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Chicagoist's Cheese Of The Month: Dante

By Erika Kubick in Food on Oct 6, 2014 6:00PM


The rich colors of changing leaves; the aroma of spiced apple cider lingering in the air; the promise of abundance in the year’s final harvest: October must be the most beautiful month. What better way to welcome the crisp new fall season than with a cheese that boasts nutty, toasted notes to charm the palate when served both alone and atop roasted root vegetables or rustic and hearty pasta dishes. Meet Dante, a cheese made in the classic Manchego style with a sweet flavor and a haunting name that conjures imagery of the inferno.

Dante is made by the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative (WSDC), a co-op founded in the '90s when the demand for sheep’s milk was first blossoming on the American market. At the time, many sheep milk dairy startups couldn’t support themselves and quickly went out of business. A group of farmers decided to band together to form WSDC in order to support the new sheep milk industry.

Soon after, the co-op found themselves with a surplus of ewe milk. Of course, that problem has only one logical solution: make some cheese. WSDC banded with the sheep milk research facility at University of Wisconsin-Madison to create the first American version of the popular Spanish cheese, Manchego. After careful research, they landed on the recipe for Dante and have masterfully produced this local gem for the past 10 years.

The sheep milk comes from the East Friesian and Lacaune breeds of sheep, fed on pasture with limited access to natural grain. The seasonal cheese is made between February and September, during which it is gently pasteurized, formed into ten pound wheels and coated with a thin polymer rind to retain moisture and avoid unwanted mold growth. Dante is then aged a minimum of six months at Cedar Grove Cheese in Southern Wisconsin. The cheese is named after The Thinker, the statue of the great poet Dante pondering his poems at the gates of hell. The image of this famous statue is found on the cheese’s label, with an imposed sheep’s head leaning against the poet’s knuckles.

Dante has a golden paste with a flavor profile and consistency that ranges with its age. Young wheels are pliant, mild and grassy and as the wheels age, notes of brown butter, toast and a gentle sweetness emerge while the texture becomes crystallized and crumbly. At any age, Dante is a luscious cheese with a lovely finish that won’t quit. Dante is a great match for young fruity reds like Grenacha, fortified wines like sherry or malty Oktoberfest beers. It’s remarkable on its own or with figs, quince, dates or even oily olives like castelveltrano. I highly recommend purchasing a half-pound chunk for grating over pastas, risotto or something as simple as a baked sweet potato. You can find Dante at Stamper Cheese Company (various Chicago Farmer's markets), Whole Foods, Pastoral (multiple locations) and Eataly (43 E. Ohio St.).