The Not-So-Lonesome Prairie: Goats!

Oh, Capricorn

WhiteGoatWithBrown

Perhaps when you think of “goat”, you think of Capricorn, the zodiac sign (Caprinae are the class of animal that includes goats and sheep). Not me. When I hear the word “goat”, I think of cheese, delicious goat cheese. And because of that, and my interest in the culinary geography of the Midwest and Plains, I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a goat creamery just outside of Champaign, Illinois (home of the University of Illinois’ main campus).

About Goat Cheese

Goat milk and goat dairy is preferred in some parts of the world. And that includes goat cheeses, which are typically piquant. Many people are familiar with fresh chèvre, the spreadable goat cheese that vaguely resembles cream cheese. Chèvre is creamy, tangy, sprightly, a delightful minuet on the tongue. But goat milk is employed in many other kinds of cheeses. Bûcheron, for example, is a semi-aged cheese, with an edible white bloomy rind covering a firmer ivory layer which in turn encases a softer white, lemony cheese that is spreadable. There are even firm aged goat cheeses.

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery

On a pitch-perfect summer morning, with clichéd cloud-free sky and low humidities, I navigated the detours on N Lincoln Ave to make my way to Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. I arrived at the farm, only to find a “Closed” sign. Well, this was not good. After all, I’d not only messaged them on Facebook to make sure they’d be open, I actually spent the previous night in Champaign to be able to visit them the next day. Undeterred, I drove in and parked my car. The creamery door was closed, but not locked, so I just walked in. And it was devoid of people. I snooped around a bit and finally saw a young woman with an infectious smile on the other side of the glass, working with cheese. She came over to help me. I explained that I was assured they’d be open. The young woman, Lynn (see photo below), was one of the cheesemakers and she, in turn, assured ME that they were certainly open. That they’d sell me some cheese and that I could wander around the farm. Fridays, she said, were less formal. So, we commenced with the tasting (and in my case, the buying!)

Lynn

My Cheese Haul

I tasted a number of wonderful goat cheeses. And I BOUGHT a number of wonderful goat cheeses—Little Bloom on the Prairie (a bloomy rind cheese—think Camembert); Angel Food (another bloomy rind goat cheese—in small rounds); Moonglo, a firm, aged cheese which has a washed rind (a brine is used to bathe the cheese); goat feta (deliciously creamy and tangy); and fresh chévre (which I’ve been enjoying by the spoonful!). Prairie Fruits also makes a raw milk goat cheese call Huckleberry Blue, which is a seasonal product. I didn’t get any because it wasn’t the season!

CheeseHaul

And Now for Something Completely Different: Goat Gelato!

Yes, you read that right. Prairie Fruits makes goat GELATO. As in the frozen dessert. Okay, it was brunch time and I hadn’t eaten (mostly in anticipation of this!), so I was all set to eat some gelato. There were about ten flavors available and I choose individual servings of Espresso and Peaches and Cream. Both were delicious, but the Espresso was especially exquisite! I sat down on one of the farm’s picnic tables to have my late breakfast. I would encourage anyone to swap out their oatmeal or bagel for some goat gelato to start the day!

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Wandering the Grounds

Both Lynn (the cheesemaker) and her colleague Sarah suggested that I wander around the farm. They told me to go visit the barns and see the milking does and the young kids (actually, teenagers by now). So I did (and I am sharing a few photos with you). I got a chance to see the pen where the retired does were frolicking as well. The goats’ eyes were soft, yet animated.

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A Chat with Wes Jarrell

Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery is owned by the husband-and-wife duo of Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperbrand, former academics (see, friends, there IS life after academe! Rich life, too!) While I was enjoying my gelato, Wes came over, sat down, and chatted with me for a bit. That’s how I found out he had been a professor (even a department head at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I believe). We talked about the farm, about people not understanding (or paying for) the true value of food (remember that a lot of what you eat is subsidized and benefits big corporations). He told me about the gelato (how they had someone go to Europe to study gelato-making); the gelato, I found out, was a pretty new product for them. We talked about agricultural sustainability and organic farming (and they are NOT necessarily synonymous!) Mr. Jarrell was very, very generous with his time. He also shared with me that Prairie Fruits supplies the restaurants of Rick Bayless, the noted chef with some stellar restaurants in Chicago. With this kind of background, I knew I’d be enjoying those cheese very much upon my return to Muncie; it took a fair amount of willpower not to pull the car off the interstate and dig into my purchases.

Will I Be Back? In a Word, YES!

I should have bought more cheese. I know I’ll run out soon. That makes this Flyover Tapan sad. BUT, I will be back, maybe with some friends of mine! People, if you are at all interested in local and regional products and you love food, you owe it to yourself to visit Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery.

Little Bloom on the Prairie
A runny Little Bloom on the Prairie
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Saying “No” to Monsanto et al: Cedar Grove Cheese and rBGH-free Cheese

What is rBGH?

The term rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone, a piece of lab-produced genetic engineering that spurs lactating cows to increase their milk production, often with some nasty side effects. The “recombinant” comes from a particular DNA technology that permitted this hormone to be synthesized in the lab. Initial approval for this hormone was granted to Monsanto, although other companies (e.g. Eli Lilly) also produced this hormone.

The Controversy

One of the most controversial aspects of treating cows with rBGH concerns its linkage to increased episodes of mastitis, in which the udders become inflamed. This causes the cows not only serious pain, but it can also be fatal (though this is not typical). Additionally, while negative effects on humans have not been definitively proven, the potential for adverse health effects on humans has led many countries to ban rBGH, including Canada, Japan, Australia, Argentina, and the European Union countries.

Enter Cedar Grove Cheese

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Located in the small town of Plain, Wisconsin, amid the hills and valleys of Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, Cedar Grove Cheese has been producing rBGH-free cheese since 1993. In fact, Cedar Grove was the first cheese producer in the United States to insist on rBGH-free milk from the farmers it purchases its milk from. The farmers have pledged to meet this criterion and all Cedar Grove cheeses are rBGH-free.

Cedar Grove’s health and environmental passions are evident in ways beyond rBGH-free cheese. Their wastewater is treated by something called a “Living Machine”, which combines plants and microbes to cleanse the water so that it can be safely let into nearby Honey Creek. From the Cedar Grove Cheese website:

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The Living Machine

The Living Machine is designed to be a working ecosystem. It uses natural microbes and a collection of hydroponic plants. Washwater is biologically processed back into clean water that is discharged into Honey Creek.

The Cedar Grove Cheese washwater comes from cleaning milk trucks, tanks and cheese making equipment. This includes the pasteurizer, cheese vats and cream separator. This water contains soaps and chlorinated, acidic and caustic cleaners, and some cheese particles, milk and whey.

The washwater is collected and mixed in an underground 6,000-gallon equalization tank outside the factory. The Living Machine handles an average of 7,000 gallons of washwater per day.

It takes 3 to 4 days for water to travel through this system. Each tank extends four feet below gravel level, and holds approximately 2,600 gallons. Tanks are connected by 4 inch pipes a foot beneath the gravel. Water flows through the plant by gravity.

The water first flows through closed aerobic tanks, where bacteria and other tiny organisms begin to break down the residues and particles. The next tanks add wetland plants, whose roots trail in the water and provide a new ecosystem for more diverse microbial populations. The plants also use the nutrients in the water to grow. After this process, the solids are allowed to settle. Much of this residue is used to fertilize fields. The remaining clear water is run through filters several more times before flowing into nearby Honey Creek.

The Living Machine uses a natural process in washwater treatment. It is able to remove 99% of the biological oxygen demand, 98% of the suspended solids, 93% of total nitrogen and 57% of phosphorus.

The Cheeses

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Cedar Grove produces a variety of cheeses, with many of them being familiar varieties (e.g. Colby, Havarti, Monterey Jack). You can find these listed on their website. These are traditional cheeses, ones that most consumers would be aware of. I’ve sampled some of these when I visited and they are tasty. But Cedar Grove also produces artisan cheeses!

Ah, the artisanal varieties of Cedar Grove’s cheeses. Interestingly, not all are made from cows’ milk! Their Banquo, Fleance, Montague, Donatello, and Feta are sheep milk cheeses. They make both a goat milk cheddar AND Capriko, which is a cheddar-style cheese incorporating both goat and cow milks. But that’s not all! Cedar Grove even produces a water buffalo cheese, the water buffalo mozzarella!

I Curd It Through the Grapevine

Okay, prior to my visit to Wisconsin last summer, I’d never actually had cheese curds. Cheese curds are a product of cheddar-making (and cheddaring itself is a type of process used in making cheddar cheese). Remember the Little Miss Muffett nursery rhyme, where she’s “eating her curds and whey”? Curds form when a coagulant is added to the milk, which causes a separation of the whey and the solid curd. These particular curds are basically fresh cheddar cheese before it is removed and processed into blocks or slabs. Well, Cedar Grove sells a variety of curds (very fresh!—if you get them at a supermarket, they are likely fairly old). And they sell flavored varieties. I decided to make a lunch of cheese curds (hey, I was in Wisconsin), so I bought the Tomato and Basil variety. Let me tell you, these things are mighty addictive. I pulled over at a rest stop along I-90 in Minnesota to eat my curds (I’d bought a pound) and half of that bag disappeared entirely TOO quickly.

Anyway, this blog post serves as your introduction to Flyover Country’s Cedar Grove Cheese, as well as providing some insight into their role in providing consumers with rBGH-free cheeses. Go to their website or, even better, stop by for a visit!

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Book Review: Locally Grown by Anna Blessing

Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland

If there is one idea, one image, one thing that seems to be endemic in the minds and imaginations of the many of the rest of America, it’s that the Midwest and Plains are full of bucolic family farms, where chickens run at the feet of wholesome children and every supper is chock full of home-baked bread, hearty pickles, and meat from one’s own herd. Well, there may still be some of that, but the reality is that much of the agriculture in the Flyover States is industrial and that the family farm has a difficult time surviving against the corporate invasion. But there ARE some farms (and farmers) that fit, well, maybe not quite the picture painted above but perhaps something similar or even better.

Tucked into an industrial monoculture agricultural model are small farms producing heirloom produce and artisanal goods. Some of these farms have been in the same family for generations; others have been started by people who are new to farming, but have deep-seated beliefs about how food should be raised (e.g. organically). What farms like these share is a commitment to personal values.

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Thanks to Anna Blessing’s informative (and inspiring) book Locally Grown, you have a chance to meet the people who grow heirloom vegetables and humanely raise poultry and livestock on a smaller, more local scale. Blessing’s book allows us to chat with (via book form) those farmers who are breaking away from the monocultural, industrial model. The reader can find out about the farming practices used by these farmers. We get to meet Greg Gunthorp, of Lagrange, Indiana’s Gunthorp Farms, who raises meat and poultry. We meet Mick Klug and his daughter Abby, who raise fruits and vegetables in southwestern Michigan. We meet Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband, who run Champaign, Illinois’ Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, a farmstead goat creamery. These producers—and others—are featured in the book.

The book’s subtitle is Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, but Blessing is really focusing on farms known to supply some of Chicago’s best restaurants. So, that means the book does have a Chi-town-centric approach, but it’s accessible nonetheless. The photography is inviting and enough information is given so that the Heartland foods enthusiast can track down the growers by themselves. And, of course, a link to restaurants and their chefs (e.g. Rick Bayless) means that you’ll find recipes in Locally Grown as well! The recipes utilize the foods grown or made by the producers featured in the book, but you can certainly use what you find at your local farmers market. A few recipes might have ingredients that are difficult to find—I don’t think, for example, that I’ve ever seen a lipstick pepper in my life—but one can easily find substitutes for such elements.

In short, Anna Blessing’s Locally Grown is a welcome addition to any cooking enthusiast or any person interested in foods produced in a more sustainable and local manner. She sheds light on what has been, up to now, an unfortunately neglected part of America’s food culture.

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Kalona Organics and Kalona Supernatural—Flyover Dairy Product Stars

Iowa, Again!

Previously, I’ve written about Iowa’s local and organic food culture. I’ve written about the incredible farmers market density of the state. I’ve (briefly) discussed Seed Savers Exchange (which will be the subject of a longer post one of the these days). I lived in Iowa City (home to the University of Iowa) for a year, where I quickly learned that a sizeable proportion of the community had an interest in eating well and eating fairly. Remember, I joined the local natural food cooperative before I spent an entire night in the town. Therefore, it was no real surprise to me to find out that an organic foods business (Kalona Supernatural), was founded nearby. What DID surprise me was that it was based in Kalona!

Kalona?

The booming metropolis of Kalona (population 2363 as of the 2010 census) is located in Washington County, Iowa, about 20 miles southwest of Iowa City. It is proximate to many Amish and Mennonite farms; indeed, their settlement of the area preceded the Civil War. I’ve been to Kalona—needed to get my buggy fix (I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country)—and found it a quaint, pleasant town, a good place for antique shopping (which, incidentally, I Do. Not. Do.) But the town has local businesses and very friendly people. And Amish and Mennonites.

Kalona Organics

Kalona Supernatural’s founder and visionary is Bill Evans, whose knowledge of finance and connection to the farming community and land led him to form Kalona Organics back in 2005. His vision allowed for local organic farms (largely Amish and Mennonite) to thrive without giving up their ideals. Kalona Organics offered Farmer’s All-Natural Creamery Milk and Cultural Revolution Yogurt, among other products.

Kalona Supernatural

In 2010, the Kalona Organics brands were all placed under the Kalona Supernatural™ brand. Today, Kalona Supernatural distributes an array of (mostly) dairy products, including milk, buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt (regular and Greek), butter, and eggs. The milk is not homogenized, which means you’ll find a layer of cream on top (most mass-market milks ARE homogenized, which

And T-shirts, apparently.

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Oh, That Divine Cottage Cheese

That #@%& is good. Seriously good. And addictive. Boy, am I glad dietary fats are “in” again, as Kalona Supernaturals whole-milk (read: full-fat) is not something I want to give up anytime soon. Indeed, I like to place a scoop (okay, a BIG scoop) on an avocado half and call it breakfast. And get this—IT’S CREAM TOP!!! That means you can see actual cream on top of the cottage cheese. The cottage cheese is made from organic milk that comes from grass-fed cows (you know, the milk I just described above). While most cottages cheeses tend to be bland, unexciting, additions to a sad diet, Kalona Supernatural Organic Whole Milk Cottage Cheese is amazingly delicious (and, I might add, the reduced-fat cottage cheese is also quite tasty!) There is no way that this would be reduced to an appearance on a pathetic “diet plate”.

Where to Find

Nationally, you can find Kalona Supernatural products in Whole Foods and Earth Fare stores (at least the ones near me). I am lucky enough to also be able to find them in Muncie at The Downtown Farm Stand.

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And, if that “Lose Weight” New Year’s Resolution doesn’t pan out…

Then it’s time for some Candinas Chocolate, from Madison, Wisconsin, where it’s been located since 1994!

Candinas

They operate a retail store in downtown Madison, just off Capitol Square (as well as factory in Verona, WI).

That said, I’m really not happy with “lose weight” being such a popular resolution. Be happy and comfortable in your skin. And is a life without chocolate (or cheese) really worth living? 🙂

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL! MAY 2015 BRING YOU GASTRONOMIC GOODNESS FROM AMERICA’S HEARTLAND!

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