Monday, January 21, 2013

Ludwig Farmstead Creamery

I wasn’t sure where to start this post to be quite honest. I’ve started it several times in my head over the last few days and every time I do, it’s different. So, I’ve decided to start it from the heart….
A lot of people want to say we don’t have anything in East Central Illinois. I guess they are right in a way, we have a lot of corn and bean fields and not much else. Things don’t change around here too often and I have friends that come back home after being away and say that it’s almost depressing. I don’t agree. There is a beauty in the fields and flat land here, a peacefulness if you will, and there are some extraordinary things here if you take the time to look. Ludwig Farmstead Creamery is one of them. Last Wednesday I got the chance to visit the creamery and I am ever so glad I did. So, to those that think we don’t have anything around this rural piece of the Midwest, prepare to be impressed.

Ludwig Farmstead Creamery is located in Fithian, IL, a town so small that if you blink, you may miss it. It sits on Feathercreek Farm, a 150-acre, fifth-generation family farm originally settled in 1866 where the Ludwig family raises Holstein dairy cattle. The creamery was founded in 2009 by Jake Ludwig, a University of Illinois graduate with a love for cheese making. Jake studied for a year in Pennsylvania learning the art of cheese making and developing his own recipes before bringing his new found knowledge back to the family farm and began planning the creamery. Unfortunately, before his vision could be fully realized, Jake tragically lost his life.
Wanting to fulfill Jake’s dream, in 2010 the Ludwig family hired this guy…
DSC_0031 copy
His name is Fons Smits and he has been in the dairy industry for 19 years. His credentials will astound you. I’m taking his bio directly from their website because I know I will not get anything wrong that way, so in their own words..

Born and raised in the pastoral dairy region of Holland, Fons Smits studied food technology for seven years at the Van Hal Institute in Bolsward, Netherlands, specializing in dairy technology, and holds engineering degrees in food science, biotechnology, and water purification. He further honed his skills as an international dairy consultant, traveling the world to establish and improve small scale dairies in developing countries including Tanzania, Mongolia, Uganda, China, Ukraine, Brazil, and Malawi. Because of these experiences, Mr. Smits' approach to developing cheeses and other dairy products brings a uniquely broad creativity blended with efficient simplicity.
He has won extensive awards and kudos for his aged and fresh cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams. He uses only pure, simple ingredients, eschewing artificial flavors, colors, stabilizers, and additives. His products are imbued with traditional, European characteristics which have been very well received. In 2004 he created a pourable, European-style yogurt, sold in bottles, which was later imitated by leading dairies, large and small. Smits is drawn to the physically demanding, meticulous art of hands-on cheese making, and the science and alchemy of the process. His passion is evident in the products he creates.

 You probably never thought that little Fithian, Illinois could have a Creamery, let alone someone so accomplished at the helm, huh?  Fons’ passion was definitely evident from the moment I shook his hand. He began telling me about his 1 1/2 year experience of developing recipes and then testing and tweaking those recipes to produce the raw milk cheeses that the creamery makes today. Cheese making is a perfect clash of science and art and I had no idea how intricate the craft of making cheese truly is. Everything effects the final product. Things like a slight variation in the amount of salt to what time of the year the milk is taken from the cows can totally change the outcome of the cheese. The aging process of the cheese can drastically change everything about it and the environment has to be kept at certain specifications to produce a consistent product. Things like humidity and temperature are kept tightly controlled. One thing I found intriguing was when he told me that you may taste a cheese at 3 months and really like it, then go back and taste it at 4 months and think it’s terrible, then go back yet again and taste it at 5 months and have a wonderful product. Fons said that you never throw out anything in cheese making because tomorrow it could be totally different. The process that he went through was just amazing to me, and I think I am glad I am not a cheese maker because I am pretty sure I would be bald. I would have pulled my hair out a long time ago.
 Just like anything else, the science behind the craft means nothing if you don’t have a love for what you do and there is certainly a lot of love for making a great product at Ludwig’s. Soon after I arrived Fons pulled out a tray of cheeses for me to try.. DSC_0002 copy ..cheeses that he developed himself and as I tasted each one he gave me a background of how they came to be.  One of the things I really love about Ludwig Farmstead Creamery’s cheeses are the names. If you’re from around East Central Illinois, you know what all the names mean as most named after local rivers or places.  I could tell you my personal experience of tasting each cheese, but I think I’ll just say that there wasn’t one I didn’t think was delicious, with my favorite being Feather Ridge. If you would like to read all about each of the flavors of cheeses click here. A cheese that is not pictured here but I got to taste was Vermilion River Blue. If you think you do not like blue cheese then you really need to try Vermilion River Blue. I was so impressed with the taste of this cheese because I was expecting that blue cheese bite of bitterness. What I got was a slightly smoky, slightly sweet blue cheese with not a wink of bitterness. It completely changed what I thought blue cheese should taste like and I strongly urge everyone to try it, it’s a game changer. 
I also got a little bit of special treatment during my visit because I got to try a brand new cheese, that Fons made himself, that isn’t even out on the market yet. I don’t believe it has a name yet, but it’s called a Friesian Cheese and is traditionally made in the region of Holland where Fons grew up. It has a creamy texture with spices like clove and cumin in it and it is absolutely delicious. I told Fons that it tasted like Christmas, I can imagine it on a cheese plate out during the holidays and I cannot wait until I am able to buy this cheese! Holidays or not, this cheese will definitely become a favorite of mine any time of the year.
During my tour of the creamery, we made our way into the room where the magic happens..

The first thing you’ll notice is how unbelievably clean everything is. Fons takes sanitation very seriously and you can definitely tell. I could almost see my reflection in every surface. …and with a hair net on, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
I met Paulo..
Paulo is an intern from Brazil and Paulo doesn’t really like our winter temperatures…I asked him. Evidently he’s willing to brave the cold to learn some of Fons’ vast amount of knowledge. Smart guy.
He’s also very sweet because he put up with me and my camera leaning over his shoulder most of the morning. Paulo was making Jake’s Wheel Mustard that morning, which I already knew was delicious, and I got to watch most of the process.
Here is the fresh milk being heated and stirred.
These are the three ingredients that will soon go into the cheese. From L to R: Ground Mustard, Salt and Rennet (the enzyme that causes the curds to separate from the whey). There is not one thing on that table that you can’t pronounce or know what it is..I love it.
Here is Paulo adding the rennet and it doesn’t take very long before the milk looks like this…
Now Paulo cuts the curds..
Paulo made this look easy when it’s really anything but.
Now he continues to agitate the curds to break them up smaller..
You can really see the curds now…
Next, about half the whey is drained off and water is added. The curds sit in the water mixture for a predetermined amount of time before the flavors are added, in this case mustard and salt, and then they are pressed into the cheese molds. Once the cheese has been pressed it will go into the next room to rest or brine..
Once it had rested it has to be aged, so off it goes to the aging room..
Here is Fons talking to me about the Vermilion Blue. He actually took a sample straight out of one of those wheels you see and let me taste it. 
This is also where I tasted the Friesian Cheese. I kinda wanted to hide a wheel of it in my coat, but I think he may have noticed my sudden weight gain.
Next, we went outside about 25 yards or so and saw exactly where the milk comes from that makes all that delicious cheese…
DSC_0049 copy
What a beautiful girl.
One of the things that makes Ludwig Farmstead Creamery so special is that they are Humane Certified. That means that they have met rigorous standards from the Humane Farm Animal Care Program. The standards include a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones and the animals are raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors. If you would like to know more about what it means to be Humane Certified, click here. Needless to say, they take wonderful care of their animals and it shows. As Fons pointed out to me, it was super quiet in the barn. You could here the birds tweeting and the huffs and puffs of the cows and that’s it. It’s known that happy cows are quiet, no mooing, and as we’ve all heard…happy cows make wonderful cheese.
DSC_0052 copy
After seeing these gorgeous creatures, I told my Hubby I wanted a cow.
I won’t tell you what he said because it’s not appropriate blog material, but I will say I won’t be getting a cow anytime soon.
DSC_0053 copy
DSC_0057 copy
DSC_0054 copy
Here is where these pretty girls give their milk..
..and here is where it all goes..

From this tank it is piped straight to into the creamery where it is …you guessed it…made into cheese. There is something very refreshing about seeing exactly where the product comes from, start to finish. It’s amazing.
Now you know why I saw all of these on the walls..
If there is one thing I hoped to accomplish, is to show you this extraordinary place and the people who run it. It started out as a dream of Jake Ludwig’s and has turned into quite the legacy of his life’s work  due to Fons Smits and his amazing talents and hard work. The delicious products they make are a testament to the love behind them, and you can definitely taste the love.
I want to extend my sincerest thanks to Fons Smits for taking his time and answering all my questions…sometimes two or three times…he had admirable patience with me. Also, a thank you to Ludwig Farmstead Creamery for allowing me to visit.
If you live in the East Central Illinois area, I urge you to visit the farm and see for yourself what an amazing place it is. If you don’t live near East Central Illinois and would still like to purchase some of the wonderful cheese that the creamery as to offer, or just want more info, please visit their website. There is information on purchasing online and where their cheeses are sold. If you live near St. Louis, Indianapolis, or Chicago, you’re in luck because there are several places that carry their products..
Now you know, we aren’t just corn and beans in East Central Illinois.
Happy Monday,


  1. I LOVE CHEESE! I want to especially try the blue cheese as I do not care for it in dressing or at the grocery store. This would be a wonderful field trip for a school class and very educational! I am always amazed at the interesting topics and places you blog about! Thanks and keep those blogs coming!!!!

  2. Very interesting, think this may be a road trip on the Harley this summer. Roger loves cheese so I think it will be easy to persuade him.

  3. every time I hear about the things Fon's has done in his life I feel he should be a highly paid Professor in a famous University somewhere. Then again, when I see how he trains and teaches his interns, why would he want to do anything else? ThE one on one attention to detail is something that I admire about his work. I know Ludwig is proud of their cows their farm, their dairy, and of course THEIR CHEESE!

    I hope someday to come and visit this neighbor to Indiana, to see some of the great things that our part of the country has. Even if it's in a small town, sometimes that's what makes it the best!

    I also know they are proud to have found Fon's to help continue the work their son had started

    Keep up the good work EVERYONE. I hope to be able to taste all of the cheese that were mentioned.