Artisan cheesemakers explain their process

Imagine, more than a thousand cheese makers, from all over the country, descending on Chicago with their blocks of cheese made from sheep, cow and goat's milk. Clearly, Wisconsin, Vermont and California have dozens of well-known producers, but I'll be rooting for the only artisan cheesemaker in Illinois.

As I discovered recently, turning goat's milk into luscious cheese requires hard work, dedication and some creativity.

The milking process begins early - around five in the morning - at the Prairie Fruits Farm just north of Champaign.

While the goats snack on grain, their milk is pumped into cooling tanks. Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband oversee a farmstead cheese operation of 50 goats.

"Farmstead means ideally we grow the feed for the animals, we milk the animals and we make cheese," said Jarrell.

Much of their diet is nearby clover and grass with the occasional buffet of alfalfa hay when it's too cold or wet out.

"We sell on quality and sustainability, so we want the quality to be there. We know that Illinois cheese is a novelty, so people will buy it just to try it, but then if it's got the quality, they'll stick with it," said Jarrell.

The mild, slightly tangy milk is transferred to a pristine steel vat, where it's heated slightly. Pasteurized milk can be used for fresh chevre, while the raw milk cheese must age at least 60 days.

Leslie Cooperband calculates volume, and then determines how much of each culture to add to the raw milk. This is where her background as a soil scientist comes in handy.

"It's not about strictly following a recipe," said Cooperband. "It's thinking outside the box to create something that's unique and that's where the art part comes in."

After the cultures and some rennet have been added, the milk rests, and begins to take shape. Forty-five minutes later, Leslie and I start cutting the curds into small pieces - it looks like soft tofu at this point.

After several cuttings, the excess whey is drained off, and the remaining curds are scooped into molds. By the next day, solid cylinders have formed; some are rolled in sea salt, others in dark ash. Smaller discs are turned over, left to age and air-dry some more in special aging rooms.

Within a few weeks, a few options have been born: there's the "Little Bloom on the Prairie," which has a bloomy rind and a cut curd, as well as the "Angel Food," which has a bloomy rind, but a ladled curd.

The Moon Glow aged a bit longer and has an orangey exterior.

"It's washed with a tea that we make from moon glow pear leaves and ripening cultures that are added to the wash," said Cooperband.

Greg O'Neill discovered Cooperband's cheese at the Green City Market in Lincoln Park. He now carries it in his two Pastoral Artisan Cheese stores in the city, and distributes it to local restaurants.

"The Prairie Fruit Farm fresh goat round she makes with edible flowers and other herbs from her garden, so aesthetically, they are very different," said O'Neill of Pastoral Artisan Cheese & Wine.

O'Neill is co-chairing this weekend's big American Cheese Society Conference, and says there's plenty to proud of, even if you're not from Wisconsin or Vermont.

"We are really excited that we have an Illinois producer. It's a non-traditional dairy state."

Prairie Fruits Farm

Every Saturday Urbana Market at the Square in Lincoln Square Mall in Urbana
Every other Saturday at Chicago's Green City Market, 1750 N. Clark St.

2945 N. Broadway
53 E. Lake Street

Fox and Obel
401 E. Illinois

Marion Street Cheese Market
101 N. Marion St., Oak Park

American Cheese Society's 25th Annual Conference and Cheese Competition
Festival of Cheese
Saturday, July 26
5:30 to 9 p.m.
Hilton Chicago
720 S. Michigan Ave.
Taste more than 1,200 cheeses, including the award winners that are announced earlier in the day
$85 per person
ACS headquarters (502) 583-3783

Cheese Sale
Sunday, July 27
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Kendall College
900 N. North Branch Street

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