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.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Marieke Gouda

If you're looking for an amazing, authentic, farmstead gouda made in Wisconsin, look no farther than Marieke Gouda.

It's been awhile since I tried the many flavors of Marieke Gouda, but I was in luck today, as she is the guest cheesemaker of the month at Fromagination in Madison and was at the shop in person, sampling her cheeses.

I first met Marieke last summer at her farmstead grand opening near Thorp, Wis., and immediately fell in love with not only her cheese, but also her family. She and husband Rolf have four children: twin girls, Luna & Joyce -- adorable tots who just turned four this month -- Dean, 18 months and little Fenna, whom I have yet to meet, 5 months old.

The Pentermans milk 480 cows and pipe fresh milk to their on-farm cheese plant, where Marieke and four employees craft 13 flavors of gouda and age them on wooden planks. One has to wonder how this wife, mother and cheesemaker constantly finds time to come up with new recipes, but she's done it again.

I tried her new cumin gouda -- YUM -- it may be a new favorite to rival my previous all-time favorite -- Marieke Feonegreek Gouda -- and watched in delight as dozens of people coming into the shop tasted her cheese for the first time. She's got something for everyone -- from plain to melange mustard, to burning nettle, to garden herb, to black pepper.

Never one to sit still, Marieke also has a couple of new gouda recipes in development. The first is a cumin smoked gouda -- she's got one wheel aging to perfection in her cellar as we speak -- and another secret variety still in the experimental stage. She wouldn't divulge any details and only said it is "very Wisconsin and everyone will love it."

Hmmm -- very Wisconsin and everyone will love it -- and it's a gouda. Gotta wonder what that might be, but I know I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Wisconsin Primary - It's About Cheese

UPDATE: I just received a response from Mike Huckabee's Press Secretary, Alice Stewart. She says: "Jeanne- This is a no-brainer. Governor Huckabee loves cheese- all kinds - his favorite is Pepper Jack. His travel bag is not complete without a supply of individually wrapped cheese slices and a box of crackers. Thanks for asking."

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With Wisconsin's presidential election primary tomorrow and all political eyes focused on America's Dairyland, the burning question on everyone's mind is of course: "What are the candidates' favorite cheeses?"

I sent an email yesterday posing that exact question to the front-runners of the Democratic and Republican parties and -- shocking!!! -- have not yet received an answer. I did, however get very cordial automated email responses back from both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Senator Obama encouraged me to learn more about his policy positions on his website. In searching it, I came across this campaign promise: "Obama will provide capital for famers to create value-added enterprises, like cooperative marketing initiatives and farmer-owned processing plants." Cool. Except that it should read "such as" instead of "like" but that's my English degree rearing its ugly head.

Senator Clinton also asked me to review her policy positions on her website, and in trolling through mucho verbiage, found this gem: "Work to expand market opportunities for farmers through innovative, direct-to-consumer marketing and niche markets to provide U.S. farmers with more options for selling their products. Hillary will work to expand farmers' markets, provide value-added marketing grants, and create food distribution opportunities for farmers from across the country to earn more for their hard labor."

Meanwhile, a google search turned up this clever little You Tube video, depicting Hillary as a cheese lover and Barack as a Wisconsin cheese hater. It's paid for by the "Norwegian Bachelor Dairy Farmers for Hillary." Alrighty then ...

On the Republican side, I haven't heard a peep -- not even an automated response -- from former Governor Mike Huckabee or Senator John McCain. I'm taking the optimist view that they must personally respond to all emails, even about cheese preference, and don't need to send out automated responses. Riiiight.

In any case, if any of you have actually been lucky enough to pose this all-important cheese question to any of the candidates and have an answer to this burning question, please let me know. My vote is depending on it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ocooch Mountain Cheese

A new Wisconsin raw-milk, cave-aged sheep’s milk cheese crafted by Brenda Jensen, of Hidden Springs Creamery, is selling briskly with chefs and at retail shops throughout the Midwest.

Ocooch Mountain Cheese, named for the Jensens' hilly terrain in western Wisconsin’s Driftless area, is nearly out of stock, but Jensen expects her next set of 1- and 2-pound wheels to be ready in about 30 days.

Last week, Jensen was sampling her last wheels of the washed-rind mountain-style cheese at Fromagination in Madison, Wis. After customers tried it, the store promptly sold out of most of her cheeses, including Driftless, her fresh sheep's milk cheeses that come in a variety of flavors.

The past two months have been extremely busy for the Jensens, as Brenda and her husband Dean are caring for more than 300 baby lambs born already this year. The Jensens milk 140 ewes and “have lost count” of how many other sheep they raise, Brenda says with a grin. Most of her ewes have twins, with triplets and quadruplets also common.

Jensen has also created a specialty just in time for Valentine’s Day – a fresh sheep’s milk chocolate truffle – which consists of hand-formed balls of her natural Driftless cheese dipped in dark chocolate. Talk about decadent! At $4.99 each, these babies are worth every cent. The truffles will also be available on a custom-order basis year round - just give Brenda some notice.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nordic Creamery

Award-winning Wisconsin cheesemaker Al Bekkum has launched a line of aged goat and unique mixed milk cheeses under a new brand: Nordic Creamery.

Named after the Norwegian heritage of both he and his wife, Sarah, Nordic Creamery features aged goat cheddars, smoked cheddars, as well as a signature, mixed milk cheese: Capriko, a semi-hard goat’s and cow’s milk cheese featuring cumin and clove that Bekkum describes as “rich and full-flavored.”

Al is the former head cheesemaker and buttermaker of Mt. Sterling Goat Cheese Cooperative. Under his tenure, the company won numerous awards for their flavored jacks at various national and world competitions.

Now, Bekkum is crafting his own Nordic Creamery cheeses in traditional small batches at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills is renowned for opening his plant to independent cheesemakers and has launched a half-dozen Wisconsin gems, including Pleasant Ridge Reserve. In typical Cedar Grove style, Bekkum's cheeses are made from hormone-free milk and are naturally aged in curing cellars.

Bekkum expects his first line of Nordic Creamery varieties to be ready for the retail market in late February and has several more recipes in development. A hearty welcome to Wisconsin's newest cheese company!

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Canadians are Coming

Two Canadian companies announced this week they will purchase major Wisconsin cheese companies.

First, Saputo Inc., the largest dairy processor in Canada, said it
planned to buy Alto Dairy Cooperative for $160 million. Alto has the largest U.S. cheese plant east of the Mississippi River in Waupun and a smaller plant in Black Creek. Between them, they have 467 employees. Two years ago, Alto launched its first artisan cheese -- Black Creek Classic, and last year, released a pasture-grazed cheese.

Yesterday, Agropour, a Canadian dairy cooperative,
announced it will buy Trega Foods, a cheese company that was formed by combining three of Northeast Wisconsin's oldest cheese plants. The sale is expected to be finalized by the end of February and will include the company's three cheese plants in Little Chute, Weyauwega and Luxemburg.

The eternal optimist in me says it's a good thing that Wisconsin is considered to be an attractive place to invest in -- it means our dairy infrastructure is healthy and robust.

The cynical side, however, wonders how many more Wisconsin cheese plants will fall into foreign investor hands, as the U.S. dollar continues to fall in value, milk prices continue to stay high, and the medium-sized cheese plants continue to be squeezed.

My prediction for Wisconsin cheese plants: the big will get bigger, the small will stay small and the mediums will combine with other mediums to stay competitive.

Why? It's too hard for medium-sized Wisconson commodity cheese companies to compete with the West without increasing volume. And the small guys will continue to stay small because most of them have diversified into high-end, higher-margin, small batch artisan cheeses. That's good for people like me who enjoy artisan cheeses, but sad for the companies and dairy farmers who have been selling milk and and making cheese at cooperatives and family-owned companies for 100 years.