Producer: Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative (WSDC)
Milk: Pasteurized Sheep Milk
Age: At least 6 months
Price: $12-14 per pound
A friend recently returned from San Francisco bearing gifts of a book, some locally-cured olives, fresh fruit, and a hunk of Dante cheese purchased at Cowgirl Creamery. We were in heaven! We didn't waste any time in trying out the Dante.
The Dante is a pure Wisconsin cheese, made by a sheep dairy cooperative in the northwest part of the state. The cheese is aged for at least 6 months and it has a polymer edible rind with a slightly plasticky texture, but we happily ate it anyway. The entire cheese is very firm and dry, although not crumbly. It is strong and pungent with a flavor we could only describe as "sheep-y" - a sweet, lingering flavor that speaks of pastures and herbs. The extended aging it receives also gives it rich, nutty overtones.
The cheese was developed for the cooperative by dairy scientists at the University of Wisconsin, and it won the 2nd Place Ribbon at the American Cheese Society Competition in Burlington, Vermont, 2007. It's a seasonal cheese and it's made in the spring and summer (February - September) when the ewes are milked.
We asked Paul Haskins, a member and Secretary of the Cooperative, about the cheese and the cooperative's work. He said that both cheeses are seasonal and made at a very small cheese plant (Cedar Grove Cheese) in Plain, Wisconsin. The batch size is very small, about 80 wheels per batch. The amount of Dante made is limited to about 1000 wheels per year due to the amount of labor involved and the aging space available for the cheese.
He also said, "We plan on increasing this a little in 2008, but not by much. All this makes Dante a fairly rare cheese with limited availability. All the milk used to make Dante comes from the small family farms of our cooperative, all located in Northwestern Wisconsin. Although Dante is similar in style to a Manchego, it owes its unique flavors to the grasses and forages of Northwestern Wisconsin."
This was exciting, too: In 2008 WSDC will make a fresher cheese that is basically pressed, unaged Dante curd. Trials of this have proven to provide a very nice cheese with a much milder Dante-like flavor. Haskins says that they are doing this to utilize the extra curd they sometimes have when all the hoops are full. Look for it later this summer.
We were very happy to eat this in small slices on its own and with the olives, letting each small bite crumble and melt on the tongue. But it would also be excellent shaved over pasta or hot vegetables.
You can buy the cheese through WSDC's website.