Cheese Supreme

Local cheese is better than it's ever been. Here's the first of a two-part guide to the rarest, best, and most glorious examples.

That week I called Mary Falk, the owner and cheesemaker at LoveTree, and asked her what the heck was going on with this stuff. She told me the Amish's tale of woe and said that the strange path this cheese had taken is not reproducible. It started with that good goat's milk, and then there was the mysterious cheesemaking that resulted in Falk receiving bandage-wrapped rounds to age in her clay caves. However, the cheeses weren't right. They were ballooning up and doing other peculiar things, forcing Falk to attempt all kinds of triage to save them. In the end, half were dipped in black wax (making them Funky Black Goat) and the other half were dried out in a way that guided them to becoming something like LoveTree's other cheeses, and thus was born the Funky Old Goat.

The dazzling layers of flavor that have emerged in these cheeses Falk attributes to their profound age: Most are over a year old, which is old for goat cheese. They started life at 13 pounds and now are down to 8 or 9.

"People say they can taste our caves, that our caves create a beefy flavor," Falk told me. "I think that's because of the moisture. Our cave is an 1,800-square-foot complex that took us five years to build. It's 15, 20 feet down into hills made of 90 feet of clay. It's a Y-shaped tunnel complex, all concrete walls, but there's no mechanical refrigeration. It's all fresh air convection cooling. We let the earth cool the air, and the cheeses age according to the rhythm of the earth. The native artesian springs provide the cave's moisture, and, other than that, it's all about the native molds of the area. We say we bring the flavor of the north woods to our cheese this way, but people get really passionate about the flavor of our molds. People have actually bought our cheese and tried to scrape the mold off in order to inoculate their own aging rooms."

Elise Olson, assistant manager at Surdyk's Cheese Shop, can show you two of the best things to ever come from a goat
Elise Olson, assistant manager at Surdyk's Cheese Shop, can show you two of the best things to ever come from a goat

Location Info

Map

Downtown St. Paul Farmers' Market

290 E. 5th St.
St. Paul, MN 55101

Category: Retail

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

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So, as near as I can tell, good goat's milk plus complete chaos and heartbreak plus good, beefy caves equals magic. As of this writing Mary Falk had 4,000 or 5,000 of these 8- or 9-pound cheeses left, probably enough to get through Christmas. And then that will be that. To deepen the mystery a little more, I tried both cheeses a few weeks after my initial bedazzlement, and suddenly the Funky Black Goat was mellow and nutty, while the Funky Old Goat had the fiery layers of profundity. I told Falk about this, and she said she wasn't surprised. The cheeses were so inconsistent they had been driving her crazy all year. Which one will you get? You pay your money, you take your chances. It's worth it, though. Before I got off the phone with Falk, she taunted me with one more question: But did you try the fish bait?

Try the fish bait? Was this some kind of test?

Fish bait

I rushed down to the farmers' market the next Saturday. Fish bait, it turns out, is only available at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, and is only to be fed to wild fish while you are fishing, and is never to be fed to human cheese connoisseurs because, in America, only fish are allowed to eat cheese that has been aged less than 60 days. Get it? Good. Unfortunately, I wasn't fishing, so I ate mine. Magical. Fish bait is a hard, aged sheep's milk cheese with a rough, rock-like exterior and a tangy, bold—dare I say beefy—interior. It's got a mild beginning that leads to a big, woodsy burn and heft, and lest you think I'm endangering Falk by writing about her fish bait, please know that someone already ratted her out to the feds. "First we sold it as cat food," Falk told me, "but the state said we didn't have a pet food license. Then the FDA came out here for a week. It was like Columbo, very methodical. They chiseled away at every aspect of the business and finally said, 'Everything's fine.'" It's a golden age to be a fish in Minnesota.

Trade Lake Cedar

Of course, while I was at the farmers' market I got a wedge of LoveTree's classic award-magnet, their Trade Lake Cedar. I hadn't had this one in a while, and either it's gotten better or I've gotten smarter about cheese, but this stuff is more wonderful than I remember it, and I remember it being pretty great. Salty, piney, almost north-woods boggy in its finish, this sheep's milk cheese has an essential unity to it that I usually associate with ancient cheeses from ancient cultures, like some Italian and Greek cheeses. By this I mean it seems to be just what it is and no more, and to express something essential about the grass and land from which it came. If you get some, be sure to taste the rough and ruddy exterior, for this chewy, if ugly, surface offers a wealth of complexity, with notes of paprika, cinnamon, sage, and pepper (though there are no true spices used). Because this stuff is older than 60 days it's actually sold in stores and all kinds of places. Look for it.

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