Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cheese Underground Lady Revealed

I've been writing this blog anonymously for almost a year now. I must say it's been great fun to write about the cheesemakers I have the honor of working with at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, as well as with the dairy artisans, specialty retailers, chefs and generally quirky people I happen to meet every day.

So I had - emphasize had -- a fun plan for my one-year anniversary to ask readers to guess who I might be. I thought I might give a set of clues every week, with the winner getting a free box of my favorite cheeses (I know - kind of lame, but fun the same - what else do Wisconsinites really have to do during the winter?). But alas, those hopes were dashed when some dude named Kevin O'Brien outed me on the
Chicago Reader website this month.

Let me be the first (okay, well the second after Mr. Kevin) to tell you that I am indeed Jeanne Carpenter, communications director for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innvoation Center. I am proud to have the opportunity to work with dairy artisans every day - working with a team to assist new entrepreneurs set up dairy businesses and helping current artisans expand and develop new American Originals.

My work at the center has afforded me the luxury of meeting, getting to know, and working side-by-side with the many Wisconsin dairy artisans who make incredible cheeses and specialty dairy products and who win more awards than any other state or nation. It's also given me the opportunity to meet retailers, chefs and industry experts I never would have met otherwise -- and to bring you the latest scoop on the products being developed and the people behind them in make rooms across America's Dairyland.

So the next time you see me, say hello. Keep sending me reader feedback and questions on where to find Wisconsin cheeses. Not only is it my day job, it is also my passion.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Weatherman turns Cheesemaker

More than 250 farmers and industry reps showed up at the first ever state-wide goat conference last week in Barneveld -- confirming my earlier theory that goats are indeed "hot" in Wisconsin.

One of the most engaging speakers at the day-long event was Arnaud Solandt, president of
Montchevre in Belmont, a goat cheese processing plant that has probably doubled its size in the last five years. Arnaud was born and raised in southwestern France and cheese has always been part of his life. His grandmother owned and ran a gourmet cheese store in his hometown. His father was director of sales for the local cheese factory.

However - and this is where the story gets interesting - Arnaud never planned on following the family roadmap into the cheese business. His dream was to be (dramatic pause and drum roll here) .... a weatherman. This announcement by Arnaud in front of the standing-room only crowd drew a few audible gasps from the audience and I immediately decided that I liked this guy.

Because here's how Arnaud got into the cheese business and here's why he is now running arguably the most successful goat cheese operation in America: while he was going to college, his father was killed and his mother severely injured in a car accident. The principals of the French cheese companies that his father was representing asked Arnaud to put his studies aside for a few months and help them manage the U.S. office. Because he's a stand-up guy and needed to help support his mother and two sisters, he said yes. And he's never looked back.

Today, Arnaud is in charge of an operation that is no doubt the lifeblood of tiny Belmont, Wisconsin, population 871 (I grew up there and can attest that the factory, along with the neighboring Lactalis cheese plant, probably employs a good quarter of all village residents).

Arnaud's 80,000 square foot factory produced over 6 million pounds of goat cheeses in 2006 and purchases 37 million pounds of milk from 210 area dairy goat farmers. Not only is this plant directly employing 120 local people, it's also the main source of income for 210 farm families. It is truly the cornerstone of Lafayette County.

And then of course, there's the cheese. Arnaud graciously donated something like 40 pounds of goat cheese at the conference for sampling and it disappeared fast. Montchevre makes dozens of products including the usual suspects of fresh chevre, crumbled goat cheese, feta, chabis and crottin.

Their newest product is sensational - Darsonval (pictured above) is a unique and natural semi-soft washed rind goat cheese - lightly pressed and aged for 90 days. It is an ideal table cheese and carries a mild and sweet goat flavor - perfect for introducing to your friends who are not yet goat-cheese lovers. Plus, it's absolutely beautiful - put a wheel on your table and watch the "oohs and aahh" commence.

However, beyond the business aspect of the operation, and perhaps even beyond the amazing cheese his cheesemakers craft, are Arnaud's parting remarks at the conference: when people ask him if he likes his job, he says he thinks back at all the years and replies: "I love it! Thank God! Because it's the only thing I have ever done and probably the only thing I know how to do."

And he does it very well. Congratulations to Montchevre for its dedication to raising the bar for all goat cheese in Wisconsin, the Unites States and perhaps (dare I say) even France. Montchevre has come a long way. I'm eagerly looking forward to its future.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Ode to Wisconsin Cheese

I love reader feedback. My favorite email this week was from Steven Shelton in Wisconsin, who as it turns out, loves Wisconsin cheese. In fact, he so loves Wisconsin cheese that he wrote a song about it. (My apologies to friends in California - if you'd like to submit a counter song declaring valid reasons why your cows are indeed happier than ours, feel free).

The Wisconsin/California Cheese/Wine Song

All bites of cheddar cheeses are

Gouda when
From Wisconsin
Than when from California.

Feasts of Edom
The West can't beat 'em,
Our Monterey, too, is more than good.

Brick and Brie
If you ask me
Are best when from the Northern Woods.

Wiser cows
Know happy cows
Are jealous of four-seasons land.

But our grapes our sour,
And your wine has power -
Let cheese and wine be American.

The Munsters here
Aren't quite so weird
Our Co-jack is both sharp and fine.

We can end this feud,
When it comes to food
California should stick to wine.

-- Steven Shelton

You've got to love anybody who sings about cheese. Go Steven!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Cheese Cooking School

Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese has once again master minded yet another way to make more people fall in love with his cheese: he's running a series of cooking schools at his brand new test kitchen at his Sauk City, Wisconsin retail store.

A series of 14 classes with local celebrity chefs started in January and classes have been selling out weeks in advance. When I was there buying cheese on Saturday, Sid was in fine form - sampling his many American Originals before the class and then introducing Chef James Van Deurzen of Mazomanie to a sold-out crowd. Van has been voted one of Madison's five top home chefs by Madison Magazine. His "Seafood Extravaganza" looked to be a real hit.

I was so inspired by the experience that I signed up for a class myself on April 23 with Tom Gresser of the Roxbury Tavern. I've been trying to eat at the Roxbury for years - it's the type of rustic tavern where the food is legendary but whenever I make the 45-minute trip to the middle-of-nowhere destination, I seem to arrive only to find a "gone fishing" or "family wedding" sign on the front screen door and the place is closed. Long sigh.

So I figure if I get to meet Tom at the Carr Valley Cooking School and eat his famous Swiss cheese appetizers, Gonzoburger, Chili Rellenos, French Onion torched soup, it's almost like eating at the Roxbury, right? Or maybe it will at least add to the mystique of my experiences in repeatedly attempting to dine there.

In any case, check out the
remaining Carr Valley cooking events - future chefs include Chef Justin Carlisle from Harvest in Madison, Wave Kasprzak of The Dining Room in Monticello and Ryan Alabaugh of Sergio's. Fee is $45 a person.

Beware: classes are selling out quickly. Move fast.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Watching Cheese Age

A friend sent me a link to cheddarvision.tv As far as I can tell, it's a webcam focused on a wheel of cheese aging somewhere in England. My first thought was "Wow - watching cheese getting older must be about as exciting as watching paint dry."

But now I'm thinking: "Why didn't I think of that?"

So I keep going to the site and checking out the cheese. I'm not sure what type it is, but as I write this, it's been aging for 48 days, 16 hours, 18 minutes, 27 seconds and 442 milliseconds. There's something mesmorizing about watching the little numbers flip.

If you're looking for good cave-aged cheese from Wisconsin, you're in luck. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy is putting the final touches on his underground cave. The above photo was taken in September 2006 by Sasha Davies of Cheese by Hand, and Willi tells me he's about ready to start moving cheese in to the finished cave. Will keep you posted when I know more.

Happy cheese aging watching!