Old World Tradition Meets Modern Day Shepherdess
By Leah Call | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
A visit to Hidden Springs Creamery is a journey for the senses. Green pastures and majestic trees rustle a welcome as you climb the steep road leading to this homestead creamery outside of Westby, Wisconsin. Sheep grazing in pastures lined with weathered wooden fencing look up lazily but don’t seem to mind your presence in their haven. The breeze blows gently through the trees, an Amish neighbor calls to his cows, and an occasional sheep calls to a lamb that’s wandered too far from its mother. It is peaceful here.
This is rural Southwestern Wisconsin at its finest, and it is home for artisan cheese maker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean. The Jensens shepherd over 200 East Friesian and Lacaune dairy sheep on their 76-acre farm, where Brenda is the woman behind a variety of creative cheeses made from sheep’s milk, an artisan trend on the rise in Wisconsin.
Wisconsinites are undoubtedly more familiar with cheese made from cow’s milk, but sheep’s milk cheese is thought by historians to precede that of its bovine counterpart. In parts of the Mediterranean, where the terrain is more suited to sheep and goats, the sharp, bold-flavored cheese has a rich history and is more of a staple in the warm-weather, seaside fare. Even here in Wisconsin, sheep’s milk is a cheese maker’s dream. The high fat and solid content—nearly twice that of cow’s milk—means a higher cheese yield; it has a smooth texture, similar to ricotta; and it is easy to digest. It can also be frozen and used later, something that is not possible with cow’s milk.
“It was a completely different side of me that got swept up in the emotion of it, making something from this wonderful milk,” says Brenda of the grip that cheese making has on her. “Not many people have had the opportunity to taste sheep’s milk cheese. I love it. I love the smell when I’m making the cheese, too.” Her joy can be seen in every gesture—the way she greets her sheep and carefully inspects the milking equipment, and in her obvious love for these animals and their trust in her to care for them. Her genuine love for this traditional art is contagious, and I find myself following her closely as she leads me around the farm like one of her beloved sheep.
Re-Creating Old-World Methods in Modern Times
Brenda leads me to the milking parlor, where twice a day, 150 ewes—whom Brenda fondly calls “the ladies”—each give about five pounds of milk per day. That milk is piped into a specially designed creamery built into the hillside about 200 feet from the milking parlor and where Brenda, a former corporate manager turned cheese maker, spends the majority of her day creating her award-winning Driftless cheeses. When the milk enters the creamery from the milking parlor, it is pasteurized and allowed to incubate for 12 hours. “In ‘the old country’—Czechoslovakia and those areas—the traditional method is to hang the cheese in trees to drain,” Brenda explains. “That’s how the whey gets separated from the cheese.” Looking at my face, she smiles and clarifies, “But we don’t do it that way.” Instead, Brenda hangs the bags in the creamery, which is incredibly sterile and modern despite the oldworld methods she replicates.
“I took a three-day artisanal cheese-making class at a little farmstead cheese place,” Brenda says. “I had my hands in the whey, separating the curds and whey, and it just felt wonderful. I was taken by the romantic side of the cheese. Once I made it, I didn’t want to stop.” Her passion for this hands-on art is evident in the end product: the hand-packed, fresh and aged cheeses that line the shelves of a large walk-in cooler inside the creamery.
“We have cranberry, pumpkin, honey lavender, basil, maple, tomato garlic and natural in fresh cheese flavors,” she says, referring to the colorful packages of Driftless brand soft cheeses. “Those are the ones that I’ve won awards with.”
Brenda credits that recognition to remaining committed to sourcing local ingredients from as close to home as possible. “I like to do new flavors, but I like it to come from local products. My goal would be to get it all right here in Vernon County,” she says. Bees from only a halfmile down the road provide the honey that gives the Driftless Honey Lavender a subtle hint of sweetness. The lavender, basil and pumpkin are from the Jensens’ own garden, and the maple syrup is supplied by an Amish neighbor.
In addition to the Driftless brand cheeses, Brenda makes four other brands from the milk of her sheep. Stored 15 feet underground, in what Brenda calls “the caves,” are wheels of tart “Bad Axe” cheese dipped in black wax after aging to retain its moisture, and aged, rawmilk, washed-rind “Ocooch Mountain” cheese, with a dense, nutty, slightly grainy taste. Hidden Springs also supplies milk for a “Bohemian Blue”—an ode to Brenda’s Bohemian grandparents—which emerged from a partnership with Hook’s Creamery in Mineral Point, and a “Farmstead Feta” that’s lighter and less salty than traditional feta. Brenda markets her handmade cheeses to grocery stores and high-end restaurants in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. She also ships to New York and California.
Experience the Life
Those wanting to experience life and cheese making in rural Wisconsin can stay at the Jensens’ recently added bed and breakfast. Brenda calls it the perfect romantic getaway, outfitted with a hot tub, fireplace and a porch swing. Guests can observe Brenda making cheese, meet the sheep and even milk if they want, though Brenda says, “Sometimes the “ladies” get a little nervous meeting new people.” To complement Brenda’s delicious cheeses, Dean has also started a vineyard. The couple invites visitors to make the journey to Hidden Springs Creamery to enjoy wine, cheese and a taste of the rural lifestyle they have grown to love.
To learn more about the Hidden Springs Creamery brands, Brenda's farming practices and to meet the sheep, visit www.hiddenspringscreamery.com.
The following recipes were provided courtesy of Brenda Jensen.