My dad is a Maytag man. He’s lived in Iowa going on 40 years, surrounded by the finer pleasures of that rather ho-hum state: good sweet corn, great pork ribs, and fantastic blue cheese. As a kid, I used to look out at the cornfields and wide sky and dream of getting some city grit under my nails. I couldn’t wait to put Iowa behind me. But Pops held steady. He bought a house in the woods and traveled when he could – always with his fiddle –and he learned to appreciate the quiet life. For entertainment, he looks to hummingbirds and his hi-fi.
I spent a week with him in Iowa this month, my longest trip back since I was a teenager. It gave me a chance to eat a dozen ears, read in a hammock, and put together a decent Iowa cheese plate. Used to be that Iowa was my Kraft Cheese Single, but it’s moved up in the world. I was impressed to see a new food co-op, larger than any in my new home city of Philadelphia, and in that food co-op I found an impressive array of local cheeses. Watch out, Wisconsin.
Reichert's Dairy Air, a goat creamery in Knoxville, IA seemed to be the choice of a co-op staffer who was hesitant – as Iowans tend to be – to rave about one cheese over another. Still, I could tell by the way she talked about Reichert's use of fresh herbs, which were “hand-mixed” into the chevre, that she favored this local goat cheese. In her subtle way, she steered me right. This farmstead chevre -- made on a small, sustainable Iowa goat dairy -- was pretty much perfect. (Reichert's also makes Robiola and is the first, if not only, U.S. Robiola maker. Nudge. Nudge.)
Reichert's Chive Chevre was wonderfully creamy, lightly tangy, and…in a word, fresh. I can take or leave most spreadable chevre, which is often dry and clumpy with too much of a Sourpatch twang. It’s good that this chevre came packaged in a sundae cup, because I snuck spoonfuls of it out of the fridge one night and it cured my hankering for soft-serve. (If only there were Mr. Chevre trucks instead of Mr. Softee trucks all over Philadelphia. I’d chase their bleating calls through the neighborhood for chevre like this.)
We also tried a Gouda from Oskaloosa. Cow’s milk. Fruity and mild. Dad, who’s a strong-cheese lover like I am, exclaimed, “Well, that tastes like butter. Only better.” The texture was terrific, but since I like more flavor, I’d like to try the mature Gouda from Frisian Farms Cheese, which is made by the Bandstra Brothers, who raise grass-fed Holsteins.
I left Iowa this week with renewed interest in the state. It’s heartening to see small-batch cheesemakers thriving in a place dominated by agribusiness and factory farms. If you’re curious to try the best of Iowa cheese, this plate’s for you. (All of these cheses are available online.)
Ultimate Iowa Cheese Plate
1. Maytag Blue
Below, my Pops, assisting in a photo shoot for last week's Prairie Breeze post: