Hidden Springs Creamery: top cheeses, remote B&B

sheep-indoorTwo batches of cheese per day, twice a week: That is Brenda Jensen’s work routine during this time of year, on a remote farm in southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The cheeses have earned her at least 50 awards, and that includes six ribbons from this month’s American Cheese Society competition.

Wisconsin is home to hundreds of cheesemakers, but Brenda’s Hidden Springs Creamery adds something unique: Overnight guests may help with the farm work. What they do depends upon their interests and the time of year.

Connected to the farmhouse are roomy, private bed and breakfast accommodations for a couple or a single traveler. It is not a good match for people in search of a thrill a minute: The farm is in Vernon County, population 29,000. The closest town is Westby, population 2,200 and seven miles away.

Guests not motivated to help with the milking or cheesemaking can settle onto the porch and simply take in the view: It’s one hill after another, many grazing sheep, a donkey standing guard against predators and simple but smart living.

When I visit, it is the season for ripening blueberry patches and romancing between the rams and ewes. A flower garden is thick and in vibrant bloom. I gobble a slice of fruit tart made with Hidden Springs’ Driftless, a lavender-honey version of the creamy, fresh cheese.

Brenda and husband Dean are the only non-Amish farmers in a six-mile radius. They moved into a rundown dairy barn and house in 2002, gradually converting the property to a tidy and idyllic-looking farm with around 525 sheep roaming much of the farm’s 76 rolling acres.

“Every year we want to grow by 100 animals and one staff person,” she says, until reaching a herd of 650 Lucane and East Friesian sheep, which she believes is the maximum for a farm this size. The strategy also addresses the question of how much cheese is necessary to keep the business profitable.

“We make food here,” is how Brenda chooses to view her work. She left a corporate job (as an operations manager for a printing and packaging company) to make cheese – first as a novelty, now as a business.

Soon after Brenda’s cheesemaking began in 2006, “I went to the local co-op to sell it and was told ‘we’ll take a case of every flavor you have,’ so I added basil, honey and other local ingredients” to the Driftless cheese. Now there are seven flavors.

Driftless earned a best of class gold medal at the 2007 U.S. Cheese Championship, a shocking feat because Brenda had only made cheese for one year. At the 2013 ACS contest, Hidden Springs’ results were a personal best: Six of the seven cheeses that Brenda entered earned ribbons.

Brenda and Dean “are beloved among the Amish community,” says Jeanne Carpenter of Oregon, a self-described “cheese geek” who works to promote Wisconsin cheeses. They earn respect, in part, is because of choosing to farm with a pair of Percheron draft horses, not tractors. That decision is both a sign of respect for the Amish way of life and a way of plowing that they believe is easier on the land.

“We think the key to sustainability is harmony – harmony with the land, the animals and our neighbors,” the couple states, online.

Hidden Springs Creamery sells cheese online but does not operate a farmstead shop. Learn more about the products and B&B at hiddenspringscreamery.com, 608-606-3840.

The creamery’s 2013 ACS award winners are Driftless Natural, the fresh sheep’s milk cheese; Ocooch Mountain, a washed rind sheep’s milk cheese; Ocooch Mountain Reserve, aged one year; Timber Coulee Reserve, an aged sheep’s milk; Meadow Melody, a washed rind and cow-sheep milk mix; and Farmstead Feta, aged one year and made with sheep’s milk.

About 20 miles east is the 3,643-acre Wildcat Mountain State Park, and canoeing is popular on the Kickapoo River. For more: dnr.wi.gov, 608-337-4775.

Fourteen hilly, twisty miles west of Hidden Springs is Nordic Creamery, S2246 Langaard Lane, Westby, whose farmstead shop sells 16 flavors of smooth, fresh ice cream by the scoop and container. Within eyesight graze the cows that make the product possible.

The family farm, established in 1917 by Norwegian immigrants, also sells small-batch cheeses and butters from goat and cow milk. Award winners include the goat butter, which placed third in the goat/sheep/mixed milk butter category for this month’s ACS competition.

Also for sale is lefse. For more: nordiccreamery.com, 608-634-3199.

Seven miles west of Hidden Springs is Westby Cooperative Creamery, 401 S. Main St., Westby; about 100 farm families own the enterprise, which began in 1903. Yogurts, cottage cheeses, cream cheeses, dips and sour creams are specialties. They are sold in four states, online and at the co-op’s cheese store.

For more: westbycreamery.com, 608-634-3181.

For more about cheesy destinations in Wisconsin, consult “A Traveler’s Guide to America’s Dairyland,” a free map from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board that can be downloaded at eatwisconsincheese.com, or call 608-836-8820.

For a list of the 2013 American Cheese Society winners, go to cheesesociety.org. Wisconsin cheesemakers won 89 ribbons in the 104 categories. ACS presents a cross-continental competition for small-batch and specialty cheeses.

About 1,800 cheeses were entered, and this year’s big winner was Cellars of Jasper Hill, Greensboro, Vt., whose soft, sweet and woodsy Winnimere cheese was Best of Show. The 1.3-pound wheels sold for $44 this year, but stock is depleted until December. For more: cellarsatjasperhill.com, 802-533-2566.

In second place: Bear Hill, a washed-rind sheep’s milk cheese from Grafton Village Cheese, Brattleboro, Vt. For more: graftonvillagecheese.com, 800-472-3866.

Two of Wisconsin’s Bleu Mont Dairy cheeses – Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana – tied for third in Best of Show. Bleu Mont is near Blue Mounds; Swiss-American cheesemaker Willi Lehner is a Dane County Farmers’ Market vendor on Saturdays in Madison. For more: 608-767-2875.