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Their Own Whey

Cheesemaking operations don’t come much tinier—or more human—than Anne Topham and Judy Borree’s Fantôme Farm in tiny Ridgeway. On their 50-acre hillside property, which has no neighbors in sight but offers them a clear view of the weather coming in from the west, the two women produce milk from 12 French Alpine goats. Then, each Saturday, they drive 40 miles east to Madison, where they sell their superb, French-style fresh and aged cheeses directly to the people who will eat them at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Capitol Square.

Fantôme Farm's Anne Topham tends to her Frnch Alpine goats.

Topham had been working on a Ph.D in educational policy studies in Iowa when, in the early 1980s, she says, “goats kind of took over my life.” Inspired by the memory of some cheese brought home from Paris by a friend’s mother—and by the impressive milk production of Angie, their pet goat—Topham and Borree set out to create the same kind of cheese in Wisconsin. They bought their land in 1982, converted a garage into a cheesemaking facility, built a milk house sided with old barn wood, and started experimenting. The first cheese “turned out like hockey pucks,” Topham recalls. “The taste was fine but I couldn’t get the texture.”

They eventually got the hang of it, and arrived at a point of peaceful equilibrium with the seasons (they don’t sell their cheese January through April, when the goats are pregnant), their animals (each is named in a series for a literary star, goddess, or other luminary), and their cheeses (fresh chèvre, thyme logs, and an ash-dusted aged Fleuri among them).

“Goats are smart but not always easy,” Topham says. “They can be quite difficult, in fact. They’re very interesting animals to be around. Forcing them doesn’t work—you have to lure them into doing what you want.”

* * *

“We’re a small fish in a big pond. We’re a guppy,” says master cheesemaker Bruce Workman, comparing his business, Edelweiss Creamery, with the large-volume makers of commodity cheeses. But as the only factory in North America capable of producing 180-pound “big wheel” Swiss cheese, Edelweiss looms large in artisan circles. Workman’s signature handcrafted natural-rind Emmentaler starts in a traditional copper kettle that holds nearly 12,000 pounds (about 1,400 gallons) of milk that, after it’s heated, is on its way to becoming a lacy wonderment of rich flavor.

Edelweiss Creamery's Bruce Workman, whose Emmentaler looms large in artisan circles

“The modern taste is for fewer holes, but as far as I’m concerned, the more holes, the better,” he says. The pot isn’t just for show—Swiss cheese’s characteristic nutty flavor comes from the interaction of copper oxide with certain cultures
and bacteria. 

The original Edelweiss factory sprang up at this location more than 125 years ago, and has evolved with the times. Workman bought it in 2003, at which point the rundown facility had been closed for more than two years; he revitalized the business with modern technology and a healthy respect for Old World traditions.

All of the creamery’s four milk suppliers are rotational graziers (their Brown Swiss, Holstein, and Guernsey herds graze in pastures April through November and eat silage the rest of the year). Balancing the fat and protein quality of the milk (higher from the Brown Swiss and Guernseys) against volume (higher from the Holsteins) is just one consideration among many involved in the production of Edelweiss’s repertoire of artisan cheeses.

A Texas native whose family moved to Wisconsin when he was young, Workman once hoped to be a chef, an interest that led him to cheesemaking. As far as his own cheese-eating goes, he says he has become more selective. “I like Emmentaler, aged Gruyères, tart Cheddars,” he says. “I’ve acquired a taste for goat. And I love Limburger.”

* * *

Mike Gingrich knows what cows like to eat. “They’re most interested in grass just before the seed head develops,” he says. “Once it seeds, they don’t want it—it doesn’t taste as sweet.” His herd’s pasture diet consists of about one-third clover, two-thirds grass (five planted varie-ties, the rest wild). “Cows pick what they want,” he notes. “They’re fussy eaters.”

Uplands' Mike Gingrich and his selectively bred cows

Uplands’ 160 selectively bred cows provide all the milk for Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a cheese variety similar to a Gruyère that Gingrich developed in 1999. The fame and popularity of his cheese began to spread widely in 2001 after nine-month-aged wheels of his first full year’s output were named Best of Show in the American Cheese Society’s national competition (four years later, he won again). The golden-hued cheese remains Uplands’ only product, sold aged (4 to 12 months) and extra-aged (12 to 18 months).

Gingrich and his wife, Carol, who co-own Uplands with another couple, Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, produce about 60,000 pounds of cheese a year. The production cycle at their farmstead operation mirrors nature’s own (cows give birth in the early spring and the farm uses the milk that is produced through mid-October, a timespan that coincides with the growing season for grass and clover).

“We were getting unique milk; why not make a unique product?” Gingrich says, recalling his rationale for starting the cheese business, after years as a dairy farmer near Spring Green. “One reason we picked this cheese is that it was always made from raw [unpasteurized] milk.”

The “always” refers to a time long ago and far away—when cows grazed in Alpine pastures, when pasteurization had not yet been invented, when cheese was aged in natural limestone caves, when flavor mattered. “What’s fun about this product is, you could have gotten it 200 years ago,” Gingrich says. “Or even 1,000. It’s what cheese was.”

* * *

There are family farms, and then there are family farms.

The 1,700-acre spread where Charles, George, Thomas, and Mark Crave and their families manage a herd of 600 Holsteins—and produce nearly two million pounds of cheese every year—is a far cry from the small farm where the brothers grew up. There, near Beloit, their father milked 35 to 40 cows and sold the milk to the local dairy.

One of the four Crave brothers, George Crave, and his ife, Debbie

Despite the large scale and modern efficiency of their operation, Crave Brothers cheese remains a true farmstead product: “The cheese plant is near the barns where we pump the milk,” says George Crave. “We raise the alfalfa and the corn that we feed the herd, and also the soybeans. We control the type of crops we raise, feeding those crops to our cows, and, in turn, the type of milk we produce. [We use] that hours-old milk to produce our cheeses.”

The year-round production cycle and regulated diet for the cows means the Craves’ output—fresh mozzarella, sweet cream mascarpone, two styles of rope cheese, and an original French-style washed-rind variety called Les Frères—is consistent in quality and flavor whether eaten in June or January.

“It’s fun to be on the front wave of this artisanal movement with cheese,” says George, who adds that he, personally, eats cheese “almost” every day. “I enjoy our fresh mozzarella in the summertime, with tomatoes and basil. And what is really good is taking mushrooms and sautéing them and then adding the mascarpone like a heavy cream. It’s so rich and just terrific. I really do love the cheese.”  


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