Rarely does a stranger offer to give you a spread of cheese so that you can taste it and assign it adjectives. But that’s precisely what happened to me this past weekend; a local marketing guy, on assignment to write copy for Hidden Springs Creamery, wanted to pick my brain as a cheese book author. I obliged, running through five different offerings from the Westby, WI-based sheep’s milk cheesemaker and sharing my feedback.
Accompanied by my wife — whose palate and love for cheese exceeds my own by a goodly degree — I sat down with a homemade baguette and got to work. What follows are the refined notes from that session.
A general note on sheep’s milk cheese — heavy in protein and very productive from a milk-to-cheese perspective, it can taste rough or musky if handled poorly.
Driftless — This light, foamy, and spreadable cheese is a fascinating attempt to turn sheep’s milk into something resembling a ricotta or chevre. It’s the Hidden Springs signature cheese and, surprisingly, the one we liked least of the five we tried. This is no knock — it was good, light, and a bit lemony or citric, but chased with a slight hay or pasture aftertaste that could be either offputting or charming, depending upon one’s perspective.
Driftless Cranberry and Cinnamon — A skillful adaptation of the plain version of the cheese; the cinnamon flavor was strong but didn’t overpower the freshness of the cheese. The cranberry flavor was a distinct undertone but could have been any number of dried fruits (raisin, cherry, etc.). We tried this the next day spread on cinnamon French toast rounds made from the aforementioned baguette, with real maple syrup — it was a home run.
Driftless Basil and Olive Oil — The strong basil finish to this incarnation makes a clear statement, but doesn’t taste unnatural. The olive oil flavor is a bit more modest, but serves to soften and contextualize the rural note of the base cheese. This stuff could be killer as a ravioli filling or mixed up with gnocchi.
Ocooch Mountain (left, above) — This drier, considerably more solid cheese tasted very much like a sheep-milk salute to aged parmesan — it had a toothsome nuttiness and sweetness. There was a bit of an orange flavor in there somewhere, and an ashy undernote that made for a compelling straight-up tasting, but became elusive when served with bread.
Bad Axe (right, above) — In terms of texture, it was almost like a fresh mozzarella or good string cheese, with a fresh milk flavor that predominates, but a bit more grain and protein.