Thursday, February 28, 2008

Favorite Wisconsin Cheeses

Several readers have been asking me for some time to write a posting about MY favorite Wisconsin artisan cheeses. Some of you are new to the entire concept that yes, Wisconsin does make more than bulk cheddar and mozzarella, and now you want to a) know which artisan types to try first and b) where to buy them. Rock on.

Let me just say that publicly naming my favorite Wisconsin artisan cheeses is a bit like asking a mother which of her children she likes best. Answering the second question is easier than the first, as I have only one child - an 11-year-old daughter named Avery - but answering the first question is a bit trickier.

But I'll try.

First of all, I've added a section to the right (scroll down) with links to my favorite cheese shops around the country. All of these shops sell a nice selection of Wisconsin artisan cheeses. You'll notice the list is short because I have rather high standards when it comes to buying cheese. I look for an attractive, well-lit, well-stocked cheese shop, educated and friendly cheesemongers, and helpful pairing suggestions. All shops listed fit the bill.

Now it's time to talk cheese. I feel like I should have several nominations in each category and then list the winner, but that's too much effort and frankly you all probably don't quite care THAT much.

So here goes -- in no particular order and keeping in mind that my favorites change weekly, as there is always something new coming online (I keep telling myself that's why I continue to live here, especially in this never-ending winter of 2008. I know someday soon I will indeed be able to walk to my mailbox without stuffing on a parka and snow boots).

Cheddar: Let's start with the hardest decision I'm going to make all day. Cheddar is to Wisconsin like butter is to bread. It's indigenous. I can't say enough about the heritage this ONE cheese brings to the reputation of our entire state. We have so many good cheddar makers, but my all time favorite continues to be Widmer's 6-Year Cheddar. Its rich, nutty flavor becomes increasingly sharp with age and is always a hit no matter the occasion. This is one cheese that is almost always in my fridge.

Blue: Hook's Blue Paradise always surprises me. Its luscious, double-cream texture carries a big blue bold flavor. Because blue cheese is probably my all time favorite category of cheeses, this one is also a hard decision, so I have to name two. The Virgin Pine Native Blue from Carr Valley Cheese is a unique bandage-wrapped blue cheese, cave-aged for more than nine months with a firm texture and sweet flavor. In fact, let me just say this and get it out of the way early on -- it's hard to go wrong with any Carr Valley cheese. With more than 50 to choose from - and with half of those being American Originals created by Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook -- you can bet that picking up a package of Carr Valley, no matter the variety, is a very safe and rewarding bet.

Alpine Style: there is no possible way I can name one cheese in this category, so I'm not even going to try. I have two favorites, both very well-known and both very available across the United States. The first is the obvious choice of Pleasant Ridge Reserve by Mike Gingrich at Uplands Cheese. Just accept the fact that it will set you back between $20-$30 a pound. Buy it and enjoy it. I guarantee you'll have no regrets. The second is Grand Cru Gruyere Surchoix from Roth Kase, another washed-rind cheese that is almost as decorated as Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Find out for yourself why both of these cheeses are like the Energizer Bunnies of cheese awards. They just keep on winning and winning and winning ...

Gouda: A year ago, this category was not even on my radar. Today, I almost always have a variety of Marieke Gouda in my fridge and here's why: no matter to whom I serve this cheese -- 8-year-olds, 30-year-old artisan cheese virgins, or the persnickety blue-haired grandma -- it is immediately well-received. Distribution of Marieke Gouda is growing -- remember that Marieke Penterman has only been making cheese a little over a year -- so ask your favorite cheesemonger to start carrying it if you can't find it. My favorites continue to be feonegreek and cumin. You also can't go wrong with the raw milk plain -- buy it as young as you can, as close to 60 days. Buttery and yummy.

Hard cheeses: Two Wisconsin cheesemakers have created two American Originals in this category, that in my opinion, meet or even exceed the expectations set by the original Parmesan Reggiano. Drum roll please ... my favorites in this category are BelGiosioso Cheese's American Grana -- buy it at a minimum of 18 months -- and SarVecchio Parmesan by Sartori (formerly Antigo Cheese). Always at least 20 months old, this particular cheese is an all-time favorite of many. Its intensely sweet, nutty flavor and hard, granular texture leave you wanting more. If you're looking for a full-flavored cheese, try either of these varieties.

Defies A Category: One of my all-time favorite cheeses is Gran Canaria from Carr Valley Cheese. I don't know what category to put it in, as it is a mixture of sheep, goat, & cow's milk. Cured in olive oil, it boasts a robust, pungent flavor and crumbles like Parmesan cheese. All I can say is just buy it. Actually run to the store and buy it. It's that good.

Soft-ripened cheese: Wisconsin is home to a couple of cheese factories that produce brie and camembert in large quantities, but my all time favorite soft-ripened cheese continues to be Petit Les Freres, by Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese. I swear -- every time I buy one of these cheeses, which comes in an adorable circular wooden box -- it is gone by the time I go to the fridge to take it out. Usually my husband whisks it off to work (his coworkers are also hooked on it), or it magically disappears when friends come over. I haven't actually got to taste this cheese in about six months, but I've bought a truckload of it. I'll just keep dreaming of this earthy, fruity, soft-ripened cheese ...

Fresh cheese: which brings me to my last category, and frankly you're not going to be happy, because my favorite two fresh cheeses are not widely distributed. The first, a goat's milk cheese -- Fantome Farm Fresh Chevre -- is only available at the Dane County Farmer's Market during spring, summer, fall and early winter -- and the second, a sheep's milk cheese, Driftless, from Hidden Springs Creamery, is still fairly new. I've seen it in several cheese shops in Wisconsin and the Twin Cities, but I'm not sure how much further it's getting out. Both cheeses are to die for -- never gamey, always tangy and lemony -- it's hard to go wrong with a tub from either cheesemaker (both women, I might add). The hardest part is finding the actual said tubs of cheese, so I wish you luck in your journey.

So there you go. These are my favorite cheeses of the moment. Feel free to share your favorite Wisconsin cheeses and their stories. I'll keep sharing mine.

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