I was poking around Surdyk’s last week, not because I really needed any more cheese in my cheese drawer, but because I was in the neighborhood. (But do I really need an excuse to stop by? No.) I asked the cheesemonger what was new, and he pointed me toward Goodhue Grass-Fed Gouda, a cheese from Minnesota’s PastureLand Cooperative. Always eager to support local producers, I bought a wedge and have been immensely pleased with it ever since.

Made from the organic milk of 100-percent grass-fed cows, Goodhue is aged in the Pasture Pride cellars in Cashton, Wis. (Isn’t it nice when two rival states get along?) The result is a sweet cheese that reflects many of Gouda’s signature characteristics – a nutty, even grassy flavor that is perfect for snacking. The Goodhue hasn’t been aged long enough to form the crystals often found in aged Goudas, but I don’t find the cheese to be lacking in flavor or texture. If you can find it at a local cheese shop, it’s a great cheese to try, especially if you’ll be serving it to guests who aren’t very adventurous with cheese or if you don’t know their cheese preferences.

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Though my cheese drawer is chock full of cheeses from the Wine Spectator list, I recently made room for several off-list varieties for a Heavy Table story I was writing about Rochdale Farms cheeses. Made in Wisconsin from the milk of more than 325 Amish farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota, these cheeses have starting appearing in co-op dairy cases in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. All are good, some are fantastic, so seek them out if you live here or will be visiting these parts!

Though I had already bought a cheese from the Wine Spectator list for this week, I was fully on board with Colleen’s idea to take a furlough from said list and sample some local goat’s-milk cheeses instead. This week not withstanding (we had a record three days in a row when the temperature didn’t get above 60°), we’ve also been blessed with spring-like weather here in Minnesota, which turns the taste buds toward young, fresh cheeses. I found two delicious specimens at Surdyk’s that are definitely worth a try.

I hadn’t heard of Donnay Dairy before, but this farmstead operation in Kimball, Minn., produces two certified-organic goat cheeses: fresh chevre and the cave-aged Granite Ridge. The family-run farm began making goat cheese in 2004, and it quickly grew in popularity throughout Minnesota. I brought home a tub of the chevre and marveled at its clean, pure taste.

My second cheese hails from my homestate of Wisconsin, and while it’s not as young as the Donnay Dairy chevre, its uniqueness merited a place on my cheese plate. Carr Valley, maker of the previously review Marisa, has created a goat’s-milk blue cheese called Billy Blue. It’s made from the milk of pasture-raised goats and aged for four months, so it still retains the freshness of a chevre while providing the salty tang of a blue cheese. A great blue cheese for beginners, the Billy Blue will definitely see the inside of my cheese drawer again.

But what’s the best pairing for a blue goat cheese? Carr Valley suggests a Sauternes, Port or cider, none of which I had on hand during my tasting. Since I have a little cheese left, though, I might have to do some experimentation over the weekend. That’s homework I won’t mind at all!

Before I begin, a confession: I have not always like blue cheese. It was always too strong for my Wisconsin-bred palette, which was accustomed to nothing stronger than a sharp cheddar. But my former boss and I used to frequent the Majestic Café (now just called The Majestic) in Old Town Alexandria and would share the salad, which came with some very pungent blue cheese, and I began taking small tastes. Then my tastes became bigger and bigger, and pretty soon I wanted all of it for myself (but I still shared with Sue because I’m nice like that).

Crumbly, delicious St. Petes Select - locally made in Minnesota.

Crumbly, delicious St. Pete's Select - locally made in Minnesota.

I’m not sure what kind of blue cheese that was, but it definitely wasn’t my cheese of the week – St. Pete’s Select from Minnesota’s own Faribault Dairy. This blue, Faribault Dairy’s “signature super-premium American blue cheese,” has a mild taste and crumbly texture that’s easy for the blue-cheese beginner to enjoy. I expected a much stronger flavor on first taste and was a little disappointed at first, but then I figured out the secret. I drizzled a bit of honey on top of the St. Pete’s Select, and then I got the flavor burst I was craving – salty, tangy and creamy, too. The sweetness of the honey helped to draw out St. Pete’s “blue-ness” (I don’t think that’s a real cheese term, but it is now!). Honey and blue cheese are a classic pairing, but as I found out at work the next day, other sweet foods will work. My co-worker Sara tasted the St. Pete’s and then took a bite of her apricot-mango yogurt and got the same heightened flavor experience. Who knew?

Topping the St. Petes Select with a drizzle of honey really helped bring out the cheeses tangy flavor.

Topping the St. Pete's Select with a drizzle of honey really helped bring out the cheese's tangy flavor.

St. Pete’s Select is one of three blue cheeses crafted by Faribault Dairy – you may have heard of its siblings, Amablu Blue Cheese and Amablu Gorgonzola. All three cheeses are made from rBST-free raw cow’s milk, hand-made in traditional open vats and aged in hand-dug sandstone caves. St. Pete’s Select is aged a minimum of 100 days, making it the sharpest of the bunch.

St. Pete’s Select is available by mail-order at Amazon.com (really!), and it can also be found at Surdyk’s, Premier Cheese Market and Cheesetique. I’d say that you could find it at my house, too, but I don’t think there will be any left after today.

So I moved to Minneapolis in the summer of 2006 and made many happy trips to Surdyk’s, which was easy because it was just across the river from my office. But I was thrilled to learn there would soon be a cheese shop opening not far from my apartment in the ritzy 50th and France shopping district. Cheese near the office AND cheese near my house? Score!

The Premier Cheese Market is owned by Ken and Amy Liss, foodies who followed their passion for fine cheese and made it a career, just like Cheesetique‘s Jill Erber. The selection was small but satisfying at first, but Ken has really built it to become a well-stocked cheese counter, and I always find something to match my craving. You can find a variety of crackers, olive oils, olives, salts and other tasty treats, and I always pick up a loaf of Rustica Bakery‘s rustic bread – the crust is divine! (Cut thick slices and layer it with fresh tomato, mozzarella and a drizzle of fruity olive oil – oh, I wish it were August again!) Coffee, sandwiches, soups and desserts are also available, but I usually just come for the cheese and bread.

I’ve tried to convince Ken to hold cheese classes in the store at night, similar to Cheesetique’s, but he told me he thinks the store is too small. (I need to bring him pictures of the original Cheesetique to show him that’s absolutely not true!) But he does conduct classes on occasion at the Cooks of Crocus Hill store just down the block, and he’s also available for private wine and cheese parties. Hmmm, good to know…

And since Premier Cheese Market does not sell wine, it’s open on Sundays! The hours aren’t long, but hey, better than nothing. (The shop is closed on Mondays, though.) Visit the Premier Cheese Market at 5013 France Ave. S. in Minneapolis.

When faced with the prospect of moving to Minneapolis two and a half years ago, one of my first questions was, “Is there a good cheese shop?” My friend, Ariela, who was already living there and had developed her own cheese obsession, assured me that there was. “Oh yeah, I’ll take you to Surdyk’s.” So excited was I that I made her take me there on the first day of my four-day find-a-job, find-an-apartment visit, and I was not disappointed.

Located in Northeast Minneapolis, Surdyk’s is primarily known for its wine and liquor shop, which it claims is the Midwest’s largest. But when it moved into its current building in 1979, the owners added a specialty cheese and gourmet food shop, which is the first place I head. The cheese selection is top-notch, and the very knowledgable staff really don’t mind if you taste 10 cheeses during your visit. (I know, I’ve done it!) Besides cheese, the shop is stocked with all the traditional accompaniments, and some not-so-traditional ones, too (chocolate-covered potato chips, anyone?). You can also pick up lunch at the deli counter, which has a yummy array of soups, sandwiches and hot entrees that change daily. The huge brownies are killer, too.

Surdyk’s offers cheese classes as well, but I’ve never taken one because the fee is pretty pricey, especially compared to Cheesetique’s. Instead, I like to buy several cheeses at once and conduct my own class at home…with myself. I also try to convince my husband to taste my choices, but he doesn’t like gooey, blue or stinky cheese, so most of the time I get it all to myself. Can’t complain about that!

You can find Surdyk’s at 303 E. Hennepin Ave. in Minneapolis. Don’t go on a Sunday, though – thanks to Minnesota state law, you can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday, so the cheese shop is closed, too. But if you’ve got a hankering, don’t worry – the next stop on the Minneapolis cheese tour can oblige!