Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

It’s true: Ellsworth cheese curds really are the best November 17, 2014

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Western Wisconsin based Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.

Western Wisconsin based Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.

BASED ON THE RECOMMENDATION of a dear friend, whose sons have worked in a Faribault area based festival concession stand that serves cheese curds, I tried cheese curds from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery. Deb is right. This Wisconsin co-op’s cheese curds are the best I’ve ever eaten.

These cheese curds sell fast.

These cheese curds sell fast.

Now I’m no cheese expert. But these curds are less salty than most, making them a win-win for my taste buds.

Apparently lots of others agree. The creamery’s retail store proved one busy place when my husband and I stopped on an early October weekday afternoon while vacationing in western Wisconsin.

Customers can watch employees bagging cheese curds.

Customers can watch employees bagging cheese curds.

Through a window, I watched employees package cheese curds before selecting two small bags of regular and cajun curds and two other Wisconsin cheeses to bring back across the border to Minnesota. Family dairy farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin supply the creamery with its milk.

Trucks line up to deliver milk to the creamery.

Trucks line up to deliver milk to the creamery.

Much to my grew-up-on-a-dairy-farm delight, I spotted bulk milk trucks lined up outside the plant.

The sign makes it official.

The sign makes it official.

Whatever this co-op’s recipe, their cheese curds have become a national success, titling Ellsworth as “The Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin.”

Someone really ought to tell that to the local who gave us directions to the creamery. He seemed less than enthused when we asked about the creamery and other attractions in town. “It’s Ellsworth,” he sighed. I wondered in that moment why he hadn’t moved elsewhere given his clear discontent with his hometown.

No thanks to this unwelcome welcome, we found two additional places of interest—east Ellsworth and the stunning Pierce County courthouse—after stopping at the creamery for those famous cheese curds.

You can sample selected varieties of cheese curds at the retail store before purchasing.

You can sample selected varieties of cheese curds at the retail store before purchasing.

Now I realize most of you likely are not going to drive to Ellsworth. So you can either search your local grocery store dairy department for these tasty curds. Or you can shop online by clicking here.

You can buy butter at the retail store, too, although I don't believe it's actually made in Ellsworth.

You can buy butter at the retail store, too, although I don’t believe it’s actually made in Ellsworth.

I wasn’t paid to write this. I didn’t get free cheese curds. I simply love Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery cheese curds. Plus, I possess a deep affection for cows and dairy farmers and dairy products. I am, after all, a dairy farmer’s daughter who worked side by side with her father in the barn.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A wannabe dairy princess June 20, 2013

The barn where I labored alongside my father while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

The barn where I labored alongside my father and siblings while growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. File photo.

GROWING UP ON A MINNESOTA DAIRY FARM, I’ve always loved dairy products.

Fresh milk from our herd of Holsteins.

Butter and cheese from the bulk truck driver who picked up milk from our farm.

Singing Hills Coffee Shop's delicious maple bacon sundae.

One of my new favorite ice cream treats, a maple bacon sundae from Singing Hills Coffee Shop in Waterville. File photo.

Ice cream from the Schwans man. (My older brother often sneaked the tin can of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and climbed atop the haystack to eat his fill. He failed to remove his spoon, leaving damning evidence connecting him to the ice cream caper. I was too obedient to attempt such thievery.)

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce made a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing.

Sliced strawberries, cucumbers and Amablu Gorgonzola cheese added to Romaine lettuce make a perfect salad. I topped the salad with lemon poppyseed dressing. File photo.

My cheese tastes have, thankfully, expanded beyond American and Velveeta, staples of my childhood. I especially favor the blue cheeses made and aged in sandstone caves right here in Faribault and sold under the names Amablu and St. Pete’s Select. If you like blue cheese, this is your cheese.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

Cow sculptures outside The Friendly Confines Cheese Shoppe in LeSueur. File photo.

I bring up this topic of dairy products because June marks an annual celebration of all things dairy during “June Dairy Month.” This moniker is imprinted upon my brain. I once ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for Redwood County dairy princess.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertised the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Krause Feeds & Supplies in Hope advertises the availability of Hope butter and Bongards cheese. File photo.

Steele County, to the south of my Rice County home, is apparently a big dairy county having at one time served as home to more than 20 creameries. One remains, in the unincorporated village of Hope, producing Hope Creamery butter in small batches. The creamy’s organic butter is especially popular in certain Twin Cities metro eateries.

Owatonna, the county seat, once claimed itself to be “The Butter Capital of the World.” That butter capital title will be the subject of an exhibit opening August 1 and running through November 10 at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. The exhibit will feature the area’s rich dairy history to current day dairy farming in the county. Events will include a roundtable discussion on the dairy industry and, for the kids, butter making and a visit from a real calf.

Notice the cow art on the milkhouse in this image taken this past summer.

Cow art on the milkhouse of my friends Deb and John, who once milked cows in rural Dundas. File photo.

Calves. I love calves. More than any aspect of farming, I loved feeding calves buckets of warm milk replacer or handfuls of pellets. I once named a calf Princess and she became my “pet,” as much as a farm animal can be a pet. Then my older brother—the one who ate ice cream when he wasn’t supposed to—told me one day that my calf had died. I raced upstairs to my bedroom and sobbed and sobbed. Turns out he made up the whole story of Princess’ early demise. She was very much alive.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Falker of JMF Studio.

The vibrant art of Faribault artist Julie Faklker of JMF Studio. File image.

And so, on this day when I consider June Dairy Month, my mind churns with thoughts of butter and ice cream, of calves and of the dairy princess crown I never wore.

FYI: Faribault area dairy farmers Ron and Diane Wegner are hosting “A Day on the Farm” from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. this Saturday, June 22. Their farm is located just south of Faribault at 25156 Appleton Avenue. The event includes children’s activities, photos with a baby calf and free cheeseburgers, malts and milk. Event sponsors are the Rice County American Dairy Association and the Minnesota Beef Council. The Wegners’ daughter, Kaylee, is the current Rice County dairy princess.

The Redwood County American Dairy Association in my home county of Redwood in southwestern Minnesota is sponsoring a coloring contest for kids and a trivia contest for adults. Click here for details. 

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling