One summer night a few years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, I had a local cheese awakening. It happened at a picnic during outdoor Shakespeare at Elmwood Park. There were plenty of snacks, but one rose above the rest: quark, a young, soft, European-style cheese made from organic grass-fed cows' milk an hour away in Raymond, Nebraska. Tangy, bright, and, as I later discovered, as tasty baked into cheesecake as it is spread on a baguette, it was my introduction to a new generation of homegrown cheeses.
Apparently at one time, this part of the country produced nearly half of America's dairy supply. But over the past decade, as the price of milk see-sawed, farmers turned to cheese making to stabilize their income. This practical endeavor evolved into an artisanal one when it became clear that, owing to the area's noted plant diversity, the products possessed a rich grassland flavor unique among American cheeses.
"Cheese makers didn't start out trying to make masterpieces," says Krista Dittman of Branched Oak Farm, a dairy she owns with her husband Doug. Dittman is the talent behind that eye-opening quark, as well as a line of nuanced cheeses that have captivated chefs and home cooks alike. Attempt d'Bleu, a sweet, grassy blue, is an ideal topper for wedge salad or steak. The pungent Laughing Priest, a washed rind raw milk cheese that's aged until gooey, can hold its own among similar Old World styles.
Branched Oak Farm quark, $4 for 8 oz. at branchedoakfarm.com
One state over, Iowa's Milton Creamery has been using pastured milk from nearby Amish farms to make its standout cheddars. Flory's Truckle, clothbound and coated in a lard seal, is the kind of sharp cheddar that will transform your grilled cheese, while Prairie Breeze has the nutty praline crackle of aged Gouda. It's excellent baked into quiche, or, as with the quark, simply eaten out of hand.
Milton Creamery cheddars, prices starting at $16 per pound at miltoncreamery.com