One of the beautiful things about American artisanal cheese is that every wedge comes with a story. It’s not an anonymous piece of Brie or Gouda coming from Europe (though we love those cheeses, too). Just the opposite – it’s hard to find an American-made cheese without a captivating tale behind it, whether it be the cheesemaker who bought a goat dairy from her elderly childhood neighbor (Tasia Malakasis of Belle Chevre in Alabama) or the natural resources that have allowed a cheese to flourish (the natural sandstone caves of Faribault Dairy in Minnesota). Shepherd’s Way, the Minnesota farm that produces the Herb and Garlic Queso Fresco pictured above, has gone through many ups and downs in the past five years, but the ultimately hopeful story just makes you cherish its delicious sheep’s-milk cheeses even more.
Spouses Steven Read and Jodi Ohlsen Read founded Shepherd’s Way in 1994 with a small flock of sheep, and within three years it became one of the largest dairy flocks in the state. But in 2005, more than 500 of their East Friesian ewes and lambs perished in an arson fire. Devastated but not defeated, the Reads continued to make limited quantities of cheese by purchasing fresh and frozen sheep’s milk – despite going into foreclosure – and today they have secured new real estate to build their flock again. You can read more about the Reads in my Heavy Table colleague Susan Pagani’s interview with them last year, but let’s move onto the cheese.
The Herb and Garlic Queso Fresco stood out for me because 1) I haven’t eaten much queso fresco outside Mexican restaurants and 2) I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a sheep’s-milk version. But the slice I purchased from Surdyk’s yesterday was a knock-out – cool and creamy with just a hint of garlic on the swallow. Most garlic-studded cheeses hit you over the head with the allium’s flavor, but the subtlety here was refreshing. The cheesemonger told me that in the late summer they can barely keep this cheese in stock since it pairs wonderfully with a thick slice of tomato and a glass of dry white wine. I was too impatient to wait until August and appreciated my wedge solo.
Shepherd’s Way has built up production enough to start distributing its cheese nationally. Check out the list on the website to see if it’s sold at a cheese shop near you. Alternatively, if you’re a Minnesotan, the farm has established a CSA program with pick-up locations in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Northfield.