I have a cheese crush…
Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery
Goat’s Milk: Fresh Chevre, Ricotta, Little Bloom on the Prairie, Angel Food, Black Goat, Red Dawn, Moonglo, Huckleberry Blue
Sheep’s Milk: Feta, Ricotta, Ewe’s Bloom, Black Sheep, Roxanne, Molisol
Mixed: Krotovina, Millie
All right folks, sit a spell and let me tell you about the best damn cheesemaker in Illinois. Hmm, that didn’t quite have the ring to it I’d hoped for, but unfortunately “best damn cheesemaker in the world” might be a bit over the top. A personal favorite of mine, Prairie Fruits Farm was started in 2004 by the husband and wife team of Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell. A soil scientist by trade, Leslie gave up a life in academia to start the farm. She saw the potential that rich Illinois soil had in making great goat munchies. A four-acre orchard was planted, a couple goats were bought, and the rest is history. They now maintain a herd of approximately 70 Nubian, La Mancha, and hybrid goats, and from the ladies they produce about 7-9 batches of cheese a week. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Leslie loves her ladies more than my mom loves one of her two sons. (Out of respect to my brother I won’t mention which son I’m referring to.) Oh, and did I mention that she dabbles in sheep’s milk? She’s got the hook-up with an Amish farm, and they produce some amazing leche.
I must tell you, I have a bit of soft spot in my heart for Leslie and her cheese. Not only do I sell it at the Oak Park farmers market during the summer, I was also taught the craft of cheese mongering by two of her cheese makers. Nat and Alison joined Prairie Fruits Farm in January, but before that they were managers at Pastoral. I worked very closely with Nat. I mean really closely. I guess you could say Nat taught me how to sell cheese. Before the start of the farmer’s market season I spent a weekend learning the cheesemaking process with Nat and Alison. It was an amazing experience that took my quest for queso knowledge to the next level. And on top of all that, when I cooked at Vie there was always PFF hanging out in the walk-in. (That’s what we call Leslie’s cheeses in the ‘biz.) With the exception of the occasional Parmigiano-Reggiano, Paul pretty much only sourced super local cheeses, and a lot of it was Leslie’s. It’s actually pretty fitting that this is my first cheesemaker profile since Leslie’s cheese was both my first local and artisan cheese experience along my road to fromage enlightenment.
The flagship of her operation, and my personal favorite cheese, is the fresh chevre. And when I say favorite, I mean all time favorite. Seriously, I really try not to let myself pick favorites, but I am hooked. Its super rich and creamy, yet its acidity is so bright and refreshing that at certain points in the summer it tastes as though Leslie’s grated lemon zest into it. But that is just the result of the amazing pasture the goats feed on. The perfect example of terrior, huh? I love the fresh chevre so much that we use it for everything at our house. I spread it on my sammies instead of mayo or mustard. I make vinaigrette out of it. (It acts as an immulsifier, so I use it in place of mustard or a coddled egg.) All you people out in internet land can cook and bake with it too, using it in place of cream cheese, ricotta, and sometimes sour cream. Honestly, I’d clean with it if I could. My apartment would smell amazing, but I don’t think Jeff (the roomie/cousin/part-time editor) would appreciate that much. Or maybe he might like it too much, kinda hard to read. I’ve seen him eat it straight from the tub with a spoon. I also stockpile it for the winter, since it is pretty much the epitome of seasonality. Yeah, that’s right, it freezes super well. You are welcome.
I bet you guys are wondering were to get her stuff, now that we’re all hot and bothered over Leslie and her super chevre. Leslie’s chevre is available throughout the Chicago-land area at Whole Foods, Marion St. market in Oak Park, City Provisions, and of course I can hook you up with a tub if you come see me in the West Loop. She also wholesales to a number of restaurants in the city, and you’ll find her at the Green City Market throughout the year. I love everything Leslie, Nat and Alison make down in the farm, and I’m sure you will too. Get some people!