Blessed are the cheesemakers

Worldwide as well as local choices available in West Michigan
A sign points to the cheese at a West Michigan dairy farm. Photo by Elizabether Granger.

I was aboard the S.S. Badger carferry, leaving Ludington for Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Below us, on a small fishing boat, a guy stood up and shouted, “When you come back, bring cheese!”

Oh, Wisconsin. I know you’re the cheese capital of the universe, but west Michigan has my cheese needs covered. Yes, you’re involved, but I don’t need to go to Wisconsin because here I can find your cheeses along with those made in Michigan as well as from around the world.

The Cheese Lady, with retail shops in Grand Rapids and Muskegon is a smart go-to source for all things cheese. Owner Shelley Essebaggers has Michigan cheese, but really, just a small supply because, well, there isn’t all that much from Michigan.

“We don’t have as many cows as Wisconsin does,” she explained. “Wisconsin is naturally inclined to have a lot of cheesemakers because they produce so much milk.”

For sure. Wisconsin produces more cheese in America than does any other state. Stats tell us there are more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers and 600 varieties of cheese in the Badger State.

But in West Michigan, specifically Fennville, little Evergreen Lane Creamery is producing cheese worth tasting. The story there involves a Chicago couple, her grandparents, and a stray goat.

Carmen Atlee-Louden stirs a vat of mattone, a talegio style cheese. Photo by Elizabeth Granger.

In 2000 Cathy Halinski and her husband Tom walked away from city living and corporate jobs in Chicago to move to tiny Fennville. To 40 acres on the outskirts of Fennville, actually. Cathy knew the area from childhood visits to see her grandparents.

There was work to be done, including some remodeling on the farmhouse. The carpenter left the door open one day; in walked Gaby the Goat, unannounced. They all looked for her owner, but there appeared to be none. Gaby was a stray, so she became part of the Halinski family.

Then Tom bought another goat for Cathy. By 2008 they had 50 goats and were making goat cheese.

“It was too much,” Cathy said. She chose the cheesemaking, and most of the goats left.

Today there are about a dozen goats at Evergreen Lane. “Pasture ornaments,” they’re called. Each has a name, and when Cathy calls out to them, they scamper over to see her. There are Netta and Nadine and Umbra and Uma and ….

The making of cheese continues, with cheesemaker Carmen Atlee-Loudon and milk from cows as well as goats at local farms.

There’s also an apple orchard with U-Pick apples in the fall. And scheduled Hike with the Herd goat walks to the orchard, akin to walking with dogs.

Evergreen Lane cheese is available at delis that include The Farmhouse in Douglas and Pennyroyal in Saugatuck as well as at the creamery itself.

In Grand Haven, about 35 miles to the north, J-Dub’s Market & Wine Shop includes Michigan cheeses from Farm Country Cheese House in Lakeview and Natural Northern in Traverse City.

The Cheese Lady offers cheeses from Idyll Pastures in Northport as well as cheeses from Wisconsin.  About 20% of Essebaggers’ cheese is domestic; the rest is generally from Europe – the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and Italy. There’s even a cheese from the Canary Islands.

The Cheese Lady is a franchise begun by Kathleen Riegler in Muskegon in 2007. Essebaggers worked there, and in 2016 she bought the store from Riegler. There are seven franchises, known as “sisterhoods,” throughout Michigan; Riegler advises all seven.

“We have a little bit of everything that goes with cheese,” Essebaggers said. “A lot of people are intimidated to come in here. They think they have to know before they come into a cheese store. They really don’t. We’re here to help; that’s part of our experience. We’ve learned to recognize the ‘deer in the headlights’ look; we have mastered figuring out what you want.”

She said she wants “to eliminate the pretentiousness in cheese. Honestly, we have everybody from every nook and cranny of this area come into our store. I love the diversity of our customers.”

At Nelis’ Dutch Village in Holland, there’s a daily cheesemaking demonstration showing how it was done long ago, with antiquated equipment. And there’s a wide selection of cheeses from farmsteads in the Netherlands available to buy.

Operations manager Luke Curtis, definitely a cheese expert, said there are more than 30 kinds of cheese with unlimited sampling. Visitors’ typical reaction? “Oh, wow!”

Editor’s note: Michigan Farm Cheese Dairy, makers of Andrulis Farmers Cheese of Fountain, Michigan, has been making traditional Baltic-style farmers cheese since 1940, with few changes to the old world original recipes that have been handed down through generations.
Andrulis cheese is available and multiple local retailers. For more information on the history of this unique Lithuanian dairy, visit the Andrulis Cheese website.

For unique and local cheese, check out these retailers and farms:

The Cheese Lady
315 Fuller Ave NE,
Grand Rapids, MI
(616) 242-9880

2180 Wealthy St. SE,
Grand Rapids, MI

Nelis’ Dutch Village
12350 James St.
Holland, MI
(616) 396-1475

Andrulis Farmers Cheese
4295 East Millerton Road,
Fountain, MI
(231) 462-3301

Evergreen Lane Creamery
1824 66th St.
Fennville, MI
(269) 686-6474

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