The Culture of Artisanal Cheese-making

From Leelanau to metro Detroit, Michigan artisinal cheesemakers wedge into the gourmet food market.
Photographs by Cybelle Codish

There’s new reason for “say cheese” to elicit a smile.

Cheese-making is taking off in Michigan, with dairies and creameries popping up from Leelanau to Royal Oak. Michigan boasts a nationally recognized raclette, an earthy phocas from West Michigan, and a wide variety of goat cheese.

“Are we poised to beat Wisconsin in production of artisanal cheese?” the Michigan Cheese Makers Cooperative asks rather breathlessly on its website homepage.

If we manage to best our neighboring state, it will be due, in part, to the efforts of devoted cheesemakers like Jonathan Clemmer, owner of Royal Oak-based Crossroads Creamery. Clemmer, who in his day job works as a research nurse with Henry Ford Health System, has spent years devoting much of his free time to learning the craft of cheese-making.

“I was living in New York about 12 years ago, and [while shopping at] Dean & DeLuca, asked on a whim if they needed any part-time help,” Clemmer says. “That was my first cheese gig. It really whet my appetite. I really wanted to understand the process more of what it takes to make something delicious that other people can enjoy.”

The next decade included a cheese-making course at California Polytechnic Institute, a cross-country road trip to visit small dairy farms, and an internship at Goat Lady Dairy in North Carolina. In late 2008, Clemmer moved to Royal Oak to be with his partner, Wayne State University theater professor Michael Barnes, and finally began to realize his cheese-making dream.

“Cheese is sort of the perfect food, in a way,” he says. “It’s a natural way of transforming something that has a limited shelf life into something that could last years, potentially. From milk and rennet and culture, the things that you can do are unbelievable. It all depends on temperature, time, and motion — and salt at the end of the process. You can make all the cheeses in the world from those things. It’s kind of a magical process, and people spend their whole lives learning it.”

Jonathan Clemmer, owner of Crossroads Creamery in Royal Oak

Last year, Clemmer opened Crossroads, buying goat curd in bulk from a family farm in North Carolina and then turning it into delectable spreads and logs. Flavors include basil and garlic, fig and honey, and triple heat (with jalapeño, habanero, and horseradish). He and Barnes sell their products at farmers markets in Birmingham and Farmington.

“When he started doing this, I thought, this is kind of nuts,” Barnes says. “But I’ve been able to develop a co-passion, I would say, for what he fell in love with.”

Birmingham Market Master Richard Hobson, known to many as Cousin Don, says “the boys,” as he calls Clemmer and Barnes, are a perfect fit for the city’s market.

“When you start looking at the boys and look at the product that they have, it’s the best of the best,” he says. “I’m sure there are other people doing goat cheese who are just as good, but I just happen to have them in my neighborhood. How great is that?”

Crossroads has landed squarely in the middle of a nationwide trend, one that is also peculiarly local. Nationally, the drive toward healthy, locally, and sustainably grown food is driving the growth in farmers markets, small family farms, and organic produce. In metro Detroit, the area’s wide swaths of open land, lack of high-quality food in the city, and enthusiastic urban-farming movement are creating ripe conditions for do-it-yourself operations that give foodies the chance to try their hands at creating their own product.

LaDonna Gillespie, manager of the gourmet-cheese shop at Holiday Market in Royal Oak, says that at the annual conference of the American Cheese Society (ACS), a non-profit devoted to promoting American-made cheese, the trend is toward cheesemakers who are “middle-aged, tired of corporate life, they just want little bit of serenity, and were probably foodies to start out with.

“They were lawyers, executives, and said, ‘This is not for me,’ and got out of it. Now they’re feeding goats and milking them.”

It was the ACS that catapulted the Leelanau Cheese Company’s aged raclette to national cheese fame, awarding it its highest prize in a blind taste test in 2007.

Typically, new cheesemakers start selling their product at farmers markets and slowly build a clientele, Gillespie says. The clients will often ask their local market to carry the cheese, or cheesemakers can use a broker such as Eat Local to peddle the product for them.

“I’ll try the cheese and if we like it, we’ll give it a try,” Gillespie says. Holiday carries cheeses from about a half-dozen Michigan companies, including Zingerman’s and Traffic Jam and Snug. She says she’s seeing more raw-milk cheeses from the United States, and more flavored varieties of all cheeses.

Clemmer says he isn’t aiming for retail stores like Holiday just yet. He offers about 14 products, depending on the season (look for Michigan maple and cherry in the coming months). He’d like to expand into cow’s milk cheese, and imagines one day having an urban dairy, along the lines of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle’s Pike Place Market or the Mozzarella Co. in downtown Dallas, with a couple of acres in the city and a herd of goats.

“It’s a fantasy, but it would be, I think, the ultimate expression of the back-to-the-land movement the city is considering right now,” he says. “You have to get to that critical point where you can’t grow anymore because of the limitations of the rest of your life. I think any food entrepreneur goes through that growth process where you’re stretched on both sides before you can make the giant leap over to your passion.”

The customer profile of tasting bars? Shasta Fase sums it up: “Foodies, of course, but a whole span of every walk of life. Young and old alike.”

Frank Agostini and Tony Belli, proprietors of E.G. Nick’s, a restaurant right across Forest Street from Old World Olive Press in Plymouth, can testify to the appeal. They put a bottle of Tuscan herb olive oil from their neighbors’ shop on every one of their 75 tables as a dipping sauce for the house soft breadsticks.

The reaction has been “fantastic,” Agostini says. “People really enjoy it.”

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