Friday, July 27, 2007

New Affinage Cave

In a move that will further distinguish himself from the growing pack of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy, has done it again. This past week marked the opening of Willi's new underground cave on his farm near Blue Mounds, where he plans to age up to 40,000 pounds of artisan cheeses.

The entrance - pictured above right -- is above ground but is covered with four feet of dirt and surrounded by rock. Inside, the dome-shaped cave is split into two sections, with different aging conditions. He moved in the first wheels of his cheese a couple weeks ago and is now making some cheese down the road at Mike Gingrich's farmstead set-up, famous for its award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Willi plans to age this grass-based cheese as well in his cave.

In short, Willi is the type of quirky American cheesemaker with whom the media has fallen in love. Why?

1. He learned his cheesemaking craft from his father, who mastered the art of cheesemaking in Switzerland. Willi has traveled extensively, learning different cheesemaking techniques from different European masters.

2. Willi does not own a cheese plant. He partners with area cheesemakers, using their facilities on weekends and nights, making his original cheeses when the vats would otherwise be empty.

3. With no particular inkling to be either rich or famous, Willi lives his life in a way that does Wisconsin proud. He is passionate about making cheese. He is passionate about finding new ways to craft Willi Originals. And he is passionate about telling the story of his cheese to those who buy them every week at the Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison, Wis.

I like stopping by his farmer's market booth on Saturdays to learn about the new cheeses he's currently crafting. Last week, he shared a cheese wedge he's been making at Mike Gingrich's cheesrie -- with an earthy, nutty flavor, it was immediately a hit with my friends.

But I know better than to go back next week and expect to be able to buy it again - with Willi, it's all about originality, not about mass production. Next week, he'll have something different, but just as good.

That's why we like him. He's truly a Wisconsin original.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Keeping Cheese Happy at Home

Tired of trying a new cheese at your local cheese shop, only to purchase a wedge, put it in your refrigerator, and never have it taste the same again?

Apparently Dan Strongin is, too. So much so that he's developed instructions for how to keep cheese happy at home. I've tried it and it works. In fact, it works incredibly well. So well that I decided to share with all of you. Feel free to download your own copy from Dan's website here.

Keeping Cheese Happy at Home

Before buying, make sure the package is properly wrapped and sealed, and that the cheese inside looks appealing. Avoid any cheese that looks dry or discolored, as the seal may be broken or buy from a service counter from people who know their cheese. Check the freshness date on the package for fresh cheeses.

When you get them home:

• Fresh cheeses should be kept cold, in their original containers, and consumed quickly.

• Unwrap all other cheeses immediately. Plastic wrap suffocates cheese.

• Rub the surface of all but White, Grey, Blue, and Washed Rind cheeses with olive, canola or other cooking oil. Rub only the cut faces of the White, Grey and Washed rinds. Blue will protect itself.

• Keep in a covered container in your refrigerator on a clean, dry, lightly crumpled paper towel or two, leaving a little breathing room. Similar Cheeses can be stored together as long as they don’t touch. You can use plastic webbing, or the mats they use to roll up sushi, to stack in layers and still allow airspace.

• When mold starts to form it will consume the oil and not the cheese, simply wipe it off, or rinse in tepid water. Dry, rub with fresh oil and store as above in a clean container with clean towels.

• Keep washed rind, blue, flavored and white rind cheeses in separate containers to prevent mingling.

• If for just a few days an oversized Ziploc® Bag with a crumpled towel will do. Be sure to minimize contact so it can breathe.

• If stored as above and rubbed with oil, Larger chunks of Semi-Hard & Hard Natural Cheeses can keep for months. Wipe off any mold every couple of weeks as it forms. After a few treatments, mold will slow or cease to grow if your container has enough towels to soak up excess moisture. Change the towels and wash container often.

And that's it. Thanks to Dan for sharing this info. My cheeses thank you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wisconsin Artisan Cheese Shop to Open

A resounding chorus of "WHOO-HOO" went up in Madison this week as the owner of a new artisan cheese shop announced he will feature Wisconsin artisan cheeses and their perfect companions on the downtown capital square this fall.

Ken Monteleone, a Madison resident and avid connoisseur of fine food and artisan and farmhouse cheeses, signed a store lease last week on a 1,600 sq. ft. space at 12 South Carroll St. on the Downtown Square.

The shop, titled Fromagination, will celebrate cut-to-order Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers and fine artisan cheeses from around the United States and world. The shop will also showcase a wide array of accompaniments paired specifically with each individual cheese, including select wines, beers, meats, olives, breads, herbs and other foods.

Sort of like a year-round Wisconsin farmer's market, and on the Square, too!

Monteleone says that while the store’s emphasis will be on the spirit of the craftsmen and women who create the cheeses and artisan foods, the store space itself will be based on doing environmental good. Fromagination will "incorporate sustainable, renewable and recycled vintage materials."

For example, the floor will be crafted from reclaimed slate and once roof tiles from an abandoned warehouse in Chicago, while the paint is milk protein. Vintage finds, such as a collection of clocks that were used in the state capital building in 1917, will be another focal point of the store.

“We will be working closely with local artisans throughout Wisconsin to procure only the freshest and most flavorful foods,” Monteleone said.

Whoo-hoo!! Welcome to downtown, Ken. May the cheese force be with you.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Alpha's Morning Sun

While volunteering at a youth camp in northern Wisconsin last week, I stumbled upon perhaps one of the busiest cheese stores I've ever encountered: the Burnett Dairy Cheese Store in Alpha, Wisconsin -- population: unincorporated.

You know you've struck gold when you walk into a cheese shop that's literally in the middle of nowhere and there's at least 12 people waiting to check out while three cashiers are ringing up cheese and local specialty foods as fast as they possibly can.

Burnett Dairy is a 100-year old cheese plant that over the years has gained world acclaim for its quality commodity cheeses such as Colby, string cheese and mozzarella. Owned by 285 local dairy farmers, the plant produces 75,000 pounds of cheese a day.

In fact, buried in a corner behind the front door and hiding behind a canoe-shaped display stand of venison and elk snack sticks is an impressive awards case, including a dusty 1988 "World Champion Cheesemaker" award for Master Cheesemaker Dale Olson. Keep searching the glass case and you'll find more than a dozen blue ribbons and even a couple Best of Class winners from the World Championship Cheese Contest, U.S. Cheese Championship Contest and Wisconsin State Fair.

But here's where it gets interesting: like a lot of other commodity cheese plants these days, Burnett Dairy has seen the appeal of producing an artisan cheese and has acquired a small cheese vat where master cheesemakers are experimenting with different types of signature cheeses. Last week, proudly displayed in a flyer taped to the front door was a sign announcing this month's artisan cheese: Alpha's Morning Sun.

Samples at the front counter (once I pushed my way through the crowd) revealed a complex and flavorful cheese that the cashier described as a mixture of cheddar, Swiss and provolone. As I stood there stabbing my second sample with a toothpick and trying to figure out how I was going to describe this cheese, an elderly gentleman who had braved the crowd reached for a sample beside me and declared it had "a hint of Parmesan but was a bit heavy." Wow, who knew - I'd met my first cheese connoisseur in Alpha, Wisconsin.

I bought a pound of Alpha's Morning Sun and took it back to the youth camp that I was working, where perhaps one of the best consumer focus groups awaited me: 40 kids, ages 8-16. I took samples around table to table and of the 38 kids who tasted it (1 claimed to be lactose intolerant and 1 insisted she did not like cheese, who embarrassingly enough also happens to be my daughter), 34 absolutely loved it and wanted more. Only four proclaimed not to like it, which I think is pretty amazing for a group of kids who probably don't get much more than mild cheddar or processed cheese at home.

I took what was left back to the staff table where the camp cook's assistant immediately proclaimed he loved Alpha's Morning sun and promptly ate the rest of the samples. So apparently adults like it too. In any case, I'm not sure what kind of distribution this cheese has, but it's extremely popular in its local region.

If you ever happen to come across Burnett Dairy in your travels -- 11631 State Road 70, Grantsburg, Wisconsin, be sure to stop in. You never know what the master cheesemakers will be making next.