So what truly excites Lehner now when it comes to making cheese is a particular source of all great cheese – milk – particularly raw cow milk from cows feeding on clean pasture grasses.
“When I can get really exceptional milk…I drop everything,” Lehner said. “That inspires me.”

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Brenda Jensen lives in the rolling hills of western Wisconsin near Westby, where she, her husband, three employees, a dog and occasional visiting grandchildren share the landscape with 700 dairy sheep. Those “girls” – the ones who are not producing lambs or currently dry – are milked twice a day and that milk produces award-winning cheese.

Fast forward to 2019, and now she has accumulated something else: cheese awards, They sit, stacked in two windows of her production facility – plaques, ribbons, certificates – gather dust and probably unnoticed by most visitors. One gets the feeling there’s no time for resting on laurels at Hidden Springs.

Hidden Springs’ Beginnings

Brenda Jensen grew up in a farm environment, but it was not at all like the place she runs now. “I grew up with one cow in the barn,” Jensen said. “I had chickens and sold eggs…it was kind of fun.”

On the other hand, her husband, Dean, wanted a farm as a boy. And he is the one who decided to get the dairy sheep that changed everything. “He’s the one that really wanted to get into it,” she said. Ironically, Dean is now the one who works off the farm, as a successful therapist.

Those sheep were accumulated by accident, according to Jensen, when Dean bought 50 dairy sheep in 2001 and thought they could milk sheep at their farm and sell the milk. Once they got some dairy sheep, Jensen believed that would be the extent of her work. “We milked for five years before we got into cheese,” she said.

Then came a change, when Jensen attended a cheese-making class.

Rigoberto at Hidden Springs Creamery
Rigo – a five-year Hidden Springs employees – prepares a Hidden Springs Creamery order for shipment to Fromagination in Madison.

Why Cheese?

At the time, she worked for a printing company, and her work was creative enough to suit her. “But I didn’t have that passion,” Jensen said, providing the preface for the rest of her story.

Jensen said the change came when she decided to take a class about cheese-making. She and husband Dean were looking for a sheep cheese-maker to possibly create new cheeses with their milk. But things changed when she hit the third day of cheese class, when the students actually got to put their lessons to practice.

“I got goose bumps when I made that first batch of cheese,” said Jensen, smiling at the memory. She had found a calling.

“It was the magic!” Jensen said, recounting her discovery. “I told my husband, ‘I think I found the cheesemaker!'” Dean thought she had met someone in her class. But, “I said, “No, I think it’s me.”

Later in the journey, she said, when her cheese had been placed in the aging cave for the first time, “I remember looking in at that [first batch of] cheese and thinking, ‘I made that cheese!'”

The work was not easy and sometimes frustrating. “We did a lot of ‘two steps back and a half step forward,”” she said. They consulted with Wisconsin’s now-defunct Dairy Business Innovation Center and moved forward anyway. It was hard.

“I wanted to have 150 sheep, buy [more sheep milk] and make cheese,” Jensen said. But then she couldn’t get local sheep milk producers to sell her their milk. So she took on a larger herd to provide enough milk for her creations.

“We weren’t going to have a plant of our own at the very start,” Jensen said. “And then pretty soon we said ‘We’re building a cheese plant.'”

Another early challenge was making good raw milk cheese. Jensen seems to have a penchant for authenticity, and credits Bleu Mont Dairy’s Willi Lehner with inspiring her to make raw milk cheeses. Despite a steep learning curve, she added that to her repertoire…but it was difficult.

“You know…new cheesemaker, raw milk, farmstead cheese,” she said. “But I did it, and I learned a lot.”

Now three of Hidden Springs’ cheeses are made from raw milk: Meadow Melody, Ocooch Mountain and Wischago

Hidden Springs’ many awards for cheese-making are evidence of the high quality of its sheep milk products. Above are four Hidden Springs creations.

IN 2006, Jensen produced her first four batches of her fresh sheep milk cheese, Driftless, named after the area of western Wisconsin close to the Mississippi River that was not flattened out by glaciers. The next year she achieved two remarkable benchmarks for her business – she received her Wisconsin cheesemaker;’s license, and she was featured in the New York Times.

Fromagination owner, Ken Monteleone was about to embark on creating his own business, and met Jensen just as she was starting out.

“Brenda Jensen was one of the first cheesemakers I visited when I was formulating my business plan back in 2006.  Hidden Springs was only a year old at the time,” said Monteleone. “After spending a afternoon with Brenda , it confirmed my vision to open Fromagination was the right move.  Brenda took us on a tour of her land, shared her five year vision. After seeing the love she had for the land and her sheep I knew I had to finish my business plan and move my idea forward.   Fast forward 12 years,  Brenda has fully brought her vision to life.  She has so many awards that she can’t find room on her wall to showcase them.   Her passion lives on.  Once your taste the cheese, you can tell the land and the sheep are cared for with great love.”

The aging room at Hidden Springs Creamery
Cheese wheels at Hidden Springs are eventually aged on their sides, allowing more air to get to the wheel and speed the aging process.

Her Facility

Hidden Springs lies out in the “boondocks” on the winding roads near Westby, Wisconsin. They “grew into” their current space, which was renovated in 2015. The facility is small and immaculate, and features a barn for the sheep, pasture, a milking facility, a cheese production area and aging rooms. Her underground cellar is not as underground as she would have liked.

“We only went down so far because we hit bedrock, and we couldn’t dynamite [the bedrock] because the facility was next door,” Jensen said.

The milk that comes into the cheese-making facility is gravity-flowed from the milk parlor into a tank, which then supplies the processing facility. As Jensen tours the grounds with visitors, her preference for cleanliness and hygiene becomes visible. She stops in the milking area to explain why Hidden Springs began to wipe sheep udders regularly before milking, a practice that costs time (and therefore money) but ensures a cleaner process.

The Hidden Springs staff milks sheep twice a day, at 5:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., producing about 61 gallons per milking period. They now produce so much that they have some to sell. Currently it is purchased by Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, which also makes goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses.

Later, walking through the barn to see her sheep, Jensen discusses other potential improvements for Hidden Springs, but stops herself from committing to them. Small-scale producers have to consider a “balance of how much money you put in, ’cause will you ever get it out?”

The sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery help produce award-winning cheeses.
Two varieties of sheep have combined efforts at Hidden Springs to provide the milk that makes Bad Axe, Ocooch Mountain, Timber Coulee and other cheeses.
Shop for Hidden Springs products

Still Interested in the Work

Thirteen years into the sheep cheese business, Brenda Jensen still holds high standards for her work and business. Hidden Springs still treats its herd humanely and feeds it sheep pasture-grazed natural grasses. The business also works with local Amish neighbors to do some work around the facility, and employs three full-time staff, aside from Jensen.

But she has given up doing some of the things she had to do in the early years of her business, such as selling at farmers markets. When she was thinking of a smaller operation, it seemed easier. “I was going to milk a shift, make the cheese, and sell it,” Jensen said.

She plotted and carried out a plan to sell at the busy Dane County Farmers Market to spur initial sales.

“It was great…it was fun. But, you know…three in the morning…cutting cheese the day before…” She trails off and motions, seemingly reliving all the prep work for the market, plus direct sales in downtown Madison and the long Saturdays it required.

“It’s a tough way to make a living,” she said.

But now Hidden Springs has stopped selling directly to customers at the Dane County Farmers Market because the business became too busy.

She looked around her house and out at a large flower garden next to it. “I got thirteen grandchildren and two great grandkids,” Jensen said. “The energy changes.”

Thankfully, Jensen’s energy for creating high quality, award-winning cheese is continuing for the time being. Fromagination enthusiastically names Brenda Jensen as its Featured Cheese Maker of the month. 

Shannon Berry has been at Fromagination almost three years, now its Floor & Kitchen Manager.  She traveled to the West Coast, East Coast, and back to Wisconsin before becoming a cheesemonger, and settling into training other cheesemongers to showcase the Badger State’s most famous product.

“I work here because I like food, I like people and I like a job where I can move around all day and work with my hands,” Shannon said.  “…it seems to be a perfect fit right now. I think I would have a very hard time in an office.”

Turns out, Shannon got a job a Fromagination the second time she applied.  The first time she dropped off a resume with owner Ken Monteleone in 2012, he took the application and she never heard anything.  By chance, she ended up staying in Madison and applied again four years later.

Shannon’s background

Shannon grew up in Rhinelander, in a very large family.  She was the oldest girl, and often was charged with making sure her younger siblings ate.  Hence, she is now a natural at customer service, and has a strong interest in food to boot.

She also comes from a formal culinary background.  Shannon trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland, Oregon, and later worked at Aquavit, a well-regarded Manhattan restaurant for a year.  She was “young, passionate, probably naive,” and learned in a very stressful environment that required precision, attention to detail, and a lot of energy.

“Plating was my forte at Aquavit.  I used to use tweezers.”  She called it “super intense, in every single aspect,” and says she learned techniques that not many restaurants would employ.  “We got a Michelin star as a team, which was cool.”

“There’s a certain level of appreciation for food that I have never been around again,” Shannon said.

She returned to Wisconsin to be near her family, and landed in Madison, intending to eventually land a job in Chicago or Minneapolis. But she stayed, then working at Batch Bakehouse and Field Table restaurant before arriving at Fromagination.  Since New York, her life has become more relaxed.

“I’m a very different person now,” she said.

Shannon manages the sales floor and the kitchen, which sometimes arranges Raclette dinners for Fromagination customers.

Attraction to Cheesemongery

Shannon helps train cheesemongers to work with customers to give them a pleasant experience, but also inform them about the various aspects of cheese, including Wisconsin’s best products and what goes with those products.  She encourages her co-workers to learn, and to enjoy their work.

“We have to be relaxed, and get into that ‘zone’ so that our service is good,” Shannon said.  “It’s a very collaborative culture [at Fromagination].  I can’t do all this by myself.”

“Reading” customers and helping them find interesting things to eat can be a group effort in retail.

“There’s a team aspect,” she said.  “You get to move around and work with your hands.  Every single day is different,” she said.  “We’re guessing….”

Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone says Shannon’s creativity with cheese is an asset to the shop.

“At Fromagination, we are always seeking out people that compliment our skill set.  Shannon is the perfect fit.  A trained chef with a wonderful palette for pairing cheese with what we call ‘companions.’  She is very creative and always willing to try something new,” he said. “Her creativity inspires a food’s presentation, which is very important to the overall experience…be it making a cheese tray, a cake of cheese, merchandising the shop or working one-on-one with customers.  Her passion has helped us take our business to the next level.”

Fromagination Cheesemonger Shannon works with cakes of cheese for events.
Shannon arranges cakes of cheese for clients who have wedding parties or other events that incorporate wheels of artisan cheese.

Fromagination Classes

Fromagination began offering cheese classes again in February, and Shannon is an instructor.

“I have really been loving it.  It’s fun because in a class I get to be a little more intimate (with customers).  I get to hopefully excite people about food and pairings.”  “I get to bring people together with food.”  “I get to share my passion with others – food and people.”

Shannon has been teaching classes that involve pairings with beer, wine and spirits.  She is very attracted to the pairing aspect of the food business.

“That creative incentive is very powerful for me, personally,” said Shannon. “That’s something I value.  It’s been a learning experience too,” she said.  “It’s not always easy to speak in front of people.”

A Favorite Cheese Experience

While Shannon worked as executive chef at Field Table, she was invited to the boss’s table one evening while he was hosting a French visitor.  There was a cheese plate going around the table which Shannon had worked to perfect, including some baguettes and Jasper Hill’s Harbison, a soft-ripened, bloomy rind cheese.  Shannon was tired and hungry, and the other guests were ignoring that cheese plate.

“All I remember is watching that cheese go around the table, and just waiting for it to come back.  It blew my mind.  It was warm, gooey and delicious…and I ate the whole thing,” she said.

Fromagination also imports blue cheeses from Europe
Shannon likes many types of cheese, including blue cheeses.

Favorite Cheese

Ask Shannon about her favorite cheese and she’ll answer in types of cheese – creamy, funky, Blue or “a really good crystal-ly, aged cheese” (well-aged Cheddars develop crystals in the cheese).  “Sometimes Marieke Penterman’s Overjarige is just incredible,” Shannon adds.

Find some of Shannon’s favorite things

Favorite Cheese Pairing

So what is the head cheesemonger’s favorite cheese?  “It depends upon my mood,” Shannon said.  Evalon, a goat cheese from LaClare Farms, is probably her favorite, served with Raspberry Rose preserves from Madison producer Quince & Apple.  She favors other goat milk cheeses, too.

But she has another suggestion, too…of course.

“My boyfriend’s breakfast is the same every day: coffee, cheese, dates and pistachios.  It’s a great combination,” Shannon said.  So what kind of cheese does the boyfriend eat?  “Ossau Iraty!” …which is a  French sheep milk cheese that is buttery and semi-firm.  She could keep making more suggestions, if you let her.

This month’s featured cheese maker is Marieke Peterman of Holland’s Family Cheese, the business name for a very successful Wisconsin cheese brand and her namesake, Marieke Gouda. The busy staff and many visitors at the small complex she has established in Thorp, Wisconsin, 45 minutes east of Eau Claire, show the results of a very busy woman who has turned a childhood interest in cheese into an impressive venture.

The Marieke Gouda store is located on State Highway 29, which runs between Chippewa Falls and Green Bay and for some is the line between “northern” and “southern” Wisconsin. Outside stands a huge cow with “cheese” on its side – inside the blue and white-walled store is a huge set of award plaques and ribbons that would make any cheese maker proud. And in the almost 13 years since Marieke entered the U.S. artisan market, she has helped Wisconsin cement its relatively new reputation as a global artisan cheese powerhouse.

Marieke’s Roots

Marieke grew up near Weerslo, Netherlands, on eastern edge of the country, less than half-way between Amsterdam and Hannover, Germany. She lived on a dairy farm with a 60-cow herd. When she was young, she would go to the market and see a cheese monger who had a catchy rhyming slogan he would repeat to customers…one that Marieke remembers to this day. He also gave out samples, which attracted children like Marieke.

“I would eat a lot of cheese,” Marieke said.  “We had a lot of farmers markets.”

Out of grade school and into college, Marieke ended up with a degree in Dairy Business and then began work as a farm inspector. But she still remembered the tastes of those farmstead cheeses the farmers market vendor gave her, including that of a young Gouda. She decided to create a traditional Dutch Gouda in honor of those cheese flavors from childhood.

Marieke still returns to the Netherlands two times a year, sometimes with her five children.  She also maintains another connection to her roots by host student interns from the Netherlands in Thorp, who work on dairy or business projects for a few weeks or several months each year.

Marieke Penterman and Ken Monteleone of Fromagination
Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone credits Marieke Penterman with helping to fuel the great artisan cheese “wave” in Wisconsin.

Big Business in Thorp

The trajectory for growth of Marieke’s businesses seems relatively fast.  She arrived in Wisconsin in 2003, and decided to study cheese-making and become a Wisconsin-licensed cheese maker, and began production in 2006. She studied abroad, including back in her home, the Netherlands, and has not only brought authentic Gouda-making technique but also equipment back from there. She and her husband, Rolf, expanded and moved their facility in 2010, then broke ground for a store and restaurant in 2013.

While the shift to Wisconsin from the Netherlands has served her career goals, Marieke still prefers the Dutch climate over that of central Badgerland. “Nine months of winter!” Marieke said, “…and I’m still adjusting” But, from a business standpoint, she certainly seems to have figured how to make it work.

Opened in 2014, the rustic restaurant, Cafe Dutchess (get it?), and the Marieke Gouda store, with a blue and white interior, have become a tourist destination in Clark County.  The restaurant has an outdoor patio, a huge fiberglass cow stature bolted to a concrete slab, cow-shaped fiberglass benches, and a gigantic “jumping pillow” for children – all of which give the facility a tourist feel.  Now a member of WATA – the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association – they give tours twice a day in the summer, but are closed on Sundays and holidays.

The store is equipped with large windows which give several views of the cheese-making process, including a storage facility where large wheels of Gouda sit on pine planks to age.  Visitors can watch employees wipe the planks on a regular basis and turn the wheels of cheese, which happens with less frequency as the cheese ages. Immediately next door is the dairy barn and milking facility (the milk runs underground by pipe into the cheese making facility behind the store.  Marieke’s “right hand” and general manager, Kim, reminds visitors that Clark County has more cows than human residents, and is a major dairy county in Wisconsin.

Store visitors can, of course, purchase Marieke Gouda cheeses, but also cheese curds, and the cheeses of several other Wisconsin producers, including nearby Lynn Dairy.  The extra milk not used to produce cheese in-house is sold to Lynn Dairy for its general cheese-making, but Kim said they dream of increasing production to the point that they eventually use all that milk on-site. To that end, they hope to hire sales managers on the East and West Coasts to boost domestic sales.

“We only need two months’ notice to ramp up production,” Marieke said with a smile.

Marieke Gouda is an artisan Wisconsin product now made in a wide variety of flavors…and sold in the U.S.A., and places such as Canada, Belgium, England and Spain.
Shop for Marieke Gouda products

Still Interested in the Work

In 2006, Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone was in the early stages of developing his business plan when he met Marieke at a workshop in Wausau.  According to Ken, meeting her just fired up his desire to open a shop that would tell her story and those of cheese makers like her.  In 2007, Marieke was one of the first cheese makers Fromagination featured in the front window of the shop.

“It’s been exciting to follow Marieke’s career in the short time she has taken the cheese world by storm,” Ken said.  “Her passion and personality – along with the wonderful Goudas she creates – make me want to tell everyone about her.”

What is Marieke’s biggest competition now?  She says it’s the cheaper, imported Goudas from Holland that are sold in the U.S. market.  In turn, but, perhaps, she will return the favor. Marieke now has an interest in sending a little competition back to the Netherlands and has discussed supplying cheese to a market chain in Amsterdam. Holland’s Family Cheese has not yet worked out some shipping issues to achieve that goal.

Holland’s Family Cheese was very lucky when it entered the cheese business, Marieke said.  The artisan cheese market was being revitalized and growing, and they took advantage of the new interest from the incipient “foodie” movement and the cheese-eating public.

“The consumer was ready for some specialty, farmstead cheese, They were willing to pay more for hand-crafted cheese,” Marieke said. “Now Wendy’s (chain restaurant) advertises Gouda on the burgers.”

Marieke made a short list of things she considers the keys to her success, ending with a smile and the last of those components: “Stubborness.”  In between, she talked of the importance of hiring good employees and letting them do their jobs, and making sure her artisan cheese inventory is tightly controlled.  She does not want to see her cheeses discounted at Costco, she said.

“At the end, you have to follow what you think is the best path to go on,” she said.

Rolf Penterman

On the wall in a hallway of the Penterman Farm’s milking facility is a mural which explains a key component of Marieke’s success.  It’s a simple painting of cows running out into pasture, one of them kicking up its heels in the green grass on a sunny day.  But under the mural are painted the words Vrolijke Koeien, which translates to English as “happy cows.”  And the cows at the Holland’s Family Farm facility do, indeed, seem content. The milk they constantly produce has put Rolf’s partner in position to make some highly acclaimed cheese…and she is well aware of that.

Rolf Penterman arrived in the United States with his brother in 2002 to start a dairy business in Clark County.  (Marieke arrived a year later.) He is the man behind the vrolijke koeien, whether it’s giving a tour to school children who get to see calves being born, or explaining the rotating “cow brush” – like something one might see at a car wash – which attracts lines of cows who want to feel it scrubbing their various parts.  He monitors the health of herd members with ankle monitors and cow “Fitbits” in their ears. He seems genuinely proud of his healthy herd, which is just a few steps away from the store and restaurant.

Marieke and Rolf’s attitude towards their dairy herd is well-summarized on the Holland’s Family Cheese website: “We treat our cows with love and respect; it is a code we live by on the farm. In turn our herd provides us with full-flavored, remarkably consistent milk. Our cows relax in the sand in our free-stall barns. They have rotating back-scratcher brushes, sprinkler systems and fans to keep them cool. We like to call it the Cow Spa.”

Rolf Penterman is one reason Marieke came to Wisconsin…and the man who keeps the cows happy…and the milk flowing.