Features

The Cheese Artist

LoveTree Farmstead makes some of the world’s best cheese.

LoveTree Farmstead’s Mary Falk makes some of the world’s best cheese.
Photographs by Stephanie Colgan
Mary and Dave Falk: defenders of nature, believers in wildness, partners in cheese.

THE TASTE OF GENIUS

Tami Lax is the founder of Madison’s Slow Food chapter and owns two of Madison’s best restaurants: the famous white-tablecloth Harvest and the casual Old Fashioned Tavern. Before that, she was the chief buyer and forager for an even more famous Madison restaurant, L’Etoile. That’s where she met Mary.

“To this day, I’ve never had a cheese culinary experience like the day I met Mary,” she remembers. “I was at L’Etoile, and she brought in all these little samples. I don’t want to say it was life-changing, but I was absolutely speechless at every sample of cheese. The word ‘genius’ is the first thing that came to my mind, and it’s the word that has stayed.”

As the chief cheese buyer for her restaurants, and a former American Cheese Society judge, Lax has tasted as many Wisconsin cheeses as anyone. “Mary’s easily one of the top three cheesemakers in Wisconsin, there is no doubt in my mind,” she says. “The originality of what she does—each of her cheeses has such a unique flavor profile. Such depth, such texture—her cheese is always a mind-blowing experience for me, even years later.”

Steven Jenkins, another fan, wrote the book on cheese, literally. His 1996 book, Steven Jenkins Cheese Primer, is the definitive reference for Americans who want to understand cheese. “Mary is the most talented, drop-dead cheesemaker of my career,” he proclaims. “Her Trade Lake Cedar is an American treasure. What she does to get her sheep’s milk—my God. Her sheepdogs have to protect that flock from eagles, bears, wolves—it’s a wild wonderland. That she’s not a superstar and as rich as some bogus so-called ‘celebrity’ chef is criminal.”

Jenkins’s beef with celebrity chefs is this: He feels that artisans like Mary do all the work, and chefs get all the credit. “All chefs do is pick over and buy what artisans and retailers have spent 20 years working on.” In Jenkins’s view, these poseur chefs are aided and abetted by “hackneyed food writers who keep talking about terroir. What lunacy this idea of striving for terroir is! Cheese is either well made or it’s not. It’s either made by somebody who has that magical spark or it isn’t. You can’t actively imbue your foodstuff with terroir. That happens by God and the supernatural, and it’s a natural outgrowth of your talent as a cheesemaker.”

Terroir is indeed a popular idea in food right now, and it looks to be growing in importance. The idea is this: If a food is from a specific place, and only that place, it will taste of that place. What makes Italy, Bordeaux, and Wisconsin different are the plants, trees, soil, bedrock, rain, rivers, ponds, and lakes there, all the way down the life chain to the tiny microscopic molds and microflora that, incidentally, make cheese possible.

The idea of terroir finds its fullest flower in wine writing: Austrian riesling vines plunge their taproots 40 feet under the ground to retrieve water, and in the process somehow come back with the taste of slate. That idea of terroir is almost entirely responsible for the difference between $10 and $400 wines. But terroir is a critical underpinning of cheese as well. For instance, Roquefort, the famous blue cheese, came about because of the specific natural interactions of a certain little part of southern France, called the Larzac Plateau, where there is a plain of red clay that isn’t much good for tilling but is very good for grazing. Sheep were fed there, and their milk turned into cheese, which was stored in natural limestone caves of the region that happened to provide an excellent medium for growing a wild, bluish mold indigenous to those caves, a mold now named Penicillium roqueforti, which is cultivated and distributed worldwide.

Cheddar cheese came from a similar but different interplay between the milk of cows from a certain part of southwestern England and wild molds in the caves of the Cheddar gorge. Gruyere cheese has the same story in Switzerland. Today, around the world, and especially in the United States, most cheeses are a sort of 40th-generation carbon copy of that original moment of lightning in a bottle: They’re made with commercially cultivated strains of the original molds and bacteria and milk that has been pasteurized, then named after that original tangle of animal, plants, and cave.

AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL

To make an American cheese with the significance of Roquefort, Cheddar, or real Swiss Fribourg Gruyere is not easy. It requires three things: one, a belief that making such a cheese is possible; two, the willingness to do what it takes to make it happen; and three, an essential erasure of the modern world.

LoveTree Farmstead is where Mary effectively erases the modern world. There are the wolves and great horned owls, of course, but more germane to cheese production are the untilled, herbicide-free, pesticide-free fields of wild grasses, nettles, sedges, and assorted plants on her land. The dairy sheep rotate through the fields, contained by mobile electric fences—her one concession to modernity. The Falks move the sheep into one meadow, with their attendant animal SWAT team, then the sheep and lambs advance, often standing single file like a herd of munching Rockettes, slowly chewing. At the end of the day, the Falks retrieve them, milk them, and then move them into another field.

I toured these fields with Mary one day—fields with names such as Little Eden and Beer Can Stand—and with each footfall a hundred little bugs would hop and skitter: grasshoppers, crickets, odd little leaf jumpers. It sounded like we were walking through a bag of potato chips. “A guy from the USDA came out here to take soil samples for a statewide census of what’s living in the soil,” Mary says. “He said we had more worms than anybody.”

It’s easy to imagine why. Many plants need animals to distribute their seeds by physically carrying them through their digestive tracks or on their fur and by tamping seeds in the soil with their feet, piercing the top crust of soil and pushing the seeds into the earth. In the LoveTree fields, chomping, pooping sheep play the roles that deer and bison did on the prairie. Then the sheep turn those wild plants into milk. The milk retains the taste of fringed blue aster, Indian paintbrush, and purple prairie clover, making it much different from the milk of cows raised in Switzerland or California or on a confinement dairy-cow lot down the highway.

Mary gathers that milk and, in its raw state, separates the curds and whey.

The importance of making cheese from the raw milk of ewes who graze one particular patch of land can’t be underestimated. Humankind’s understanding of the microbiome—the cloud of bacteria, yeast, protists, and fungi that circulate in, on, and all around us, from the deepest cave to the top of the tallest building—is in its infancy. Recently, scientists from the Human Microbiome Project announced that each and every one of us has 100 trillion microbial things living in and on us, turning food into usable nutrients, moisturizing our skin, and defending our lungs against invaders. Without them, we’d be dead.

 

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