Stinky. Smelly. Bloomy. Beautiful. Cheesemakers tend to have a motto. “The stinkier, the better.” It’s a motto friends Fons Smits and Laura Davenport bonded over when they launched Tulip Tree Creamery seven years ago, and it’s one that has kept them going ever since.
“I am most excited when I’m creating and making new cheeses—that is where I feel happiest,” Smits smiles.
Originally from the Netherlands, Fons found his calling making and producing cheese. After meeting Laura, a public health and biology expert with an affinity for dairy, the two teamed up to create Tulip Tree.
Of course, the production has blossomed over time, with staunch fan bases here in Indiana, across the Midwest, and reaching as far as both coasts.
“It’s always amazing to see how far our cheeses travel and how many people love them, especially since we’re a small, local cheesemaker, not one of the big players like a lot of the makers you’d see in maybe Wisconsin or even Fair Oaks Farms out in Chicago,” Laura says.
And she’s right: While larger farms may use heavy-duty machinery to filter, churn, and process the milk from the over 100,000 cows they source from, Tulip Tree only sources milk from about 120 cows. And the pièce de résistance? Everything is done by hand, right here in Indianapolis.
“Our focus is to make really incredible, high-quality cheese from the best, local Indiana milk. Then we work to teach people how to make cheese themselves so they understand the process behind it: it explains why our cheeses retail for $15, $20, even $25 per pound,” she explains.
Take, for instance, the brand’s highly popular FoxGlove cheese, a double cream, washed rind cheese. After being made, the creamery’s affineuse Ariel turns, washes, and rotates the cheese periodically for five weeks—so eventually, it is touched over 25 times. The process is extremely labor intensive but, at the end of the day, worth it.
Many of the cheeses require equal amounts of care. Fons often takes a milder cheese that’s being aged and, with a few wheels, transforms them into flavored curds for farmers markets. This season, for instance, kicked off with a hatch chile that Laura didn’t even know was being made, but fan favorites have been the ranch and Cajun spice.
“Distributors are our priority but we make extra cheese in the summer because of the foot traffic of the farmers markets: Things like curds are only sold there,” Laura adds.
And while the creamery never made it one of their focuses, they’re paving new ground in another form as well: 18 of their 20 current staffers are women, from the affineuses (who turn, wash, and rotate the cheeses) to Fons’ cheesemaking assistants, Danielle and Taylor, to Fons’ own wife Eileen who’s teamed up with Laura to help with sales, marketing, navigating the farmers markets, and the creamery’s big hit: classes.
“We definitely didn’t plan for it that way, but it worked out that way. We also have a few gender fluid employees: We’re happy to have anyone work for us. They just have to love cheese,” Laura laughs.
Not a hard ask at all, especially when the creamery offers a so many award-winning cheeses that have made their way to retail stores around the nation as well as local restaurants.
Take, for instance, the brie-like Trillium that, when sandwiched inside a croissant from downtown Indianapolis’ brunch spot, Gallery Pastry Shop, draws the love of the masses. Or even the creamery’s intelligent take on pub cheese: fonsdue, named after Fons himself! The current flavor? Horseradish, although it keeps changing based on Fons’ innovative spirit.
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“Fons gets all of our input when creating cheeses, which is the fun of it all: We all get to be a part of the creative process and what comes out, at the end of the day, is some really great-tasting cheese,” Laura smiles.
In fact, Laura was recently craving a boozy cheese so much that Fons developed a white oak cheese, infused with whisky and bourbon spirits. Fons’ own creativity led him to develop another Gruyere-style cheese, Milkweed, that’s already won awards.
“That’s what keeps me excited,” Laura tells us. “The creativity, the inspiration, the drive, and most of all, the love of one, solitary thing: cheese.”
Tulip Tree Creamery offers four levels of cheesemaking classes: Mozzarella, Burrata/Ricotta, Gouda, and its newest class, Cheddar (as well as intermediate butter-making classes). Classes are $50/session and occur twice a week, with some offered based on demand. To sign up, visit:
Where do I find Tulip Tree Creamery cheeses?
The creamery’s cheeses are sold in many retail and specialty stores around the city but for newcomers, Laura suggests grabbing some cheese at the weekly farmers markets: there, customers will find the widest and freshest variety of cheeses offered and can even get some helpful tips from the creamery family on which cheeses to try!
Lavanya Narayanan is a freelance writer in Indianapolis.
Tulip Tree Creamery can be found weekly at the Carmel and Broad Ripple Farmers Markets, as well as rotationally between the Binford and Garfield Park Farmers Markets.
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