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
LoveTree FarmsteadLoveTree Farmstead pizzaFrom 2 pm to 8 pm Sundays, Mary Falk fires up pizza at her farm. Check her website before you go.

Without the right ones, or enough of them, we might just be sick. Research into whether our microbiome plays a critical role in human health is just beginning, but preliminary research suggests it plays a role in everything from obesity to asthma and autoimmune diseases. Research into the flavor complexities of aged foods such as prosciutto, salami, wine, and especially cheese suggests that microbial complexity correlates to the complexity of the finished product’s taste. But how does the native complexity of a stand of predator-filled woods in northeastern Wisconsin affect the taste of cheese?

To find out, Mary had her husband take out part of a hill with a Caterpillar. It was a red clay hill, and Dave is comfortable doing things like that, because he used to build silos for a living. “She looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to put cheese underground,’ ” Dave remembers. “I had never heard of that.”

Once the hill was gone, Dave constructed a concrete room with ventilation leading out to the woods. Over the years he took that hill apart with a Caterpillar several more times, eventually discovering that the best shape for a cave was round, like a silo. It’s best because of the way the air circulates, in a circle up to a ventilation hole, and for the way the moisture drips down from a pitched, round roof, keeping humidity even throughout the space.

When Mary shapes her individual cheeses, she brings them to her cave to age. (The whey from the cheese production is also blended into the guard dogs’ food, perhaps strengthening the dogs’ attachment to their flock.) Many of Mary’s cheeses are pure sheep’s milk, but some are a blend of sheep’s milk and her outdoor-pastured cows’ milk. The cows are descended from a Scottish Highland-Angus-Jersey cross and are majestic animals with soaring horns that make them look like bulls, but they’re actually milkable ladies. In the cave, the young cheeses are hand-rubbed­—a treatment that encourages a rind to form on the outside—and are then flipped every day or so, sometimes for weeks, sometimes for many months, depending on Mary’s own personal sense of when a cheese is ready. It is inside this humid, refrigerator-like, woods-connected silo of a cave that the cheeses become what they will become.

What they become is absolutely unique, a true American original cheese unlike anything that has ever been made, or tasted, on earth. Her Trade Lake Cedar looks like a rock or mushroom; the rind tastes earthy and ashy, an umami non-fruit world of hay and mineral, whereas the interior is tangy and chalky and meadow-like. Her dry Gabrielson Lake tastes a little like Parmigiano-Reggiano, but is freaked with little crystals of concentration and tiny red lace points of mold.

The cheeses come and go, and Mary often makes one-of-a-kind batches that reflect some event on the farm, some week of too much milk or too little. “When I think of Mary’s cheeses, in terms of a world analog, what comes to mind are principally the cheeses of Sardinia and the Pyrenees,” Steven Jenkins tells me. “Though Mary’s are more graceful and unctuous.” And they’re essentially only available to people in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. But she isn’t very well known, even among foodies. In fact, an informal poll of people I know outside of the restaurant industry suggests that almost no one has heard of LoveTree.

“It’s funny, there’s a sort of Minnesota paradox when it comes to something on this level,” says Lenny Russo, chef at Heartland and owner of the only market to which Mary will sell. “The Minnesota paradox is, people who live here think it’s the best place in the world, even if they’ve never been anywhere else. At the same time, there’s this inferiority complex, where something not from here immediately gets a leg up. If you say this is one of the best cheeses in the world, there are a lot of people here who just won’t believe you. But they’ll pay a super-premium for something from France or Italy that essentially comes from a factory. This indigenous inferiority complex is what will probably keep her from succeeding the way she should. If she was making this cheese in California or New York, she’d be world-famous.”

But Mary isn’t even as famous here as she should be. The only places to buy LoveTree farm cheeses are at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market (year round), Heartland Market, the summer Kingfield Farmers Market, and the LoveTree farm, at their new farm store. You can also taste them at the LoveTree farm on Pizza by the Pond days. Every Sunday, from 2 pm to 8 pm all year long (weather permitting), Mary trades in her shepherd’s crook for a pizza peel and melts some of her LoveTree cheeses on top of her four-day-fermented pizza dough, made with flour from Great River Organic Milling, just down the river, and mixed with a sourdough culture developed from her cheese.

Before the pizza-farm events, she forages for such idiosyncratic toppings as fiddlehead ferns or wild wood nettles, or she trades ingredients with neighboring farms or friends from the farmers’ market. Try the plain cheese—it’s as bold a plain-cheese pizza as you’ll ever have in your life. I’ve also tried the wild watercress, which tastes like something straight from Sardinia, iron-y and green and fresh. I’ve also had the Old Man Dave, which comes with different sausages from the day’s farmers’ market or is topped with meats from a neighboring farm, Beaver Creek Ranch, and vegetables from nearby Burning River Farm. The pizzas are delicious, but more than that, they’re exquisitely true to their place. The whole scene reminds me of one of those ridiculous magazine features where writers are eating some salad of wild-foraged greens and locally grazed but unnamed cheese on an island in Corsica that no one could ever get to. But this is in Wisconsin, not too far from a Dairy Queen. The pizza oven is located in another part of the hill that Dave bulldozed, then lined with tire bales, built out with logs from the property, and roofed.