When the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative was formed in the 1990s, sheep’s milk cheesemaking in America had until then been a young and struggling industry, in which many startups quickly fizzled out. When the cheese plant Montchevre in WI decided to start using sheep's milk, they decided that they’d do it only if they could work with a single source that handled all of the licensing, inspections, inventory and payment.
So local sheep farmers responded by forming the WSDC to organize sheep dairying into a more reliable, standardized profession. When the co-op ended up with a surplus of milk, members decided to start making their own cheese. And they looked to Spanish Manchego - one of the most well-known sheep's milk cheeses in the world - for inspiration.
There was no local version of Manchego for the co-op cheesemakers to replicate, so they decided to figure out how to do it at home, maximizing their method's compatibility with their local terroir. They partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which actually has its own sheep dairy research center, to develop a recipe.
Milk is sourced from mostly East Friesian and Laucane Breed ewes of member farmers. During spring and summer, the sheep graze freely on pasture and are fed a limited amount of natural grain while being milked.
Like Spanish Manchego, Dante is 100% sheep's milk. To make the cheese, the milk is gently pasteurized before starter cultures and rennet are added. Once the curd is formed and cut, the whey is drained off and the remaining curds put into plastic molds for pressing. After unmolding, the wheels are transferred to a temperature and humidity controlled aging facility at Cedar Grove Cheese in southern Wisconsin, where they’re aged for at least six months before release. During this time, they’re covered with an edible poly-coating to help preserve moisture and control mold growth.
Flavors of Dante are sweet with notes of toast, butter, grass and lanolin. The texture is slightly pliant and moist, with more aged wheels becoming slightly drier and more crumbly.