Sunday, February 22, 2015

American Stinkies in the Spotlight

American cheesemakers are finally beginning to rival the great
stinky cheeses of Europe.
More American cheesemakers than ever before are perfecting the art of crafting stinky cheese. Once a category limited to just smell-my-feet Limburger and German-style smear-ripened Brick, American stinkies are arcing into the realm of the greats: Taleggio, Reblochon, Alsatian Munster. This category of cheese, similar to strong coffee, hoppy beer or aged Scotch, can be an acquired taste. But once you get a taste for this kind of cheese, you'll drive miles to find a good one.

Here are five of my American favorites:

1. Good Thunder, Alemar Cheese, Mankato, Minnesota. This miniature square of stinky comes from southern Minnesota, which much like my hometown in southwestern Wisconsin, is more famous for its potluck hot dish and rhubarb recipes than French-inspired, smear-ripened mountain cheese. But cheesemaker Craig Hageman hits nothing but net with Good Thunder. Bathed in Minnesota's own Surly Brewing Bender beer (an American Oatmeal Brown Ale), the cheese sports a  pumpkin-hued rind with a velvety, buttery, savory paste with just-right notes of meaty and mushroom.

2. St. Jenifer, Creme de la Coulee Artisan Cheese, Madison, Wisconsin. I've got to give Cheesemaker Bill Anderson credit: the dude is aspiring to make the kinds of cheese most Wisconsin cheesemakers walk away from in favor of a safe, orange cheddar. St. Jenifer is named for Jenifer Brozak, affineur at Bear Valley Affinage, a custom cheese aging facility turning out some of the state's best cheeses. A young, gypsy cheesemaker with no facility of his own, Bill makes his cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese in Berlin. My favorite wheels of St. Jenifer are on the younger side, with a slightly firmer paste and less bitter finish.

3. Kinsman Ridge, made by Landaff Creamery and matured by Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont. Helder dos Santos at CE Zuercher & Company, a distributor out of Chicago, first sent me a sample of this cheese about a year ago. Inspired by French tommes, such as St. Nectaire, Kinsman Ridge is as close you're going to get to a raw-milk French mountain cheese without going to France. Aged three to five months, this stinky beauty is a bit firmer than most others on this list, but the taste is consistently stellar. If you can find this cheese in the Midwest, snatch up every last piece, throw a party, and share the gospel of good cheese with your best friends.

4. Ameribella, Jacobs & Brichford, Connersville, Indiana. This is the kind of semi-soft, washed rind stinky you can smell three feet away. Oh yeah, baby. Inspired by the cheeses of northern Italy, its salty, savory flavor is perfectly matched with a smooth, stretchy texture that resembles Rush Creek Reserve in rectangular form. It just won a 2015 Good Food Award, and with good reason. One of the newest stinkies on the American market, it's just beginning to achieve national distribution.

5. Hooligan, Cato Corner Farm, Colchester Connecticut. An oldie but a goodie - this one's been around since 2006, but it's hard to find in the Midwest because many of our white bread cousins are still cutting their teeth on food with flavor. I first tasted this cheese several years ago at the American Cheese Society's annual Festival of Cheese, and essentially stood guard next to its table and ate half the platter over the course of an evening. (Don't ask how that turned out). It's been selected by both Saveur magazine and Slow Food USA as one of the top American cheeses made today. Another raw-milk cheese, Hooligan is aged more than 60 days to achieve that tell-tale pumpkin orange washed-rind outside color and inside buttery, creamy, savory flavor. It's pretty much perfection on a plate.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Location: In Pennsylvania Studying Cheese & Eating Whoopie Pies

Well, it's official, I love Pennsylvania. Not only does this fabulous state host one of the best cheesemaker conferences I've ever attended, it also makes a whoopie pie that will literally be the best thing you've ever eaten in three bites.

Maybe I'm still riding the sugary high of this hand-made bad boy from the Rotelle family at September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA:


or perhaps it's the cheese induced coma I've been in the past two days, but I'm telling you, the little burg of New Holland, Pennsylvania - birthplace of New Holland Equipment, home to my favorite hay rake growing up on the family farm (yes, I already emailed my dad a picture of the big downtown headquarters sign) - is one happening artisan cheese mecca. This is what I discovered, thanks to the fine folks who invited me to speak at the 2015 Cheese Makers' Resource Conference, sponsored by the uber-organized Agri-Service LLC team.

More than 170 cheesemakers and dairy folk from around the country coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut, descended on New Holland this week to attend the annual conference, featuring in-depth educational sessions on Cheddar cheesemaking, sheep & goat cheeses, regulatory challenges, cultured dairy products, creamery start-ups, and panel discussions on breaking into markets with new products.

My job was to lead two different tasting and sensory sessions on salt, sour and bitter notes in cheese (there's nothing I'd rather do than talk cheese!), but by far, the highlight of the conference for me were three back-to-back sessions with veteran artisan cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon, who talked a rapt room through the art and science of making goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Taking notes as fast as humanly possible, I learned a whole lot of new information on how goat and sheep milk is different for cheesemaking, and how milk composition of these species varies greatly depending on the animals' lactation calendar. As we all know, a female animal must give birth in order to start giving milk (lactating). The average length of lactating for sheep is 220-240 days, and for goats, 305 days, before the ladies "dry up" in time to give birth again a few months later.

Milk produced during the length of a ewe or doe's (or cow's for that matter) milking season varies greatly in composition. For example, the ratio of protein to fat in the last 30 to 60 days of a sheep or goat's milking cycle is greatly decreased. In other words, the percentage of milkfat is higher, and the percentage of protein in that milk is much lower. Cheese yield goes up, but the quality of that cheese may go down, and be much higher in moisture.

That's why it can be hard to make a good quality hard, aged cheese from late lactation milk in all species, Dixon says. The key is to make different types of cheese depending on the type of milk produced during the lactation cycle. European cheesemakers had this figured out hundreds of years ago in the Alps. They knew that after giving birth in the spring, the height of the cow's lacation cycle was in the summer, when the cows would be on Alpine pastures, producing milk rich in both fat and protein and perfect for making huge, round Alpine cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyere. In winter time - at the end of the cows' milking calendar - cheesemakers invented tommes, smaller cheeses that didn't need to age as long, and were often considered inferior in quality to the big wheel cheeses of summer.

Since we don't live in the Alps, a modern American solution as to what to do with late lactation sheep's milk, Dixon says, is to blend it with cow's or goat's milk to still get a solid quality ratio of fat to protein, and to have enough milk to make a vat of cheese (animals will start drying up at the end of the lactation schedule, resulting in less and less milk in the waning days of the season). Dixon's general rule of thumb? Any cow's mixed milk cheese must contain at least 20 percent of goat or sheep milk to obtain any flavor profile of the sheep or goat.

In addition, goat and cow's milk may also be blended with sheep's milk to make softer cheeses, or, late lactation sheep milk may be frozen and mixed with the next year's milk to make a fresh batch of cheese.

"The key is: don't make the same cheese thinking you have the same milk every day," Dixon says. "Different milk equals different cheeses depending on the time of the year."

While this year's conference focused on cheddar and goat and sheep cheeses, next year's conference will focus on soft-ripened cheeses, with keynote speaker Gianaclis Caldwell already booked for the February 9-10 event, said Dale Martin, president of Agri-Service. I'd highly recommend attending the conference, and then making a short road trip to September Farm Cheese to not only eat their line-up flavored cheddars and jacks, but to also consume the best Whoopie Pie of your life. Best. Day. Ever.

September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA, home to the best Whoopie
Pie ever. Yes, ever.


Thursday, February 05, 2015

CheeseTopia Debuts in Milwaukee April 12 - Tickets on Sale Soon!

Exciting news, cheese peeps. Today I announced that CheeseTopia, a new one-day traveling festival that aims to bring the best of the Midwest’s farmstead and artisan cheeses to the heart of the city, officially debuts in Milwaukee on April 12.

Tickets are $25 and go on sale to the public on Feb. 24 at 10 a.m. Members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals may purchase tickets one week earlier. All tickets will be sold in advance.

The event will take place inside the Pritzlaff Building, a renovated warehouse in the Historic Third Ward of Milwaukee. More than 20,000 square feet of floor space will be filled with cheesemaker and artisan food tables surrounded by carved wooden beams, industrial age columns, Victorian era arched windows and gritty cream city brick. Year two of the festival will be in Chicago, while year three is set to take place in Minneapolis.

The goal of CheeseTopia is to bring the best of Midwest artisan and farmstead cheese to the heart of major cities by offering attendees the opportunity to sample and purchase cheese from 40 cheesemakers and local artisans from the Great Lakes Region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. The festival will be open from Noon to 4 p.m.  and offer a fun open marketplace atmosphere with cheese samples and a cash bar.

Here's a list of participating cheesemakers, with more likely to be added in the next week or two:

  • Alemar Cheese Company, Mankato, MN
  • Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg, WI
  • Capri Cheese, Blue River, WI
  • Caprine Supreme, Black River, WI
  • Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, WI
  • Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee, WI
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
  • Crème de la Coulee Artisan Cheese, Madison, WI
  • Emmi Roth USA, Monroe, WI
  • Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods, Stratford, WI
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, WI
  • Holland’s Family Cheese, Thorp, WI
  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe, WI
  • Koepke Family Farms, Oconomowoc, WI
  • LaClare Farms Specialties, Malone, WI
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany, WI
  • Ludwig Farmstead Creamery, Fifthian, IL
  • Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe, WI
  • Marcoot Jersery Creamery, Greenville, IL
  • Martha’s Pimento Cheese, Milwaukee, WI
  • Montchevre-Betin Inc, Belmont, WI
  • PastureLand, Belleville, WI
  • Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL
  • Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, WI
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth, WI
  • Saxon Creamery, Cleveland, WI
  • Springside Cheese Corp, Oconto Falls, WI
  • Tea-Rose Toggenburgs, Custer, WI
  • The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheboygan, WI
  • Treat Bakehouse, Milwaukee, WI
  • Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, WI
While many of these artisans will sell their products, farmer’s market style, those who don’t have the opportunity to make cheese available for purchase from Larry’s Market. Owners Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson will set up tables of cheeses for sale at CheeseTopia, bringing a slice of their Brown Deer market to the heart of the city. Thank you, Larry's Market!

In addition, breakout seminars will take place in separate meeting spaces inside the Pritzlaff Building, which was constructed in 1875 and just recently renovated. Seminar topics will be announced next week. Stay tuned!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

I Have Yet to Find a Problem that Can't be Solved with Cheese

After nearly two years of working full-time at a retail cheese counter, I have come to realize a cheesemonger's job is often less about the cheese than it is the customer.

Whether customers know it or not, the holiday season for cheesemongers is brutal. We work long days, long hours, with no days off, to cut and sell cheese as fast as humanly possible. We have special chat groups on Facebook that act as therapy sessions. We tolerate an endless stream of "Do you know anything about cheese or do you just work here?" from well-meaning customers. But at the end of the day, and especially during this time of rush, rush, rush, I remember the customers who remind me why I fell in love with this job in the first place.

There are the jokesters: the old men who ask "What's Gouda today?" Every. Single. Day.

There are the hipsters, who pretend to know the difference between Blue and Gorgonzola: "Are you sure this is crumbled Gorgonzola? It looks more like crumbled Blue." Yawn.

There are the little old ladies who troll the department from one sample station to another, piling up cubes of Gruyere on their toothpicks and sliding them into their purses, saving them for later.

And then there are the customers that one gets to know, the ones you might be friends with if you weren't wearing a hairnet and black bowl hat that no matter how you try and style it, still makes you look like a dork. Customers like Steve, who first walked in the door over a year ago with an exceptionally well-organized notebook of cheeses he'd sampled during the course of the past year, and whom today rivals any cheese expert in the nation.

Or Dad Rap Fan, who comes in with his grandson, Ben, every Monday, gives us an update on his rap star son, chats cheese for a few minutes, and says "See you next week" with a smile and a wave. Or Jean, who every single Thursday comes in for her Woolwich Goat Brie, and when none has come in that week, tells me we should go sing to the goats to help them make more milk.

These are the customers cheesemongers live for.

And then there are the customers we meet only once, who without knowing it, change our lives. Like the woman on Christmas Eve who asked me for help in finding a cheese, because although she had always really liked cheese, she seemed to have a hard time finding one that agreed with her these days.

So I walked her around our Wisconsin section, pointing out this and that, walking back to the counter to give her a taste now and then, when she shared the reason for her sudden cheese dilemma: she was undergoing chemotherapy for late-stage cancer and had lost her sense of taste. I got choked up. Then she got choked up. So we stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the array of cheeses, until I asked her what was her all time favorite cheese.

She said, "Blue, but my doctor tells me I can't eat it anymore, because my immune system has become compromised." And I'm thinking, this sweet lady has late-stage cancer, and her doctor won't let her eat blue cheese? Really? Come on.

So I showed her the Roelli Dunbarton Blue. I told her it was a cheddar with just a veining of blue, so she really wouldn't be breaking her doctor's rules. She smiled, took the cheese, read my name tag, and told me she would pray for me.

Pray for me. Me.

A lady with late-stage cancer undergoing chemotherapy is praying for me. All because I helped her find the right cheese.

Thus, a sign a very dear friend gave me for Christmas this year, rings true: "I have yet to find a problem that can't be solved with cheese."

Happy New Year, Cheese Underground fans. May the cheese of your dreams find you in 2015.