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Dispatches: Illinois's new artisanal farmstead cheese maker

A globe-trotting dairy specialist gives the state its first raw cow's milk farmstead cheese

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When Fons Smits arrived at Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in downstate Fithian last fall, he says he found a building with a cheese vat and molds but little else. Now it's the first farmstead creamery in Illinois to make raw cow's milk cheeses. Ludwig's cheeses—Alpine-style Feather Ridge, Dutch farmstead Gouda, Kickapoo German-style butterkase, Jake's Wheel Havarti (named for the creamery's late originator)—are slated to begin arriving at local farmers' markets and specialty food stores this month.

A native of Friesland in the Netherlands, Smits, who's 42, grew up surrounded by cattle in the farming community of Koudum. He went to dairy school at Agrarische Hogeschool Friesland (now Van Hall Institute), and after graduating set out to see the world. Over the years jobs have taken him to Brazil, Tanzania, China, Mongolia, Ukraine, Kenya, and Zambia as well as back to his homeland. While in Point Reyes, California, he helped create award-winning Cowgirl Creamery cheeses. He settled in at Traders Point Creamery in Zionsville, Indiana, in 2003, then went off on his own last year.

Ludwig is also a breeding farm—the prize-winning pedigree Holsteins go to high-end dairies in the U.S., Italy, Spain, Canada, and Japan. The cows, a herd of 90, are pastured when weather permits and otherwise pass their days munching grass hay, corn silage, and grain in an airy, well-ventilated barn. They're not given antibiotics or hormones. Smits says it's the best cow's milk he's ever seen.

By U.S. law, raw milk cheeses must age for at least 60 days. Most of Ludwig's age at least three months, the Gouda for at least four. During that time, they're turned about three times a week to evenly distribute the little gas holes and moisture, which carries much of the flavor.

Although plans for the creamery are evolving, Smits is adding a second aging room that can hold 24,000 wheels, as well as a packing room. He's thinking about producing pasteurized cheeses such as fresh mozzarella, and hopes to have two assistants by the end of the year. Tours and special events are in the works too. He's also making ice cream with seasonal fruits and chocolate for the LocalFolks Foods and Ludwig labels. "My goal is to use all of the milk produced on the farm for cheese and ice cream," he says. "Turning a tank of milk into something else entirely is like magic, especially when the milk is of such high quality."

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