In my dreams, the U.S. will someday produce aged sheep’s milk cheeses that rival the finest from Europe—the Basque cheeses from the Pyrenees; the pecorinos from Tuscany, Sicily and Sardinia; the Manchego, Roncal and Zamorano from Spain. We are getting close on quality, but I’m not sure we’ll ever compete on price. Europe’s cheesemakers typically have lower land and labor costs and fewer costly regulations. In some cases, they benefit from government-funded marketing support and operate at a volume that makes for efficiencies.
Recently I paid almost $40 a pound for Anabasque, a new sheep cheese from Wisconsin. Worth it? I probably ate a couple of ounces, so that made it a five-dollar dessert. I won’t be snacking on it nightly, but I’m willing to splurge on occasion to encourage new cheesemakers who show promise.
Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark are the young entrepreneurs behind Landmark Creamery. Bates runs the business side. Landmark is the licensed cheesemaker. Wisconsin relishes its dairy-state image and requires its cheesemakers to be licensed. Getting the credential is no rubber-stamp matter. It involves coursework, many hours of apprenticeship and a test.
Landmark embarked on her cheesemaker journey only three years ago, leaving a job in the nonprofit sector to work toward her license. She soon met Thomas Bates, a food writer interested in sustainable agriculture, and the two formed their partnership. They debuted a few cheeses in the fall of 2013, targeting restaurants and shops in Madison. Less than two years later, they have a handful of East and West Coast accounts and are raising money to build their own creamery.
Like would-be winemakers who launch a brand without a vineyard or a winery, the two Annas have few physical assets. They source their milk from a new Wisconsin sheep dairy and make their products at Cedar Grove Cheese, a creamery that has incubated many newbies. Another business, Bear Valley Affinage, handles the aging, receiving Anabasque in its infancy and maturing it according to Landmark’s instructions.
Ossau-Iraty, the great French Basque sheep cheese, is their inspiration. Using pasteurized milk, Landmark is producing only about 500 pounds of Anabasque each week, February through October. That’s fewer than fifty 10- to 12-pound wheels, not even one per state. She adds some Brevibacterium linens, the “stinky” bacteria, to the curd for aromatic complexity; but the wheels are washed as they age with salt water only. The cheese is released after four months but Landmark says it stays creamy when aged up to a year.
Note how handsome this cheese is. A wedge is perfectly symmetrical, with a thin, healthy, slightly tacky natural rind and an ivory interior. The semi-firm to firm paste has many tiny openings and a faint aroma of nuts and custard. It finishes with cooked-milk sweetness and the lingering impression of salt. The more I ate, the saltier Anabasque seemed; the seasoning may be over the top for some. Even so, the wheel reflects attention to detail.
Look for Anabasque at Cheese Plus, Mission Cheese, Rainbow Grocery and Say Cheese in San Francisco; and at Sunshine Foods in St. Helena. It would be hard to go wrong with any wine. I would probably choose a medium-intensity red but a buttery white wine should work as well.