We boarded the bus at 7:45 am and made our way to LaClare Farms in Malone, about an hour’s drive from Green Bay. On the way there, the sun shone on miles of lush green pastures that made it evident as to why Wisconsin came to be known as “America’s Dairyland.” Giant wind turbines, driven by steady breezes, dotted the landscape and looked completely alien in comparison to the natural beauty surrounding us.
First, on the day’s agenda, was a tasting of Deer Creek cheeses at the LaClare Farms Cafe. Wheels of Deer Creek Cheese are easily recognizable by the storybook-like illustrations that adorn the labels of these multiple award-winning cheeses, with names such as The Doe, The Stag, The Robin and The Blue Jay.
For me, the most memorable of these cheeses was probably The Robin, a bright orange, buttery Colby dotted with fine air pockets that give it a slightly crumbly quality. For someone raised on Wisconsin cheese, this particular one may not be all that remarkable, but for me it was a small revelation. It was my first taste of a real Wisconsin Colby, completely unlike the dense, waxy, orange-colored cheeses bearing the same name that I had encountered in the past.
The Doe is a bandage-wrapped cheddar with a fairly subtle addition of vanilla that lends the cheese a little warmth and spice. The Rattlesnake, a creamy, tequila-spiked cheddar with an aggressive habanero bite, lives up to its name. The Blue Jay is a mild and creamy blue cheese laced with crushed juniper berries. I’ve never tried a blue cheese-stuffed olive in a martini before, but I may have to have one after tasting this blue, which would bring a double hit of juniper to a gin martini or else introduce a bit of juniper into an otherwise juniper-less vodka martini.
We tasted several more delicious Deer Creek cheeses before it was time to meet the owners of LaClare Farms.
How it all started
Larry and Clara Hedrich, whose names come together to form LaClare, started their cheese-making journey in the 1970s with two goats and the belief that the greatest gift they could give their children would be to instill them with the work ethic of life on a farm. At the time, goat cheese was not very popular in the United States, so raising goats was something that Larry and Clara did in addition to their day jobs of construction and teaching agricultural science, respectively. It wasn’t until the 1990s that they found cheesemakers to buy their milk and finally in 2008 developed their first cheese.
Today, they have a picturesque goat farm that includes a cheese-making facility, well-appointed country store and a beautiful café, featuring large windows with views of the milking parlor and cheese-aging rooms. Their daughter, Katie Fuhrmann, is the cheesemaker for LaClare farms. In 2011, at the age of 25, she was the youngest person and the second woman to win the U.S. champion award at the United States Championship Cheese Contest for Evalon, a hard, gouda-style goat cheese. We got to try this delicious cheese, along with many others, after hearing the Hedrichs tell us their story and leading us on a tour of the farm and cheese plant.
Listening to Larry and Clara, one of the things that really stood out was the intelligence with which they run their business and the relationships they have with other farmers and cheesemakers. They have been all over to see what works and what doesn’t and is using this knowledge to create a successful business.
Their line of goat milk yogurts was developed using a counter-top yogurt maker that sat in a closet for years after they received it as a wedding present – it’s just one example of how they’ve been able to utilize their resources to the fullest to create something amazing. And lucky for us, we got to try many of their incredible goat milk and goat milk yogurts, in addition to their cheeses.
The Evalon was, of course, delicious, as was a cows’ milk version called Grevalon for which Katie was experimenting. Chandoka is a wonderful goats’ milk cheddar and is available in either its standard form or as a cloth-bound aged wheel.
Don’t forget the cheese curds!
Another revelation of the trip was enjoying their goat cheese curds – delectable on their own, deep-fried as part of our lunch at their cafe. Deep-fried cows’ milk cheese curds are great, too, but the goats’ milk curds had a lighter, fluffier quality when fried that made me want to skip over the cows’ milk ones. Luckily, we have begun carrying their goat cheese curds in our cheese shops, so I can recreate this experience at home.
You might assume after two cheese tastings and a cheese-filled lunch we would be tired of cheese. Nope. Not even close, which was good, because immediately after lunch we headed to Denmark for a tour and tasting of BelGioioso cheese.
The tour of BelGioioso was a much different experience, due to the larger scale of their cheese-making operation. We put on lab coat-style jackets, hairnets and wore headsets, so that we would be able to hear our guide over the noise of the factory as we went on our tour.
Although cheese was being made in much larger quantities here, there was still much that was done by hand. We saw workers cutting, flipping and stacking curd that would become provolone cheese. Elsewhere, someone was feeling the mozzarella, checking to see that it was the right consistency, as it was stretched and formed by machine. We also saw the production of mascarpone, the giant brining tanks that hold the torpedoes of provolone, and tubs of stracciatella, the creamy filling for burrata.
Another thing that was perhaps a bit surprising, given the scale of the cheese-making, was the freshness of the milk. All of the milk comes from farms within a 30-mile radius of the factory. And at the height of mozzarella-making season, they can’t get the milk from farm to cheese vat fast enough.
After the tour, we headed back to BelGioioso’s corporate offices in Green Bay for a tasting of their cheese. It was mostly cheeses that we were familiar with, but more cheese is never a bad thing – and it was interesting to hear them talk about their business.
New finds at the farmer’s market
On our way to dinner, we saw a farmer’s market near the restaurant, so we made an impromptu stop to wander around and sample more cheese, of course! It is where I saw and ate ground cherries for the first time – they are sort of like a miniature tomatillo with the same papery husk but with a fruity flavor.
Dinner was at Hinterland Brewery Restaurant. The food was great, and I had the first of several positive seafood experiences of the trip. I had a wonderful nduja-crusted whitefish. Also, on this trip I was able to try walleye and perch for the first time; both were delicious. The smoked lake trout at another restaurant was also a winner, so I guess I ate lot of fish on the trip because, apparently, when you are eating pounds of cheese each day you crave something a bit lighter at mealtimes. Except for the deep-fried cheese curds, which we tried to eat on a daily basis because, really, how could you not?
It is Wisconsin after all.