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.

SURDYK'S CHEESE SHOP
303 E. Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis
612.379.3232
www.surdyks.com

ST. PAUL FARMERS' MARKET
290 East 5th St., St. Paul
651.227.8101
www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com

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

LOVETREE FARMSTEAD CHEESE
Grantsburg, Wisconsin

715.488.2966
www.lovetreefarmstead.com

Anyone looking to pen a screenplay based on intrigue in the local artisanal cheese movement? If so, I hand you this one free of charge. I picture it like this: It's a bright and sunny day in the innocent, rolling green hills of western Wisconsin. Hale and hearty young Amish farmers wrap up a long day milking their goats—goats that are, literally, tended by their flaxen-haired children in pretty homemade clothes. Suddenly—what's that on the horizon? The villain appears. He motors his evil car over the hills, as the innocent goats scatter. He worms his way into the hearts of the Amish goatherds, promising them that he is an expert cheesemaker, and, for only the most reasonable fee, he can transform their goats' milk into veritable gold: artisanal cheese. Of course, he is not an expert cheesemaker. He does manage to make some cheese and place it in a real cheesemaker's cave, but mostly the cheese becomes a vehicle to extract constant cash payments from the Amish goatherds. Soon the innocent farmers are all but bankrupt; they are forced to close their dairy and they are driven, at least for now, from the cheese business. You'll have to insert your own Die Hard-ish: Maa, Said the Goat helicopter revenge sequence here, because what really happened next doesn't have too much screen presence: The Amish, who are loath to use the court system, suffered in silence, and the real cheesemaker, the one with the cave filled with abandoned cheese, is trying to make them back some of their money by selling said cheese.

All of which I wouldn't give two chèvres about (ooh, is there a cameo for a callous, big-city reporter?) if this hard-luck cheese wasn't so darn great. I mean, really great. Rarest European great. Talk about it all night long great. Redefine your idea of what goat cheese could be great. And guess what? It's only available in the Twin Cities. It's probably going to run out by Christmas, and after that it will never be available on God's green earth ever, ever again.

I'll tell you more about this grand, chaos-born cheese in a moment, but I think it's important to know that this stuff was such a revelation to me that it kicked off a whirlwind month of sampling a whole range of Minnesota and near-Wisconsin cheeses, which made me reconsider just how far local cheese has come in just the last couple of years: Hey! We've come really, really far.

The Twin Cities now has a dozen cheeses I'd call truly world-class, and since most of them are distributed only in the Twin Cities—not in New York, not in Paris, not even in Madison, Wisconsin—we are the only people on earth who can appreciate them. So we should appreciate them! And what better time than the holidays? Sure, some among us wouldn't really like to get an aged hunk of stinky goat cheese in our Christmas stocking, but some of us really, really would.

Because this piece got super-long, and because I couldn't bear to leave anyone out, I have divided this guide to stellar local cheeses into two parts. I'll consider the gorgeous offerings from LoveTree this week, and next week unveil the rest of my best ever, ever list, in hopes of driving you all into the same cheese frenzy I'm currently living. And now, without further ado, let's rejoin Die Hard-ish: Maa, Said the Goat...

Funky Old Goat and Funky Black Goat

These two are the cheeses of all the intrigue mentioned above, and they are only available at Surdyk's Cheese Shop (for $17 a pound) and through the LoveTree Farmstead Cheese stand at the St. Paul Farmers' Market. The market will be open every Saturday for the rest of the winter, from 9:00 a.m. to noon, but starting in December, LoveTree cheeses will be inside Golden's Deli, across Wall Street from the farmers' market, as part of a farm and craft fair running in that deli every Saturday morning in December until Christmas. Plus, Golden's makes a mean all-local ham, cheese, and egg sandwich ($5.75) and a great latte, with Cedar Summit Farms milk. Now you know how to get the cheeses; here's why you'll want them: These things are just nuts.

The first time I had the Funky Black Goat I actually couldn't believe it. I kept shaking my head: No, this is not a local cheese. The core was crumbly and Parmesan-colored, but the periphery was all veined-blue, where the black wax was falling away. It was fiercely tangy, wildly savory, and finished forever, unfurling streams of rosemary, burnt grass, dulce de leche caramel, salt, pine needle, pepper, miso-ferment, and more. It's sister cheese, Funky Old Goat, was tawnier, sweeter, firmer, but still boasted a goaty fierceness on top of its apricot-almond core. Damn! I took the cheese to a party and left a room speechless with the stuff. One of my friends insisted all night that I was just using him as a guinea pig, that I'd unveil in print that the cheese was really some Italian imposter.

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."

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.

That should get you going for now. Come back next week for the rest of the greats, including a blue cheese with a fragrance like lemons, a chèvre so fresh it makes me want to weep with joy, a local Stilton that should make England quake in its boots, and a bunch of other local gems.

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