Thursday, May 31, 2007

Otter Creek Seasonal Cheddar

A new Wisconsin farmhouse cheese is about to hit the market and I predict it's going to be big.

Otter Creek Seasonal Cheddar - made from milk produced by the Zimmer family dairy herd near Spring Green, Wisconsin - is currently in production at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain by Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills. Bob & the Zimmers have struck upon marketing genius: making cheese from milk produced during each of the four seasons and labeling it as spring, summer, fall and summer cheddar.

Not only is this savvy marketing, it's a great story.

Gary and Rosie Zimmer started their Wisconsin farm in the 1970’s, raising their children on the land and instilling in them an interest in agriculture and conservation. In 1994, Gary, Rosie and their son Nicholas bought Otter Creek Farm, in the rolling hills of Spring Green.

Originally a crop farm, the family decided to move into organic dairy and bought 40 dairy cows. Nicholas Zimmer and three other families now run Otter Creek Organic Farm, a 1,200 acre farmstead that includes: 250 cows, pasture-raised beef and hogs, free-range poultry, and Local Choice Farm Market, where Otter Creek Farm products are sold.

At Otter Creek, healthy soils and healthy animals are top priorities. Gary Zimmer is a pioneer of a special type of farming called "mineralized balanced agriculture,’ which means farmers grow their own fertilizers, learn which fertilizers are best for their farm, and use farming practices that encourage beneficial organisms living in the soil. At Otter Creek Farm, this translates into a wide-range of innovative practices that produce high yields and healthy crops and animals.

Now the Zimmers are turning their high quality milk into a high quality organic, pasture grazed, natural, raw milk Cheddar cheese. Cheese is produced with milk during each season and labeled accordingly. Here's a sampling of how the labels read:

Spring: the cows that produced this cheese grazed on our Wisconsin pastures of clover, rye and green grasses.

Summer: the cows that produced this cheese grazed on Wisconsin pastures of mixed grass, young corn, sorghum, alfalfa and clover.

Fall: the cows that produced this cheese grazed on Wisconsin pastures of mature rye, alfalfa, clover & late season annuals.

Winter: the cows that produced this cheese were fed on fermented alfalfa and grasses from our Wisconsin pastures.

How cool is this? The cheese will be packaged in parchment paper and sold 60 days after it's produced. So in summer, you can buy spring cheese - in fall, you can buy summer cheese, etc. Look for the first packages to hit stores later this summer.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The American Dream

As a U.S. citizen born and raised in rural Wisconsin, I have only ever read or seen movies about what "The American Dream" must mean.

Yesterday, as I sat around a crowded farmhouse dinner table sharing a hearty meal of creamy soup, fried rice and chicken with Dutch emigres Rolf & Marieke Penterman, their twin three-year-old daughters, curly-haired infant son and extended family, I experienced what the American Dream must feel like, because I am watching the Pentermans make it happen.

Having moved to Wisconsin from the Netherlands in 2003 to operate a 480-Holstein dairy farm, Marieke - a newly licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker - and her family started crafting farmstead cheese in the style of their home country last fall. Yesterday was a big day at the farm - they hosted nearly 100 people for their farmstead creamery grand opening.

Talking amongst the crowd of Amish farmers, rural and urban neighbors, media reporters, industry representatives and government officials, Rolf & Marieke were beaming so hard it was impossible not to smile just being around them.

With their children scattered across the farmyard enjoying the many visitors, the sun shining without a cloud in the sky and the wind doing its best to knock over the big white tent in the front yard, Wisconsin officially welcomed the Pentermans to the American Dream.

Holland's Family Cheese is a first-class farmstead operation. I've never been on a dairy farm that was so clean, neat and orderly. The creamery - with a crib in the office and baby toys in the retail store - is a marvel in engineering. The pasteurizer, press and brine equipment was all manufactured in Holland and shipped here. Everything is positioned to be as efficient as possible - resulting in what may very well be my new favorite cheese.

Gouda.

That's GOWDUH, not GOOODA, the Pentermans will tell you. Wheel upon golden wheel rests on beautiful wooden boards in the creamery's affinage room - all carrying the label of "Marieke Gouda" in various sizes and flavors. Markieke sampled several of her flavors yesterday - she recently won a prestigious Best of Class Gold Medal at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest with her Feonegreek Gouda - but my favorite may be the simplest.

After we had cut and cubed dozens of wheels of flavored goudas, Marieke turned to me and said "Now, let's put out the good stuff." She went to the affinage room and brought back a 16-pound wheel of raw milk, 60-day plain gouda (the youngest age you can legally eat raw milk cheese in the U.S.)

Marieke was right - this WAS"the good stuff" - sweet & creamy - the kind of cheese you can eat until you're sick. I bought a pound to take home and ended up eating most of it on the 3-1/2 hour drive home.

Eating Marieke's Gouda is as close as I may ever get to truly experiencing the American Dream - knowing the cows were milked by Rolf and his brother Sander, the milk piped underground directly to the creamery, and Marieke crafting it into cheese while the milk is still warm. Makes me wish I lived closer.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cultural Revolution

Since I'm now hooked on glass-bottled cream-line milk (my local grocery store just started carrying Blue Marble Family Farm milk - I was so excited that I sent the manager a thank you note), I've been wondering if anyone in Wisconsin is making a cream-line yogurt. Guess what? Of course we are.

Cultural Revolution is a cream-line yogurt currently marketed by Kalona Organics and made by Westby Creamery in western Wisconsin. I discovered this delightful tidbit of information today at the Future of Farming and Rural Life conference in Madison.

Pete Kondrup, the marketing genius at Westby Co-op, gave a short presentation about "Collaborative Market Venues" in which he casually mentioned that Westby was working with Organic Choice (a Wisconsin dairy co-op) and Farmers All Natural (an Iowa dairy co-op) to produce a non-homogenized, no-added sugar cup-set yogurt.

Pete describes the Cultural Revolution yogurt as "European-style" using organic milk with a creamy top and marbled body. It comes in several flavors: strawberry, peach, raspberry, vanilla and blueberry - and can currently be purchased at Whole Foods.

Not only is Westby Cooperative pushing the cream-line envelope, Pete told me afterwards that he estimates Westby has introduced at least 25 new products in the last three years. The cooperative has also added 15 employees during that same time - taking this 104-year-old business up to 50 employees.

So let's recap: what was once a commodity dairy plant is today making dozens of value-added products, adding employees and increasing its contribution to Westby's rural economy. (The co-op plans to do $25 million in sales this year).

"It's no longer possible to produce 40-pound blocks of cheese and stay in business," Pete told the break-out session at today's conference. "It's important that we continue to innovate and grow. Our communities are depending on us."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Other White Cheese

In one of I think the most exciting developments in the past five years, Wisconsin's largest cheese cooperative -- which by the way has produced nothing but millions of pounds of commodity cheese for more than 100 years -- announced this week it has released a new, seasonal "Pasture-Grazed White Cheddar Cheese."

Made from milk produced by family farmers in Southwest Wisconsin, the new "Signature Edition" from the Alto Dairy Black Creek plant will be available only in season from late April through early October, based on pasture quality.

“The pasture grazed product has a unique flavor profile and rich, creamy texture,” says Black Creek Master Cheesemaker Gregg Palubicki. “We’re very proud of its delicate, natural flavor as well as the superior nutritional value of the pasture-grazed milk we use in crafting it.”

For those of you in the artisan cheese world, this is no big deal. For those of us born in Wisconsin and raised on Velveeta, this is huge. THE biggest cooperative in Wisconsin is now making a pasture-grazed cheese.

Wow. We've officially arrived.

According to the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, pasture-grazed milk contains higher amounts of protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, flavenoids/antioxidants and more Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). Why do we care?

Because research from Dr. Michael Pariza conducted in 2000 indicates CLA may increase metabolic rate, may help decrease abdominal fat, may enhance muscle growth, helps maintain normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, helps maintain normal insulin levels, helps make it easier to control weight, and enhances the immune system.

Good news for those of us who are on a diet. Bring on the pasture-grazed cheese and Diet Coke.

As Karen Endres, Black Creek's Director of Communications, says: “It’s just plain good and good for you."

With the growth in consumer demand for naturally sourced food products, the introduction of Black Creek Pasture-Grazed Natural Cheese is clearly responding to the market. We know people want to know where their food comes from and they want it fresh and healthy.

Alto's Pasture-Grazed product is putting that package all together.

Available in 9-ounce squares in a white parchment-like package, distribution of the pasture-grazed cheese will be through specialty cheese retailers and the specialty cheese and deli departments in grocery stores.

Can't wait to find it in a store near me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

More Specialty Cheese

Statistics released today confirm Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to lead the nation in crafting innovative cheeses.

The National Ag Stats Service reports that Wisconsin's specialty cheese production in 2006 rose 7 percent above the previous year, totaling 387 million pounds and accounting for 16 percent of the state’s total cheese production. (In comparison, in 2004, specialty cheese made up 12 percent of all production).

Wisconsin cheese makers now produce more than 600 styles and types of cheeses, and 80 of the 115 cheese plants in Wisconsin are today manufacturing at least one type of specialty cheese.

The most popular specialty cheeses continue to be Blue, Feta, Hispanic types, specialty Provolone, Parmesan Wheel and Asiago. Interestingly enough, Hispanic types passed specialty Provolone to become the third most popular specialty cheese.

Cheeses with an annual growth in production of 10 percent or more including specialty Cheddar, Parmesan wheel and Italian Fontina.

For all the stats, view the report here.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Tasting Spring

Ever wonder what Spring tastes like? Saturday is your chance to find out.

As Wisconsin continues to differentiate itself in its quest to lead a national artisan cheese renaissance, a new group of cheesemakers is emerging: those who craft seasonal cheeses from grass-based milk.

On Saturday, May 5, the public will have a chance to personally meet at least two artisan cheesemakers who specialize in this craft. The event will be hosted at the Milwaukee Public Market, 400 N Water St., Milwaukee, Wis., from 2 - 5 p.m.

The best part: it's free and samples will be included!

Here's who will be there:

  • Mike Gingrich, Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, Wis. Gingrich crafts only one cheese: Pleasant Ridge Reserve -- an artisanal farmstead cheese made in the style and tradition of mountain cheeses from the alpine regions of France. Awarded Best of Show at the 2005 & 2001 American Cheese Society contest, and as the 2003 U.S. Champion, it is the only cheese to ever win both national competitions.

  • Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wis. The Jensen farmstead is a Grade A sheep dairy, producing fresh handmade and hand-packed "Driftless" sheep's milk cheese. Sheep graze seasonally in the heart of the unglaciated Coulee region, resulting in rich and creamy - almost dreamy - cheese. In her first-ever showing at the United States Championship Cheese contest last month, Jensen captured three medals, including a prestigious Best of Class Gold Medal for her fresh "Driftless" cheese.

  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis. Cedar Grove traces its beginnings to 1878 and today crafts a variety of organic and specialty cheeses using only vegetarian, GMO-free ingredients. A variety of Cedar Grove's pasture-based cheeses will be available for sampling.

A short program introducing each cheesemaker and his or her cheeses will kick off the event at 2 p.m. Samples will be available all afternoon.