Two weeks after attending the American Cheese Society conference last summer in Madison, beginning cheesemaker Anna Landmark was so inspired, she quit her job as a policy research director for a Wisconsin non-profit and took the plunge into full-time cheesemaking. Today, she’s co-founder of Landmark Creamery, one of the state’s most promising up-and-coming cheese brands, and is crafting smallbatch seasonal cheeses from the milk of cows, sheep and water buffalo.
While Anna’s story isn’t necessarily uncommon—during the past decade a burgeoning artisanal cheese movement has taken America by storm— Wisconsin is a bit more challenging for cheesemaker entrepreneurs because “America’s Dairyland” takes its title and reputation seriously.
As home to more dairy farms and cheese plants than any other state, Wisconsin’s dairy industry is highly regulated. Every cheesemaker must be licensed and every dairy plant regularly inspected. Just becoming a licensed cheesemaker is at least an 18-month process, requiring 240 apprenticeship hours, five university short courses and scoring a passing grade on an intensive written exam. Making cheese full-time in Wisconsin would be daunting enough to most any ordinary beginner, let alone one like Anna, who does not own a milking herd or cheesemaking facility.
But then again, Anna Landmark is not your average beginner. After earning a $2,500 scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals in 2012, she began devoting every spare moment to earning her license and networking with current Wisconsin cheesemakers. Married with two small children, Anna and her husband own a six-acre farm near Albany, where they raise heritage breed sheep, chickens, one goat, a cow and a few horses. But she made the decision early on not to have her own herd of milking animals and, instead, to focus on making cheese. “I would rather support other dairies by buying their milk than being a dairy farmer myself,” she says.
She also made the decision to farm out the marketing side of her new career. Enter Anna Thomas Bates, local food writer and proponent of sustainable food. The two met at a potluck for Green County Women in Sustainable Agriculture in 2012 and grew closer after realizing their 4-year-olds were in the same 4-K class at school. Drinking homemade old fashioneds at the kitchen table one night last fall, the pair agreed on a partnership where Landmark would make the cheese and Thomas Bates would handle marketing and sales. The rest, as they say, is becoming history, as Landmark buys milk and rents cheesemaking time at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, making a variety of seasonal, small batch cheeses including these:
Petit Nuage. Translating as “little clouds,” this is a fresh and creamy French-style cheese, made from sheep milk in small buttons with a delicate basketweave pattern. It’s perfect as a single portion and even better with an heirloom tomato, drizzle of olive oil and pinch of cracked black pepper. Petit Nuage is available when sheep are milked, April to September.
Nuage Noir. This is Petit Nuage, only darker and funkier. Dusted with vegetable ash and aged just 10 to 14 days, Nuage Noir sports a thin white rind with ashy smudges. With a slightly fudgy interior, Nuage Noir develops a stronger flavor as it ages. Available spring through fall.
Tallgrass. Hand-crafted from the pasture-grazed milk of PastureLand Cooperative in the heart of Green County, this cheese’s rind is rubbed with smoked paprika and olive oil and then aged six months. The result is a buttery, creamy paste with a mild tang and a musty finish. Tallgrass will debut this spring and is expected to be available year-round.
Bawdy Buffalo. This washed rind, Taleggio-style cheese is crafted from Wisconsin water buffalo milk and boasts a stinky, meaty personality, with creamy interior. Aged six weeks to develop a sticky, flavorful orange rind, it’s a perfect companion to honey and a plate of cured meats. Availability varies, but it is typically around from June to January.
In addition, Landmark is working on three new cheeses. First is Anabasque, a cave-aged Basque-style sheep milk cheese with a nutty flavor. Then there’s a yet-to-be-named young and creamy Dutch-inspired sheep milk cheese made with herbs and spices. Finally, she’s putting the finishing touches on Prairie Thistle, a unique sheep milk cheese using rennet made from the Cardoon thistle, a goal of Landmark’s from the very beginning.
“I also have dreams of a sheep milk, English-style, bandaged cheddar, perhaps in a couple years,” Landmark says.
Landmark Creamery cheeses are available online at landmarkcreamery.com and in Madison retail outlets, including Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale, Fromagination, Willy Street West and Hy-Vee West. You’ll also find them in Monroe at Alp and Dell, and at the Cheese Shop in Paoli. They are on the menu at a host of restaurants, including HotelRED and Merchant in Madison, as well as Wolf Peach and Blue Jacket in Milwaukee. Come spring, Landmark and Thomas Bates will also be at several local farmers markets.
“This year will be our first full year of cheesemaking operating as a partnership,” Landmark says. “We are planning on working hard getting a lot of people to taste our cheese and recognize our name, along with perfecting our line. We also hope to make headway financing and designing our own cheese factory.” In five years, the Annas hope Landmark Creamery will be operating its own dairy plant with a retail store and tasting room. They also hope to inspire new sheep dairies and grazing dairies in the Green County area, from which they can buy milk.
“We want our business to promote sustainable agriculture by eating locally and seasonally—the very reasons we love sheep and pasture-grazed milk so much,” Landmark says. “We’re on our way.”