It's easy to think of local cheese as an old-fashioned, traditional food but the face of upper Midwestern cheese-making is changing to catch some new waves of flavor... and green energy.
James Norton, editor of the website the Heavy Table, discusses artisan cheese-making.
Tom Crann: You were just in Waterloo, Wis., near Madison, to report on a farmstead cheese company for the magazine Culture: The Word on Cheese. The company's called Crave Brothers -- was that just a name dreamed up by a marketer?
James Norton: No, the company really is a team of four dairy-farming, cheese-making brothers: George, Charles, Mark, and Tom Crave - and their families. We spent our time talking with George, the cheese maker, and his wife, Debbie, who handles much of the marketing for the company.
Cows come first with the Craves. They moved from just dairy farming to dairy farming and cheese making to help get out of the volatile and arbitrary commodities markets. George really lit up when he talked about his 1,100 Holsteins, a breed he calls the "Cadillac of Cows."
Tom Crann: What kind of cheese do they make?
James Norton:You can find a lot of Crave Brothers cheese at local shops, and it's all soft or semi-soft cheese. Fresh mozzarella is their biggest seller, and it's got a great clean flavor, but I'm personally a huge sucker for their mascarpone. It's got a sweet, creamy richness not typical of domestic mascarpones, which are often almost flavorless, and merely structural. I really like Crave Brothers' mascarpone spread on thin Scandinavian ginger or orange cookies.
But our best bite was Petit Frere with truffles, a washed-rind cheese with a bit of "earthy funk," which blends beautifully with a light touch of truffle. It's so easy to go overboard with truffles, and they get it right.
Tom Crann: Crave Brothers have picked up a reputation for their energy efficiency. How does their operation work?
James Norton: The farm and cheese-making plant operate within a circle of energy, with sunlight being the main input.
The sun grows the crops that feed the cows. The cows produce milk, which is chilled and stored in two 750,000 gallon storage tanks before it goes over to the cheese plant. By avoiding the jostling of truck transportation and any aeration, they're able to keep the milk fresher for cheese making. This helps with consistency of product and makes a huge difference for soft and semi-soft cheeses like those made by the Crave Brothers, where slightly older milk or off-flavor notes will come through in the finished product.
The whey from the cheese-making process is processed for resale; the waste from that process joins the waste from the cows in a big, 105-degree anaerobic digester unit, where bacteria help draw off methane, which is burned to power an engine, which produces enough electricity for the cheese plant, the farm and 300 more households. The remaining waste is pressed -- the liquid product goes onto the fields as fertilizer and the clean, spongy, earth-like solid material is used as bedding for the cows.
Tom Crann: Are there other cheese makers in the upper Midwest who have similar setups?
James Norton: Montchevre in Belmont, Wis., a goat-cheese maker, put in a similar anaerobic digester setup a couple of years ago.
And there are some other good stories out there. Bob Wills of Cedar Grove in Plain, Wis., has a series of tanks in a greenhouse that mimic the cleansing power of wetlands, down to a tank of bluegill at the end of the chain of tanks. It's called the Living Machine and it can handle the plant's daily load of 7,000 gallons of wastewater, cleansing it sufficiently to be reintroduced into a nearby creek.
Willi Lehner in Blue Mounds, Wis., uses on-site wind to power his cheese plant, and has built his own greenhouse to harness the power of the sun to grow garlic, even in the depth of the Wisconsin winter. We've been there, and it is eerily warm.
To some extent, everyone who is running a farmstead plant is having a bit less of an impact on the planet, by the strength of not having to ship their milk and being able to take advantage of local pasture. We've got some great farmstead operations in Minnesota like Shepherd's Way and Eichten's.