The gently pitched and sprawling green fields of Altura, Minnesota, are part of the Driftless Area. The land shrugs and dips, and there are whorls and ripples that make their way across the turf. You are tenderly enfolded by the landscape rather than dwarfed by it.
This is where Capra Nera Creamery cheesemaker Katie Bonow’s 50 or so goats sally out of their pen to graze (unless it’s raining, in which case they remain indoors and pout). We’re imprecise about the number of goats because Bonow has lost count. Since the birth of her son four months ago, she’s been in a bit of a haze, waking up most days around 3:30am to milk her animals and making cheese like clockwork on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. “The last few weeks have just been brutal,” she says with an apologetic smile, while tucking her son into a soft-sided wagon that shares a room with a milk tank. “He doesn’t do long naps during the day yet.”
Bonow, who is 29 years old, grew up on a dairy farm near Spring Grove, Minnesota, and got her first goat at age 12 by way of a 4-H essay contest. She went to college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and studied Italian, but knew early on that a desk job wasn’t her destiny. “I did some random video editing work… and that just drove me nuts,” she says. “My dad [and I] built fences for other farmers, and that was the closest I came to something that was enjoyable for me. I’ve got this skill set—I’ve been raising goats for a long time. And the market’s there—or developing at least. Artisan cheese is getting to be a big thing.”
Trips to Italy and Vermont, to study at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, prepared Bonow to take the plunge into cheesemaking. She studied with a cheesemaker in Sicily who was traditional to a fault. “He chain-smoked the entire time he was making cheese,” she laughs. “But they were doing some cool traditional practices—he would make his own rennet [the animal-derived product that separates the curd from whey], this bizarre rennet paste.”
She went back to Italy a couple years later and stayed for about six weeks on a farm near Lake Como, close to the Swiss border. “That was the closest to what I’m doing now,” she says. “They had about 100 goats and were making all the milk into cheese. They were doing CSA-type things and they also had a little shop on the farm where they would sell cheese.”
Europeans have been crafting stellar cheeses for centuries, but America’s cheesemaking industry is still finding its legs. The last few decades have seen real growth in smaller, artisan creameries. With its seven acres of tillable land and roughly 200-pounds-a-month output, Capra Nera is a faint little star in a small constellation of artisan companies in Minnesota. Places like Shepherd’s Way, Caves of Faribault, Alemar, Redhead Creamery, and others are building a community creating cheese that makers can be proud of and consumers can covet.
At the heart of the blossoming cheese industry, of course, is stewardship of the land and the animals. At Capra Nera, that means goats—a mix of Nubians, Saanens, Alpines, and LaManchas, many of which have crossbred over the years.
The goats of Capra Nera are like goats anywhere: they’re curious, they’re social, and they’re surprisingly handsome, painted up in a kaleidoscope of browns, whites, grays, and creams. As we walk and talk with Katie, goats are parading in from the pasture under a light misting rain. They hold their heads high as they melt into and out of formations with their friends; here and there, a goat will pause and spray a fat stream of piss onto the already damp earth. It doesn’t get more bucolic than this. That’s the irony of artisan agriculture: it takes a bunch of sassy goats strolling the countryside in a disorganized tangle to make a cheese that’s worthy of well-wrought tables ringed by discerning diners.
What those diners like—and at $25 to $30 a pound, they need to like it a lot—is cheese with depth and soul.
When we first tried Capra Nera’s Contadina cheese, we thought there had been some kind of mistake. We’d tried it on the charcuterie plate at Forager Brewery in Rochester, Minnesota, and it had been pointed out to us by the chef so we wouldn’t confuse it with the other varieties on the plate. But on the car ride to Altura, we started to second-guess what we’d tasted. Had that been the right cheese? Or was it manchego, the Spanish sheep’s milk cheese that is among the world’s best-loved dairy products? It certainly tasted like manchego—nutty, salty, dense, akin flavorwise to a good aged Parmesan. Is a Minnesotan 20-something crafting a cheese that is confusable with one of Europe’s greats?
When we revisited Contadina at Capra Nera, it became clear that we’d had the right cheese, and that Contadina has an awful lot going on. It’s a raw-milk cheese, which means a minimum of 60 days of aging to satisfy food safety guidelines. Bonow ages her small wheels of Contadina for at least five months and up to a year-and-a-half, and they are truly dynamic, shaped by the time of year the goats were milked and what they happened to munch on between foraging in the field and dining on their rations in the pen.
Bonow is quiet and stoic, but lights up when she talks about working with raw milk. “I think the flavor is completely unbeatable,” she says. “It’s really difficult to get all the nuances of flavor with pasteurized milk—you have to add the flavor to the cheese with the cultures that you’re using. And you’re limited because there are only a certain number of cultures on the market.
“[With raw milk] you get this depth of flavor. It’s the terroir, it’s that underlying indescribable flavor.”
The difference between making cheese with raw milk and aging it out and making a relatively young, fresh cheese with pasteurized milk is like the difference between making vintage wine and manufacturing grape juice. The latter is all process, and any variation in the product is a flaw. The former is an almost impossible to quantify dance of biological inputs, craftsmanship, sometimes fickle microfauna, and time. And so it was that between the two pieces of Contadina we tried, we had two experiences: the piece at Forager was firm, almost crystallized, with a dry, woodsy nuttiness, and the piece we tried at Capra Nera had elements of creamy aged cheddar—variations on a theme.
Seasonality is key to variation, as fat and protein change with the goats’ diet and the time of year. “Spring cheese is a little bit softer,” says Bonow. “It makes really fast; you have to be on top of it when you’re making cheese. During the summer months is when I get that really good nutty-style Contadina. Fall and late fall get a little bit tricky; […] the proteins aren’t really good for making a long-aging cheese, so I’m still working on that.”
When Bonow brought us into her aging room to snag a wheel of Contadina, she grabbed another, much smaller basket-formed cheese. It was her Ciccio (“chubby,” in Italian), and it’s one of the most interesting cheeses we’ve tasted in years. It’s relatively fresh (made from raw milk and aged the minimum 60 days) and it’s pliable and springy, solid enough to slice but tender enough to spread on bread. In its texture and richness, it reminded us of the Butterkase we tried at Edelweiss Creamery in Monroe, Wisconsin. But while Butterkase is made to be rich, simple, and, well, butter-like, Ciccio has a profound scent that telegraphs what’s to come: depth, complexity, and gentle earthiness. It’s not aggressive and it’s not insistent, but it tells a story.
Bonow makes an herbed version of Ciccio that is, if anything, even more delicious—garlic and herbs complement the rich creaminess of the cheese and create something like a sophisticated spin on those little dishes of Alouette spread available at any grocery store. What ties all of Bonow’s cheeses together is that none of them smell or taste “goaty”—they present clean, elegant profiles, and whisper goat rather than shout it. There’s depth and complexity, but not much (if any) barnyard funk.
Bonow is still young, and to be producing cheese this serious so early in her career suggests a bright future. There’s a lot yet to be done—scaling up her aging operation, tending to her ever-growing flock, pushing her cheese out to new markets (an alliance with Classic Provisions has already added to the outlets for Capra Nera, which include Lunds & Byerlys and select Kowalski’s in the Cities). But as the market grows, so do the opportunities—and so, too, will the herd of goats that live in Altura, Minnesota.
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Recipe for Pasta Contadina
Inspired by a method from Katie Bonow of Capra Nera Creamery
2 slices of bacon, chopped
1 half onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
About 2 cups of sliced or chopped seasonal vegetables—asparagus, zucchini, eggplant, etc.
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper
½ cup pasta water
Heaping ¼ cup Contadina cheese, very finely grated (or microplaned), plus more to finish
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
4 ounces dry pasta
2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1. Prepare your pasta in a pot; when cooked, strain and reserve about ½ cup of the water.
2. Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet at medium-low temperature. Add the chopped bacon and saute until rendered, about 3–5 minutes.
3. Saute the chopped onions in the bacon fat until tender, 5–7 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant (about 30 seconds) before adding your chopped vegetables, salt, and pepper. Cook until vegetables are tender, approximately 3–7 minutes.
4. Add the pasta to the pan along with the reserved water, the grated Contadina, and the butter or olive oil, and toss liberally. Season to taste and remove from heat.
5. Plate, and finish with a sprinkling of chopped parsley and an aggressive grating of additional cheese. Bonow adds: “I also tend to add a dose of red pepper flakes at the end, particularly when I have zucchini available. And, if I’m having a glass while cooking, I add a splash of wine somewhere in the process.”
Read more chef profiles and get other great recipes in The Growler’s Minnesota Spoon column here.