Midwestern Beauties

A look at the delicious and diverse artisanal cheeses of the Midwest.

James Oseland

Jean Joho, the Alsace-born chef of Chicago's celebrated Everest restaurant, serves luscious raw-milk camembert, aged gruyere, and other old-world-style cheeses—none of which are from the Old World. "The Midwestern varieties taste similar, but they have their own personalities," says the chef, whose cheese plate is dedicated to locally produced favorites like the ash-ripened Wabash Cannonball, one of a dozen goat cheeses from Capriole, in Greenville, Indiana, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a decadent Swiss-style cows' milk cheese from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Chicagoans have long enjoyed cheese from their dairy-land neighbors, especially Wisconsin, the nation's largest cheese producer, but chefs like Joho say regional variety and quality have bloomed in recent years. Farmstead cheese makers (who use milk from their own animals) like Judy Schad of Capriole helped kick-start a Midwestern artisanal-cheese movement in the late 1980s; today, there are many small-batch producers like Prairie Fruits Farm of Champaign, Illinois, who sell their coveted cheeses at Chicago farmers' markets and cheese shops. Specialty cheeses from the region's larger-scale producers—like Michigan-based Old Europe Cheese (which makes the herbaceous Reny Picot Camembert Fermier) and Roth Kase, in Wisconsin (known for its gruyere)—are garnering national attention. This year, two of the top three awards at the American Cheese Society's annual competition went to Midwesterners, and Carr Valley Cheese, a century-old company based in La Valle, Wisconsin, took home a whopping 28 awards, one for its robust, ten-year-old cheddar. Midwestern cheese makers, large and small, are grateful to chefs like Joho, who saw local potential early on. "Joho blazed the trail," says Schad, who started selling to him in 1984. "He was buying Midwestern cheese before most people were buying American."

Sources:

Look for our favorite Midwest cheeses in your local cheese-monger's case, or have some shipped directly to you.

Contact Capriole Inc. (812/923-9408; www.caprio legoatcheese.com) for the Wabash Cannonball ($14.00 for a 4-ounce piece) and other outstanding varieties (the minimum order is $45.00). The company also sells samplers and gift assortments ($45.00-$115.00), among them a selection of its cheeses along with tasty accompaniments like Italian pear mostarda.

Wisconsin Cheese Mart (888/482-7700; www.wisconsincheesemart.com) sells Uplands Cheese Company Pleasant Ridge Reserve ($22.00 per pound) and Roth Kase aged Grand Cru Gruyere ($14.00 per pound).

Order Carr Valley's award-winning cheeses, including its Ten Year Cheddar ($19.50 per pound), directly from the Carr Valley Cheese Company (800/462-7258; www.carrvalleycheese.com).

Unfortunately, Old Europe Cheese Inc. (269/925-5003; www.oldeuropecheese .com) doesn't distribute its products via mail order at this time; however, you can contact the company directly for details on distributors in your area.