Eichtens Hidden Acres

27 09 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Eichtens Hidden Acres - by Meredith HartThe air thickened as three cheese makers leaned over a 600-gallon vat of curdling milk, stirring by hand. They began the churning at 6 a.m. By 11, the curds were only just congealing from the whey. “It’s what Little Miss Muffet ate,” said Eileen Eichten Carlson of Eichtens Hidden Acres Artisan Cheese and American Bison in Center City, Minnesota. “But she probably had to add cinnamon and sugar because it wouldn’t have had any flavor.”

Eileen knows her cheese—and how to flavor it.

By noon, the cheese makers season the curds by adding dashes of sun-dried tomato, basil, parsley, onion and garlic from an heirloom family recipe. Eichtens’ Tomato Basil Gouda is now one of their top sellers, but there wasn’t always a market for such uniquely flavored cheeses. Eichtens developed their first seasoned cheese in 1976, nearly 20 years ahead of high consumer demand.

“We were far ahead of the trends, and that’s why we had such hard times in the beginning,” recalled Eileen.

Thirty-some years ago Eileen’s parents, Joe and Mary, came to the unfortunate realization that the cattle feed bills on their dairy farm were higher than their milk checks. Joe, a progressive farmer with an innovative spirit, knew the family needed to add value to the milk to survive. So in 1976, Eichten’s signed on to a University of Minnesota pilot program to turn their farm into a farmstead cheese plant operation. University researchers wanted to explore the market for cheese fresh from the farm, just like in Holland. The Eichtens knew people craved something more than traditionally processed American and Cheddar cheeses.

Dutch Gouda - by Meredith HartSo with 30 cows and zero marketing know-how, the Eichtens began their artisan cheese-making venture by crafting the gourmet Dutch cheese called Gouda.

Because the raw milk cheese had to age for 60 to 90 days, the Eichtens barely pulled through by selling small amounts of milk to local creameries. When the cheese was finally ready, the Eichtens ran into another problem.

“No one knew what Gouda was,” recalled Eileen.

Thus the family resulted to what Eileen calls common sense marketing: dragging the 10 Eichten children to local grocery stores and handing out fliers and gouda samples. Slowly but surely, Eichtens gained a following of loyal customers. But Mary, the head cheese maker, thought Eichtens needed more than one cheese to offer customers. She developed seasoned goudas and gourmet gouda cheese spreads. Mary also spent three years perfecting her recipe for Tilsit cheese, an all-natural cheese that can achieve quite a pungent aroma when maturely aged, just as it is in Denmark. However, “We had to think about what our American consumers wanted,” Eileen said. Because the American market wasn’t one for extremely aged cheese, Mary painstakingly developed her Tilsit to be sharp, yet creamy as it aged.

Making Cheese - by Meredith HartAlthough Mary’s Herb Gouda and Danish Tilsit cheeses were natural and creamy, they didn’t take off immediately. The larger United States market didn’t seem to care for anything but the standard American, Cheddar and processed cheeses. That’s where the turmoil evolved, Eileen recalled of the tough early years. So in efforts to compliment the natural cheese, Eileen’s brother introduced American bison to the farm in 1987. From their father’s time growing up in the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, he was able to naturally develop seeds for the prairie grasses the bison would eat.

In the 1970s when the craze for natural, organic food started, the Eichtens found themselves puzzled. “Dad didn’t know what they meant by ‘natural product,’” Eileen said. Everything the family had ever produced had been “natural.” “We weren’t doing anything special but what we knew best, and that was natural foods.”

With a final push from the organic trend, Eichten’s natural and original cheeses broke into the larger market. Their first wholesale cheese account came in natural cheeses through the Cheese Rustlers Cooperative in Minneapolis. Now Eichtens specializes in Baby Swiss, Cheddar, curds and string cheese, making 2,000 to 2,400 pounds per week from fresh cow’s milk provided by area farms. Although the Twin Cities is Eichten’s main market, they sell in Chicago, Denver, and as far as Florida. Eileen has traveled as far as Macedonia and Jamaica to train communities in the art of cheese making. Additionally, members of the agricultural community have come each year from Sweden to tour the same facility Eileen’s parents launched 35 years ago.

But for such a wide-reaching presence, Eichtens keeps the facility small and the techniques traditional.

“We still have the feel of the curd,” said Eileen as she observed her cheese makers hand-stir sun dried tomatoes into the vat of Tomato Basil Gouda. This procedure, replaced by machinery in industrial cheese making, allows Eileen’s team to ensure curds don’t dry out in the churning process. After the cheese properly thickens, workers squash sections of the sponge-like mass to drain out excess whey. Every 100 pounds of milk makes just one 10-pound wheel of cheese, so the left over protein-enriched liquid is fed to the bison.

Aging Cheese - by Meredith HartWorkers then mold, compress, and seal the cheese. Eichtens used to hand dip the cheese three times in wax, but consumer demand for convenience changed the seal to Cryovac. Cheese is a living protein substance, Eileen said, and the Cryovac wrapper becomes the second skin. The living cheese is then sent to the aging room kept at a brisk 44.9 degrees. The longer the cheese ages, the sharper and stronger the taste. After looking through a series of colored tags hanging from wooden shelves lined with giant wheels of cheese, Eileen said their oldest wheel had aged eight years.

Friendly women in hairnets swiftly cut the cheese with wire and reseal it for wholesale to grocery stores, co-ops, and restaurants like St. Martin’s Table in Minneapolis. Just down the road from the farm, Eichtens Market and Café also features cheeses and bison products.

Eichten’s has also picked up a loyal following at area farmers’ markets. After 30 years at Twin Cities farmers’ markets, Eichtens Hidden Acres is now a market mainstay. Eileen says she’s known there as “The Cheese Lady.”

“You become very in tuned [with your customers],” said Eileen. “They expect to see the same person every week.” Sometimes commitments at the café keep Eileen from the markets, a reality that disappoints customers who want to have a friendly chat with the woman so energized about her family’s cheeses.

“If you just stay natural and keep things the way they should be naturally, then you’re good,” said Eileen.

Eichtens Hidden Acres has incessantly kept their practices old-fashioned and natural. They’ve come up with delectable creations such as Garlic Blue Artisan Gouda Spread and Smoked Gouda with Bison Sausage. They’re continuously developing new cheeses and spreads. They’re also rummaging through their records for Mary Eichten’s long-lost Wensleydale cheese recipe.

The family has spent years breaking barriers, a truth in which Eileen clearly takes pride. “We’re there now,” said Eileen. “But you have to keep up quality.” The family business doesn’t try to compete with “big cheese” makers, she said. Rather Eichtens embraces its humble beginnings and maintain the value Joe Eichten added more than 40 years ago.

To view more photos of Eichtens Hidden Acres, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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One response

15 08 2010
Ken Bjork

Do you still make Baby Swiss?

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