Saturday, March 29, 2008

This Ain't Your Mama's Cheddar

When Otter Creek Organic Farm first discussed partnering with Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills to craft seasonal cheddars from the milk of their own herd, a lot of people thought they were crazy.

Why make a commodity product from raw, farmstead organic milk? Because everyone knows "Wisconsin cheddar" will never be seen as an artisan cheese, right?

Think again. Because Otter Creek has earned the awards and customer base to prove Wisconsin cheddar is no longer a commodity -- it can be an amazing artisan cheese in its own right and a force to be reckoned with.

I caught up with the company's marketer and all-around manager, Bartlett Durand, last week. He's busy writing a Value-Added Producer Grant to apply for more working capital to produce more seasonal cheddar. Usually farmers apply for these grants to market their cheese. Not Otter Creek.

"It's been an amazing year and now we have the inventory of cheeses -- raw milk, aged 10 months -- for us to really concentrate on selling," Durand told me. "When we first started this, we were told that Wisconsin Cheddar was a commodity product and wouldn't be accepted in the artisan cheese world. Boy were they wrong!"

Customers in retail shops, restaurants and specialty cheese stores are now swooning over the cheeses -- labeled as Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter Cheddar -- and demanding them. Local consumers have been snapping up the seasonal cheddars as well at the stores where Otter Creek self-distributes in Madison: Steve’s Wine, Grape & Company, Metcalfe’s Sentry at Hilldale and Willy St. Coop.

The cheeses are also featured in restaurants in Chicago and at all the Lunds & Byerly's in Minneapolis. Durand says he's had requests from Indiana, Oregon, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Hawaii and Florida for Otter Creek cheeses. The company also works with distributors in Minneapolis, New York, and the Rocky Mountains and is close to settling on a distributor in the Northwest as well.

Ironically, Otter Creek is still, however, looking for a distributor throughout Wisconsin and in the Chicago area. As usual -- we never appreciate what's in our backyard.

Initially, Durand said he was worried that the differences in taste from season to season would be too subtle. But in more than 40 demonstrations directly to consumers, he says it's been wonderful to find that consumers can easily discern the differences in the taste of Otter Creek cheddar from season to season.

"I love talking to the cheese managers at our client stores about our story so they can relate that to the customers. Our farm and commitment to the soils and quality throughout the process --from feeding the soil to caring for our herd through working with a master cheesemaker to make the raw milk cheddars -- has worked very well. We have a very strong following and the consumers respond extremely well to the authenticity of the product and story," Durand said.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Road Map O' Cheese

Now that our 100+ inches of snow has FINALLY decided to start melting, it's time to take a road trip. And what better road trip can there be than one based on cheese?

Just in time for my annual spring road trip is a brand new, 2008 Traveler's Guide to America's Dairyland cheese map, produced by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The WMMB produces one of these fold-out maps every couple of years and this one is the best I've seen yet. Colorful, informative and the best part - you can order one for free!

The map lists Wisconsin cheese plant tours and cheese retail locations around the state, including contact information, cheese tour and retail store hours, along with some interesting fun facts about the Wisconsin dairy industry.

To go along with this year's map, the WMMB has partnered with Discover Wisconsin to feature a 30-minute television program focusing on some of the liveliest cheesemakers and specialty cheese shops throughout Wisconsin. Depending on where you live, the episode airs either Saturday or Sunday this week -- check show times here.

Highlights of this weekend's episode include Larry's Market in Brown Deer, Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, Humbird Cheese in Tomah, Ellsworth Co-op Creamery in Ellsworth, Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg, Holland's Family Farm in Thorp, Mullin's Cheese in Mosinee, Dairy State Cheese in Rudolph, Trega Foods in Little Chute, and Simon's Specialty Cheese in Little Chute.

Whew -- glad I wasn't in charge of that photo shoot schedule. Hope to see you in my travels of Wisconsin cheese this spring!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sassy Cow Creamery

Brothers James and Robert Baerwolf, a pair of third generation Wisconsin dairy farmers, have launched a new farmstead milk bottling operation.

Sassy Cow Creamery, located seven miles north of Sun Prairie, is a culmination of the Baerwolf family’s dedication to connect consumers with farmers. In fact, their brand new, state-of-the-art creamery is designed with the customer in mind, with a farmstead retail store opening to the public in mid-April.

“Producing high quality milk has always been our number one priority,” co-owner James Baerwolf told me. “Before we opened the creamery, our milk was put on a truck, pooled with other farms and that was the last we ever saw of it. Now we are proud to bring our milk directly to the consumer from our own farmstead creamery.”

Dairying runs deep in the Baerwolf brothers' veins. Their grandfather, Edwin, bought the original Sun Prairie dairy farm in 1946, and their father, Ed, went on to run the farm after their grandfather retired. Of six children, James and Robert are the youngest, and are the ones that continued with the farming tradition.

Both graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in agriculture education and dairy science. Both started farming immediately afterward. And in an odd coincidence, both have wives named Jennifer and each family has three children.

Ever since James and Robert first began farming, they are quick to tell you that their milk cows have taken center stage. That means that basically, every farming decision they make must past one test: is it good for the cows? Because the Baerwolfs know the success of their families' farm is directly related to how well the dairy cattle are taken care of.

In 2000, the Baerwolfs' recognized the growing trend of consumer interest in organic foods. Curious about what it would take to produce 100 percent certified organic milk, they grew a portion of their herd of cattle using organic practices. This new herd, grown from the traditional one, became certified to produce organic milk in 2001.

In fact, Sassy Cow Creamery may be the first farmstead operation in the nation to offer both traditional and organic bottled milk, as their separately bottled milk is produced from the family’s dual nearby dairy herds: a 400-cow traditional dairy and 100-cow organic dairy, located within miles of each other.

Products include whole 2 percent and fat-free conventional and organic milk bottled in gallons, half gallons and pints. Chocolate and strawberry milk, as well as cream are also available. The dairy also plans to soon craft ice cream in a variety of flavors.

Starting in mid-April, you can find the products at the creamery’s on-farm store at W4192 Bristol Rd., Columbus, WI, or in select local and regional specialty stores. A May 22 grand opening celebration with public tours is also being planned.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Curds for a Cause

Want fresh cheese curds straight out of the vat and looking to support a good cause at the same time?

Look no further than Roelli Cheese, the 2008 corporate sponsor of the Lafayette County American Cancer Society Relay for Life. Cheesemakers Chris & Dave Roelli will put their cheesemaking skills to work for charity this Friday, March 21.

The Roellis plan to make 300 pounds of fresh cheese curd, starting in the wee early morning hours of March 21. By the time their retail store opens at 8 a.m., they will have hundreds of 3/4 pound bags of fresh curd available for cash donation to the Relay for Life. Suggested donation is $5 minimum a bag.

"You can get warm curds fresh out of the vat and feel good about supporting a local charity. It's a win-win," Chris Roelli told me last week.

The Roellis are no strangers to Curds for Causes events. In the past, they have conducted similar charity events and sold out of curd by 10 a.m., raising more then $3,000. They hope to do the same this year.

Roelli Cheese is one of Wisconsin's newest success stories. Chris and his dad, Dave, re-opened the family's historic cheese factory in 2007, continuing a family tradition of making handcrafted specialty cheeses for nearly 100 years.

In exciting news, the Roellis are now offering that same opportunity to other aspiring artisan cheesemakers. Roelli Cheese’s 300-gallon vat is perfect for cheesemakers wishing to try a new recipe or make a small-batch of artisan cheese. To rent space at Roelli Cheese, call Chris at 608-482-1155.

And visit the Roellis on Friday for fresh curd for a good cause!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

World Champion Cheese

An international panel of expert judges may have named a Swiss Gruyere as the 2008 World Championship Cheese today, but Wisconsin cheesemakers still captured 27 of 77 gold medals during the three-day contest.

Cheesemaker Michael Spycher, of Kaserei Fritzenhaus in Wasen, Switzerland, took top honors out of 1,941 entries from 19 countries for his Le Gruyere Switzerland. First runner-up was a Gorgonzola made by CERPL Cheesemakers in Italy, while second runner-up went to an Emmentaler made by Bernhard Naf, of Guntershausen, Switzerland.

Overall, U.S. cheesemakers dominated the competition, earning gold medals in 46 of the total 77 categories judged, including golds in both butter classes and in the retail packaging class. Netherlands came in second among the countries, with eight golds; Denmark had six; Canada had four and Switzerland took three. Austria, Australia and Spain all won two gold medals, while Sweden, Italy, France and South Africa each captured one apiece.

Among U.S. states, Wisconsin dominated with 27 gold medals, while New York took five golds, California and Idaho each took three, Iowa two, and Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island each earned one gold medal.

The Wisconsin gold medal winner list reads like a who's who of Wisconsin cheesemakers with everyone from big plants such as Foremost and Land O' Lakes to tiny Hidden Springs Creamery, a farmstead sheep's milk dairy near Westby, capturing gold medals. We even won the Unsalted Butter category, with Graf Creamery, of Zachow, Wis. taking first. Whoo-hoo!

So while we Wisconsinites are forced to chalk up one more year of not winning the World Championship, there's always 2010. Until then, we'll be happy with our buckets of gold medals and good cheese.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Giant Wheels O' Cheese

More than a dozen 180-pound big wheels of emmentaler greeted visitors to the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest today. It was the first time I've ever witnessed so many giant wheels of cheese being cut at the same time.

Of course, cutting the cheese was a feat all in itself, as a group of judges worked for a total of more than two hours meticulously slicing through each wheel. As Bruce Workman, of Wisconsin's Edelweiss Creamery (the only U.S. cheesemaker to craft big wheel Swiss) put it afterward: "Put the ol' muscles to work today."

The highlight of today's judging and events was a special seminar organized for chefs, specialty cheese retailers and media, some of whom came from as far away as New York and Maine. After Chef Regi Hise led an exquisite tasting of a cheddar flight, a plate of blues and washed rind cheeses, a panel of seven Wisconsin cheesemakers shared their personal stories and cheesemaking journeys with the crowd.

All of the cheesemakers -- three brand new folks and four veterans -- all brought their latest and greatest cheeses - some of which had never been tasted before. So what's new in the world of Wisconsin artisan cheese? Let me count the ways:

Roelli Cheese -- Newly minted cheesemaker Chris Roelli shared his new Lowlander Goudsekaas, an aged gouda. Chris shared the oldest members of his first batch -- two wheels of 4-month old aged gouda, which judging by the taste, is only going to get better with age. This is one cheese worth watching.

Hidden Springs Creamery-- Brenda Jensen sampled her new Ocooch Mountain, an aged sheep's milk cheese which I wrote about a few weeks ago after getting a sneak peak at Fromagination. Aged sheep milk cheeses are my favorite category of cheese, and this is one I'll be adding to my weekly purchase list.

Saxon Creamery -- Gerald Heimerl brought along some of the most beautiful wheels of cheese I've ever seen -- Big Ed's, Green Fields and Saxony. These cheeses are almost too pretty too eat. Shaped in 3-D molds with leaf patterns on the edge and "Saxon" embossed on the top, I'd buy this cheese just to look at. Guess what? It also tastes really good. It's a win-win.

Lovetree Farmstead -- Mary Falk was the hit of the session, as she treated the crowd with several very entertaining stories, including how her very first batch of aged sheep's milk cheese was purchased by an executive at Aveda - sight unseen and not yet sampled -- and served as the main course at his daughter's wedding. Because it's out of season for Mary to make sheep's milk cheese, she brought along a new Jersey cow's milk aged cheese she's been working on. Afterward, people were fighting over who was going to buy the rest of the wheel.

Bleu Mont Dairy -- Willi Lehner is one of Wisconsin's most innovative cheesemakers and he managed to top himself again today with his new Irish Gem. I don't even know how to describe this cheese, other than to say if you see him at the winter farmer's market in Madison, buy some. It's truly a Willi original.

Can't wait to see what tomorrow will bring at the contest -- stay tuned for live results and more news from Wisconsin cheesemakers.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Big Cheese Comin' to Town

Oh, you better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why ... Big Cheese is comin' to town. Oh admit it, you know you'll thank me later for having this tune stuck in your head all day.

With almost 2,000 cheeses from 19 nations on their way to Madison, Wis., the Super Bowl of all cheese contests is about to start. Cheesemakers around the globe are already designing their "World Championship Cheese" labels in anticipation of taking the big honor.

Every two years, the global cheese media contingency comes to Madison, and with it, dozens of judges from dozens of countries start giving interviews in sexy accents. Top chefs, buyers and food writers from around the country gather round to interview cheesemakers who turn up for the event. Industry leaders mill around, scoping out new cheeses, talking with new cheesemakers and basically enjoying a day away from their desk.

Simply put, if you're into cheese, it's THE place to be.

The World Championship Cheese Contest has been held in even-numbered years since 1958 and is graciously hosted by the non-profit Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. Judging starts on March 11 and continues until the championship round on the morning of March 13. This year, the contest has broken all previous entry records, with 1,935 cheese and butter entries vying for top dog.

Cheesemakers and buttermakers from Austria, Australia, Canada, Chili, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and 30 U.S. states have sent in product to be judged in 79 classes by 22 experts from 11 nations. Two U.S. marketing experts will judge product packaging and six specialist judges from the U.S. will tackle selected classes.

In looking at the entry list, stand-out categories include four Cheddar classes, with each topping 50 entries. Then there's the ever popular Smear Ripened Soft and Semi-soft Cheeses with 64 entries, as well as the Open Class for Hard Cheeses with 51 entries and last and least, the Reduced-fat Cheese class with 58 entries (does anyone actually still eat reduced fat cheese, and if so, dear god, why?)

The contest is a technical evaluation of entries, using an objective measure of cheese defects to select the products in each class that best exemplify perfection for a cheese variety. The highest scoring cheeses and butters earn a gold medal, with silver and bronze medals awarded to second and third place finishers in each class.

As mentioned earlier, the tension mounts on Thursday morning, March 13, when the entire international team of expert judges convenes for the Championship Round of judging. The 72 gold medal cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk classes are evaluated again and the highest scoring cheeses named World Champion and First and Second Runners-Up.

The Championship Round will be broadcast as a live, video-streamed program on the web from 8 a.m. to Noon CST. Contest result and digital images are posted throughout the competition.

And what does the winner receive? Behind door number two is an all-expense paid trip to a tropical island, a new car and ... oh wait, actually what they really win is behind door number one, which is a big gold medal and bragging rights. More importantly, they also sell a whole lot of cheese, because every food writer across the globe writes a story with them in the headline. That's even better than a vacation and new car, right?

In case you were wondering, I'll also be at the contest 24/7, blogging about cheesemakers, celebrity cheese personalities, sexy accents and of course, the cheese. Bring it on!

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Cheese Never Forgets

Italian cheesemaker Mauro Rozzi has been making cheese for 46 years, and if he knows one thing, it is this: the cheese never forgets.

That’s why Rozzi doesn’t make mistakes when he is handcrafting artisan cheeses. At age 62, he has learned to incorporate a strict, almost Zen-like focus in the make room and aging cellars where he works at BelGioioso Cheese in Denmark, Wis.

I got the chance to sit down with Rozzi last week and he told me "good cheese does not forgive. Any mistake made in the cheese vat is only compounded in the aging room. Precise steps must be followed intricately, and the passion must come within. Making cheese isn’t a job. It’s a calling.”

Especially if that cheese is Italico, an elegant, surface-ripened cheese that takes more than 33 hours to hand make before it ever hits the aging room. Taking its heritage from the valleys in northern Italy, Italico is modeled after Tallegio, but with Rozzi’s unique touch, has become a true American Original since BelGioioso launched it three years ago.

Made from pasteurized whole milk, Italico was just waiting to be made in Wisconsin, Rozzi says. “You need exceptionally good, clean milk to make this cheese. It must be fresh with low acidity and Wisconsin’s climate is perfect to produce the milk needed – very similar to the climate in northern Italy.”

The make process for Italico is particularly complex, requiring devout attention from the cheesemaker who crafts it. Made in 10-pound blocks, it travels from the vat to a mold to a “purgatory” room (where it rests) to a brine room before being rolled into an aging cellar. There, it is hand-turned twice a week and washed with a ripening shmear. At 90 days old, it meets the customer.

Once out of the wrapper, Italico’s earthy, nutty and buttery taste is perfect as a table cheese, or can be used as an ingredient in Panini sandwiches or appetizers and desserts. Yum!!