Whitney McChane of the Minnesota Cheese Festival
Our sister state to the east might get the lion’s share of the attention in the Upper Midwest when it comes to cheese, but if Whitney McChane gets her way, Minnesota soon will get more street cred. Her first step toward that lofty goal debuts this Sunday with the inaugural Minnesota Cheese Festival. A lifelong caseophile, McChane is confident that enough Minnesotans share her her love of the curd to come to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and immerse themselves in all things cheese.
“I love cheese. I can’t remember a time I haven’t loved cheese. One of my earliest memories is begging my mom for fondue. Now I can’t think of a cheese I don’t love,” she says.
The idea for a Minnesota cheese event sparked a couple of years ago when McChane and her husband took a cheese tour of Wisconsin to celebrate their anniversary, with the trip culminating at the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Annual Festival. A public relations professional by day, McChane had considered making a career change into the cheese world but was reluctant to start over from scratch. She envisioned a Minnesota-based festival as the perfect hybrid of her two worlds. Creating a large-scale food event may be daunting for even the most passionate foodies, but McChane, who as a kid used to pick up rocks from the train tracks near her house and sell them to her neighbors — “I was entrepreneurial from a very young age, if anything, to keep myself entertained” — was ready for the challenge.
“I tried to talk to everyone I could. It was a matter of calling people and knocking on doors and convincing others to participate,” she says.
After getting Sartori Cheese on board — despite the event’s name, both Minnesota and Wisconsin cheesemakers make up the roster — McChane was able to recruit other cheesemakers such as the Caves of Faribault, Alemar Cheese Company and Shepherd’s Way Farm, whose co-owner, Jodi Read, helped McChane expand her network among regional cheesemakers.
“Jodi has been so helpful,” says McChane. “Since the beginning she asked, ‘Have you considered this? Have you talked to this person?’ The fact she’d take time to help me is so awesome.”
Read’s Big Woods Blue anchored a Minnesota cheese plate McChane shared with The Heavy Table recently. Paired with local Ames honey, the bold blue’s spicy veining is tempered only slightly by the sticky sweet honey and proves that there’s no need for a dessert course if you serve up this pairing to guests.
“I like Big Woods Blue’s pungency and stink. It ignites different taste buds. It’s such a complete experience,” McChane adds.
By contrast, the combination of Alemar Cheese Company’s Bent River with a chardonnay and strawberry preserves by Bathtub Gin (below), an artisanal fruit spread made in Nashville, replaces the brisk bite of the blue with the creamy funk of a Camembert-style cheese. The dominant wine flavor of the preserves cuts through the fattiness of the cheese, just as a glass of sparkling wine would — a sophisticated snack that showcases the four star-quality of cheesemaker Keith Adams’ much-lauded creation. The pairing was developed by LeeAnn Zubay of Rochester’s Zzest Market and Cafe, one of the festival’s presenting sponsors.
With about 30 vendors on tap to sample and sell cheese, wine, beer, and other gourmet food items, McChane hopes to attract a diverse crowd of both casual and curd-obsessed fans. In addition to cheese sales, the festival will offer cheese and wine and cheese beer pairing demonstrations with sommelier Leslee Miller of Amusée and cicerone Michael Agnew of A Perfect Pint, and Chef Shack and Gastrotruck also will be on hand to sell their wares. McChane has already presold 3,000 tickets, and tickets will be available the day of the event as well.
“To a point, foodies [are a target audience], because artisan cheese is more money than everyday Kraft singles, but it’s not out of reach for the everyday cheese consumer. The price point is set so people have money left over to buy cheese.”
As she savors the Minnesota cheeses on her tray, McChane is already looking ahead to the second, third, and fourth Minnesota Cheese Festivals, with even more cheesemakers eager to sign up.
“There’s got to be a first time for everything, and hopefully [other cheesemakers] will see the benefit and want to participate in the future,” she says. “I want to have an annual event where the whole family learns where their cheese comes from. I want to show we have a cheese community to be proud of, too.”
The first Minnesota Cheese Festival will be held Sunday, June 3 from 12 to 6pm at the International Bazaar, Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Underwood Street and Judson Avenue, Falcon Heights. Tickets are $15 each.