Thursday, May 29, 2008

Road Trip: Larry's Market

Today was the best day ever. I decided to ditch my desk and road trip to Larry's Market in Brown Deer because some days I just need to take a drive and buy cheese. Hey, when gas is $4 bucks a gallon, it makes $20 a pound cheese look cheap.

I must confess I thought I had erred in judgement as I drove through Milwaukee in morning rush hour traffic -- yes, I know -- those of you living in major cities just snorted up your Diet Coke in disgust at the words "rush hour" and "Milwaukee" but let me tell you two words that strike fear in the heart of every eastern Wisconsin commuter: the
Marquette Interchange.

At least I think I drove through the Marquette Interchange -- there were lots of orange barrels, people driving crazily through poorly-marked lanes and half-finished ramps leading to nowhere (this is truly how directionally incompetent I am -- if it's not labeled on my GPS, I don't recognize it), but after making it through the downtown traffic and up I-43, I emerged onto Brown Deer Road.

For those of you unfamiliar with Brown Deer Road, let's just say the nicest way to describe it is strip mall hell. Throw in a gas station or two, a run-down McDonalds with not one but two drive-thru lanes, and you can about picture it. However -- and this is a big however -- once you turn onto tiny Deerwood Drive, all is right with the world.

I'm pretty sure
Larry's Market is located in downtown Mayberry. About a half block off the eyesore of a busy thoroughfare, you enter a picturesque tiny village with a hometown car garage, deli, and good old Larry's Market on the right, looking like the long lost grocery store at which your grandparents shopped.

Larry's Market started experimenting with new foods in the early 1960s when fresh cut flowers and specialty foods were not exactly staples in your local grocery store. Larry Ehlers' fascination with the new and exotic helped turn this established neighborhood business into the first specialty food store in Milwaukee.

Today, son Steve and daughter Patty ensure Larry's Market maintains its edge in the rapidly growing specialty food and cheese business by 1) listening to their customers, 2) being on the forefront of any and all new products -- especially local Wisconsin artisan cheeses -- and 3) putting service and quality first and foremost.

While Larry, age 84, still comes in every day, working the register and bantering with the regulars -- he good-naturedly mocked me when I called him "sir" -- Steve and Patty run the day-to-day show. And I must say they do it very well. Steve -- quite possibly one of the coolest people I've ever met -- gave me the 10-cent tour of the back room maze that makes up Larry's Market. Built 100 years ago, the building has been added onto a grand total of eight -- yes, eight -- times.

Originally, the store had both an upstairs and backroom apartment where the owners lived. Today, both of those spaces have been converted into offices and storage. Larry's Market also boasts one of the nicest commercial kitchens I've ever seen - with many, many employees working to turn out dozens of catering orders every day and staffing a total of four delivery vans to weddings, parties and events throughout the area.

Besides being home to more than 100 types of cheese, Larry's is home to real home-cooked food. While there, I bought dinner for the next three nights -- two frozen pot pies, a frozen ham & cheese quiche and fresh lasagna. I'd tell my husband that I cooked the stuff, but let's face it, he'd never believe me anyway.

Larry, Steve & Patty are true pioneers in promoting artisan and specialty cheeses. In 1971, the store began its transition from neighborhood grocery store that personally delivered groceries to fancy schmancy homes on the North Shore, to the specialty food shop it is today. And it all started with a box of French cheese.

"We went for the first time to the
Fancy Food Show in New York in 1971. That was a turning point," Steve told me. From that show, the Ehlers found several imported cheeses they wanted to carry and a week later, picked them up off the plane at the airport in Milwaukee. Once back at the store, they unpacked the boxes and were sold out by the end of the afternoon.

"That was when we knew we were onto something," Steve said.

As they say, the rest is history. Or not. Because Larry's Market continues to evolve. The Ehlers continue to be perhaps the loudest and strongest cheerleaders of Wisconsin artisan cheese the state could ever have. Let's just say if I was throwing a pep rally for team Wisconsin cheese, the Ehlers would be the team captains. They continually freely give their time and advice to new and emerging farmstead cheesemakers, and have been THE launching pad for more than one Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker now making it big on the national scene.

With a selling space of only 1,400 square feet, Larry's Market delivers - in more ways than one. As it says on a wall in the back room: "Damn the calories. Full feed ahead. Larry's Market. Brown Deer, Wis." Amen, brother.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chasing Cheese

In exciting news, today marked the annual cheese-rolling event in Gloucestershire, England, a 200-year-old race where a wheel of Double Gloucester is flung down a perilously steep hill and people run as fast as they can, often falling end-over-end in an attempt to be the first one to catch it and claim eternal fame.

This year's contest looked particularly hazardous, as it had rained continuously the night before. It appeared nearly impossible for contestants to stay on their feet down the 200 meter slope -- go here to watch the video, courtesy of the BBC.

The winner of the first race at Cooper's Hill in Brockworth, a 19- year-old local man, was carried off wearing a neck brace. In all, ambulance volunteers treated 19 injuries.

You can't say these people aren't dedicated to their cheese.

I think Wisconsin should piggyback on this famous cheese rolling event and stage a celebration of our own. God knows we've got the hills to conduct such a test -- just take a drive in southwest Wisconsin and you'll have no problem finding a 200 meter slope with a 1:1 gradient.

Since we're not overly known for making a double gloucester, we could a roll a different cheese instead -- there are several Wisconsin cheesemakers crafting artisan cheeses modeled after English traditional bandaged cheddar, including Brunkow Cheeses' Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle or Willi Lehner's Bandaged Cheddar -- both of these cheeses have taken the spotlight recently in the national media and would be a worthy opponent of any cheese chaser.

Besides, how better to celebrate the end to a very long winter than chasing a wheel of cheese down a grassy slope? Bring it on!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bottled Goat's Milk

Chalk another farmstead milk bottler up to Wisconsin's growing list of dairy artisans: Caprine Supreme, home to Wisconsin's first goat's milk yogurt, is now bottling its own farmstead goat milk and selling it on the retail market.

I had a chance to taste Caprine Supreme's Grade A Whole Goat milk at a meeting yesterday. I'll be honest, I wasn't overly crazy about the prospect of trying it. I was sitting there, watching cup after cup being poured and handed out, all the while secretly thinking: "How can I get out of this?"

But, being the good Midwestern farm girl that I am (who was raised to always, no matter what, eat/drink whatever is offered lest you incur the wrath of your parents for embarrassing them by picking the carrots out of the stew at your neighbor's house and hiding them under your plate), I accepted my cup of goat milk with a smile pasted on my face and told myself to just plow through it and think positive thoughts.

Turns out I worried for nothing. Caprine Supreme Whole Goat's Milk tastes extremely fresh and carries the same taste as a fresh goat's milk cheese, which I find to be quite pleasant. No "goaty" flavor to be found. Whoo-hoo!

That superb, fresh flavor is no accident. Caprine Supreme family farm owners/operators Todd and Sheryl Jaskolski, who pasture graze 350 dairy goats near Black Creek, Wis., work incredibly hard to craft fresh, farmstead goat's milk products. In addition to their new bottled milk, they're well known for their Caprine Supreme Goat Milk Yogurt, available in six flavors, as well as for their Chevre-Style Spreadable Goat Cheese and Goat's Milk Cheese Curds.

Which gets me to wondering: what will the Jaskolskis come up with next? First yogurt, then cheese, now bottled milk. Let's see, what's left? How about a goat's milk ice cream .... hint, hint.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Take That, California

America's Dairyland will remains tops in the ever popular cheese competition the media has invented between Wisconsin and California, according to a national story that ran today by Associated Press reporter M.L. Johnson.

Here's the article -- or go here to read the full story that ran in today's San Jose Mercury News.

Cheeseheads don't need to be bleu: Experts say predictions that California will soon overtake Wisconsin as the nation's top cheese producer are unlikely to come true. The Golden State and its happy cows gained quickly on Wisconsin in the past decade, but plants in California are maxing out, while efforts to boost production in Wisconsin are paying off, said Dick Groves, longtime owner of the Madison-based trade publication, Cheese Reporter.

Groves helped spark the friendly competition between the states 10 years ago with an editorial predicting California would overtake Wisconsin in cheese production by 2005. He later amended it to 2010 and then, last month, to "not anytime soon."

New numbers showing a growing gap between Wisconsin and California prompted Groves to abandon his earlier prediction.

"Cheese production in the two states moved in opposite directions—Wisconsin's went up and California's went down," he said.

About half of the 9.7 billion pounds of cheese made in the U.S. comes from the two states, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Production has grown much more rapidly in California in the past decade as large plants opened there year after year.

Wisconsin's lead in annual production shrank to about 164 million pounds in 2007, according to NASS. Last July, California came within less than 6 million pounds of Wisconsin in monthly production.

But then the gap started growing again, reaching 30 million pounds in March. The quick shift is partly due to two plants closing in California in 2007, while two opened in Wisconsin this year.

California now has 61 cheese plants compared to Wisconsin's 124. The Golden State's plants are larger, but they're pretty much operating at full capacity while Wisconsin's could probably make a bit more, federal and state agricultural officials said.

That means California would have to add plants to move ahead in the race for the title of Big Cheese. But more new plants are opening now in places such as Idaho and the Texas panhandle, which have growing dairy farms and lower costs, said economist Don Blayney, of the Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Companies have struggled in recent years to build new plants in California, where the permit process can take four to six years, said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer of the Western United Dairymen, which represents milk producers there.

Cheesemakers also contend with opposition from environmental groups and, if they get a plant open, high workers compensation costs, Marsh said.

"It is a challenge for us," he said. "The state of California really has to make our state attractive to businesses to locate here."

Wisconsin has worked to increase the state's milk supply after cheesemakers said they needed about 15 percent more milk than they had, said Will Hughes, agricultural development administrator. The state has recruited farmers, encouraged them to add cows and provided incentives for them to install newer, more efficient equipment.

The effort has paid off with renewed investment from companies such as BelGioioso.

The company based in Denmark, a village about 100 miles north of Milwaukee, has chosen to expand here because there's an ample milk supply and it's equally easy to ship from the Midwest to both coasts, marketing manager Jamie Wichlacz said. The plant in Freedom is the second new one the company has opened in about five years.

"I think the milk supply is there, I think the farmers grow as the companies grow, as the cheese producers grow," Wichlacz said.

Wisconsin cheesemakers and agricultural officials also emphasized they weren't looking to make more cheese but better cheese. While California's plants tend to make large quantities of a few kinds of cheese, Wisconsin companies have focused on developing a wide range of specialty cheeses, such as pesto Jack or Asiago, that command higher prices.

The state recently announced that specialty cheeses now account for 16 percent of Wisconsin's production and two more specialty cheese plants will open in the next few weeks.

"I always say this is not a race with California to be No. 1 in producing cheese," Hughes said, "although not anyone in Wisconsin is going to want to give that up."

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

New Master Cheesemakers

You've got to hand it to Wisconsin. We're very good at creating programs that promote our cheesemakers as the rock stars of the dairy world.

Two more guys hopped on the summer tour bus this week, as Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery and Tom Torkelson, who crafts his American Original Natural Valley cheeses at K&K, earned their much-earned and highly-acclaimed Master Cheesemakers titles.

Make no mistake: being a Master Cheesemaker isn't just a line in small print these guys can now add to their business cards. It's at minimal a 10-year journey - and often much longer - that most cheesemakers work towards most of their adult lives.

So what is a Master Cheesemaker and why do we care?

The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program is the only advance certification program of its kind outside Europe. It's run by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research with support by the WMMB and is open only to licensed Wisconsin cheesemakers who hold a minimum of 10 years cheesemaking experience. It takes about two years to become certified as a Master Cheesemaker and is an intensive educational and hands-on experience.

Of the more than 1,200 cheesemakers currently holding licenses in Wisconsin, only 44 are certified Master Cheesemakers. It's a pretty elite group that draws current masters, like Bruce Workman, back again and again to become certified in multiple cheeses, and cheesemakers, like Tom Torkelson, to work to earn Master status.

In fact, Bruce now boasts the unique status of earning the most Master certifications, with seven cheese varieties, more than any other cheesemaker in the state. Bruce can now place his Master's Mark seal on his Baby Swiss, Butterkase, Gruyere, Havarti, Swiss, Raclette and Emmentaler cheeses.

Not to be outdone, Tom has now earned his Master's Cheesemaker certification in two cheeses: Brick and Muenster. No stranger to cheesemaking -- he's been doing it for 25 years -- Tom has already -- even before the ink dries on his first graduation diploma -- applied to enter the master's program a second time to earn certification in additional cheese varieties.

"Doing the coursework, taking thes test and networking with other cheesemakers and instructors makes you think hard and gives you the tools to be more strategic and creative about what you're doing," Tom says. "I can't wait to go through again."

Most excellent. Sounds like the cheesemaker rock star tour will be coming back for a reunion tour next summer. I'm ready to buy tickets, how about you?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Keep On Keepin' On

Today's headline: Wisconsin produces more specialty cheese than any other state. Whoo-hoo!

The National Agricultural Statistics Service today announced that Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to lead the nation in crafting innovative cheeses. Specialty cheese production in 2007 rose 3 percent above the previous year, setting a new record.

Specialty cheese in Wisconsin now totals 399 million pounds and accounts for 16 percent of the state's total cheese production. That's a lot of cheese trays.

In addition, there are more cheese plants here than there were a year ago, and more of them are producing specialty cheese. According to the report, 83 of Wisconsin's 124 cheese plants manufacture at least one type of specialty cheese. Last year, 80 of the state’s 122 cheese plants did so.

Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen told the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute this morning that the report only confirms what he's witnessed first hand since he took office in 2004: a steady increase in Wisconsin's specialty cheese sector that translates into a stronger and more profitable America's Dairyland.

Also, a few more interesting stats, according to the Dept of Agriculture: since 2004, Wisconsin’s dairy processors have invested an estimated $500 million to modernize their facilities, and have opened 34 new dairy plants and expanded 54 more. In addition, in the last three years, Wisconsin dairy farmers have produced 9 percent more milk than before -- lending more milk to be made into yet more cheese.

In fact, two more specialty dairy plants are poised to celebrate their grand openings in the next few weeks -- Woolwich Dairy on May 9, and Sassy Cow Creamery on May 22.

Seems like we have a lot to celebrate. Keep on, keepin' on, Wisconsin cheesemakers!!