Friday, July 31, 2015

Two Wisconsin Cheeses Win Top Spots at American Cheese Society

Clara and Larry Hedrich of LaClare Farms in Wisconsin with
David Rogers, of Standard Market in Illinois.
One cheese: two makers. The European model of separating cheese making from cheese aging, while celebrating both the cheesemaker and the affineur, got a boost in America tonight, as a farmstead cheese from Wisconsin aged in cellars in Illinois was named the second best cheese in the nation.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka, a mixed milk cheese crafted with goat and cow's milk by Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann and her team on LaClare Farm, and aged by David Rogers and his team at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois, was named Runner-Up Best in Show at the 2015 American Cheese Society competition, widely regarded as the Oscars of the artisan cheese industry. The Cave Aged Chandoka tied Roth's Private Reserve from Emmi Roth in Monroe for runner-up honors, while Best in Show went to Celtic Blue Reserve from Ontario, Canada.

"I just got off the phone with Katie, and all she could say was: 'Holy crap'. We both agreed that might be an understatement," David said shortly after the win was announced. While Katie was not in Providence to accept the award (she stayed home to make cheese), her parents, LaClare Farms founders, Larry and Clara Hedrich, climbed on stage with big smiles to accept top honors with David.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka
While only four wheels - yes, just four wheels - of the winning batch of Cave Aged Chandoka exist in the cellars at Standard Market, another 20 wheels will be available in four months, with another 20 wheels available soon after, and so on. The cheese is currently in very limited retail - you can find it at Standard Market, Eataly and Mariano's in Chicago - but like any big win, the cheese will likely be in much broader distribution once more is properly aged.

The award is particularly vindicating for Standard Market, which put significant time and expense into building in-store aging cellars to create a unique American artisan cheese aging program, a bold move not common or even understood in the United States.

"We started cave-aging the Chandoka about three years ago," David says, and over time and trial, settled on releasing the cheese at about six months. Twenty-two pound wheels of LaClare Farms Chandoka are shipped right out of the vat to Standard Market, where David and his team apply lard and linen. Regular Chandoka, sold by LaClare Farms, is not bandage wrapped and is sold younger. The difference between the two cheeses is night and day. Where regular Chandoka is mellow, creamy and smooth, Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka is bold, earthy and crumbly. It's hard to even tell they were ever once the same cheese.

Rounding out the Best in Show honors was Harbison from the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a company well-known for aging cheese for other cheesemakers in its underground caves in Vermont. The Cellars won Best in Show in 2013 with Winnimere, and again in 2006, with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar aged at The Cellars at Jasper Hill.

Hidden Springs Creamery Cheesemaker
Brenda Jensen with her 9 ribbons.
The 2015 ACS Judging & Competition saw 1,779 entries of cheeses and cultured dairy products from 267 companies from 31 states and three Canadian provinces. Wisconsin cheesemakers took the most awards of any state - with 99 total ribbons. California was second with 47, while Vermont captured 44 awards.

Hidden Springs Creamery, a farmstead sheep dairy near Westby, won the most awards for Wisconsin, with nine ribbons, tied with Lactalis in Belmont. Klondike Cheese was close behind, with eight awards, while Sartori Cheese, Hook's Cheese and Crave Brothers all earned five ribbons apiece.

Holland's Family Cheese swept the International Style with Flavor Added - All Milks category, with a first place for Marieke Gouda Foenegreek, second place for Marieke Gouda Cumin, and third place for Marieke Gouda Jalapeno. Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman did a happy dance on stage upon learning she had won all three ribbons in the class.

All Wisconsin companies earning awards at tonight's competition for their cheeses were:
  • Arena Cheese, Arena: Colby
  • Arthur Schuman Inc, Montfort: Cello Rich and Creamy Mascarpone, Montforte Gorgonzola Cheese Wheel, Montforte Blue Cheese Wheel, Cello Riserva Copper Kettle Parmesan Cheese, Cello Riserva Artisan Parmesan Cheese
  • BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay: Gorgonzola with Sheep's Milk, American Grana, Sharp Provolone Mandarino, Black Truffle Burrata
  • Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg: Smoked String Cheese
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain: Ovella, Weird Sisters, Traditional Feta, Donatello
  • Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee: Pizza Cheese Curds
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo: White Cheddar Cheese Curds, Oaxaca, Farmer’s Rope String Cheese, Fresh Mozzarella- Bocconcini, Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese Curds
  • Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello: Brick
  • Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, Ellsworth: Brick, Hot Pepper Jack
  • Emmi Roth USA, Monroe: Roth’s Private Reserve, GranQueso Reserve, GranQueso, Grand Cru Surchoix
  • Graf Creamery, Bonduel: Brethren Roll Salted Butter
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Manchego Reserve, Farmstead Feta, Driftless-Honey Lavender, Driftless-cranberry cinnamon, Driftless- basil /olive oil, Driftless Natural, Meadow Melody Reserve, Meadow Melody, Timber Coulee Reserve
  • Holland's Family Cheese, Thorp: Marieke Gouda Foenegreek, Marieke Gouda Cumin, Marieke Gouda Jalapeno, Marieke Gouda Aged (9-12 month)
  • Hook's Cheese Company, Mineral Point: Triple Play, Sheep Milk Cheddar, Three Year Cheddar, Barneveld Blue, EWE CALF to be KIDding Blue
  • Key Ingredient Market: Garlic Cheddar Spread
  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Brick, Muenster, Odyssey Peppercorn Feta, Odyssey Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Mediterranean Feta, Odyssey Reduced Fat Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Sour Cream, Odyssey Greek Yogurt
  • LaClare Farms Specialties, Pipe: Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka
  • Lactalis American Group, Belmont: 3 Kg. Brie, 1 Kg. Brie, 8oz. Brie, 1 Kg. Camembert, 8oz. Camembert, 3 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, 8oz. Feta, Président 8 oz Parmesan-Peppercorn, Rondelé Garlic & Herbs
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany: Petit Nuage
  • Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe: Low-fat Cheddar
  • Montchevre-Betin, Inc, Belmont: Fromage Blanc, Chèvre in Blue, Oh-La-La! Fresh Spreadable Goat Cheese
  • Mt. Sterling Cheese Co-op, Mt Sterling: Raw Milk Mild Cheddar, Whey Cream Butter
  • Organic Valley, LaFarge: Organic Blue Cheese, Organic Pepper Jack, Organic Pasture Butter, Organic Salted Butter, Organic European Style Cultured Butter
  • Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton: Port Wine Cold Pack Cheese Food, Pepper Jack Cold Pack Cheese Spread, Chunky Bleu Cold Pack Cheese Food
  • Rosewood Dairy, Inc, Algoma: Pesto Farmers Cheese
  • Saputo Specialty Cheese, Richfield: Black Creek Colby, Great Midwest Habanero Jack
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth: Limited Edition Pastorale Blend, Reserve Dolcina Gorgonzola, Reserve Espresso BellaVitano, Reserve Kentucky Bourbon BellaVitano, Limited Edition, Cognac BellaVitano
  • Saxon Cheese, Cleveland: Asiago Fresca
  • The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheboygan: Deer Creek The Fawn, Deer Creek The Stag, Deer Creek The Doe
  • Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra-Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve
  • V&V Supremo Foods: Queso Chihuahua, Queso Chihuahua with Jalapeno Peppers
  • Widmer's Cheese Cellars, Theresa: Washed Rind Brick Cheese, Cheddar with Jalapenos
Congratulations to every company from both the United States and Canada on their wins!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

New Wisconsin Cheeses Debut at 2015 ACS

Cheese Camp for cheeseheads is in full swing this week at the annual American Cheese Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 1,000 cheese folk have gathered to celebrate a theme of Craft, Creativity and Community.

And, like usual, it takes me traveling halfway across the country to discover a half dozen new Wisconsin cheeses I never knew existed, many of which made their official debut to the world at tonight's Meet the Cheesemaker event.

1. First up: a yet-to-be-named cheese from Landmark Creamery made in a Reblochon style - an oooey, gooey, stinky French cheese we Americans can't get in the United States because it's made from raw milk and aged less than 60 days. At six weeks old, the newbie cow's milk cheese from cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her sales partner, Anna Thomas Bates, is washed in mead from Bos Meadery in Madison, Wis.

"We washed batches in brine, mead and nut brown beer, and liked the mead wash the best. It adds a touch of sweetness that was missing in the others, particularly near the rind," Landmark says. She's right - her new cheese is stinky, sticky and meaty in true washed-rind form, with just enough tangy bite near the finish to make it particular interesting without being overly funky. Look for this new cheese on the retail market in a few months.

2. Buried in the midst of a mountain of Grand Cru at the Roth Cheese table tonight was a construction-orange wheel of aged cheese with no name tag and zero marketing materials. Turns out the cheese is based on an aged Mimolette and will be named Prairie Sunset. Aged six months, the cheese is riddled with eyes and boasts a crumbly texture with a creamy mouthfeel. No word yet on what date the cheese will be released to retail - stay tuned!

3. From our friends in Brooten, Minnesota (who I've officially adopted as close-enough-to-Wisconsinites), Alise and Lucas Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery debuted their new Little Lucy  tonight. Made in a small, tall 4-ounce top hat, and aged six weeks, this adorable little brie is - say it with me - amazing. It's the perfect size to consume in one sitting with a baguette and glass of champagne.

"There are three types of people in Minnesota," Lucas explains, in what would have been a Fargo-movie-worthy "up nort" drawl if it hadn't been cultured up a bit from the couple's spending a few years living in Vermont and Wisconsin. "You've got cheese curd people. You've got aged cheddar people. And you've got brie people. So those are the three cheeses we make."

Little Lucy is, of course, named for the Sjostrom's daughter, aged 2-1/2. Early indications lean toward her being a redhead like her mama. The little brie joins Lucky Linda in the Redhead Creamery line-up. Named for Alise's mom, Lucky Linda is an aged cheddar crafted in two ways: first, as a clothbound cheddar, and, second with a natural rind. Alise says so far, the clothbound is more popular, so she will likely be making more wheels in that style as time goes on. All cheeses are produced and aged on the family farm in Brooten.

4.  Because there are only a handful of cheese plants in Minnesota, and because all seven of them are just so darn nice, I'm including a second "close enough to Wisconsin" company in this line-up: The Lone Grazer Creamery, a brand new urban cheese factory in northeast Minneapolis. Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson, former cheesemaker at Caves of Faribault; and Sales Director Seamus Folliard, a former English teacher who discovered his calling in sales, first at 2 Gingers Whiskey, and now in cheese, debuted two cheeses tonight: Hansom Cab and Grazier's Edge.

Hansom Cab is 4-inch disc of stinky goodness, washed in the aforementioned Irish 2 Gingers Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. The result is a milky, meaty cheese with grassy notes of asparagus. Grazier's Edge, meanwhile, is an 11-inch, taller wheel, washed with St. Paul's own 11 Wells Rye Whiskey. It is milder, more buttery, with an open texture and melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Milk for both cheeses comes from two nearby dairies, both of which pasture their cows: Sunrise Meadow in Cokato, Minn., which milks 25 Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorns, and Stengard Dairy, near Wadena, Minn., which milks Swedish Reds and Milking Shorthorns. The result is a unique milk profile with distinct grassy notes that Nilsson expertly turns into two fabulous cheeses.

5. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the folks at LaClare Farms tonight debuted their new goat's milk yogurt in plain, vanilla, strawberry and blueberry. The yogurt has just started production, with no date set yet for a retail launch, other than "soon," says farm matriarch Clara Hedrich. Prototype cups sport attractive arty labels, and the yogurt will be available in 6-ounce and 24-ounce sizes. The yogurt has a richer consistency than many goat yogurts, with a crisp, clean flavor.

6. Klondike Cheese in Monroe is seeing success with their new Adelphos Greek Yogurt Dips, which I tried for the first time tonight. The savory dips are made with the company's Odyssey Greek Yogurt and are available in four flavors: Cucumber Garlic, Southwest, Red & Green Bell Pepper and French Onion. My favorite was the French Onion, which cheesemaker and yogurt maker Adam Buholzer helpfully explained has 25 percent less sodium, 50 percent less fat, 50 percent less cholesterol and three times the protein as a conventional French Onion dip. That's good - this way I won't feel so guilty when I consume the entire 12-oz. container in one sitting.

Last but not least, a hearty shout-out to two new products from Wisconsin cheesemakers: Marieke Gouda Truffle, which debuted in April, and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Curds, because in Wisconsin, we never have enough squeaky curd. Thanks to all of these fine folks for doing cheeseheads proud.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Cecylia Szewczyk: U.S. Champion Cheesemaker

In a matter of minutes one night last March, the identity of Cecylia Szewczyk was forever changed. Known as one of the leading food biotechnologists in Poland, and before that, one of the fastest potato peelers on the shores of the Baltic Sea (more about that later), this brainy blonde in heels with an infectious laugh became known overnight as the best cheesemaker in America.

After leaving a global cheese culture company, and spending months finding just the right place in the American cheesemaking industry, Cecylia - the lead cheesemaker of a Guggisberg Cheese team in Ohio - won the 2015 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest for a big wheel Swiss that was only three months old. Judges deemed it to be one of the best cheeses they had tasted. Ever.

"I was absolutely stunned," Cecylia says today, four months after winning the most coveted cheese crown in America. "When I got the call, I just started shrieking. It was unbelievable."

Unbeknownst to Cecylia, her reaction was broadcast to a crowd of several hundred people at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest evening gala. After the winner was announced, her cheesemaker friend, Kari Skibbie at Holland's Family Farm, put Cecylia on speaker phone next to the event microphone and in front of a hushed crowd.

"While we were talking, Kari said she was going to put me on speaker, but she forgot to mention that speaker was close to the microphone and everybody in the room, including the judges were listening!" Cecylia said. "I was convinced I was speaking to a bunch of friends, so some very inappropriate words were used in this speech of mine. Thankfully, everybody was laughing with me at the end."

Not only were people laughing and celebrating with her, but many an eye teared up that night. I remember having to dig in my purse to find a tissue after Kari said good night and hung up the phone with Cecylia. And many people around me did the same. For those of us who have known Cecylia for years, and witnessed the struggles she's gone through, it was very much like watching Cinderella become a fairy tale princess with a crown of cheese.

That's because Cecylia was born into Nowinka, a village of 16 people in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, where everyone ate herring and potatoes. Her parents both worked poorly-paid factory jobs and no one had very much money, but Cecylia's family was lucky to have nearby fields of vegetables and fruits that Cecylia, her sister, brother and mother had to weed.

"We used to laugh that our hoe was our best childhood friend," Cecylia says. "I remember envying other children, that after school they could just come back home and study. We had to weed, and if we didn’t have to weed, we were peeling potatoes – buckets and buckets of potatoes."

Cecylia is still quite possibly the fastest potato peeler in the world. "Last weekend we went camping with some friends and I promised one kid, Skyler, fries. I took a bucket of potatoes, peeled them, cut them by hand and made fries. All of our American friends were looking at me like I was crazy, but when they tasted my fries they said these were the best fries they ever had. It’s funny how I thought what was my worst nightmare growing up now gives me so much pleasure."

The budding master o' potato peeling left her tiny village with a strong ambition to do well in school. In college, she studied chemical engineering for two years before switching to Food Technology and Human Nutrition with a major in Food Biotechnology at University of Warmia and Mazury in Poland. She also studied at the Technological Educational Institutions of Athens, Greece, culminating with two degrees: Engineer of Science (Technical Bachelor) and Master of Science.

"When I was graduating from my Master studies, Tetra Pak company nominated me and two other students to the best student of that year,  and during the official graduation ceremony I was introduced to  the sales director from CSK Food Enrichment responsible for Polish, Southern and Eastern European markets. He was looking for a Technologist to hire and he interviewed me right there. So I started working for an international ingredient supplier and got to travel to many amazing countries, visit many interesting companies from really big ones to farmstead operations producing artisanal cheeses and participate in all kinds of technological trials," Cecylia said.

"Somehow along the way and among all other dairy products, natural cheese became my definite favorite for couple of reasons," she says. "First of all, I think natural cheese is the most challenging from all dairy products as it requires deep understanding of milk, chemical, physical and biological processes occurring during its making. Second, I think there is something very noble about cheese making. To make a unique piece of cheese that is appreciated is like creating a piece of art that you can serve on a plate next to a grape and a glass of wine for somebody’s ultimate pleasure. I think it’s a beautiful product."

Before joining Guggisberg Cheese just a little over one year ago, Cecylia had the chance to work with a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, including: Marieke Penterman at Holland's Family Farm, Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, Terry Lensmire and Dan Stearns at Agropur, Rod Kregel and Fernando Vaquero at Swiss Valley Farms, Roger Larson from Maple Leaf, Gregg Palubicki and Terry Schultz at Saputo, Marc Druart at Emmi Roth, Myron Olson at Chalet Cheese, and Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Cheese, who also makes big wheel Swiss.

"Bruce really is the Workman. He wakes up every night at 1 am to make cheese and what is worse – he made me do it too!" Cecylia joked.

Along the way, she's made many good friends, especially Brian Riesterer from Brisan Ingredients, whom Cecylia says is the "most inspiring cheese researcher" she's ever met. It might also help that Brian traveled with his family to attend Cecylia's wedding in Poland and brought 40 pounds of peanut butter and maple syrup that was served at the reception.

But she credits Richard Guggisberg for helping her find her place in the American cheesemaking world. For more than a year, she's participated in a joint project between Guggisberg Cheese and Chalon Megard, a French production equipment supplier. "For Chalon Megard, it’s their very first equipment installation in U.S., and there is a lot of adjustments that have to be done towards American standards, as well as Guggisberg’s technology. I’m a connective link that helps point out the critical adjustments and improve communication between the two," Cecylia says.

Giant cheese!
"Richard Guggisberg is probably one of the best managers, business minds and cheesemakers I've ever met in one person," Cecylia adds. "Sometimes I tend to take too much on, and in the beginning, would end up overwhelmed and stressed. And then he would come to me and say: 'Cecylia, it is supposed to be about fun, remember?' And he is right, because it should be about fun."

So what's in the future for this newly-crowned champion cheesemaker? These days, Cecylia is experimenting with making all sorts of different cheeses, as she has full access to equipment that makes big wheels of cheese. She's working on a variety of categories, but is keeping secret the specific types of cheese she's perfecting.

"Let's just say you're always going to know which cheese is mine on the table," Cecylia laughs. "It's always going to be the biggest one."

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Beginning of the End of Raw Milk Cheese in Wisconsin?

Wheels of Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, once made
exclusively from raw milk, are now pasteurized
because Cheesemaker Willi Lehner can't find a cheese
plant that will today allow raw milk through its doors.
I have been exceptionally lucky to have been in the right place at the right time most of my life. But no luckier than in 2003, when I took a job at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and got drafted into a small team that would go on to help artisan cheesemakers launch a dairy renaissance in America's Dairyland.

Since then, I've been privileged to watch dozens and dozens of artisan cheesemakers start-up and craft what have become national and international award-winning cheeses, and many of those cheeses have been made from raw milk.

That's why it's particularly painful for me to put the last part of that sentence in past tense: "have been made from raw milk." Because whether the American consumer is aware of it or not, many Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses that were only a year ago made from raw milk, are now pasteurized.

Last week, I got lucky again - this time I was in the right place at the right time to escort a leading French scientist to visit Wisconsin cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses. Christine de Sainte Marie is a senior research fellow at the French Institute National Institute for Agricultural Research. Her current research is on the political economics of reconnecting farming, food and the environment. Instead of slow food or fast food, she is studying people who are "farming in the middle" e.g. farmers using sustainable farming methods or cheesemakers making artisan cheese, but who are not certified organic. And she came to Wisconsin to study raw milk cheese.

So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at Bleu Mont Dairy for our pre-arranged tour with one of Wisconsin's original raw milk cheesemakers, Willi Lehner - once described by the New York Times as an "off the grid rock star" - only to find out he hasn't made a raw milk cheese in months. Why? With no creamery of his own, he relies on renting space at other Wisconsin cheese factories to make his award-winning creations. And now, because of increased scrutiny and inspection protocols from federal inspectors, none of those factories will allow raw milk cheese out their doors.

"I feel there is an underlying fear in the whole cheese industry, that drains away the passion of our craft. And one of the results will be less and less real raw-milk cheese," Willi said.

Brenda Jensen, cheesemaker and owner at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, agrees. Brenda makes more than a half dozen different cheeses, all made from pasteurized milk. She makes one cheese from raw milk: Ocooch Mountain, an alpine-style beauty that many have compared to a sheep milk's salute to Gruyere.

Last week, this 50-time ACS award winner for farmstead sheep milk cheeses had a FDA inspector come to her door and ask for 20 wheels of ONLY her raw milk cheeses for testing. The inspector wanted the chain of ingredients, where they came from, all lots associated from them and a make sheet with all info. None of those requests are out of line, so Brenda spent several hours reviewing what was needed. But she kept thinking: "Why just the raw milk cheese?"

"Instead of the intimidation, I would rather have the inspectors help train me on what issues they are seeing with raw milk cheeses, and how better to safeguard against having these become a problem," Brenda said. She is now considering stopping raw milk cheese production.

Bruce Workman, at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, decided last year that making raw milk cheese was no longer worth the risk or the headache of increased FDA scrutiny. His Edelweiss Emmentaler, traditionally made with raw milk, is now pasteurized.

Meanwhile, some cheesemakers, such as Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese, remain committed to making raw milk cheese. With no pasteurizer in the plant, Andy crafts the thrice-awarded ACS Best in Show Pleasant Ridge Reserve on a seasonal schedule, making cheese only when cows are grazing on fresh pasture.

On our visit to his farm last week, Andy told Christine he plans on making his raw-milk Rush Creek Reserve this year (last year, he suspended production, because of uncertainty in forthcoming FDA regulations). But he admits, his passion for making cheese is now coated by anxiety.

"What's different now is that the decision-making behind creating a new cheese is laced with an apprehension over unclear and changing regulations," Andy said. "Whereas before my first instinct was always towards developing something unique and expressive, now I instinctively worry first about making an acceptable product, and then second about making it delicious."

Despite uncertainty over FDA's potential changes with regulating raw milk cheeses, Andy hopes cheesemakers will stay the course. In an update to ACS members today, it was noted that the FDA is embracing an approach in regulating raw milk cheese that will "involve continuing outreach to stakeholders and expanding the conversation" - especially about the aging process for soft-ripened cheeses - before making any decisions on next steps in changing the 60-day rule for raw milk cheese in the United States.

"We, as cheesemakers can't allow those concerns to trump our efforts to make expressive, distinctive cheese. If we're given a chance to prove with testing that our cheeses are safe, than those goals need not be mutually exclusive," Andy said.