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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Hooks Donate $40,000 from 20-Year Cheddar

During the next few days, you're going to hear a lot about Hook's 20-year Cheddar.

You're going to hear about how it debuted at a fancy dinner at L'Etoile in downtown Madison, where three James Beard award-winning chefs prepared a seven-course dinner for 70 people.

You're going to hear about how expensive it is - $209 a pound - and how there's very little to be had, because most of it is pre-sold or already reserved.

You're going to hear about how surprisingly creamy it is for a 20-year piece of Cheddar, and how the calcium lactate crystals crunch in your mouth like pop rocks. And guess what? All of these things are true.

What you're likely to hear less about, is that tonight, Tony and Julie Hook donated $40,000 - half of all proceeds from their 20-year cheddar -- to the new Babcock Hall/Center for Dairy Research Building Fund at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"I said when we started this, that if I got a cheddar to make it to 20 years, I'd donate half the money to the Center for Dairy Research," Tony said. "Well, I meant it. We're proud of the work they're doing and looking forward to a new facility."

Ground is expected to be broken this summer on the new Babcock Hall, which will be a state-of-the-art facility at UW-Madison with 20,000 square feet dedicated to a new Center for Dairy Research and dairy processing space with specialty ripening rooms to manufacture and experiment with mold and surface ripened cheeses. The building is expected to be finished in 2018.

Many, many thanks to the Hook's team for making such an amazing cheese and for their generosity to the the industry. And a big thank you to chefs Tory Miller, Justin Aprahamian and Justin Carlisle for a fabulous dinner with seven courses featuring Hook's Cheddar from young to old.

First off, all three chefs each created a cheese curd dish: top right with Kimchi by Miller, bottom with pesto and pickled rhubarb by Aprahamian, and left with truffles, Buddha's hand and koshu from Carlisle.

Next, Miller created a 2-year Hook's Cheddar "nacho" with chorizo, picled jalapeno and cilantro.

The first official course (the previous were bonus starter courses) was charred asparagus, rhubarb-hickory nut salumera and shaved 5-year Hook's Cheddar from Miller.

Second course was one of my top 10 favorite dishes ever: Hook's 10-Year Cheddar soup, with pepper, beer vinegar, popcorn wafers and chives by Carlisle.

Third course: 15-year Hook's Cheddar with roasted veal breast, apricot and turnip by Aprahamian. One of our table mates had to stop mid-chew because he was "having a moment" and never wanted this dish to end.

Cheese course: Hook's 20-year Cheddar. The dining room applauded after the first taste (and Wisconsin Foodie recorded our reactions).

Dessert: curd cheesecake with rhubarb, meringue, basil and delicious mystery pink ice by Carlisle.

Many, many thanks to all three chefs, L'Etoile, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Hook's Cheese team for making tonight's dinner happen. Wisconsin salutes you!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy: More Cows, More Milk, New Cheese

Wisconsin media reported last week that while the number of Wisconsin dairy cow farms dropped below 10,000 for the first time in generations, both cow's milk production and specialty cheese numbers in America's Dairyland are up. How can that be?

With the high cost of land and feed, farms today must get bigger to stay profitable and compete on a national level. It is no longer viable for the average farmer to milk 10 cows and still make enough money to take a vacation or send kids to college. That's why we're seeing more family farms combine herds, add cows and grow larger.

Here's a breakdown of farm and cow numbers in Wisconsin, according to the last agricultural census: about 1,300 farms milk 19 cows or less; 3,200 milk 20-49 cows; about 4,200 operations milk 40-99 cows; 1,580 farms milk 100-199 cows; 815 farms milk 200-499 cows; 256 operations milk 500-999 cows; 106 farms milk 1,000 to 2,499 cows; and 25 dairies milk more than 2,500 cows.

Despite the overall lower number of farms, Wisconsin dairies are producing more milk. In fact, the state's 1.27 million cows produced a record 27.7 billion pounds of milk last year, a record high.

Speaking of records, the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service released the latest Specialty Cheese numbers this week. In 2014, Wisconsin maintained its ranking as the nation's no. 1 cheese producing state, with specialty cheese accounting for 23 percent of all cheese production,  up from 15 percent in 2006.

Of the state's 127 cheese plants, 91 craft at least one type of specialty cheese. Feta accounts for the largest share of specialty cheese production, with Blue, Havarti, Hispanic types, specialty Mozzarella, Parmesan and specialty Provolone all remaining popular. Italian Fontina production rose a record 27 percent over the previous year, while Romano wheel production was 20 percent higher.

And while the number of cheese plants in Wisconsin continues to increase, one Wisconsin dairy family announced this week it plans to expand that number even further. John Pagel, owner of Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy in Kewaunee, announced construction is underway for a 2,500-square-foot cheese plant on the family farm.

The Pagels milk 5,000 cows and have been experimenting with cheesemaking since last summer, having a nearby cheese plant craft cheese with their milk. During a Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute meeting in September on the Pagel farm, attendees were treated to a prototype Ponderosa Dairy cheese of garlic and herb cheddar. John says he's been working with the Center for Dairy Research in Madison to develop a unique farmstead cheese that will carry the Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy Farm label, and on May 1, hired Master Cheesemaker Steve Hurd as farm cheese plant manager.

The Pagels already see between 10,000 to 12,000 visitors on their farm every year, John says, so building an on-farm cheese plant is the natural next step. "I've got four kids working on the farm now, and 10 grandkids eager to get into the business."

Expanding his farm over time has been key to the Pagels' success. John took over the family farm from his father in 1980, milking 150 cows. In 1995, the farm expanded to 450 cows, and in 2000, the farm built a double-20 parlor, expanding to 1,500 cows. In 2008, the Pagels built an on-farm methane digester that creates enough energy to power 1,200 homes, and in 2009, installed a 72-cow rotary milking parlor that milks 525 cows an hour. The herd is primarily Jersey-cross breed and Holsteins.

The 72-cow rotary milking parlor at Pagel's Ponderosa Dairy.
Last year, John purchased Ron's Cheese in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, and signed a lease to launch the Cannery Public Market in downtown Green Bay, a proposed local foods center. He plans to use Ron's Cheese as both a retail outlet and wholesale distributor, and to sell the farm's cheese at the new Green Bay facility, next door to Titletown Brewery. Prototypes of Ponderosa Cheese made and aged at a nearby cheese plant is now for sale online.

"We're hoping to create an atmosphere that consumers will enjoy and supply it with our own beef, cheese and dairy products," John says. He's working to create a one-stop destination at the farm where visitors can see cows milked, energy created and cheese manufactured. "People will be able to watch a number of technologies happen all in the same location."

Congratulations to the Pagel family! We look forward to eating more of your cheese very soon.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Year of the Beagle

Bagel the Wonder Beagle
The Chinese may still be arguing over whether it is the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep, but at my house, there is no doubt: 2015 is the Year of the Beagle.

About a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter adopted a 9-year-old Beagle from an animal rescue. Gunner, as he was known then, was turned over to the shelter by his original owner, who had raised him from a puppy. A three-page hand-written letter came with the dog, detailing favorite foods, toys, likes, dislikes and a complete medical history. However, the last question was the most telling. It asked: "Reason for giving up animal." The answer simply said: "Wife."

So Gunner came to live with our daughter and was renamed Bagel the Wonder Beagle. The name was in honor of a former exchange student we had hosted from Thailand, who often confused the words bagel and beagle, as in: "I'd like a beagle for breakfast." My daughter decided then and there that if she ever got a dog, it would be a Beagle and his name would be Bagel. I added the Wonder Beagle.

Fast forward to two months ago, when our daughter and Bagel the Wonder Beagle came home to live with us. The 18-year-old discovered the real world was expensive and begrudgingly came home to roost. Of course, the dog came along, too. We were rather less than thrilled. After all, we are cat people. We have always had cats and currently are parents to three: Louie, Sammy and Sylvester. With Bagel and Lionel Richie, our daughter's rescue cat, we were now home to four cats and a dog. Yes, we are actually outnumbered by pets, none of whom of course get along. Our house is literally a five-ring circus.

Soon after she moved back home, it became apparent that with our daughter's work schedule, Bagel was not getting outside often enough. After a few days of coming home to find pee puddles and poop piles in my living room, I begrudgingly took over the dog walking schedule to save my house from ruin. Let me clear, I was not happy about this. I am a cat person.

At first, I thought walking Bagel might give me some exercise. As a cheesemonger, I am on my feet 8 hours a day, but let's face it, that isn't really exercise. It's standing, squatting, bending, reaching and lifting. I figured that walking a dog would be a nice change of pace.

Turns out that walking a Beagle doesn't really involve much walking. It's mostly starting, stopping, and standing while your Beagle sniffs the trail of a squirrel that crossed the lawn eight months ago. Walking a Beagle is a lot like watching paint dry. You stand in the same spot for a long time, walk five steps, then stand in that spot for a long time. And then you repeat that for as long as you are willing to "walk" the Beagle.

After about a week of becoming frustrated with the non-walking of walking the dog, I started to notice stuff. Like, the next door neighbors have a fire pit in their backyard. The neighbors two houses down have a banner that says "Congratulations Zach" hanging in their living room. I've lived down the street from these folks for 12 years and I don't know who Zach is. The neighbors across the street have three boys - this I knew because I've seen them waiting for the bus - but they also have a dog named Buddy who is a cross between a Beagle and something else (they can't remember). I didn't even know they had a dog.

Walking down the street further, I learned the house five houses away has a waterfall in their backyard. I know this because I can hear it when Bagel is sniffing their garden hose for a solid three minutes and I have nothing to do but stand there and listen. I learned there are a lot of trees on our street. We've got ash, maple, oak, poplar, a whole bunch of blossoming bushes and an entire family of pines just in a one-block radius. I know this because I've stood and studied them in depth while Bagel has sniffed a dandelion for four minutes.

Walking Bagel around our block takes a solid 35 minutes. The first half block is a breeze - usually, Bagel almost runs until you turn right. He's not thrilled about that first turn, but he does it without putting up a fuss. The second right turn is more of a struggle. He wants to go straight, left, up, down, anywhere but right, because he knows that is one more turn closer to home. But eventually he turns, and is pretty happy along the way. Between the second and third turn, I've gotten to know neighbors who live one street away from me that I never knew existed. I know the names of their dogs, the names of their kids, and how often they weed their lawn.

The third right turn is when we start to hit a roadblock. Bagel does not like the third turn. By the fourth and final turn toward home, we have a serious slowdown. Walking the half block back to the house literally takes as much time as the entire walk before the final turn. Bagel has been known to actually lay down in protest in the lawn at the fourth turn. In good news, the neighbor that lives on that corner is also my plumber, so we often talk shop while Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays with his head on the ground,  his big sad puppy eyes looking up as if to say: "Just one more time around the block?"

Just another day in paradise.
Once we get home, Bagel is always back to his happy self, ready to eat, drink and nap. He particularly enjoys laying next to my husband on the couch. Sylvester our cat usually perches on his lap, and Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays on the side. I'm usually in charge of separating the other fighting cats.

Having Bagel in our house, even for what will likely be for a short time, has given me a new appreciation of dogs. I can understand why people enjoy coming home to an animal who is actually happy to see them, rather than three cats who meow in protest that no one has been home to feed them for eight hours.

Walking Bagel has also given me new insights into a neighborhood in which I've lived 12 years. When you're walking a Beagle, people stop what they're doing to say hello. When you're walking a Beagle, people cross the street to pet your dog and chat. When you're walking a Beagle, you notice things you're normally too busy to see. During the course of the past two months, I've met more people in my neighborhood than I have in the past 12 years. Turns out Bagel the Wonder Beagle was just what I needed.