Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Emerging from my Cheese Coma

Well, it's the Tuesday after the the American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese and I'm finally ready to eat cheese again. Between volunteering five hours to cut up cheese on Saturday afternoon, and then two hours attending the actual event that evening, I did my best to try all 1,149 cheeses, but alas, once again failed.

I never thought I'd say this, but there really IS so much cheese one person can eat in a day.

Since the conference was in Chicago and I live just south of Madison, my family drove to the event to meet me for the festival. Every year for the past five years, I have come home raving like a wild woman about the Festival of Cheese and every year they have done their very best not to roll their eyes in front of me.

But this year was going to be different, I told myself. As the three of us - my husband, 11-year-old daughter and myself -- walked into the grand ballroom at the Chicago Hilton into a room decked out in all of its cheese glory, my daughter announced: "Oh my God, it stinks in here."

Well, so okay, it does smell a bit. Let's see you try putting 1,149 cheeses into one room and keeping down the odor. But that's the beauty of the experience, right?

Turns out, not so much to people whose lives do NOT revolve around cheese.

After 45 minutes, my family was ready to go. My husband had perused all the cheddars. My daughter had tried exactly four - yes, only 4 out of 1,149 cheeses - and those were from the Colby table.

Luckily, I had helped set up the Farmstead Cheese table so had already tried all those cheeses that afternoon, plus had perused the room a bit before the actual event, so I didn't feel quite so depressed.

Plus, it was fun watching Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook give interviews to the multiple camera crews in attendance -- all who were asking him whether Disney had called yet with a stop and desist order for using "Snow White Goat Cheddar" as the name for his Best of Show cheese. Should be interesting to see how that one turns out ...

So this is my last posting about the 2008 ACS conference -- see you all next year, and until then, stop back here to read more about Wisconsin artisan cheeses.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wisconsin Wins Big at ACS

A resounding chorus of WHOO-HOO echoed across Chicago tonight as Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese, captured Best of Show out of 1,149 entries here at the American Cheese Society competition.

Sid's Snow White Goat Cheddar was deemed the top cheese in America by a prestigious panel of more than 30 national judges. In typical style, Sid not only took the top prize, but 17 other ribbons, including 2nd runner-up Best in Show for his Cave Aged Marisa.

This is the sixth time in the past 10 years that Wisconsin has captured the Best in Show award at ACS. Past winners include Uplands Cheese's Pleasant Ridge Reserve (2001 & 2005), Carr Valley Cheese's Gran Canaria (2004), Roth Kase's Gruyere (1999) and Lovetree Farm's Trade Lake Cedar (1998).

While Wisconsin typically does very well at this competition, one thing that struck me was the amount of sheep and goat's milk winners from the state. More than one-quarter of all the awards won by our cheesemakers were for either goat, sheep or mixed-milk cheeses.

Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, a cheesemaker near Westby, took six awards for her fresh and aged sheep's milk cheeses. She even swept the Fresh Sheep's Milk Cheeses, Flavor Added category with her many flavors of Driftless.

Then there was Al Bekkum, who launched his Nordic Creamery and goat's milk/blended milk cheeses just in the past year. He took home a first for his Capriko, a perfect blend of goat and cow's milk that carries a sweet nutty flavor. He also captured second for his one and only Feddost -- an American Original blended milk cheese with traditional Norwegian flavor of cumin and cloves.

Other goat, sheep and mixed milk winners included Dreamfarm near Cross Plains, Lactalis in Belmont, Montchevre in Belmont, Pasture Pride in Cashton and the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.

But goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses weren't the only big winners for Wisconsin. Coming out of the shoot in only her second year of cheesemaking was Marieke Penterman, who won eight - yes eight - awards for her amazing Dutch style goudas. You go, girl.

Here's a list of all the Wisconsin first-place winners:
  • BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Denmark: Romano, Fresh Mozzarella - Prosciutto Basil Log

  • Brunkow Cheese, Darlington: Brun-uusto Jalapeno Baked Cheese

  • Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle: Bread Cheese, Airco, Snow White Goat Cheddar, Cave Aged Marisa

  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain: Cumin & Clove Dutch Style

  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese: Farmer’s Rope

  • Edelweiss Creamery: Emmentaler

  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Driftless Cranberry, Ocooch Mountain Cheese

  • Hoch Enterprises, Braun Suisse Käse, Beloit: Cheddar Aged Less Than 12 Months, Cheddar Aged More Than 12 Months

  • Holland’s Family Cheese, Thorp: Marieke Plain Gouda, Marieke Smoked Gouda

  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Peppercorn Feta, Dill Havarti

  • Maple Leaf Cooperative, Monroe: English Hollow Cheddar

  • Nordic Creamery, Westby: Capriko

  • Park Cheese, Fond du Lac: Provolone

  • Pine River, Newton: Black Diamond Extra Sharp Cold Pack Cheese Food

  • Roth Käse USA, Monroe: Gran Queso

  • Sartori Foods, Plymouth: Sartori Reserve Raspberry Bellavitano
Of a total of 1,149 total entries, Wisconsin cheesemakers scored nearly one third of all awards bestowed, more than any other state. Our 91 awards included 25 firsts, 32 seconds and 34 third places.

All in all, cheesemakers from 181 companies in 30 U.S. states and Canada were represented. It was one of the biggest contests ever for ACS, and I can't wait to try each every cheese tomorrow night at the Festival of Cheese!!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

On Location: Meet the Cheesemaker

If I could figure out how to do it, I'd add a Breaking News scroll bar to my blog with this tagline: Dozens of cheeses debut at American Cheese Society annual conference in Chicago --- Blogger sets new personal record for tasting new cheeses in one day --- Send Pepto and a big bowl of fiber as soon as possible ...

Needless to say, I just returned to my hotel room after working the Meet the Cheesemaker event here at ACS, where more than 60 cheesemakers from around the country are sampling their latest and greatest wares for every cheese buyer, food editor and artisan enthusiast in the country. Dozens of Wisconsin cheesemakers were in attendance, and in exciting news, many of them debuted several new cheeses that I've been itching to write about. So grab a glass a wine and settle in. There's a lot to report. Here we go:

1. Raspberry Bellavitano from Sartori Foods: this little treasure won't be available in retail stores until October, but I suggest you purchase a wheel as soon as it hits the market. I've been a fan of Sartori Bellavitano (quick reminder -- Sartori bought Antigo Cheese a couple years ago -- this cheese is made in the Antigo plant) since it debuted about a year ago, but the Raspberry version is awesome. Soaked in New Glarus Raspberry Tart Beer, this cheese is an American Original, says cheesemaker Mike Matucheski. It boasts an amazing, almost cravable taste reminiscent of an aged, premium Cheddar balanced by a full flavored Parmesan. One word: wowsers.

2. Ville Theresa from Widmer's Cheese Cellars: Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer told me he finally had time to recreate this cheese, which with he won a blue ribbon 10 years ago at ACS, but never put on the market. This semi-soft washed rind cheese is about two months old and is cave-aged, creating an orange rind. Very creamy and supple, it reminds me of an aged brick, but is milder with a slightly tangy flavor. Joe says its goes great with a good stout beer and I whole-heartedly believe him.

3. Smoked Salmon & Dill Cheddar from Cedar Grove: You lucky West Coasters have apparently been enjoying this cheese for some time, as Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills tells me he's been making it for more than a year for a customer in Washington. Made using dried salmon and dill, this cheddar is amazing -- the smoked flavor hits you first, with the salmon coming in on the finish. Yummy.

4. Smoked Alpine from Pasture Pride Cheese: Cheesemaker Tom Torkelson was sampling this new cheese, a semi-soft, brined goat cheese made in six-pound wheels and smoked at Carr Valley with an applewood flavor. This creamy-white cheese is very good, carries a tangy flavor and compliments Tom's other cheeses that I like so much: Redstone Robust and Castlerock Reserve.

5. Bad Axe from Hidden Springs Creamery: I've been a big fan of cheesemaker Brenda Jensen since she hit the scene two years ago, and I think she's created another winner in this cave-aged, one-month-old sheep's milk cheese that nicely bridges her aged Ocooch Mountain and her fresh Driftless cheese. Named as a tribute to the Bad Axe area in Western Wisconsin (site of a Native American massacre), this cheese is creamy and carries a really special flavor.

6. Feddost from Nordic Creamery: Al Bekkum is a well-known Wisconsin cheesemaker who has earned several gold medals and blue ribbons for his cheeses he made at a previous company. His own, new start-up, Nordic Creamery, debuted its "Feddost" cheese tonight at ACS. Al's signature cheese, this American Original is a blend of goat's and cow's milk handcrafted with a curd infusion of cumin and cloves -- a Norwegian flavor tradition. It's formed in 10-pound wheels and cellar-aged. This is one of those cheeses that is indescribable -- even Al himself will admit it's "a little weird" but watch out -- this cheese is going to put Nordic Creamery on the map. Cheese buyers were bringing other cheese buyers over to the table to marvel at this creation.

7. Prosciutto Roll from BelGioioso Cheese: this uniquely packaged product features a sheet of Fresh Mozzarella rolled with aged prosciutto and fresh basil, ready to slice and serve. Part of BelGioioso's new "Unwrap and Roll" line, this product was officially introduced July 16 at the American Culinary Federation and tastes very good. It's a nice compliment to BelGioioso's great line of Italian style cheeses.

8. Smokey Blue from Castle Rock Organic Dairy: this farmstead operation just keeps introducing new products, and this time, its original smokey blue takes the cake. Smoked in a traditional smoke with hickory wood chips, and then aged in the dairy's new underground cave, this blue cheese is simply amazing.

So that's the scoop from today's American Cheese Society conference here in Chicago. Stay tuned tomorrow for complete award results and then again on Saturday for my yearly cheese coma following the Festival of Cheese. Whoo-hoo!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Headed to Chicago

It's my favorite time of the year: meeting people who love cheese and slipping blissfully into my yearly cheese coma after attempting to try all 1,100 cheeses at the American Cheese Society conference!

This year the festivities are being held in Chicago. I plan to update my blog daily while on site, so check here Thursday - Sunday this week for the latest scoop on what's happening in the artisan cheese world. Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Golden Age Cheeses

When I was little, I liked to play in my grandmother's walk-in closet, mostly because the woman kept every article of clothing she ever owned, always with the reasoning of: "Don't worry, it'll come back into style someday." While I'm not sure there was ever any hope for that lovely lime green polyester pantsuit, I will acquiesce that there is some truth to "everything old is new again."

Case in point: Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods in Edgar, Wis.,, owned by a fifth generation Marathon County dairy farm family who reopened the old Cloverbelt shuttered plant and is now making cheese from the milk of their own herd, are re-creating the past with their Golden Age English-Style cheeses, complete with authentic, Victorian-era labels.

Ralph and Sharon Bredl have taken their passion of the Victorian era to a whole new level with this new line of cheese. Called the "Golden Age," it's a line of eight English-style cheeses and should be coming soon to a supermarket near you.

Of the four English styles they've chosen: Cheshire, Double Gloucester, Caerphilly and Abergele, I like the Abergele the best, probably because they made it up. They are quick to point out that the cheeses are modeled after their traditional namesakes, and should not be considered true Cheshire or Double Gloucester cheeses.

However, the Abergele, a moist and creamy cheese, is unique. The Bredl family's very own creation, it carries a distinctive tang and comes as plain or infused with a cranberry/orange or an apricot/ginger emulsion.

So just exactly how did the Bredls, a well-known area dairy farm family, come to be in the cheesemaking business?

It started when daughter Martine joined the 450-cow registered Holstein operation near Stratford in 2004. The addition of the next generation to the business, combined with a change in strategic direction from "volume" to "value" led to the realization that if the Bredls wanted future generations to stay involved in Wisconsin dairy, they had to diversify.

As fate would have it, the nearby "Cloverbelt" plant near Edgar, Wis., had just closed due to a declining commodity cheese market. Upon hearing of the closure, the Bredls quickly realized the plant had the potential to represent a key element of their "value" search by providing the tool to process the milk from their dairy farm into high value, handcrafted, single farm cheeses.

In May, 2007 the Bredls purchased the plant and established Harmony Speciality Dairy Foods, LLC. With the expert guidance of the former Cloverbelt cheesemakers (Gary Miller and Al Graveen) the first vat of cheese was produced on June 13, 2007. Up to now, they've created a good market crafting super kosher cheeses and conducting custom processing of both cow's and goat's milk.

The family is about to enter a whole era, however, with their Golden Age line. With a unique label and pleasant tasting line of cheeses, the Bredls are hoping to hit a home run. Be sure and check these cheeses out - they'll be hard to miss in the cheese case.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

English Hollow

The "thriving metropolis" of Twin Grove, Wis. is actually home to only a tavern, a lumberyard, 14 houses, and Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative. It's the kind of place where if there are two cars at the town intersection, "It's a traffic jam," says Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman.

And while Twin Grove doesn't even show up on most maps -- you'll find "Monroe, Wis." listed as the cheese plant's official address -- this itty bitty berg has been making cheese since 1910, when a group of local family farmers met to establish a consistent, trustworthy market for their milk and Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative was born.

Today, Maple Leaf is still locally-farmer owned, and some of the dairy farm families who ship their milk to the cheese plant are now in their second and third generations. While time may appear to have passed by Twin Grove, don't let this little land of Wisconsin Mayberry fool you, because Maple Leaf Cheese doesn't stand still. Home to the 2008 World Champion 1-Year Aged Cheddar, it boasts two master cheesemakers who continue to roll out quality cheese.

My favorite cheese from Maple Hollow is the aforementioned World Champion, and it's called English Hollow. The name struck me as a bit strange, as Monroe, Wis. is extremely well known for its Swiss heritage -- come to Cheese Days this fall and you'll see what I mean -- so I asked Jeff: okay, so everyone knows cheddar originated in the English village of Cheddar, in Somerset, but really, how do you get away with calling your aged cheddar "English Hollow" in a community ruled by the Swiss Mafia?

Turns out there really is an "English Hollow" in Wisconsin. In fact, the area where Maple Leaf is located is smack dab in the middle of it, and Jeff actually grew up on a dairy farm nearby. The area got its name from the high number of dairy farms owned by English immigrants, Jeff says, so it was only natural for him to return to his roots and try making an English cheddar.

Boy, did he succeed. At 12 months, this hand-turned, rind-formed wheel of Cheddar boasts a complex and pleasant flavor. I can see why it won its class at the World Championship.

So I bet you're thinking, wow, I'm going to run out and buy this cheese right away.

Well, good luck. Because once a cheese wins "World Champion" status, it pretty much sells out. And because Jeff didn't know it was going to win the title, he only made about 20 wheels of it a little over a year ago.

However, fear not -- many more wheels are currently in Maple Leaf's curing room as we speak and will be ready for you next year. So remember "English Hollow" the next time you're in the cheese aisle -- if you're feeling lucky, you just might find it.