Midwestern Marvels: three heartland cheeses handpicked by Fromagination's Ken Monteleone
For generations, it was safe to assume that if a cheese came from the Midwest, it was block cheddar, Jack, Colby, or brick, the cornerstones of traditional American cheesemaking. But in the last decade, a new wave of producers has redefined Midwestern cheese. Aided by the region’s support for all things dairy, and inspired by European artisans, they are creating handcrafted and farmstead cheeses that are innovative and world-class.
One sure sign of this shift can be seen in the busy traffic at Fromagination, a specialty cheese shop in Madison, Wisconsin. Established in 2007 by Ken Monteleone, it was named 2011's Outstanding Retailer from the National Specialty Food Association. For this issue’s cheese plate, we asked Monteleone to pick local cheeses and accompaniments to showcase some of the heartland specialties.
“I was eager to represent the new generation of cheesemakers, especially those like Alemar Cheese Company and Bleu Mont Dairy, who are committed to perfecting one cheese.” The third pick—an aged sheep’s milk blue from Hidden Springs Creamery—is “like a world-class Roquefort . . . richly flavorful, but balanced,” Local handmade flax seed crackers and raw Wisconsin honey add the final flourish. It’s a cheese plate that represents not only the region but its delicious potential as well.
Alemar Cheese Company
Pasteurized cow’s milk
Named after a sharp turn in the Minnesota River, Bent River is the creation of cheesemaker Keith Adams, who founded his business, the Alemar Cheese Company, in 2008.
Adams, who has a background as a baker, switched to cheesemaking a few years back, adapting a Camembert recipe for Bent River, his first cheese. Organic milk for his production is sourced exclusively from nearby Cedar Summit Farm, a renowned dairy that has been owned and operated since 1926 by the Minar family. Adams is convinced that the quality of the milk determines the success of his Camembert.
Matured for between five and six weeks prior to release, Bent River is encased in a bright white, flossy rind. It has rich lactic and buttery flavors with hints of late summer grass and mushrooms. The texture is creamy and yielding.
Blue Mounds, WI
Pasteurized cow’s milk
Cheesemaker Willi Lehner’s inspiration for this beautiful, bandage-wrapped cheddar stems from the traditional English cheddars of Somerset, England. Lehner uses local, organic milk for cheesemaking, which takes place during spring, summer, and fall, and only when the cows are out grazing on pasture. For this cheddar, Lehner partners with Hennings Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel, Wisconsin, using their equipment for cheesemaking and bringing the finished wheels back to Bleu Mont Dairy for meticulous aging in his custom-made, underground cheese cave.
The cloth wrap on the outside of the cheddar helps protect the cheeses during the long aging process, while also allowing moisture to evaporate, and therefore the flavor to concentrate. To give the cheeses a head start in the right direction, Lehner spritzes them with a solution of fresh spring water and old cheddar rinds. Cheeses are matured for between one and two years before release.
The interior paste of the cheddar is pale straw in color, with a texture that is smooth and dense. After aging for about one year, the cheese becomes studded with small, deliciously crunchy nuggets—a result of crystallized amino acids. Complex flavors are long lasting, with prominent notes of wood, toast, and nuts balanced with a underlying caramel flavor.
Hidden Springs Creamery
Pasteurized sheep’s milk
In a small creamery on the property, Brenda makes a range of sheep’s milk cheeses. Her latest creation, Bohemian Blue, comes as a result of a collaboration with longtime Wisconsin blue-cheese makers Tony and Julie Hook. Many cheesemakers are wary of introducing blue cheeses to their facility for fear that the blue P. roqueforti mold will dominate and change their other cheeses. For this reason, Bohemian Blue is made at Hook’s creamery and matured in the cellars at Hidden Springs. Aged for six months, Bohemian Blue has a firm, moist, slightly crumbly texture and balanced, full flavors that incorporate sweet and piquant notes. Blue veining is even throughout.
Washington Island Flax Seed Crackers
Potter’s Fine Foods
Peter Potter Weber and his mom, Nancy Potter, started baking Potter’s Crackers in 2006 to provide an ideal cracker to pair with Wisconsin's artisan cheeses. The crackers are made with locally sourced whole wheat flour, milk, butter, and seasonal ingredients. For this collection, Monteleone chose Potter’s newest cracker made with flax seed from Washington Island.
Wisconsin Natural Acres Honey
Wisconsin Natural Acres
Produced by Doug Schulz in Chilton, Wisconsin Natural Acres Honey is never heated or filtered. The hives are located in areas where farming is practiced, giving the bees access to alfalfa, basswood, and clover blossoms. The resulting honey is light with clean floral notes, making it an easy partner for many cheeses.