Meet The Maker: An Interview With Leslie Cooperband Of Prairie Fruits Farm
By Erika Kubick in Food on Apr 2, 2015 3:45PM
Attention: all lovers of fine cheeses, far and wide! Saturday, April 18 is International Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day, an annual holiday brought to you by the Cheese of Choice Coalition. In preparation to celebrate, we’ll be interviewing different creameries each week leading up to Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day to learn about the wonderful people who make these cheeses so darn special.
Our first cheese maker is Leslie Cooperband, who with her husband Wes Jarrell owns Prairie Fruits Farm in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Both Cooperband and Jarrell are professors with PhDs in soil science who were working up in Madison, Wisconsin until, in 2003, Jarrell began a professorship at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The couple headed south and purchased a plot of land from a grain farm. They began converting the land into an orchard and a year later purchased three Nubian goat does and one buck. Nearly ten years later, Prairie Fruits Farm produces several wonderful goat cheeses, sought after by the likes of Stephanie Izard and Rick Bayless.
Chicagoist: When did you decide to work in cheese?
Leslie Cooperband: When we lived in Madison, we would go to the Farmers Market often. Madison has a phenomenal Farmers Market. We came to love a very small artisan producer of French-style goat cheeses, Fantome Farms. She actually retired a couple years ago, but she inspired me to think about cheese. That was kind of where the inspiration came from; I was curious about the cheese-making process from the science aspect of it.
C: When did you start making cheese on a larger level?
Leslie Cooperband: In 2005, once our goats started producing milk, I started playing around with it in the kitchen. I made some chevre and tried it out on friends. People thought it was a good product, so we decided to grow a commercial dairy and creamery. We bought 20 more goats that spring, and were licensed by the State of Illinois Department of Public Health in August of 2005. This is our 10th year as a creamery.
C: When did you start making raw milk cheese?
Leslie Cooperband: We started making raw milk cheeses in our third year of cheese making. I started with fresh chevre, and then I added bloomy rind cheeses to the repertoire the following year. In the US, raw milk cheeses have to be aged for a minimum of 60 days to be served legally, so our chevre and bloomy rind cheeses have to be pasteurized. I soon started experimenting with a raw milk Tomme, that was the first style, and that has become the Moonglo, which we’ve tweaked over the years. After about nine years of experimenting, I feel like we have a really good take on the cheese. It’s very emblematic of our farm. The nature of the solids in goat milk, particularly the nature of the proteins, don’t always lend themselves well to making hard cheeses, but they do lend themselves well to making semi-hard cheeses. Both Moonglo and Huckleberry Blue are considered semi-hard cheeses.
C: Is Moonglo your only raw milk cheese?
Leslie Cooperband: We also do a raw milk blue, called Huckleberry Blue. We’ve been making it for seven or eight years on-and-off.
C: Why did you decide to make raw milk cheeses?
Leslie Cooperband: I really wanted to make raw milk cheeses that capture the native microflora of what our goats are eating in terms of the pasture that’s connected to the prairie and our prairie’s soil. I really wanted to begin to get people aware of the terroir of central Illinois. I know people never think of those concepts together, because they think of industrial agriculture and corn and soybeans. They don’t think about the other things that grow here and also the incredible nature of these soils and their productivity and resiliency. I wanted our cheese to retain that character of the soils and I wanted it to be reflective of the seasonal variations of the milk, based on what the goats are eating. A raw milk cheese lends itself more to expressing those nuanced flavor differences as the seasons progress.
C: How do raw milk cheeses differ from pasteurized cheeses?
Leslie Cooperband: Raw milk carries with it the native microflora that are in the animal. That is influenced by what the animals are eating. We do add starter cultures, to acidify the milk to get it to form the curds, but we add very little starter culture, just enough to get enough to get the process going. Then we let the native microflora teach the cheese. It’s their responsibility to break down the fats and the protein and give the cheese flavor.
C: What kind of flavors and textures develop as a result of this process?
Leslie Cooperband: In the case of the Moonglo, there still is a little tanginess associated with the goat milk in general. Most goat milk cheeses have this tang to them, but then we get a lot of fruity flavor compounds and a little hint of nuttiness, but it’s overwhelmingly fruity, predominantly pineapple notes. The texture is firm and supple.
C: What’s your favorite part about working with raw milk cheeses?
Leslie Cooperband: I think the variation, the seasonal variation, the complexity of flavor that develops as they age.
C: Would you say that’s not as present in pasteurized cheeses?
Leslie Cooperband: Well, they’re much shorter lived. I would say that our chevre does take on seasonal changes and flavor, but the bloomy rind cheeses are predominantly influenced by the white mold that colonizes the rind and how those cheeses age. You don’t get a whole lot of complexity beyond that. We can tell that our spring chevre is the most lemony, the summer chevre has a little more grassy notes, the fall chevre is really rich and a little more gamy than the summer chevre. We can tell the differences, but they’re more subtle than you find in the raw milk cheese.
C: What are some of your favorite raw milk cheeses, besides your own?
Leslie Cooperband: I really like the raw cheeses from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. The Bayley Hazen Blue is one of my favorites and I’m really liking the Alpha Tolman, which is a newer cheese for them.
C: Many people believe that raw milk cheeses are more dangerous than pasteurized cheeses. What are your thoughts on this?
Leslie Cooperband: Well, they could be, but it’s really more about the level of hygiene, the milking practices, and how the milk is handled in a creamery. You can get post-pasteurization pathogen contamination as well as contamination of pathogens in raw milk. I think if you look for the instances of food-borne illness associated with cheese, you’ll find just as many instances of food-borne illness with pasteurized milk cheeses as well as raw milk cheeses. It’s more important that the consumer ask questions of the producer about the animal husbandry practices, the milking practices, and get a better sense of the level of hygiene in the creamery and attention to preventing contamination so that they can understand what the risks are. Milk is the perfect growing medium for both good and bad microorganisms. They can be present in milk if it’s not handled properly or if the animals are not clean.
You can find Moonglo and other Prairie Fruits Farm cheeses at Eataly, Pastoral and Whole Foods, as well as at various restaurants across the city. Hungry for more? Prairie Fruits Farm is a short two-and-a-half hour drive south of the city. Visit the farm and meet their goats, indulge in their new line of goat milk gelato or attend one of their spring open-house events. Every Saturday from late March through the end of April, Prairie Fruits Farm hosts an open house with a market featuring local producers and a modestly priced breakfast where you can gorge on their goat milk hot chocolate and other menu items made with all local ingredients.