Already famed for its wines, craft beers and innovative farm-to-table cuisine, this northern Michigan resort town is now acquiring a new reputation as a center of artisanal cheesemaking. “People just love cheese. It makes them giddy and goofy -- tasting it, talking about it,” says Sue Kurta,who left a promising career on Wall Street to become the “big cheese” at Boss Mouse, a small-batch creamery in the village of Kingsley, just south of Traverse City. “As foods go, cheese is very accessible.” Even among small cheese operations, Kurta’s one-woman operation is tiny: she produces about 100 pounds of aged natural-rind cheese a week – from an aqed cheddar and a Monasio (an Italian-style”washed curd” cheese that’s a bit like Monterey Jack) to a nutty “sweet Swiss” and several varieties of mozzarella. The area’s reputation for fine cheeses actually began several years ago with the advent of the Leelanau Cheese Co. John Hoyt and his French-born wife, Anne, produce an aged Swiss-style raclette and a variety of soft fresh Fromage Blanc cheeses. When they started their operation – using space behind the wine-tasting room at Black Star Farms, between Traverse City and nearby Suttons Bay -- the Hoyts weren’t sure they could wean customers away from their preference for imported European varieties. They needn’t have worried. After their aged raclette was voted Best of Show at the 24th American Cheese Society competition in 2007, demand for their products has skyrocketed. (It didn’t hurt when superstar chef Mario Batali confessed in the pages of Bon Appetit that he uses their raclette on his pizza.) Traverse City restaurants regularly feature their cheeses, and most retail stores in the area also carry them. Last year they moved into a larger space of their own, where they can substantially increase production. They now produce around 50,000 pounds of cheese per year. And although that may sound like a lot of cheese, they still consider themselves a fairly small-scale operation. “We’re never going to be terribly big because there isn’t enough milk being produced in this area for a really big cheesemaking operation,” says Anne Hoyt. “There just aren’t enough cows.” In keeping with the area’s passion for locally-based agriculture, both the Hoyts and Sue Kurta make their cheese with milk from nearby dairy herds. The Hoyts get theirs from farmer Denis Garvin in the nearby village of Cedar, while Boss Mouse’s milk comes from the same herd that produces Traverse City’s signature ice cream, Moomer’s (voted “best scoop in America” by viewers of “Good Morning America”). But Mark and Amy Spitznagel of Northport have gone a step further: the cheese at their Idyll Farms Creamery is made from milk produced by their own herd of Alpine and Saanen goats. Now in their second year of business, they’re nearing their goal of 150 milking goats – the country’s largest pasture-raised goat herd – producing up to 80,000 pounds of French-style goat cheeses (chevre, camembert, crottin and tommes) a year. They, too, are playing starring roles in the area’s bustling restaurant and farm-market culture. “I think this has the potential to be pretty huge,” says Stuart Mitchell of Cherry Capital Foods, a company that markets products from small farmers and food creators. “Frankly, the sky’s the limit right now. Farm-to-table cuisine is very important to many restaurants, and we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm for cheeses that reflect the taste and personality of this region.” Just as important, local cheesemakers are receiving lots of attention from the traveling public. The new Leelanau Cheese creamery/tasting room was designed expressly with visitors in mind; customers can even watch through a large glass wall as the cheese is made. Idyll Farms, too, is impressive enough to be a destination in its own right. Perched on a high bluff above Lake Michigan, the 200-acre farm is over a century old and features cheese-curing caves made from huge glacial boulders, as well as a handsome set of cupola-topped designer barns and outbuildings. They’re open for scheduled tours, too.
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