Leelanau Cheesemakers recieve international acclaim
Michigan is home to a rapidly expanding beer scene, a history of pasties, and also: world award winning cheese.
The Leelanau Cheese company first started making cheese in 1995. The company is a small shop with just a handful of employees owned by a husband a wife team: Anne and John Hoyt. Anne, as you're about to hear, is French.
“We moved to Blackstar Farms in 2000, we bought this property four years ago exactly and we moved in three years ago.”
Anne walks me out to their new cheese cellar, a door in the side of a hill just off of Bay Shore Drive in Suttons Bay. It looks a little bit like a giant Hobbit home.
Before we walk into the cellar Anne dips her rain boots into two separate tubs of water: one at each set of doors leading into the cellar.
“We make food and we work with raw milk so it’s very important to be super clean so we can sleep at night. We don’t have to worry about all the problems that come in the food industry”
Inside the cellar is cool, dark, and humid. Cheese wheels of varying sizes line several rows of wooden shelves leading to the back, where a worker is washing a cheese wheel..
“We wash the rind with a brine. The brine is made out of salt and water and…. A little secret.”
Anne tells me there are roughly fifteen hundred cheeses in the cellar right now, all told the cellar can hold two thousand.
“The cheeses need at least three months, minimum three months, before we can sell them. So we take care of the wheels everyday.”
Anne says the aging process is essential to the final product, and although the cheeses in the cooler will sit for different amounts of time...
“This is all one time of cheese. We make a cheese called raclette, it’s a swiss variety. We make everything here but the recipe is from Switzerland. It’s an alpine cheese.”
Before aging the cheese, it first has to be made. Anne shows me around the companies creamery.
“We go to a dairy farm in the morning and pick up the milk. We have a small little truck that we call the milky way.”
Once they have the milk the truck will hook it into stainless steel pipes that cross the walls of the creamery and end in kettle drums, one of which can hold 300 gallons of milk.
“So the steps are bringing in the milk, cooling the milk down, adding the cultures, then we mix it adding the enzymes. Then we cut the curd, separating the whey from the curd, and we dry the curd until the cheese maker decides it’s ready to be taken out and the cheese is made.”
So how did a French maker of swiss cheese end up in Traverse City?
“I’m from France but I went to Switzerland to work as a Shepherd and I met my husband John, who is actually from Detroit, but he was working as a cheese maker on a farm in the mountains.”
John, Anne’s husband, picks up the story from here.
“She was hiking with some friends and came up to our farm and visited and started helping us milk cows and we sort of became a team”
Together the two learned to make cheese from Swiss cheese makers and then moved back to Detroit. While John was finishing his degree the two of them explored the state.
“We took trips up to this area and the UP and all around Michigan. We found this place really beautiful and there was a blossoming wine industry at the time with just four vineyards going on. We said this could be the place to try and set up the cheese business.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Anne explains their recent trip to Spain where the World Cheese Competition was held last November.
“There were over 3,000 cheeses in the competition and only 66 best of class or supergold and Leelanau Cheese raclette was one of them.”
Leelanau Cheese was one of two cheeses in the country to receive recognition.
“We are now listed in the worlds 66 best cheese and it’s a great honor. We must be doing something right.”
Before I leave Anne and John give me a wedge of their world famous raclette and explain to me how it should be eaten: warmed up and spread over potatoes with a side of pickles.
But, despite my best efforts, the cheese doesn’t even make it back from Traverse City, I eat the whole wedge on the ride home, fistfulls at a time.
But hey, can you really blame me? It’s one of the best cheeses in the world.