You can still buy bricks of creamy orange-gold Pinconning at the official Cheese Capitol of Michigan — and from the recipe that founder Dan Horn brought from neighboring Wisconsin when in 1915 the state had such a surplus of milk that it went recruiting for an expert cheesemaker.
But Pinconning Cheese & Fudge Shoppe owner Brian Saha today mixes things up to please more adventurous eaters. Blending Michigan morels and leeks into the special aged colby recipe is one favorite; he even offers fresh, squeaky curds, battered and ready for deep frying.
Elsewhere in the state, cheesemaking is being inspired not just by a century-old recipe, Michigan forest finds and tasty bar food, but by the French countryside, the Italian Alps and the terroir of the state itself. The art is being practiced at spots like a Buddhist collective teeming with baby goats and a northern Michigan cheese barn in which two artisan makers share space but craft their own distinct styles.
Start your sampling with:
Sweet Swiss and an Italian Taleggio; Boss Mouse Cheese and Saltless Seas Creamery (Kingsley)
If Buddhist mantras are the soundtrack for Bella Luna cheese, rock and roll is more likely to be blaring from speakers at this Kingsley farm, though you also may detect the sweet sound of collaboration.
Something of a mighty mouse herself, Boss Mouse founder Sue Kurta blended experience from careers in rock and roll and corporate banking with apprenticeships with some of the top East Coast cheesemakers to found a Kingsley-based operation (bossmousecheese.com) now going on 10 years.
You can buy her fresh hand-pulled mozzarella when summer markets are filled with ripe tomatoes and basil, but her bestseller is her Swiss. “I don’t even know why,” she said of the cheese’s success. “But we call it sweet Swiss. It’s salt free, and you get this really nutty, sweet milk taste.”
For more than a year, she’s been mentoring cheesemaker David Omar (saltlesssea.com), who brought his childhood experiences of making fresh cheese with Middle Eastern-born grandparents and experience in cheese shops like Zingerman’s to the collaboration. Omar draws inspiration mostly from Italy, even in his Americano, an Italian semisoft, washed-rind product with a distinctly Michigan addition: craft beer. Instead of soaking the cheese in a water brine, the classic way, he substitutes a 2:1 mixture of brown and amber ales.
“It isn’t as fruity as a traditional taleggio; it has a real nice savory maltiness,” he said. “You get that sweet cream, then a malty/savory flavor with a bit of salt. It’s big and funky.”
A French Crottin, White Lotus Farms (Ann Arbor)
Listen to Amy Blondin describe the making of her favorite Bella Luna cheese, and you’ll easily pick up on the founding mission of this Buddhist collective: to bring happiness and goodness through meaningful, creative work — in this case inspired by French markets teeming with baguettes, good coffee, fresh vegetables and fine cheese. In this farm and creamery with twice-weekly on-site markets (whitelotusfarms.com), there’s also the additional fun of Nigerian dwarf goat babies frolicking in the fields of brambles, nettles and yarrow on which they graze.
“It’s all these little layers of cheese curd we hand ladle into little molds,” Blondin said of the making of her French-inspired “croissant” of the cheese world. “It’s almost sculptural, and it’s very meditative.”
Each tiny packet, or crottin, is delicately hand-flipped, drained, unhooped, patted dry, salted with fine grain sea salt, drained, put on mats and flipped daily in an aging fridge. When ready to eat, they have the “yeasty, buttery mushroom flavors of a fine French cheese, when aged a bit a flavor more brothy, savory and dense,” she noted. “We call them babies because they’re delicate and small and they are needy; we try to do our mantras, mindfulness practices while we’re making the cheese. There’s a lot of love that goes into them.”
No one appreciates craft cheeses more than Saha, owner of Pinconning Cheese & Fudge Shoppe (pinconningcheese.com), and he doesn’t expect Pinconning to give up its state title anytime soon, not with the generations of Michiganders who grew up with Pinconning as a picnic snack on their way north driving production of some 70,000 pounds a year.
Amish-raised cows and a secret recipe that increases the moisture and cream content of traditional colby are keys to the distinct tang and creaminess offered by his company and Wilson’s Cheese Shoppe, which also uses the original recipe.
“It’s been a standard in our state for more than 100 years; those who’ve enjoyed it over the years know what I’m talking about, and anybody who does not has to try it,” he said. “Once they taste our cheese, they won’t go back to just any variety. That’s been our goal over the years.” ≈
Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Traverse City.