Friday, September 29, 2006

Cheese Personalities

In an article about Wisconsin specialty cheeses in this month's issue of Zingerman's News, Ari Weinzweig writes about six of his favorite Wisconsin cheeses. Number five is Hook's cheddar by Tony and Julie Hook in Mineral Point, Wis. Ari writes: "Tony and Julie are two of the nicest folks I've ever met and their cheese reflects their personalities - it's considerate, but high in character, lively but not out of control, well matured but not over the top."

That got me to thinking - does the cheese from a Wisconsin cheesemaker reflect his or her personality? Ari could really be on to something here. I've heard that couples who have been married a long time start to resemble each other. Maybe cheesemakers unconsciously craft cheeses that resemble their personal style??

Let's take Joe Widmer. Joe is a third generation Master Cheesemaker who consistently crafts award-winning, small-batch specialty cheeses at his historic
Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis. Joe is probably best known for mild, flavored and aged brick cheeses - he still uses the original bricks his grandfather used before him to press the curd. If you asked Joe to describe his brick cheese - and I have - he would tell you it's sweet and earthy. Funny - that's exactly how I would describe Joe. Just don't get him started on talking about politics.

And then there's Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese. I've written about Sid before and almost everybody who's familiar with Wisconsin cheese knows his story: he's invented dozens of American Original cheeses and always wins big at the American Cheese Society competition (they should really just give him a chair near the front at the awards ceremony - it would be so much easier). If you've ever met Sid, you know he can be a quiet yet colorful person who can tell a good story. But put him in the make room and he becomes a serious cheesemaker who crafts cheese with a passion you don't often see elsewhere. And that's exactly how I would describe his cheese - colorful and passionate.

See, this is working! Are you still with me? Here's one more ...

Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese -- his Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society in 2001 and 2005 and was named U.S. Champion in 2003. This cheese unequivocally sets the artisanal cheese standard in Wisconsin. Yet Mike has no formal marketing campaign and no PR staff. When you call Uplands Cheese, Mike and his wife Carol answer the phone and take your order. A rather quiet and humble guy, Mike packs a powerful punch of knowledge and passion into his craft (he's a former high tech exec from California). And that's exactly the way his cheese tastes - it starts out rather quiet and humble but then the flavor profiles hit you and explode. There's a reason this cheese keeps winning awards.

Does this work for all Wisconsin cheeses? Probably not. But my guess is that our cheesemakers carry their own color, passion and science into their craft. And that makes all the difference.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Limited Edition

Part of the charm of many of our Wisconsin dairy artisans is that they don't ship cheese across the country to every specialty store in the nation; they don't have a fancy retail shop on their farm; they don't have a slick sell sheet and -- more importantly, they never want to. Their goal is to live a sustainable life on their land and make a living doing what they love.

One of the best examples of this lifestyle is the grand dame of Wisconsin artisan goat cheese: Anne Topham of
Fantome Farm. Anne started 20 years ago with a “how to” book written in French, a couple of pigs to eat her mistakes, and a vision of handcrafting the Midwest’s first farmstead goat cheese. Today, her fresh chevre and signature goat cheeses are a beloved mainstay at the Dane County Farmers Market and top restaurants in Madison.

From mid-April through December, Topham carefully handcrafts French-style fresh chevre and other French-style cheeses at her farmstead cheesrie near Ridgeway. She sells them at the farmers market, to top chefs, and occasionally to a limited mail-order clientele.

With its delicately creamy texture, pleasant tartness and lustrous sheen, Topham sells her chevre both plain and flavored with herbs. Other varieties come marinated in extra virgin olive oil and herbes de Provence, or coated with what the French call “black salt,” a mixture of salt and edible ash.

Lately, she's also been making Fleurie Noir -- a new, American Cheese Society award-winning bloomy rind cheese that is hand ladled into forms, dusted with ash and salt, and then allowed to age for several weeks. Her Boulot and other washed rind cheeses allow the full flora of the small herd's milk to express itself more completely.

Making chevre is a three-day process, sometimes requiring all of Topham’s attention, other times almost none. But the goats – from where it all begins – are another story: Topham’s 12-goat herd requires twice-a-day milking, specialized feeding and a little ingenuity.

Anne says goats are smarter than cows. You have to figure how to get them to want to do what you have in mind because they are very independent creatures. She should know - she's been milking them for two decades and has built a small, yet efficient and innovative milking parlor on her farm that is friendly to both the milker and milkee.

Her goats all carry individual names and families are named in related series, all directly related to whatever happens to be on Anne's mind when each goat is born. One series of goats is named after NPR hosts (the voices of Robert Siegel and Michele Norris often drift through the barn, as the radio stays on most of the time to keep the goats company); another family of goats carries beautiful names of obscure star constellations; another takes the names of women stand-up comedians, while others are named after old-time singers. It's interesting to listen to Anne talk to goats named Max (named for Maxene of the Andrews Sisters) or Alcore & Mizar (two stars who are always near each other in the sky) or Margarent (after comedian Margaret Cho). Each animal is treated with respect and dignity. These goats are truly part of Anne's family.

That relationship with the land and the animals carries through in the taste of Anne's cheeses. Extremely fresh, always beautiful and full-flavored but never "goaty", these cheeses often sell out by mid-morning at the farmer's market in Madison. Makes you wish she'd expand her cheesrie, buy a few more goats and make more cheese, but then again, she wouldn't be an artisan cheesemaker then, would she?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Belle of the Ball

A new Wisconsin artisan cheese has captured the Chicago media spotlight this summer. That's because you're more likely to find the new Fayette Creamery line of English cheeses in Chicago's Green City Market or Oak Park Market than you currently are in Wisconsin (hopefully that will change soon).

Brunkow Cheese - located in tiny Fayette, Wisconsin - has been crafting commodity-style cheeses for over 100 years. Their cheddar, monterey jack and colby have been staples at dinner tables, potlucks, weddings and funerals in southwest Wisconsin for generations. But now, creamery operators Karl & Mary Geissbuhler are launching into the Wisconsin artisan cheese with full force, launching a new brand, hand crafting three English-style cheeses and using Chicago as their test market this summer.

I have to admit that I have not yet tried these cheeses - I'm still trying to get my hands on a sample - but if the Chicago Tribune and Timeout Chicago can be believed, these English-style, cheddarish cheeses are the hottest thing to hit that city's farmers' markets in years. It doesn't hurt that the cheeses are absolutely beautiful and the labels are professionally designed. Their names also stoke the imagination: “Argylshire” is a cloth-wrapped cheddar and “Little Darling” is a miniwheel perfect for your next picnic. Timeout Chicago says these cheeses are "as full of flavor as they are in mold."

Don't know about you, but makes me want to take a road trip to Chicago.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Cream of the Crop

Remember the days of when a milkman would come every week, leaving milk and cream in glass bottles at your door? Well, me neither, but I've read about those days with nostalgia and am fully ready to embrace them.

Beginning soon, Artisan Foods Delivered in southwest Wisconsin will play the role of milkman, delivering glass-bottled milk, artisan yogurt, cheeses, butter, eggs and meats to doors in a yet-to-be-defined area. They are currently taking names and addresses to determine their home delivery routes so sign up
now. Weekly orders must total at least $25 and include a $2.50 delivery charge. You can also create a standing order, which a driver will pre-pack and deliver each week, and for a nominal charge, provide a cooler to sit outside your door so you don't even have to be home to put the food in your fridge.

Artisan Foods Delivered consists of two Wisconsin dairy artisans who found each other just at the point where they were considering establishing separate home delivery routes. Dairy farmer and farmstead bottler Nick Kirch of
Blue Marble Family Farm near Barneveld and farmstead yogurt producer Ron Paris, Sugar River Dairy near Albany have partnered with two of their distributor expert friends: Jeff Barnhardt and Evan McAlter to form Artisan Foods Delivered.

Blue Marble Family Farm describes itself as "land-farm-table." The sustainability of the farming practices and the way animals are treated are just as important as the taste of the products. Blue Marble features "creamline" milk from pasture-fed cows and is a nonhomogenized milk , meaning the cream rises to the top and can be seen as a line near the top of the bottle - either you skim it off or mix it in.

Sugar River Dairy is an artisan plant crafting farmstead yogurt with creamline milk produced by Blue Marble. It's a one percent milk fat, fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt, rich and satisfying. Together, Blue Marble & Sugar River Dairy have signed on other artisans such as Tomato Mountain, Just Coffee, Cedar Grove Cheese, Pecatonica Valley Farm and The Summer Kitchen, with more to come to add to their home delivery route.

The delivery network solves one of the biggest problems facing small producers - distribution, providing a valuable link between farmers and consumers without the middleman. Now, let's just hope we all live near a planned home delivery route!