Sunday, April 24, 2016

For the Love of Grilled Cheese

Brooklyn Dairy Queen Kajal Russell, one of 13 Green
County Dairy Queens, is one of the most awesome
young women you'll ever meet. Plus, she likes cheese.
You go, girl!
What makes thousands of people gather in a park pavilion on a chilly April day in Wisconsin? Cheese, of course. And in this case, hot cheese. Grilled cheese, to be exact. Every year, the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship comes to Dodgeville with the noble mission of determining who makes the best grilled cheese in America.

Contestants this year came from all over the country, including one guy from California who wore a Wisconsin flag as a superhero cape and brought a van of groupies and a bin of trophies from previous grilled cheese contest wins. He lined up his hardware in front of his frying pan to intimidate the competition, and indeed did win over more groupies amid cheers of "rattlesnake sausage" (yeah, I don't know what that means, either), but it was one of our own who took Best in Show for the second year in row. So, suck it, Mr. California (and I mean that in the nicest Midwestern way possible).

Best in Show went to Beth Crave, representing Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Beth used a variety of cheeses from different Wisconsin companies in her innovative and tasty grilled cheeses. She entered all four different categories: classic, classic plus one, classic plus extras and dessert. I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for the professional competition this year, and I can tell you her sandwiches were the only ones that routinely earned perfect or near-perfect scores. They were also the only sandwiches that I wrapped up in a napkin to eat the rest later. It's official: this gal knows her grilled cheese.

In fact, my favorite grilled cheese of the whole day (and it was a six-hour day of judging) was Beth's "Sunrise Surprise," featuring Madison Sourdough bread layered with a blend of Saxon Creamery Snowfields and Emmi Roth Butterkase, piled high with smoked turkey, candied bacon, silvered avocado and farm fresh hard boiled eggs. It was grilled to perfection using Nordic Creamery Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. Oh yeah, baby.

Here's a picture of the sandwich (my apologies for the bite out of it - this is what judging looks like):



And here's a picture of the whole sandwich. Each sandwich was judged on presentation, taste and style, with a perfect score = 40. Guess how many points I gave this sandwich? You guessed it: 40.


Every year, event coordinator Matt Staver and his amazing team of volunteers improve the event to draw a bigger crowd of both contestants and attendees. This year, there had to be at least 1,000 people in the crowd, and every heat for the amateur categories was close to full. The event was founded five years ago by the late Lorin Toepper, a culinary instructor at Madison College and president of the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corp. Today, many of the volunteer judges for the professional division come from Madison College's culinary arts program.

One of the best moments of the day was when a sweet lady named Shirley Ritter won the amateur Classic Plus Extras category. Emcee extraordinaire Kyle Cherek (of Wisconsin Foodie fame) had been paging Shirley to no avail. Suddenly, Shirley appeared from the crowd, and when Kyle handed her the first place trophy, she nearly had a stroke and burst into tears. Because that's what winning a grilled cheese contest can do, folks: move you to tears.

Shirley Ritter accepts the first place trophy from Emcee Kyle Cherek and Molly
Hendrickson, Iowa County Fairest of the Fair.

Keeping the event on a steady beat were the fabulous musicians from Point Five, a Mineral Point band featuring Cheesemaker Andy Hatch on mandolin. Their Americana music was a perfect fit for an event celebrating an iconic American food.

Point Five band from Mineral Point. And yes, that's Cheesemaker Andy Hatch
from Uplands Cheese smiling at me while playing the mandolin.

For all of her efforts on Saturday, Best in Show winner Beth Crave won a super cool hand-made wooden chest that was actually a beer cooler with built in speakers. Fellow judge and Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli told me he thought it would look great in his garage, but I have a feeling Beth is keeping it.


Here's a full list of winners from the 2016 Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship. Congratulations to all!

Amateur Classic (any type of bread,  real Wisconsin butter, and only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese. No additional ingredients)

First Place: Ann Thompson, Dodgeville, WI
Second Place: William Koepcke, Verona, WI
Third Place: Matthew LaForest, Los Angeles, CA

Amateur Classic Plus One (a savory - as opposed to sweet - sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese, plus one additional ingredient. The interior ingredients must be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Brenda Plantino, Delavan, WI
Second Place: Roberta Jake, Elgin, IL
Third Place: Robert Pappas, WI

Amateur Classic Plus Extras (a savory - as opposed to sweet - sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese - multiple cheeses accepted - plus unlimited additional ingredients.  However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Shirley Ritter, Highland, WI
Second Place: Matthew LaForest, Los Angeles, CA
Third Place: Ann Thompson, Dodgeville, WI

Amateur Dessert (any kind of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese - multiple cheeses accepted - plus additional ingredients to create an overall sweet - as opposed to savory - flavor that would be best served as a “dessert” grilled cheese sandwich. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Cara Wallner, Menomonee Falls, WI
Second Place: Kimmy Cleary & Morgan Weirich, Fennimore, WI
Third Place: Brenda Plantino, Delavan, WI

Youth Chefs (A special heat for competitors aged 12-17, all prepared a sandwich in the category of their choosing and were accompanied by an adult during the competition)

First Place: Olvera Rocio
Second Place: Joey Curtis
Third Place: Jalene Pierick

Professional Classic (any type of bread, real Wisconsin butter, and only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese. No additional ingredients)

First Place: Zach Washa, Carr Valley Cheese, Highland, WI
Second Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Third Place: Anna Thomas Bates, Landmark, Creamery, Albany WI

Professional Classic Plus One (a savory - as opposed to sweet - sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese, plus one additional ingredient. The interior ingredients must be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Second Place: Thomas Heller, Monks Bar and Grill, Wisconsin Dells, WI
Third Place: Amy Pohle, The Lunch Bus, Platteville, WI

Professional Classic Plus Extras (a savory - as opposed to sweet - sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese - multiple cheeses accepted - plus unlimited additional ingredients. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Second Place: Alyssa Marie, Dodgeville, WI
Third Place: Joseph Gustafson, Cuba City, WI

Professional Dessert (any kind of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese - multiple cheeses accepted - plus additional ingredients to create an overall sweet - as opposed to savory - flavor that would be best served as a “dessert” grilled cheese sandwich. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Alyssa Marie, Dodgeville, WI
Second Place: Joseph Gustafson, Cuba City, WI
Third Place: Zach Washa, Carr Valley Cheese, Highland, WI

Congratulations to all!!


Sunday, April 03, 2016

Healthy Cheese, Healthy People: Omega Valley Farmers Launches New Cheese High in Omega 3's

A small group of Wisconsin dairy farmers is seeking to change the way Americans get more nutritious fatty acids in their diets - a change that could potentially lead to less arthritis for older folks, less depression in children, and improved memory for the rest of us. And they're doing so by feeding their cows a patented diet that results in special milk made into pretty darned good cheese.

Omega Valley Farmers, headquartered in the thriving central-Wisconsin metropolis of Dorchester (population 872), quietly launched its line of Omega 3 Cheeses three years ago in several Heartland Cooperative convenience stores. Now the group is building momentum and branching out to larger retailers, meaning the cheese is now available near me in Metcalfe's Markets in Madison and Milwaukee. Whoo-hoo!

Crafted by Master Cheesemaker Ken Heiman at Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, the Omega 3 Cheeses come in a line of Cheddar and flavored Monterey Jacks, but gouda, muenster, and provolone will be soon be available. The cheese is made from the milk of five family-owned dairy farms in central Wisconsin, four of which milk between 50 and 70 cows, with the fifth milking 500 cows. All are committed to producing rBST-free milk, meaning they do not inject their cows with artificial hormones to increase milk production.

All farms are are audited by a third party annually for humane animal treatment, and each feeds their cows a diet patented by Jerome Donohoe, who retired after spending 32 years with the Medical College of Wisconsin to start his own company conducting research on animal feeding systems. Donohoe's now-famous feed ration naturally increases the amount of natural Omega 3 fatty acids in cows' milk through a strategic balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, using only agricultural plant products and no fish meal or animal byproducts.

The result from the patented diet is a cheese that transcends the good-for-you labels of organic, grass-fed and GMO-free and actually delivers more Omega 3's per ounce than any other cheese on the market. An adequate intake of Omega 3 for an adult is about 1,600 mg per day. One ounce of Omega Valley Cheddar contains 390 mg and an ounce of Omega Valley Jack has 415 mg. Add a few crackers, and all of us could get all the Omega 3s we need every day just by eating 4 oz of Omega Valley cheese.

And, interestingly enough, not only is the milk produced by these special cows turned into cheese that is super healthy, the cows themselves are healthier, too. After just 100 days on a diet with balanced Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, cows' hearts and livers measured higher in nutritious fatty acids, translating to longer, healthier lives. One farmer I talked to said his veterinarian bills were half of what they were before he started the feeding program.

Healthy cows, healthy milk and healthy cheese are all great, but as a cheesemonger, what matters most to me is flavor. Does the cheese taste good? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is Omega 3 Cheeses are made at a nationally-recognized factory supervised by one of only 50 Master Cheesemakers in Wisconsin, so of course they are going to be high quality. The cheeses are also less expensive than similar cheeses with trendier labels. For example, a 7-oz square of Horseradish & Chive Jack is $5.99 - not a bad price for a health-filled food.

So the next time you're watching for what's new in the cheese department, look for Omega 3 Cheeses. You'll be supporting a great group of Wisconsin dairy farm families, nutritionists and cheesemakers, as well as five herds of exceptionally happy cows. Win-win-win.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

In his book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America's Most Iconic Cheese, California author Gordon Edgar argues Wisconsinites take cheese for granted. With hundreds of cheese factories, thousands of dairy farms, and daily proximity to fresh cheese curds, we are spoiled with an abundance of good cheese.

There's no doubt he's right. All one needs to do is listen to someone from Arizona complain about living in a "cheese desert" to make us natives better appreciate living in America's Dairyland. Of Wisconsin's 600 types, styles and varieties, no cheese better defines Wisconsin better than Cheddar. After all, of the 129 cheese factories in the state, almost half make Cheddar. That's 561 million pounds of just one type of cheese every single year.

Not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers produce a boatload of cheddar, they make it in a variety of ways. Some mass-produce florescent orange 640-pound blocks and sell it to storage houses, where it is cured in mammoth wooden boxes from floor to ceiling, and then cut and shrink-wrapped into 8-oz bars and labeled for grocery store shelves as mild and medium Cheddar.

Others, such as Land O' Lakes in Kiel, Wis., make award-winning Cheddar in 40-pound blocks, sell it to brokers and distributors, who contract the aging of the cheese, and at the right time, sell it to grocery stores under a variety of private companies as sharp cheddar.

And yet others, such as the folks at Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., craft 40-pound blocks of both orange and white Cheddar, age it in below-ground cold rooms for up to 20 years, and proudly sell it under their own name. Other artisans, like Willi Lehner, at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis., craft Cheddar in 12-pound wheels, and then bandage and lard each wheel before aging it a year in an underground cave.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner. Photo by Becca Dilley.
In short, Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size, shape and age imaginable. But the difference in the taste of that Cheddar can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he'll tell you how Cheddar used to taste different from one factory to the next, in just a 10-mile radius. Today, thanks to modern science and curious minds, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin's Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin's glaciated region.

The soils in the Driftless region are ancient - dominated by red clays and thousands of years of prairie grass roots that have decomposed into a thick rich mass, with soil type names such as Fayette and Dubuque. Dr. Jerry Tyler, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in the 1800s, the first European settlers likely had between 20 and 30 years of "free" nitrogen built into the soil, resulting in decades of above-average wheat farming before fertilizer was even available. "It would have taken a pretty awful farmer to fail in those days," says Tyler.

Compare this to the glaciated, eastern part of the state, which is dominated by flat plains, rolling hills, and a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins in east-central Wisconsin and ends at Niagara Falls. While the soils in the Driftless Region are millions of years old, the state's eastern soils are only 12,000 years old and filled with till, left behind by debris-rich glacier ice. These soils carry names such as Miami, Dodge and Casco, and the soil's chemistry is vastly different from the red clays to the west. Different soil chemistry results in different grasses grown in each region. And different grass produces different milk. Because, after all, in time, grass becomes milk. The only thing standing in between is the cow.

Photo courtesy of Bert Paris, PastueLand Cooperative
Bert Paris is a dairy farmer near Belleville, Wis., in the Driftless Region of the state. His cows are pasture grazed, and he spends much time cultivating his pastures so cows have the best grasses to eat, as his milk is made into yogurt, cheese and butter for PastureLand. He is convinced that the quality of grass is directly tied to the quality of milk, and that the quality of grass comes from the quality of the soil, groundwater and climate.

"I plant primarily orchard and brome grass with some red and white clover," Paris says. "We plant these because they are persistent and manageable in our area. My pastures are old enough that we have native forages and grasses mixed in to create a salad bar of sorts. Cows enjoy this mixture more so than a monoculture of one or two grasses."

Compare Paris' pasture to the pastures at Saxon Homestead Farm, on the eastern part of the state near Cleveland, Wis. Brothers Robert and Karl Klessig pasture their herd, and their milk is made into cheese for Saxon Creamery. Like Paris, they plant orchard and brome grass, but also mix in perennial rye grass, timothy, reed canary, meadow fescue, and others.

Cows on pasture at Saxon Homestead Farm. Photo by Becca Dilley.
"Our pastures consist of a very diverse mix of both cool season grasses - both wild and improved, as well as legumes," Robert says. "Lake Michigan plays a role in our environment. The summertime cool, east winds and morning dew have an impact on the vegetation and cattle."

The different climates, soils and grasses from each region produce slightly different milk, farmers say, which in turn, cheesemakers argue, creates slightly different cheese. For example, Cheesemaker Tony Hook, who has made cheese in western Wisconsin since 1970, has had the same farmer patrons for 40 years. That means the same farmers - all of whom pasture their cows -- have sent him milk for four decades. Grass-fed milk is literally all Tony has ever known.

"I'm a big believer that our sweet soils and limestone water make a difference in the pastures and the quality of the milk we get," Hook says. In fact, Hook says his favorite months of the year to make cheese are in May and June, when cows are put on fresh grass for the first time, and then again in November, when cows are in the barn, but eating the best hay made from dried grass and legumes of the season.

Compare Hook's experiences with Chris Gentine, owner of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wis., who hand selects 40-pound blocks made at Land O' Lakes in Kiel for his Double AA Grade Cheddar program sold under his Deer Creek label.

"I've always liked cheddars made in the Kiel region," Gentine says. "The micro climate of Lake Michigan, combined with the pastures between Port Washington and Kewaunee are something special. The soil is more rocky versus the black earth of southwest Wisconsin. I'm convinced that if you made Deer Creek Cheddar in Green County, it would be a different piece of cheese."

More science is needed to identify specific flavor components of Cheddar made in eastern and western Wisconsin. For now, consumers have the distinct pleasure of trying to discern that difference for themselves.

If you're interested in tasting the difference between a variety of cheddars made in Wisconsin, please join me for the first class in a new Spring series I'll be teaching at Metcalfe's West Café in Madison. My special guest will be Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Bob's been telling me for years there's a difference in cheddar across the state. Here's the class description:

April 19: Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different
Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he'll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin's Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin's glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound "daisy" wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

We'll meet in the cafe at Metcalfe's West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Arrive at 6:45 pm to order your complimentary drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Class is limited to 20 attendees and costs $22. Purchase in advance at: www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wisconsin Cheeses that Wow Right Now

Original artwork by Debra Ziss for the 2016 Roth Cheese Calendar hanging
in my kitchen.
Wisconsin cheese mania reached an all-time high this week, as Emmi Roth's Grand Cru Surchoix captured the top spot at the World Championship Cheese Contest Wednesday night in front of a sold out, wall-to-wall packed home crowd at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

The winning cheese is a washed rind, extra aged Gruyere-style, with bold nutty notes. It's made in Monroe, the county seat of Green County, commonly known as the defacto cheese capital of America's Dairyland. With 13 cheese factories, 200 cheesemakers, 31,000 cows and 37,000 people, the area is a dairy paradise of cows, green grass, milk and cheese. So it is only fitting the region now produces the best cheese in the world: Grand Cru Surchoix.

Most every retailer in Madison is now sold out of Surchoix, but fear not, more is promised to arrive next week. Until then, let's take a look at a few cheeses that are REALLY good right now. The quality of local artisan and farmstead cheeses ebbs and flows with the seasons, but here are a handful that are wowing me today:

1. Tallgrass Reserve, Landmark Creamery, Albany. Cheesemaker Anna Landmark has hit her stride with this cow's milk original recipe. With its natural white moldy rind, the cheese sports a bandaged cheddar texture, yet creamy with a heckuva tang and cavey finish. The current wheels coming from Landmark Creamery are the best wheels I've ever tasted. Buy this cheese right now.

2. Cesar's Queso Oaxaca, Cesar's Cheese, Random Lake. Cesar, his wife Heydi, and son, Cesar, Jr. swept the top three slots in the string cheese category at this week's World Championship Cheese Contest. That means the top three string cheesemakers in the world come from ONE family in Wisconsin. This cheese has always been on my go-to list, but the winning batch - available now in stores - is extra stringy and extra salty, kind of like a big fat and delicious potato chip washed down with a glass of whole milk. Hang on, I've got to go eat another stick before I continue ...

3. Roelli Haus Select, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg. A newcomer to the retail arena, this bandaged cheddar captured first in its category at this week's World Championship Cheese Contest, which means Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli can add another award to his shelf: Global Gold Medalist Cheddar Maker. Roelli tastes each batch and releases it based on flavor, not age. That means some wheels might be eight months, and some wheels might be over a year old, but all hit an earthy, crumbly, cheddary note of a good bandaged cheddar. Right now, released batches of this cheese stack up (and I daresay win) against the great bandaged cheddars of the world. Because, yeah, it's that good.

4. Hook's Triple Play, Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point. Made in 40-pound blocks, this tri-milk cheese boasts sheep, goat and cow flavor notes at different points on the tongue. Some batches I've tasted have been too young and not very complex, but the blocks out right now are perfect. Firm and tangy, the Hooks say the cheese is a flavor combination of a baby swiss, gouda and havarti. I say it's a trifecta of amazingness. This is one American Original you don't want to miss.

5. Farmstead Feta, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby. In Greece, all feta is made with either sheep or goat's milk, or a combination of the two. It is only in America, with our plethora of black and white dairy cows, that cow's milk feta is commonplace. That's why I cue my happy dance when I find Brenda Jensen's sheep milk feta on store shelves. Extra aged with a pleasant bite, never bitter and perfect salt ratio, this is the feta our Greek friends are worried about in trade talks. Buy it now.

6. Carr Valley Cave Aged Marisa, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle. With more than 60 different cheeses to choose from, Carr Valley can meet just about anyone's cheese category needs. Spend your calories on this cheese - an extra aged sheep's milk cheese with beautiful natural rind, aged on wooden boards in a cave environment. Think sweet, earthy and buttery all in one bite: Cave-Aged Marisa.

7. Donatello, Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain. This small-batch cheese just won second in its class at the World Contest, and for good reason. While most people will grab a Manchego for their token sheep milk cheese on an appetizer cheese board, at about nine months old, Donatello blows the average Manchego exported to the U.S. out of the water. Rich, complex and just starting to form tyrosine crystals, Donatello right now is very, very good. If you can find it, buy it.