Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Roxbury Rock Star

Tom Gresser is my new idol and he's not even a cheesemaker.

He is, however, the only tavern owner I know who has a "Swiss cheese appetizer" on the menu that consists solely of a huge slab of Wisconsin Baby Swiss simply warmed on the grill using extra virgin olive oil. That's it. Really -- who could ask for anything more?

Tom owns the legendary
Roxbury Tavern, located in the metropolis of Roxbury, Wisconsin in rural Dane County -- one mile east of US Hwy 12 on County Highway Y. I had the unprecedented honor of spending nearly three hours with him last night at the Carr Valley Cooking School in Sauk City.

The class information said it would be a "tasting" but after six courses that featured an "Inside Out Cheese and Pulled Pork Sandwich," a "Gonzoburger," a "Wilted Spinach Salad," a cup of homemade "Roxbury French Onion Soup" topped with hand-torched Carr Valley Canaria cheese (awesome!!), Chili Rellanos and Poached Pears served with Carr Valley Ba Ba Blue Cheese -- topped off by a bottle of Lake Louis Cream Rock Ale -- my diet was officially shot. I'm not sure what I'm going to tell the Weight Watchers lady when I weigh in this week (perhaps that I was attacked by a never-ending cheese course?), but it was definitely worth it.

While the 20 or so of us attending last night's cooking school were having a grand old time, there was one couple in attendance who I noticed was not - I suspect they were expecting a bit more "hoity toity" food and left early.

Too bad. The rest of us decided Tom was our new hero.

And rightfully so. A champion of using only the most local and freshest food - Tom knows where every ingredient comes from - including each farmer's name and where they live. He says he likes to use fresh ground beef from Wyttenbach Meats outside Sauk City because the beef "is raised on the Sauk prairie. I can drive by and wonder which one will end up on my grill."

Born and raised in Racine, Tom worked for most of his life in the food service industry (with a short stint earning a horticulture degree in his 40s) and in 1989 decided to buy the Roxbury Tavern. He said the first few years consisted mostly of a blue-collar crowd smoking and swearing at the bar. But then he visited the Riley Tavern - a biker watering hole near Verona - and noticed that although the clientele was the same, the atmosphere was not -- no swearing allowed, minimal smoking and families eating at tables along side dudes wearing leather jackets.

"I thought if they could pull that off in Riley - then I could do the same in Roxbury." And he did. Today, Tom's clientele is an eclectic mix of guys still sitting at the bar (they stopped swearing and smoking years ago), families with small children at tables and even professionals from Madison who might be working on their laptops and eating a Roxburger at the same time.

"I made it into a place where I wanted to be - I got rid of the jukebox, pool table, televisions, put up a no smoking sign and every step of the way, people were telling me I was going to go out of business. Well we didn't - we now have a place the staff really enjoys working at and I couldn't ask for any better help," Tom said.

In addition to what appears to be a simple menu (don't let it fool you - everything, and I mean everything is made from scratch and Tom's culinary skills are second to few), the Roxbury is renown for hosting local community fundraisers and is a political hot spot.

In fact, Tom's agreed to host a June 24 fundraiser for the Northwest Dane Senior Center to raise money for exercise equipment for the area's senior citizens. Organizer Lisa Lutz says tickets will be $10, live music is planned and she's even trying to round up an old piano for an outdoor "piano burning" that will serve double time cooking a turkey as it goes up in flames. The not-to-miss event runs from 1-5 p.m. Bring your friends.

At 64, Tom says he has a good 6-10 more years running the Roxbury but he looks like he could last forever. Don't take any chances - get yourselves to the Roxbury soon and you'll never want to leave.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Woolwich Dairy Breaks Ground

It was a day full of happy shiny people yesterday as more than 200 locals - including school children, city council members, state legislators, industry officials and even members of the high school color guard - cheered on Woolwich Dairy owners Tony & Olga Dutra at an official ground-breaking celebration.

The Dutras ceremoniously shoveled the first few spades of dirt to build a new 27,000 sq. ft. goat cheese processing plant in Lancaster, Wis., making this southwestern Wisconsin community home to the new Woolwich Dairy U.S. Headquarters.

Tony Dutra told the crowd that in the next few months, locals are going to see a "class act, state-of-the art goat cheese manufacturing facility" built in the city's new business park. He said he looked at California, New Mexico and Virginia, but eventually landed in Wisconsin.

Why? Because "Wisconsin is the best state. It is the heartland for dairy." Amen, brother.

Lancaster Mayor Jerry Wehrle was in fine form, as he welcomed the Dutras to the city, noting the couple has already purchased a home near Lancaster's new Arrow Ridge Business Park. And Department of Commerce Secretary Mary Burke ceremoniously presented the city with a huge mock check for $156,000 to be used to provide the infrastructure necessary to support the Woolwich business expansion in the city's new business park. (Let's hope it doesn't bounce.)

Burke noted the Woolwich Dairy project is a great example of where Wisconsin needs to be heading - while we are proud of our dairy heritage, we have to realize dairy has changed and we need to make sure we're changing with it.

Tony and Olga Dutra urged dairy producers in the crowd to consider entering the dairy goat industry, or if they are already dairy goat producers, to consider expanding their herds. In an "If you build it, they will come" moment, Tony told the crowd that if he could get enough high quality goat's milk from the area, they would start planning an expansion.

Woolwich Dairy has production facilities in Ontario and Quebec and is Canada's leading largest goat cheese producer. In an official press release handed out at the event by the Department of Commerce, it was noted the company has exported cheese to the U.S. since 1986 and has a 20 percent share of the U.S. market. The Lancaster plant will bring up to 30 jobs to the area.

Welcome to Wisconsin, Tony & Olga!

Monday, April 09, 2007

State of the State Cheese Address

With April officially marking the one year anniversary of my Wisconsin cheese ramblings, I think it's a good time to prepare a "State of the State Cheese Address." Sounds official doesn't it? Here goes.

The past 12 months have been monumental for Wisconsin dairy artisans. Nearly a dozen new start-ups have crafted new cheeses, built new farmstead bottling plants and experimented with recipes and products that will soon hit the market. A handful of our beloved dairy artisans have also bowed out of the industry and moved on to new ventures. All told, it's been a flavorful year.

As of today, Wisconsin features 21 farmstead dairies. Of this total, 10 are making farmstead cheeses, 8 are bottling farmstead milk, 2 are producing yogurt and one is crafting farmstead ice cream.

When we combine our farmstead dairy processors with those producing artisanal products, the number jumps to 55 total processors. Here's how this number breaks down: 44 cheesemakers; 8 milk bottlers; 2 yogurt producers and one ice cream maker. For a superb listing of Wisconsin farmstead & artisan dairy producers, visit the
2007 Wisconsin directory.

If you want to add specialty cheeses to the mix, here's one last statistic for you: 77 of the state's 115 cheese plants are reporting making at least one type of specialty cheese.

What do all of these numbers mean?

The Wisconsin dairy landscape is a vastly different place than it was even as recent as 10 years ago. Today, almost every dairy plant - big, medium-sized, small or micro - is either making or considering making and/or marketing a specialty or artisanal dairy product.

Almost every national media feature on artisanal cheeses features at least one Wisconsin producer and that number is growing. Wisconsin is increasingly gaining credibility in the national artisanal dairy market.

Let's face it: the days are over of Wisconsin succesfully competing with Western states when it comes to producing cheap commodity cheeses in bulk. Nor should we want to continue that losing battle. By 2020, I predict Wisconsin will be the undisputed national leader in specialty, artisanal and farmstead cheeses in the United States.

We've got the infrastructure. We've got the cheesemakers. We've got the passion.

Now we just need the Pleasant Ridge Reserve foam cheeseheads and we'll be all set.