Small Business, Big Cheese

Mary Faulk Makes Magic With Sheep's Milk and Mold

Mary Faulk loves mold; entices it, romances it, seduces it. It's her passion, her craft, and her livelihood. In the rolling hills of Trade Lake, Wisconsin, 60 miles northeast of the Twin Cities, Mary and her business partner and husband Dave raise a flock of 300 sheep, using organic practices. From their milk they make LoveTree's farmstead artisan sheep cheese. Handmade and naturally aged, it has won "Best of Show" at the American Cheese Society's annual conference (the society's highest award) several years running, and it is the darling of fancy cheese shops from San Francisco to Manhattan.

Mary is winning national awards and international acclaim because she knows how to spoil milk and put everyday bacteria to work.

"Mary's cheese is amazing," opines Julie Bloor, chef and procurer at Lucia's restaurant in Minneapolis. "She is truly an artist. Each of her cheeses is complex, the flavors are layer upon layer, and each bite is immensely satisfying. It's like tasting great wine."

A slice worth the price: Thousands of elements make up an artisan cheese
Craig Lassig
A slice worth the price: Thousands of elements make up an artisan cheese

And great cheese, like great wine, is a marriage of chemistry and alchemy; it reflects the character of a place and the skill and charms of its maker. It is the result of breathtakingly hard work and tremendous patience and skill. The quality of the milk, the rennet (starter) used, the length of time the curds and whey sit before being cut, how long they're left to drain, and how they are handled from that point on all determine the final result. One misstep can mean a vat of disaster.

In the past 70 years, the cheesemaking industry in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois has consolidated dramatically. The region produces 90 percent of the nation's cheese in a market dominated by major players: Land O'Lakes, Michael Foods (both in Minnesota), and Kraft (in Illinois) are the top three. Their products are predictably consistent, flavorless, and inexpensive: A brand-name domestic Cheddar retails for around $3 a pound, while small-batch cheeses range from $7 to $16 a pound. The higher price of handcrafted cheese can be daunting to a shopper, but no small cheesemaker is getting rich. Compared to bulk cheese, a few ounces of handcrafted cheese gives far more bang for the buck in flavor and satisfaction.

No one else can make LoveTree's cheese. And yet the Faulks' story of struggles and successes is shared by most artisan purveyors: It reflects a confluence of conditions and history we are sadly in danger of losing.

Home to ospreys and eagles, timber wolves and black bears, sumac and tall pines, LoveTree's 200 acres are lush and ragged. Several small lakes shimmer in summer's sun and glare black in winter's blustery winds. On a visit one subzero winter day almost 20 years ago, California native Mary stumbled across a 100-year-old farmhouse and bought it nearly on the spot. In a short time, she met Dave, a hay farmer. They began breeding sheep to sell at market. In 1994 they sought the advice of a Wisconsin sheep milker, Hal Koller. He convinced them to milk their sheep to augment their lamb sales.

Mary began experimenting with making cheese, using the fireplace in her kitchen as an "aging room." She put rounds of cheese in water-soaked bamboo steamers and then placed them in the 55-degree fireplace to ripen, tasting them along the way. In the spring, when the evening temperatures were still cool and daytime temperatures moderate, she moved the cheese to her front porch to finish ripening.

"I loved the work," she notes. "I'd learned to make cheese from the few goats I'd kept in California, just for fun. It didn't take me long to figure out how to work with sheep's milk."

After taking cheesemaking classes and commuting 50 miles to a job as an apprentice in a large factory, Mary got her cheesemaker's license. Meanwhile, Dave constructed a cheesemaking room and aging caves--low, round, concrete structures tucked in a hill overlooking a pond. In 1986 the Faulks began turning out sheep's-milk cheese. Almost instantly their Trade Lakes Cedar, an aged raw-milk cheese, was a hit.

Mary sent the first batch to Steve Jenkins, a cheese guru and the first American to be awarded France's prestigious Chevalier du Taste-Fromage. Jenkins has been a buyer for Dean & Deluca and Fairway Foods and is author of the indispensable Cheese Primer. "Steve called me the next day with praise, wanting to order everything we had," she says. In 1998 that cheese won its first of many American Cheese Society's "Best of Show." LoveTree continues to be the big cheese at these annual events.

Trade Lake Cedar is a whopping five-pound wheel, wrapped in cedar fronds and aged. Because it is aged more than 60 days, it can be made with raw milk, as are all good European cheeses. Much has been written about the use of raw, or unpasteurized, milk in cheesemaking. In the U.S. any cheese made with raw milk must be aged a minimum of 60 days. This includes domestic and imported cheeses. It's been determined that after that time, any possibly unhealthful bacteria that might have existed in the raw milk will have dissipated.

Mary gently pasteurizes milk for the "younger" cheeses, using the lowest possible temperature for the shortest period of time, so that it is safe but still flavorful. These cheeses taste of berries and grass with a silky, buttery finish. Allowed to age somewhat, they can be exotically musty and slightly sweet. Remarkable to me is how deep and pleasing the Cheddar's flavor is, with none of the bitterness of cow's-milk Cheddar. Other cheeses include a herbaceous and delicate Big Holmes, coated with rosemary, mint, and cedar, and the aged Sumac Holmes, bathed in an exotic combination of sumac berries and ground peppercorns to spice up its soft, earthy nature.

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