TRAVERSE CITY — Dave Omar fondly remembers making fresh cheese in his grandmother’s kitchen.
The lessons stuck in his mind, and while Michigan dairy requirements keep him from selling some Middle Eastern childhood favorites, the process still brings a smile to his face.
Omar, founder of Saltless Sea Creamery, brought his cheesy creations to the public about six weeks ago with the start of Traverse City’s Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market.
“The products I make are all Italian recipes,” said the fledgling cheesemaker, who began his career with an apprenticeship under Boss Mouse Cheese founder Sue Kurta this winter.
And they prove popular — especially with the farmers market crowd.
“For the first four weeks, we sold out everything we brought,” Omar said. “It was awesome to have that kind of initial welcome.”
For now, he and Joy Martin Omar, his wife and business partner, focus on two main offerings — a soft, bloomy rind cheese akin to a French Brie and an amber ale washed rind similar to an Italian taleggio. The latter’s a semi-firm cheese good for melting.
“The two flagship styles are the bloomy rinded Robiola Late Bloomer — which is kind of a metaphor for my life — and Americano,” he said.
Omar also makes a caciocavallo — a stretched-curd cheese that’s a cousin to fresh mozzarella.
He’s got plenty of styles he plans to experiment with, and hopes to expand Saltless Sea’s reach locally by partnering with restaurants and breweries.
Omar juggles the business with a full-time job at Oryana Community Co-Op, while Joy works full-time at Common Good Bakery. The couple — downstate natives and regular Traverse City visitors growing up — met and fell in love in Ann Arbor while Omar worked as a cheesemonger. But the call of the north pulled and they relocated to the Grand Traverse Region.
They hope to make the creamery a full-time job in the next few years. But for now, they work part-time out of Kurta’s Kingsley-based set-up.
“It’s been great to have another cheese nerd in the room,” Kurta said with a laugh. “He does some really neat, complicated Italian cheeses.”
Omar met Kurta after stumbling upon Boss Mouse’s stand at the farmers market last summer, and polled the cheesemaker for advice on how to get started. The conversation went from there and Kurta offered the greenhorn an apprenticeship.
The setup proved ideal on both ends.
Boss Mouse specializes in aged cow’s-milk cheeses like cheddar, Swiss and Monterey Jack. The shop also serves up fresh cheese curds, mozzarella and smoked butter.
Kurta honed her craft as a hobby cheesemaker in New York.
“I always really loved cooking, and over the course of my adult life I was interested in crafty cooking projects — I used to home-brew beer, got really good at pastry-making. Cheese was just another thing,” she said. “The more I spent time in that environment, the more I thought I should make a lifestyle change.”
Kurta made a move back to Michigan to support her aging parents, and soon sought her own cheesemaking operation. Boss Mouse came to be in 2012 and, by, 2014, Kurta made it a full-time job.
She turns out about 1,000 pounds of cheese each month, split between a slew of local farmers markets and supplies to caterers and restaurants like The Cooks House, Amical and Oryana.
“We’ve got such a great little cheese scene up here — we all make different types of cheeses,” Kurta said.
To prove her point, Anne and John Hoyt take a European approach on the other side of town.
The husband and wife co-owners of Leelanau Cheese, based in Suttons Bay, have been making French and Swedish classics for 25 years.
They specialize in raclette — a semi-hard Alpine favorite often served melted over potatoes. Theirs comes in several flavors, including rosemary and black truffle.
“We have a younger one for melting, we have an older one that’s sharper and drier,” said Anne, who originally hails from France and met her would-be husband, a Michigan native, on a dairy farm in Europe. “It’s a wonderful cooking cheese, gives a nutty flavor.”
Another staple is fromage blanc, a soft, creamy, spreadable French cheese. A picnic variety, Anne says — and a Leelanau County favorite since the couple opened shop in 1995.
Now, the tiny shop and dairy facility produces more than 30,000 pounds of cheese per year, which they supply to local restaurants like Traverse City’s Towne Plaza, Hotel Indigo and Jolly Pumpkin and, in Suttons Bay, Martha’s Leelanau Table.