in Minnesota. So he went to Wisconsin to take the "Cheese Technical Short Course."
He went to Cowgirl Creamery to see how they did things, and then popped the question -- to Dave and Florence Minar, the owners of Cedar Summit Dairy, arguably Minnesota's preeminent organic, grass-pastured dairy.
"I sat down at their coffee table, with my hat in my hand and my heart beating a million beats a minute," Adams told me, "and they said yes, they would sell milk to me."
That was two and a half years ago, and Adams started producing under his company, Alemar (named after his two daughters, Alexandra and Mariel), in a former Domino's Pizza commissary in Mankato.
Then, this summer, he entered his cheese in North America's biggest cheese competition, the American Cheese Society competition, and came in third place for cow's milk Camembert-style cheese, which is an enormous accomplishment. It's like starting to throw javelins one day, and coming home with an Olympic bronze two years later; it's unheard of.
This award-winning cheese is called Alemar Bent River Camembert, though it's currently the only cheese Alemar makes. Adams makes about 200 gallons of milk worth every week, which translates into 288 individual cheeses -- most of which are sold in the Twin Cities in stores including Lunds and Byerly's, Kowalski's, the co-ops, and the Minneapolis Farmers' Market.
I think the excellence of this cheese stems from two things: from Adams' skill as a cheesemaker, but also from the excellence of the Cedar Summit milk. If you've never had it, it's remarkable stuff, from a herd of mixed Jersey, Holstein, Normandy, and Guernsey cows who live most of the year outside on the pasture of the Minar's family farm near New Prague, and then spend the coldest months of the year living on hay harvested from that same farm.
These grass-pastured cows produce milk that's buttery and flowery, with notes of buttercup, hyacinth, honeysuckle, meadow, and hay. Which may sound like wine jargon, but I am a wine critic, and great cheese actually is described in the language of wine; great cheese is said to be great because it expresses its native "terroir," its place.
Great Roquefort tastes of the caves of Roquefort, great Cheddar tastes of the meadows of England, and so on. And great Alemar Bent River Camembert tastes mushroomy and deep, but also buttercup and honeysuckle light, because it's a pure and beautiful expression of the gorgeous pastures around New Prague.
This beautiful terroir-driven cheese isn't the only bloomy, beautiful cheese being made in Minnesota right now. Star Thrower's "Flocked Ewe" is exquisite, delicate sheep's milk Camembert-style cheese from Rich Valley Township, which is due west of the Twin Cities, near Norwood Young-America. It's very hard to find, though. It's available mostly in restaurants, but also at Clancey's butcher shop in Minneapolis, at the Fulton Farmer's market in south Minneapolis at 49th and Chowen, or Mill City Farmer's Market.
And that's not all! There's also a Minnesota goat-milk Camembert from Donnay Dairy, a goat dairy in Kimball, Minn., south of St. Cloud. This cheese is available only in the summer and early autumn, and it's worth seeking out. The Camembert-style bloom seems to soften the goatiness of fresh chevre, rendering the final cheese nicely tangy, but surprisingly silky and delicate tasting.
Will Camembert- and Brie-style cheeses become the cheese that Minnesota is known for, as synonymous with our state as Colby is with Wisconsin, or as Brie is with, ah, France? Maybe, maybe not. Any way you look at it this bloomy cheese phenomenon is in its infancy, but I'm putting it on my must-taste list for anyone passionate about cheese, and it does point to a very promising future for Minnesota artisanal cheeses.
For instance, the same process which creates bloomy-rind cheeses like Camembert is at the heart of washed-rind cheeses like French Epoisses, Italian Talleggio, or gloriously stinky Alsatian Munster or Gerome -- which is totally different than American Munster.
Keith Adams of Alemar told me that after he gets through the all-important holiday season -- a third of a Camembert-style cheesemaker's income might come between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve -- he's going to start experimenting with washed-rind cheeses.
If he has as much success with those as he's had with his Camembert we might just see a reversal of the old scenario, and French tourists may one day spend their final vacation hours strategizing on how to get Minnesota cheeses through customs, and safely home.
WHERE TO FIND THE CHEESES MENTIONED IN THIS STORY
•Alemar: Alemar Bent River Camembert is available in cheese shops and grocery stores including the co-ops, most Lunds and Byerly's, most Kowalski's; and direct from Keith Adams at the Saturday and Thursday Minneapolis Farmers' Market. Thursdays he's near the Barrio on Nicollet Mall.
•Star Thrower Farm:
Star Thrower's Flocked Ewe sheep's milk Camembert-style cheese is available at Clancey's butcher shop in Minneapolis, and at either the Fulton Farmer's market in south Minneapolis at 49th and Chowen, or the Mill City Farmer's market, on Saturdays.
•Donnay Dairy Granite Ridge: While Donnay Dairy's excellent chevre is available year-round, mostly at local co-ops and cheese specialty stores such as Surdyk's cheese shop, their Granite Ridge Camembert style goat's milk cheese will be available only for a few more weeks, and will reappear next spring.