THE POLITICS OF CHEESE
Dining-room walls made of old tires are one of the Falks’ many environmental touches.
Dave Falk gets kissed by a puppy that will soon be old enough to guard sheep.
I talked to Mary in the pizza enclosure one hot day, as some strange beetle gnawed loudly on a log overhead, occasionally sending down a shower of sawdust. She was terrified about the raw milk crackdown that's happening nationally and in Wisconsin. She's convinced that they're coming for the cheesemakers next.
Currently, raw-milk cheeses are allowed in the United States if they’re 60 days old or older. She'd of course like to be making younger cheeses, as she has now and then and sold as "fish bait: not fit for human or animal consumption." She has sold it at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, where presumably avid fisher-people snap it up. "We don't have much money or many material things. All we have is what comes from nature," she says. "And that's a good thing. All you have to do to have raw milk and raw milk cheeses is regulate it. I’m not afraid. My milk is much cleaner than pasteurized milk."
The way the state of Wisconsin regulates its milk is by counting absolute numbers of bacteria, the standard plate count. Milk, after it has been already pasteurized, can have an SPC of 20,000 bacteria per milliliter. Milk destined to be made into cheese is allowed to have an SPC of 1 million bacteria per milliliter. Mary says her raw milk is consistently measured with an SPC of less than 10,000 bacteria. If any, or all, of these numbers sounds high, you might have an incorrect notion of how many bacteria actually surround you and everything you see. Adults have two to three pounds of microbes—that is, bacteria, yeast, and other tiny creatures in and on us—at all times; they're also currently in your garden and on your walls and on everything you can see, except the moon, sun, and stars. Heavily pregnant women's whole microbiome changes, with digestive microbes moving to the birth canal; the act of being born is also a biological christening with necessary bacteria.
The way Mary sees it, good cheese does not repudiate its connection with nature; rather, it is the land from which it comes, from the wolves and eagles to the invisible microbes, that makes the caves of France taste like the caves of France and the caves of Wisconsin taste like the caves of Wisconsin. "I remember that first time I felt the cheese in the vat: What is that? That's the curd firming up. And that understanding: This is the milk I have, so how can I get to the flavor I want? Why are people so afraid of nature?"
She launches into a complicated scientific argument about how the cheese-making process destroys pathogens, about how the fact that food has microbiology at all is a foreign idea to many. We understand antibacterial soap, but we don't understand that without the microbiome of bacteria on our very own hands, our skin wouldn't work; it would crack and split. We understand killing bacteria in food. We don't understand that bacteria are not an outside thing, they are part of the thing—they are part of the wolves and the flowers and us. She leans back and listens to a blue heron baying from a nearby pond. "But I don't know if most people even understand where cheese comes from," she muses. "It's easier to be afraid than to learn something. Between the politicians and the coyotes, I prefer the coyotes."
(from left to right): Trade Lake Cedar (all raw sheep’s milk), Spirit Lake (raw Jersey/Scottish Highlander cow’s milk), and Trade Lake Tango (the raw sheep’s milk/cow’s milk blended version of the Trade Lake Cedar).
LoveTree cheeses can be very fresh, pale, and creamy, or they can achieve a thick rind and an interior as firm as Parmesan. Mary Falk herself decides when a cheese is ready to eat, and she will "sell no cheese before its time".
LOVETREE FARM CHEESES
The cheeses available from LoveTree Farmstead change weekly. And they’re all spectacular in their own way.
Trade Lake Cedar
LoveTree’s signature cheese (along with its part-cow’s-milk cousin, the Trade Lake Tango) is an all-sheep’s-milk, washed-rind, cave-aged delight. It’s a very firm cheese that’s nutty, woodsy, and profoundly flavored, with notes of meadow grass and tamarack woods.
An all-cow’s-milk cheese, the Spirit Lake is a little sharper, firmer, and more buttery than the Trade Lake, and it bears definite aromas of hazelnuts, cedar wood, and fresh hay.
A cow’s-milk, cave-aged, natural-rind cheese that appears only in the fall, Gabrielson Lake is made from summer milk and is delicate and fruity, with the slight smoky edge of burning leaves. When an aged Gabrielson Lake is available (a rarity), it becomes partly crystalline inside and gains little fierce notes of fire.
LoveTree makes some goat cheese from its own goats and from a neighbor’s grass-raised, single-herd goats. The milk for these cheeses is gently pasteurized to meet state and federal guidelines for selling young cheese. LoveTree calls these goat’s-milk cheeses the Holmes series. All are hand-ladled into various sizes and shapes, then aged for three weeks.
Big Holmes is LoveTree’s award magnet. It’s a larger cheese and is simply coated with a blend of fresh herbs harvested from the farm.
Little Holmes is smaller, dusted with fresh mint, wrapped in vodka-soaked fresh nettle leaves, and put into a secondary fermentation, which makes it very creamy, nutty, and firm toward the rind.
Specialty Holmes: Black Bears is Holmes cheese dusted with black ash in the French tradition. Sumac Holmes is rolled in a combination of staghorn sumac berries and Tellicherry peppercorns. Aged Big Holmes is a nutty, goaty, fiery madman of a cheese with mineral depths and a hot, goaty wildness.