Big Wheels

A few of Farm in the Market's all-star local cheeses

A few of Farm in the Market's all-star local cheeses

920 E. Lake St. (in the Midtown Global Market at Lake and Chicago)

303 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

My frenzy about the great state of local cheeses, which eventually led me down all kinds of paths, was kicked off by one thing: a brand-new, all-local cheese counter at Farm in the Market. This farmer-owned store of locally produced products, in Minneapolis's Midtown Global Market, rolled out new deli cases in September stocked exclusively with Minnesota and near-Wisconsin cheeses. They have about two dozen on hand at all times now.

The sheer quantity of local cheeses has been eye-opening. For instance, did you know there's a Minnesota Gorgonzola? I had no idea, but I've since learned that one has existed since January 2003, when the Faribault Dairy Company debuted it ($12.30 a pound at Farm in the Market). It may not be as subtle as some Italian Gorgonzolas I've had, but it's bold, sharp, and sweet at the same time, just like Gorgonzola should be. The blue pockets are delicate and well formed, offering the cheese a brief moment of brusque minerality before it unfolds into a creamy, charming finish.

At about two-thirds the price of the imported stuff, this Faribault Gorgonzola grabbed my attention. When you want cheese for salads or cooking, for crowds or catering, why would you get anything else? And this charming stuff wasn't even the best blue in Farm in the Market's case, which, according to me, is the Northern Lights Blue (more on that below). Or is it the Buttermilk Blue? This fresh, tangy, pear-and-apple stunner from Wisconsin's Roth Kase is a whole different sort of blue cheese: It's light, sweet, and energetic in a way that reminds me of an apple's snap. It's not as sweet as Gorgonzola dolce, but it makes most Iowa Maytag blue cheeses—the ones that most people consider the nation's best—taste like something made with mothballs.

I brought a couple of these local blue cheeses to a dinner party, and fistfights almost broke out between partisans of the Buttermilk Blue ($12.60 a pound) and fans of the Northern Lights. So why haven't you heard of them? They were just really hard to find—until now.

THE MISSING PIECE between the great products of our local farmlands and the urban connoisseur is always one thing: distribution. Farm in the Market is finally providing that distribution. Not to knock our wonderful local co-ops, which have often been the first step for local cheesemakers to find an audience and make some of their substantial investment back, but cheese doesn't do well shrink-wrapped and deserted on shelves. It's a living product, not a can of tomatoes, and it never shines when abandoned. At Farm in the Market the cheeses are cut to order by someone who can give you samples before you settle on which to buy, and it makes all the difference. If you want to experience the wealth of new local cheeses, ask Farm in the Market to put together an all-local cheese tray for you. If you haven't tasted our regional cheeses in the last three or four years, you'll be as amazed as I was at the remarkable heights they are, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly capable of achieving.

"I've actually been shocked at the positive response to the cheeses," Farm in the Market co-owner Lori Callister told me. "I guess that sounds dumb. We expected people to be interested, but it's way more than that. It's really proving to people that you don't have to go worldwide to get the best. We've got fantastic things here, too. I think cheeseheads, if you want to call them that, maybe suspected that, but weren't able to find the best local cheeses all in one place. Now we have customers who are working their way through the case, trying one after the other."

I'm guessing they'll end up as wowed as I was. Of course, I wasn't content to stick to Farm in the Market. I checked lots of other places, but found only Surdyk's to have an equivalent depth of well-cared-for, brilliantly chosen artisan offerings. And so, here's my list of the very best cheeses our little world of prairie, pine, bluff, lake, and farm has ever produced.

Northern Lights Blue

People sometimes ask me why Surdyk's, or any other cheese shop, has more cheeses or better cheeses than this or that competing shop, as though there's some deep conspiracy or secret behind it. No, they just take the time to do it. I called other cheese shops to ask if they carried Northern Lights Blue and had clerks assure me: "Oh, no, they don't sell that. You can't get it." Well, both Farm in the Market and Surdyk's can.

"When we need some, we just call up [Northern Lights owner] Joe Sherman, and he drops off a couple wheels," Elise Olson, Surdyk's cheese buyer, explained. Surdyk's simply moves volumes of cheese, and it can devote resources to finding and selling it that no one else can.

So why all the great cheeses all of a sudden? "I'd characterize what we're seeing now as a second generation of Minnesota cheese," Olson told me. "Ten years ago the big names were Stickney, St. Pete's, and Eichten's, but now there's this second generation that trained with the first, and it's becoming obvious that these new cheeses are much better quality, at a much better price. I also think we're going to see more of this, with all kinds of new brands launching in the next two or three years."

Northern Lights Blue is a great example of this second-generation cheesemaking. Joe Sherman is one of the original people behind Amablu St. Pete's Select, the excellent blue cheese out of Faribault. Sherman's own cheese, though, is a step above. Northern Lights is lemony, creamy, sweet, peppery, laced with a pine-green blue-cheese mold, and beautifully fruity and lively. Surdyk's sells it for $12.99 a pound. It's also at Farm in the Market.

Donnay Dairy Granite Ridge and Donnay Dairy Chèvre

Donnay Dairy is the new company from Brad Donnay, one of the original people behind Stickney Hill, but his goat cheese is organic, very hard to find, and nothing short of spectacular. Where to start? The company's chèvre is the best I've ever had: It's fresh as rain, light and buoyant, tart and salty. It comes in little deli containers, a few fluffy scoops at a time, and costs $9.99 a pound, or about $3 for a baseball-size scoop. It's only available at Surdyk's, Farm in the Market, select co-ops including the Wedge, and on a few restaurant cheese trays, but if you ever see it, buy it—it will change what you think about domestic chèvre. It's so tart and gulpable it's hard not to devour it like ice cream. Don't believe me? You will.

Donnay makes another cheese that's even better, not a fresh chèvre, but one that captures its exquisite fresh goat cheese in a way that allows it to age. But! Tragically, tragically, it's pretty much sold out for the year. Want to hear about it anyway? Oh, you masochist. Okay, the Donnay Dairy Granite Ridge is a soft, mold-ripened cheese that looks like a fist-sized wheel of Camembert, all white, soft, and pillowy, and then—here's the magical part—like a Brie, the stuff can ripen.

When Donnay makes it, the cheese is firm and bright white, dry and grainy, but as it ripens it starts to liquefy from the outside in. After a few weeks it's creamy at the edges and still tart in the center, and right after that it's an oozy, stinky, goaty swoon of super-cheese. If you like Epoisses, if you like ripe Brie, if you have ever had a spoonable cheese that made you shiver, seek it out. I mean, next spring. Sorry.

If it's any consolation, the reason it's so good is the same reason it's gone: "I have zero employees," Brad Donnay told me when I reached him on his 100-goat farm in Kimball, Minnesota, near St. Cloud. "I milk the goats, I make the cheese, I take it from start to finish. I make it one week and deliver it the next." His room for mold-ripened cheeses gets too cold in the winter, so when the temperature drops, that's that. Brad Donnay is in the enviable position of having customers fight over his cheese. The Wedge and other co-op partners want all they can take; his restaurant clients, including Heartland, the Modern, Ciao Bella, Pazzaluna, and others, want what they can get; and he has even been courted by restaurant-supply giant U.S. Foods, which he says has bent over backward to accommodate him.

"I'm at the point now where I don't have enough product. I'm probably going to run out of absolutely everything this winter," he says, when his Swiss dairy goats go dry. Why do they go dry? So they can save up some energy while they are pregnant with kids. When the kids come, in February and March, the season will start anew, and there will be milk for all—all the goat kids in the country and all the hungry cheese lovers down in the city.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve

One of the best-known cheeses in the area, Uplands Cheese Company's Pleasant Ridge Reserve deserves every one of the many, many awards it has received. Made from milk produced by cows that graze on pasture in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, this French Gruyère-style cheese is nutty, winy, tangy, almost musky, and leaves a tingly prickle on your tongue that brings to mind leaf fires and fall winds. The stuff runs $29 a pound from Farm in the Market, but is, in the opinion of its cheese-shop manager, Vicki Potts, "the best in the case." It's also a great beer or whiskey cheese, and a must-have on any tray showcasing the best of the region.

Marieke Gouda

A funny tidbit I picked up talking to local cheese buyers: One of the main problems facing the local cheese industry is that everyone wants to make Gouda, but they can't actually pull it off—it comes out rubbery, both in taste and texture. Of course, the exception proves the rule, and the exception in this case is brand-new (at least in terms of the brand) Marieke Gouda from Holland's Family Farm in Thorpe, Wisconsin. It's only been made since the fall of 2006, by a family that emigrated from Holland. (Prepare to die from cuteness if you check out the website and see the picture of their twin three-year-old girls bottle-feeding Holsteins:

I've never had such wonderful Gouda. It's sweet, almond-nutty, has a subtle butterscotch thread that weaves through it, and, if you can imagine mellow and mild as a thrilling experience, this is that: mellow and mild like an arrow to the heart. Both Surdyk's and Farm in the Market sell this Marieke Gouda (at Surdyk's it's $15.79 a pound) as well as Holland's fenugreek-flavored version, which I could live without, but which is evidently winning all kinds of awards. It's worth asking to taste a bit to see if you like yours fenugreek or plain.

Hook's Tilston Point Blue

Tilston is an anagram for Stilton, England's only name-protected cheese, and, say cheesemakers, one of the world's most difficult blues to make. Ideally it's made with full-fat, pasture-raised cow's milk, set into rounds, and then periodically pierced with large needles to aerate the interior and to distribute the naturally occurring mold that gives the cheese its characteristic blue color. The ideal Stilton is creamy and rich and mineral-and-mold tart and bracing—the classic iron fist wrapped in velvet.

Hook's Tilston does all this and plenty more. This well-aged blue has a plush, buttery, silky cream to it, interrupted sometimes with the sharp crystals that announce true age. The creamy parts are well-threaded with blue mineral tang and white pepper, each of which lights on your tongue like a brief bit of pretty fire, like the light of a sparkler in the night. It finishes forever and, I swear, sometimes even offers a whiff of an almost oyster-like, sea-mist quality. Does that have something to do with the well-known mineral riches of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where this magnificent cheese comes from?

Pick up a wedge from Surdyk's ($13.49 a pound), pair it with a glass of port on Christmas Eve, and discuss. If you have a fireplace before which you can have that conversation, know that I'm intensely jealous. You're now living like an English lord. 

Shepherd's Way Friesago Grano

I'm planning to write more about Shepherd's Way soon, so I'll keep this brief. Shepherd's Way was once one of the nation's largest sheep dairy operations, pasturing, milking, and making cheese from their ewe's milk just an hour south of the Twin Cities, in Nerstrand, Minnesota. Then, in 2005, right after the new spring lambs were born, an arsonist set fire to the operation's lambing barns, and it lost hundreds upon hundreds of animals. Ever since, the company's been teetering, trying to regain economic stability, production, and everything else. In fact, if you are a committed cheese lover looking for a Christmas gift for someone who has everything, you can buy that someone a sponsorship of a Shepherd's Way lamb. For $100 you'll be, literally, fighting crime and helping undo the work of villains, and Steven and Jodi Ohlsen Read will send a certificate in time for the holidays, and a picture of the very lamb you have sponsored when it's born.

If you include a chunk of Shepherd's Way's very limited-release Friesago Grano, well, you have a gift that fuses the aspirations of altruism with the pleasures of the body: I mean, wow, this is some cheese. It's a three-year-aged sheep's milk cheese with a washed rind, and it has much in common with a good Parmigiano Reggiano: Dense, golden, nutty, sweet, a little mushroomy, a little woodsy; it's a stellar cheese to showcase simply grated over buttered pasta, or paired with honey as a dessert course. The Friesago Grano is in extremely limited distribution, but you can find it, if you're very, very lucky, at Surdyk's (called Friesago Reserve, $14.99 a pound), the East Side Co-Op, Premiere Cheese, E's Cheese, and Golden Fig. To sponsor a lamb, check the Shepherd's Way website:

AND THAT'S IT! The highs, the other highs, and still other highs of the local cheese scene. May your holidays, and your New Year, be just as cheesy as you want them to be.