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Thursday, May 24, 2012 06:11 pm

Prairie Fruits Farm brings its cheeses to farmers market


Prairie Fruits Farm kids (a.k.a. young goats) have their own special playground.

I start anticipating them each year as winter melts into spring: Springfield’s farmers markets. It’s not just because of the local produce and products I can buy, although that’s a big part of it. It’s also about getting reacquainted with longtime vendors. And it always gladdens my heart to see new farmers and vendors who’ve decided to invest the considerable time, planning and lots of extremely hard work that it takes to become part of our local food system.

This year my anticipation of Springfield’s farmers markets has been in especially high gear. On May 26 there’ll be a new vendor to the Old State Capitol Farmers Market, one I’ve wished would come to Springfield for years: Prairie Fruits Farm in Urbana.

As the name suggests, Prairie Fruits Farm grows fruit. Owners (and former soil science professors) Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell bought their farm in 2003 and planted more than 350 fruit trees and 600 berry plants in 2004. But fruit trees take years to come to fruition, and even berry bushes don’t produce immediately. These days PFF does sell some fruits, but what they’re best known for are the products of something else Jarrell and Cooperband started in 2004 – the three Nubian does and one buck that became the foundation of their dairy goat herd.

 When I say that PFF’s artisanal cheeses are well known, I don’t mean to just a few central Illinois cheese-heads. PFF’s cheeses have been touted in top food magazines. They’re on the menus at some of America’s most renowned restaurants, especially in Chicago. They’re available in some of America’s best cheese shops; most recently including Murray’s in Manhattan, arguably the best – and certainly the most universally known – in the U.S.

I’ve been fortunate to have visited PFF, gotten to know Cooperband and Jarrell, and tasted their wonderful cheeses almost from the beginning.

When I first came to PFF in 2006, a multitude of baby goats rushed to a fence as I stepped out of my car, their faces squashed together, bodies almost obscure, in an impossible-to-resist pleading of “love me, pet me, love me.” There was a barn, a pristine milking room, an even more pristine room where the cheeses were made, and a temperature- and humidity-controlled room for aging the cheeses.

Since then, I’ve been back to PFF several times a year, mostly for “Breakfasts on the Farm” and “Dinners on the Farm” events – both highly recommended, although reservations for the dinners sell out faster than tickets for rock reunion concerts. (For more information, visit PFF website, www.prairiefruits.com/ or my 3/25/10 column.)

Most recently, I visited PFF to see how their operation had grown and changed, and to talk to Cooperband, Jarrell and others involved in making such extraordinary cheeses in such an extraordinarily special place.

Calling PFF an operation seems clinical. But there’s nothing clinical about PFF except the cleanliness in every aspect of their dairy/creamery.

PFF’s goat herd now numbers 70. There are four curing rooms with different humidity levels and temperatures to provide the perfect environment for curing and/or aging the individual types of cheeses.

During my recent visit, as the goats filed into the milking room, it was clear they were completely content to be there, taking little notice as Jarrell dipped their teats into a sterilizing solution, then hooked them up to an apparatus that takes the milk directly into a stainless steel holding vat. (The actual milking takes about 15 minutes.)

Each goat is named, and the names aren’t perfunctory. Even facing just the goats’ backsides and full udders, Jarrell and Cooperband knew them individually, knew which give the most milk, and those with quirky personalities.

Initially Cooperband was solely responsible for crafting the cheeses, but as PFF has grown, she’s enlisted help. These days Alison Olewnik and Nat Bjerke-Harvey are in charge of the day-to-day cheese-making. Goats produce milk (especially the best and most milk) only seasonally, and that prime season is now, so the couple is working extraordinarily long days, with only Sundays off. At PFF the milk is never more than two days old before it begins its transformation into cheese; most begin the process within four to eight hours.

A few years ago, PFF began adding sheep’s milk cheeses to their repertoire. A hundred gallons of sheep’s milk comes from an Amish farmer twice a week. One of the reasons that goat’s milk and goat cheeses are not as common as those from cows is that the yield is so much less. Sheep yield even less milk per animal, but so many sheep and goat milk cheeses are so exceptional, they’re worth the extra effort and cost.

 Bjerke-Harvey and Olewnik met while working at Pastoral, Chicago’s premier cheese shop. “Eventually we became interested in how [cheeses] are made as opposed to selling them,” Bjerke-Harvey says. The two attended an intensive course at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese before moving to Champaign/Urbana and beginning their work at PFF.

“Alison and Nat are some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, and I would trust no other couple more to take on the responsibility of crafting the delicious art that is PFF’s cheese,” says cheese expert and Springfield native Patrick Knox. Knox was also working at Pastoral when he met the couple. His primary job as the head buyer’s assistant particularly emphasized domestic cheeses. After traveling throughout America in search of outstanding cheeses, Knox is back in Springfield, working at the Sangamo Club and at my daughter’s catering company. I’ll let him describe some of the PFF cheeses that will be available at the OSC Farmers Market every other Saturday, beginning May 26:

“Prairie Fruits cheeses are particularly interesting. Every spring when the animals go to pasture, I anticipate experiencing the flavor spectrum these cheeses offer. The most versatile and recognizable cheese is their chèvre. Available spring through fall, it’s notable for its fresh, grassy, and occasional lemony flavors with a texture that reminds me of homemade ice cream – firm enough to form into heavenly little spheres to enjoy on a cheese plate, crumble into salads or use in an endless number of ways.”

“But man cannot survive on chèvre alone! PFF offers several bloomy rind goat and sheep’s milk cheeses (think Brie) including two of my favorites. One is Angel Food – an unctuous white disc that’s delicate as the name suggests. The interior should be slightly runny like classic French Brie, but with more intense flavors. Angel Food has an elegance that makes it a perfect introduction to goat cheeses and for topping fresh country bread. Then there’s Little Bloom on the Prairie. It has a similar style, but with more intense flavors. Both pair well with fresh fruit, candied nuts, and a glass of something sparkling, or a refreshing wheat beer.

“Then there are PFF’s sheep’s milk cheeses, including Ewe’s Bloom and Black Sheep – the latter being a bloomy rind ash-coated cheese, coated with flavors reminiscent of fresh butter. For bigger and bolder flavors, try one of PFF’s aged cheeses like Kaskaskia or Caprino Romano. Their texture and sharp finish make them perfect to grate over pastas, salads or even something as simple as scrambled eggs that will showcase their rustic flavors.

“Try your favorite cheeses throughout the season, and you’ll notice subtle changes in flavor. Keeping an open mind will open up a larger world of food and flavor!”

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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