Follow the Cheese to Southern Minnesota

By James Norton

The fertile countryside of southern Minnesota is dotted with farms and creameries, and some of the best cheese in the region is emerging from small independent makers working amid the area's gentle hills and broad plains. Food lovers have a number of options for places to visit—and creations to taste—throughout the region.

Shepard's Way Farm sheep
Shepard's Way Farms / Becca Dilley

The story behind the sheep’s milk cheese of Shepherd's Way Farms in Nerstrand, a 15-minute drive from both Northfield and Faribault, is as grittily inspiring as the cheese is delicious. The Read family (wife Jodi makes the cheese while husband Steven tends to the flock) fought to rebuild their farm after a devastating 2005 fire, becoming one of the state's star creameries after years of painstaking work. That effort was capped by a successful 2015 Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $60,000 to build more barns.

The farm often hosts classes and other events, and Shepherd's Way cheese is available throughout the state. Look in particular for Big Woods Blue, a lovely balance between sharp and creamy flavors that makes it a powerhouse on the plate.

The cutting edge of Minnesota's cheese scene may well be Alemar Cheese of Mankato. The soft, European-style cheeses made by the small company’s cheesemakers include nationally known Bent River, a Camembert-style cheese with all the full, earthy flavor of its counterpart from across the ocean. Alemar’s cheese is available all over the state (and the country), including at various co-ops and cheese shops in the Twin Cities and the outstanding Zzest Culinary Market in Rochester.

Prairie Hollow Farm, 30 minutes northeast of Rochester, produces a cornucopia of food including cheese, bread made from Kulm wheat grown on the farm, grass-fed beef, pork and vegetables. Its offerings can be found at a number of places, including at the farm itself and at the Rochester Farmers Market. Tours (including samples) are offered for $25 per person, with family and group rates available.

Caves of Faribault cheese shopNo visit to southern Minnesota would be complete without a taste of some of the bold blue or mellow gouda and baby Swiss cheeses made at the venerable Caves of Faribault. The eponymous caves, which provide an ancient and very useful version of refrigerated climate control, have been a site for producing beer or cheese on and off since the 1850s.

While you can't tour the 29,000-square-foot sandstone chambers that serve as the company’s cheese-aging rooms (too many visitors would compromise the environment), you can stop for lunch at The Cheese Cave, a combination sandwich joint and cheese shop in Faribault's charming downtown.