Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Road Tripping for Wisconsin Cheese

I realize that not everyone who reads this blog lives in Wisconsin (but if you really loved artisan cheese you would move here and bravely face today's balmy minus 6 degree wind chill). So I thought I might share a few good retail cheese shops around the country that I've had the chance to visit and who do a great job of presenting Wisconsin artisan cheeses.

First up is Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York. Owner Anne Saxelby writes a great blog and sends out a fun weekly email - if you're interested, ask her to add you to her mailing list. She also hosts lots of fun events and her cheese description cards are the best. The above photo taken by Zoe Singer last week may be my all time favorite: Anne's description of Uplands Cheese's Pleasant Ridge Reserve reads: "You down with P.R.R.? Well you should be - it is rich and hearty with a sublime caramel-butterscotch sweetness balanced by flavors of grass and earth. It melts like a dream ... think fondue in winter!"

Another one of my favorites is the Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, Ill. Owner Eric Larson again does a great job of sending out a weekly email of his offerings, and has lately been featuring a ton of Wisconsin artisan cheeses. If you have a MySpace page, add them as a friend - Eric plans to use the MySpace page to post a regular cheese and wine blog and provide information about upcoming events and news at his shop.

If you're ever in Portland, Oregon, I would definitely recommend Foster & Dobbs. Tim Wilson & Luan Schooler opened the shop about a year ago and have created an amazingly beautiful cheese case featuring quite a few Wisconsin cheeses. Another fun stop in Portland is Elephant's Deli -- store manager Nick Doughty keeps the cheese case fully stocked (they also make the best vanilla latte that I've ever had).

And if you're ever in Austin, Texas, be sure to stop by Central Market at 4001 N. Lamar. Cheese & Deli Manager Michele Haram carries hundreds of cheeses, including mammoth cheddars from Hennings, and is expanding the Wisconsin selection all the time - she carries quite a few cheeses from Carr Valley as well as other Wisconsin favorites.

A cheese shop posting would not be complete without mentioning two specialty shops in Wisconsin: Larry's Market in Brown Deer and Nala’s Fromagerie in Green Bay. At Larry's Market, ask for Steve Ehlers or his sister, Patty - both are two of the most knowledgeable cheesemongers I've ever met. Alan Trick at Nala's is also excellent - he opened about a year ago and his shop is already being called one of the best in the Midwest. (Quick piece of trivia: although I've known Alan for a long time, I just figured out that his store name is his first name spelled backwards - not sure what that says about my analytical abilities).

Happy shopping!

Friday, January 26, 2007

More Women Cheesemakers

In interesting news, as more Wisconsin cheesemakers move into the arena of crafting artisan and farmstead products, a promising trend is taking shape in the Heartland: more and more women are taking the lead.

Of the 1,222 currently active licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin, less than 40, or 3 percent, are female. In the past three years, however, that trend has spiked upward – with a half dozen women earning their licenses and opening their own farmstead cheesries.

Of course, while working as a cheesemaker is by no means new for women – historically many women made cheese in their kitchens and a handful worked in cheese factories – a definite trend is developing of more women starting their own cheesemaking operations. And instead of hiring a cheesemaker, women are taking classes and completing apprenticeships themselves.

Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker pioneers such as Anne Topham of Fantome Farm, Ridgeway and Mary Falk of Lovetree Farmstead Cheese, Grantsburg, have made artisan cheeses for decades. Others, including Julie Hook, of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, was the first woman cheesemaker to earn the title of World Championship Cheese in 1982, while Carie Wagner was the first woman to earn the title of Master Cheesemaker in 2001.

But in the past three years, more women than ever have decided to start their own artisan cheese businesses and earn cheesemaker licenses, including:

  • Diana Murphy, Dreamfarm, Cross Plains (pictured above). Murphy built her own farmstead cheese plant in 2004. She handcrafts fresh goat cheese and successfully sells out of production each year to Community Supported Agriculture groups and local chefs.

  • Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby. Jensen is in the process of building her own farmstead cheese plant and has been crafting fresh sheep’s milk cheese since last fall. Her “Driftless” cheeses are already in demand in the Twin Cities market.

  • Marieke Penterman, Hollands Family Cheese, Thorp. Penterman, who with her husband and family moved from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2003 to operate a 480-Holstein dairy farm, is now using her new cheesemakers license to craft true Dutch Gouda. The Pentermans built a farmstead cheese plant in 2005.

  • Vicki Simpkins, Shepherd’s Ridge Farm, St. Croix Falls. Simpkins is nearing completion on her own farmstead cheese plant, where she plans to craft sheep’s milk cheese this spring.

  • Ethel Jensen, Terra Winds Farmstead, Mt. Horeb. Jensen milks cows, sheep and goats at her family farm and is currently building a farmstead cheesrie, where she plans to craft artisan cheeses using blended milks.
More young women also appear to be considering a future in cheesemaking. Kara Kasten, 22, a senior at UW-Madison with a double major in dairy science and life sciences communications, is watching the growing trend of artisan cheesemaking in Wisconsin. She decided a year ago to work for her cheesemaker's license while attending college and expects to write the cheesemaking test before the end of 2007.

She says: "I’m not entirely sure where my life path is taking me, but I do know that I want to make cheese, and I want to make it in Wisconsin."

Don't we all?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Wisconsin Cheddar Tour

While Wisconsin is home to 600 varieties, types and styles of cheeses (according to the latest figures from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board), I'd be willing to wager that if you asked the average consumer what variety they buy most, the most common answer would still be cheddar.

Wisconsin produced 6.9 million pounds of cheddar in 2005 - including everything from artisan 10-year aged cheddars selling for $20 a pound to 40-pound blocks that last week were selling for $1.30 a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A great article by
Janet Fletcher at the San Francisco Chronicle recently focused on America's inability to distinguish a $3 pound cheddar from a $30 pound cheddar.

Well, let me clear this up for you. Wisconsin cheddar rules. Not all of our cheddars may sell for $30 a pound (in fact I don't think we have any selling for quite that much), but every plant that I know making cheddar has only their most experienced licensed cheesemakers (and often the masters) in the make room.

In fact, if you're looking for a really good cheddar, here are some recommendations:

Alto Dairy Black Creek Cheddar. I know what you're thinking. This 100-old cooperative has made block cheddar for a century and sold it as private label. Well, they recently started aging out the premiere of their premiere cheddar and selling it themselves as Black Creek Classic. This is good stuff. They just started rolling out this label nationally, so it may be hit and miss on finding it. But when in doubt, buy it directly from the plant at the following ages: 9 months, 3-year and five-year. Email
bcretailshop@altodairy.com to inquire about placing an order.

Bleu Mont Dairy English-Style Bandaged Cheddar. This only works if you're in Madison, Wisconsin and you're able to attend the Saturday's Dane County Farmer's Market (going on this winter at the Madison Senior Center on Mifflin St). Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is making an infinitely edible bandaged cheddar that was inspired by a recent trip to Europe. Or if all else fails, email him and see if he'll send you a chunk. bleumont@tds.net

Carr Valley Aged Cheddars. If you know anything about Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, you of course know that above and beyond all his American Originals, his aged cheddars consistently earn awards at national competitions. His website's e-store even has a special section for his cheddars and prices range from $4.49 for day-old cheddar to $19.50 a pound for his 10-year cheddar. Personal note: my current favorite is his Applewood Smoked Cheddar - every time I take it to a party, people love me.

Henning Cheese. Whether you're looking for fresh cheese curds or a 12,000 pound mammoth cheddar, Henning's is your place. It's a fourth-generation family-owned and operated business and has been making cheddar for 90 years. All Henning cheese is custom-made, according to the wheel size requested by the customer.

Hook's Cheese Company. Tony and Julie Hook located their company in the historic "Shake Rag" district of scenic Mineral Point and have been making award-winning cheddars for 35 years. Their 5-year, 7-year and 10-year cheddars are in high demand and their 10-year cheddar claimed first in the 2006 American Cheese Society competition.

Widmer's Cheese Cellars. Last but not least, there's Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer. In addition to mild cheddar, Joe crafts a 1-year, 2-year, 4-year and 6-year cheddar. His 6-year took first place in its class at the 2005 American Cheese Society competition. Joe and his family have been making cheese in Theresa, Wisconsin since his grandfather arrived from Switzerland more than 80 years ago.

And that about wraps up the Wisconsin artisan cheddar tour. Happy cheddar shopping!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The King of Stinky Cheese

Looking for a memorable Wisconsin cheese roadtrip? Visit the grand daddy of them all: Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Green County.

While many a career has been launched since 1885 from Chalet, current Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson can probably be considered the Grand Pooh-Bah of all Green County Cheesemakers.
As only the third manager of the cooperative since the 1930s, Myron oversees the only plant in North America still producing Limburger cheese - that famous surfaced-ripened cheese with a "pungent aroma." Or, as Myron says, Chalet "has the longest streak of making stinky cheese in the U.S."

Myron and the cheesemakers before him have used the same Limburger culture since the early 1900s, propogating it every day. This is the secret, Myron says, that makes his Limburger "not have that sweat-sock taste - you can taste the difference."

Limburger cheese started out in history as a "working man's lunch" - when you combine it with a couple pieces of rye bread, some onions, and wash it down with a beer - it is just about the best, inexpenisve lunch you can find (and it "sticks to your ribs" as my father used to say).

Today, Myron and his workers still hand package every piece of Limburger made at Chalet and they've implemented a new labeling system that tells the date the cheese was made. This way, if you want your Limburger young & not quite so smelly (relatively speaking), you can find the piece you want off the shelf. Or if you're an oldtimer, you pick the piece that's about 5-1/2 months old and running out of the package as soon as you open the foil.

Chalet isn't slowing down anytime soon. When I was there a couple of months ago, Myron had just ordered four new cheese vats - duplicates of the open vats he currently uses, where he and other cheesemakers still cut cheese by hand.

If you're not into stinky cheese, fear not. Myron & crew also make brick cheese and some of the best baby swiss in the country - Deppeler's Baby Swiss (Chalet aquired the highly reputed Deppeler Cheese Factory in 2004). This baby swiss has been rated first in the world at the World Championships.

You might notice something different in Myron's baby swiss vs. some of the other baby swiss you see on the market. "When we call it Swiss, we mean it. It really has eyes in it," Myron says. And Deppeler's Baby Swiss is full of eyes - they still make it the Old World way.

One note of caution: Chalet Cheese Cooperative is located in the middle of extreme rolling hill and curvy road country in southwest Wisconsin, so if you're prone to car sickness, don't be in a hurry to get there. The
retail shop located inside the factory is open Monday thru Friday 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 8 to 10:30 a.m.

And on a final note, if you're looking for good beer to go with your Limburger sandwich, I would highly recommend New Glarus Spotted Cow (hey - if you're trekking to southwest Wisconsin, you might as well get both good beer & cheese). Cheers!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Real Cheeses from the Underground

With no snow and the third consecutive week of 40 degree days in southern Wisconsin, I'm giving up on winter and committing myself to spending more time eating funky cheese.

Luckily, there's an event coming up to help me with this quest. On Saturday, Jan. 27, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m West Allis Cheese at the Milwaukee Public Market (400 N. Water St in Milwaukee) is hosting "Cheeses from the Underground."

The event will feature Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers who are reviving the Old World tradition of aging cheeses in natural caves. Cave-aged cheeses are cared for in a natural, underground cave from several weeks to years, depending on the a variety of variables. The cave environment creates amazing flavors and beautiful cheeses. These are the kinds of cheeses that are helping artisans find successful niche markets for their products, while also maintaining cheesemaking traditions.

Not only is West Allis Cheese celebrating these rare Wisconsin cheeses by hosting a cheese tasting where people can come meet the cheesemakers and sample their unique products, but they're also bringing in the one and only Mary Falk, an award-winning cheesemaker from LoveTree Farmstead, to conduct a presentation on affinage, the art and science of maturing cheese. Her presentation is from 11 a.m. to noon. (That's her cave pictured above).

The best part: it's FREE and is open to the public.

Here's the scoop on the participating cheesemakers:

  • Mary Falk, LoveTree Farmstead, Grantsburg, WI
    LoveTree Farmstead Cheese produces some of the world's finest and most unique sheep cheese. Located in the Trade Lake area of northern Wisconsin, this unique glacial setting features eight lakes within two miles of the farm. It is these lakes that their different cheeses are named after: Trade Lake Cedar, Big Holmes, Spirit and Trade River. Since its founding in 1986, LoveTree has won numerous awards, including being named Food Artisan of the year by Bon Appetit/Food Network and several American Cheese Society awards.

  • Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, WI
    Carr Valley draws on its heritage of four generations of cheesemakers to continue the care and standards it established in the late 1880s. Long known for his popular Cheddars, Sid Cook, Carr Valley's Master Cheesemaker, has begun to make cow's milk artisan varieties that include Cave Aged Cheddar (reminiscent of farmhouse Cheddars produced 100 years ago) and Virgin Pine Native Blue (a blue-veined cheese that's also cave-aged and pierced with needles to allow the defining molds to grow with the cheese).

  • Tom Torkelson, Natural Valley Cheese, Hustler, WI
    Natural Valley Cheese is proud of its longstanding Wisconsin traditions. The milk that goes into the cheeses - both cow's and goat's milks - is produced by an Amish farm families who hand-milk their animals and store and chill the milk in metal cans. He won four awards at the 2006 American Cheese Society Conference, for his Twin Bluff Select, Lindina, Goat's milk Feta and Redstone Robust.

  • Brian Nelson, FenceLine, Grantsburg, WI
    A joint venture with the dairy farmers at Burnett Dairy Cooperative, FenceLine uses new and historic methods to create a family of Italian country cheeses respectful of the special characteristics of the milk, water and fauna of Burnett County. Using only the finest cow milk from Wisconsin's successful dairy farmers in northwest Wisconsin, FenceLine crafts award-winning cheeses like a lightly-aged Provolone and Winter Sun.

  • Wisconsin Dairy Artisan Network
    The Wisconsin Dairy Artisan Network is agroup of artisan and farmstead dairy cheese, butter, yogurt and bottled milk producers from around the state. From the rolling pastures of the unglaciated Uplands region of southwestern Wisconsin to the rocky, forested Northwoods along the shores of Lake Superior, a growing number of highly skilled Wisconsin Dairy Artisan are creating the finest quality artisan and farmstead dairy products, sweeping cheese awards across the nation. These talented people are leading a resurgence of artisan products, reintroducing recipes that many believed were lost in the United States and creating their own products and processes along the way. They will host a booth representing all of the artisan and farmstead cheesemakers from the state.

Is this, or is this not almost the perfect event ever? Let's hope the weather holds and we can all road trip to Milwaukee on Jan. 27.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cheese Entertaining

OK, so I overdid it a bit on the purchasing of artisan cheese for the holidays. Apparently not everyone eats a pound of cheese at a dinner party when you have 59 other courses. So now I'm looking at all the delightful left-over chunks of funky cheese in my fridge and wondering what to do, what to do?

Then I remembered Barrie Lynn, The Cheese Impresario. Barrie Lynn is great at finding new ways to enjoy old favorites. I got the chance to spend a day with her last year visiting artisan cheesemakers and while driving on the windy roads in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin, she gave me some great ideas on how to spice up those leftovers that may be hanging out in your fridge.

So here we go ... hang on to your flavor profiles.

1. Aged Gouda: this is one of those cheeses where a little goes a long way (hence the couple pounds I still have in my fridge). Here's a new idea: Try serving a slice with a bit of caramel sauce swirled prettily on a plate. A new dessert for a family dinner? One of the best aged goudas made in Wisconsin is from Roth Kase in Monroe - try their Vintage Van Gogh.

2. Blue Cheese: believe it or not, blue cheeses go great with honey. To really mix it up, try some flavored honey, such as chestnut, orange blossom or blueberry. Then add a few candied nuts and pour this concoction over top your blue cheese chunk. Yummy. For a good Wisconsin blue, try Hook's Tilston Point, Black River Blue from North Hendren Dairy, Salemville Amish Blue or Montforte Blue made by the Wisconsin Farmers Union.

3. Carr Valley Cocoa Cardona: here's another dessert possibility. Place a slice on a dessert plate and then swirl chocolate around it (even the old stand by of Hershey's Syrup works if you don't have any frou frou chocolate sauce in your fridge). When you dip the Cocoa Cardona cheese in the chocolate, it kicks it up one more flavor notch. Totally recommend this instead of ice cream.

I know Barrie Lynn had more ideas, but those three were apparently all that my brain could absorb at one time. Have fun making new dishes out of old favorites. Happy New Year!