Friday, November 21, 2008

Anne Topham at Fantome Farm

I'm heading off to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks and busy rummaging through my files trying to get everything done before I leave (I'll be sure to report on the Costa Rica cheese situation when I return). In the meantime, I came across an article I wrote a couple of years ago about Anne Topham, but never got around to pitching it to an editor. Hope you enjoy it!

Pioneer farmstead cheesemaker perfects fresh, handcrafted goat cheese 

She started 20 years ago with a “how to” book written in French, a pig to eat her mistakes, and a vision of handcrafting the Midwest’s first farmstead goat cheese. Today, Anne Topham’s Fantome Farm fresh chèvre is a beloved mainstay at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison.

“The pigs are long gone, but the vision is the same: to make the best cheese I can every week,” Topham said. “Nothing compares to the feeling of handing cheese to a customer that just a day or two before, came from the work of my own two hands.”

Once a week, from mid-April through December, Topham carefully handcrafts French-style fresh chèvre at her farmstead cheesrie (a licensed dairy plant) near Ridgeway. She sells it at the Dane County Farmers Market and occasionally to a limited mail-order clientele.  

With its delicately creamy texture, pleasant tartness and lustrous sheen, Topham sells the cheese both plain and flavored with herbs. Other varieties come marinated in extra virgin olive oil and herbes de Provence, or coated with what the French call “black salt,” a mixture of salt and edible ash. Occasionally, she also crafts aged rounds.

Making chèvre is a three-day process, sometimes requiring all of Topham’s attention, other times almost none. But the goats – from where it all begins – are another story: Topham’s 20-goat herd requires twice-a-day milking, specialized feeding and a little ingenuity.

“Goats are smarter than cows, I think. You have to figure how to get them to want to do what you have in mind. They are very independent creatures,” Topham said.

Topham should know. She and partner Judy Borree have been milking goats for almost 25 years. Their journey began in 1979, when Topham took a break from studying for her doctorate in education policy studies at UW-Madison and instead went home to Iowa to visit her parents, who had moved to her grandparents’ farm.

She never returned to her academic life. 

“Instead of continuing work on a dissertation, I learned about raising cattle and driving tractors,” Topham said. “Then for fun we bought a young French Alpine goat and her three-week-old kid.”

Topham became hooked. As much as she enjoyed working with cattle, goats were a better size for two women to handle. Their first goat was a terrific milker, and soon Topham and Borree were getting more milk than they knew what to do with.

“I made yogurt. I made ice cream. We cooked with it. And still there was a lot of milk,” Topham said. 

Then Topham remembered a friend, who before she left Madison, had returned from Paris, bearing a beautiful round of goat cheese on a bed of straw. That memory changed Topham’s future.

“It was the first goat cheese I had ever tasted and I never forgot that taste. So I started trying to make the cheese I had tasted,” she said.

Like any good academic, she went to the library. She read cheesemaking books written in French, took the University of Wisconsin cheese technology course and visited pioneering California cheesemaker Laura Chenel to see her set-up. 

In 1982, Topham and Borree bought land near Ridgeway, built a barn, and began remodeling an attached garage into a licensed dairy plant. A year and a half later, Topham was selling fresh chèvre at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.

“Nobody was doing what we were doing in the Midwest. I figured if we could be the first, it would be a real advantage. And it has been,” Topham said.

While Topham’s Fantome Farm gourmet fresh chèvre is now well known throughout Wisconsin, that wasn’t always the case. Twenty years ago, French-style fresh goat cheese was a new taste for many.

“We cajoled people into trying our cheese at the Market. We thought if they tried it, they would buy it, and we were right,” Topham said.

Topham began to learn as much from her customers as she had from her books and expert advice. 

“Sometimes, a customer might say last week’s batch was too salty so I would measure more carefully the next week. Others would tell us we were making a cheese that you could only find in the mountain farms in Puerto Rico, or that it was similar to the fresh cheese made by the nomadic people in Afghanistan. And here I thought I was only making a gourmet French-style goat cheese!” Topham laughed.

Although many would agree Topham has long since perfected the art of making fresh chèvre, she continues to learn new techniques. Topham recently traveled to France to study “affinage” – the art of ripening cheese. Although Topham has always specialized in fresh goat cheese, she’s ready to try something new.

During her visit to France, Topham expected to find French cheesemakers using natural caves to ripen their many varieties of regional cheeses. Instead, she found both farmsteads and large processors building and using man-made mechanical ‘caves’ – with arrays of climate-controlled rooms.

“It made me come back and want to tear up everything I have and start over,” Topham said. 

“Seeing the mechanical caves in France has definitely changed my advice to starting farmstead cheese owners. I think that building and planning for such spaces and learning ways to perfect ripened cheese will help take farmstead and artisanal cheesemaking to the next level here in Wisconsin. At least I’m hoping to do that for Fantome Farm,” she said.

With more than 20 years of cheesemaking experience, Topham is more than willing to share her past mistakes and successes with others. She is available for presentations and enjoys explaining the art of cheesemaking.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cheese Shopping

Good news for us cheeseaholics -- more and more retail stores are carrying artisan and specialty cheeses and shipping for the holidays. So even if you live in a cheese-starved part of the country, fear not, there are good cheesemongers out there that will ship to you. Here are three of my favorites:

1. Anne Saxelby, Saxelby Cheese, New York. Anne writes a weekly blog about her cheese adventures and always cracks me up. Here's her opening for today's entry:

What's small and cardboard and smells like a sock? That's absolutely right! A holiday box' o cheese from Saxelby Cheesemongers! This holiday season, the best of America's farmstead cheeses are just a hop, skip, and a click away! We apologize to the FedEx guys in advance for stinking up their trucks...

I mean, how can you NOT want to buy cheese from this lady? Awesome.

2. Fromagination on the Capital Square in Madison -- in addition to being a full-service cheese shop carrying more than 60 Wisconsin artisan cheeses that are cut-to-order, Fromagination is also hosting holiday planning/buying parties on Dec. 4 and Dec. 11. Staff will help you design custom-made gift baskets for everyone on your list, plus you get a discount.

If you don't live in Madison, fear not - Fromagination also ships. It's a great shop to find artisan cheeses made in Wisconsin that you won't find anywhere else.

3. Kroger and Murray's Cheese: this just hit my inbox yesterday -- apparently these two companies have launched a partnership and are opening the first of three Murray's Cheese departments in the Cincinnati-area Kroger Supermarkets.

The Murray's Cheese department at the Kenwood Towne Place Kroger in Cincinnati will look much like the Murray's Cheese flagship store in New York City's Greenwich Village and will carry more than 500 items, including many of the same cheeses, crackers, dried fruits, and olives as the Bleecker Street original. This Murray's Cheese department--as well as those debuting in the coming weeks at the existing Hyde Park and Liberty Township Krogers in Cincinnati--will be staffed by Kroger employees who have received rigorous cheese service training.

The press release says Murray's employees have created an encyclopedic 300-page cheese service guide exclusively for the partnership and spent a month in Cincinnati further educating their Kroger counterparts. Now, the Kroger employees manning these Murray's Cheese departments will be able to provide the same level of service as Murray's employees in New York City.

Too cool. Let's hope Murray's decides to open a satellite shop in a Kroger's near you! Happy holiday cheese shopping!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Weekend Update

Lots of news this week and I can't decide on one thing to write about, so we're going for a weekend update today:

1. Kiss Our Dairy Air: College Click TV is promoting UW-Madison with a new poster (pictured above). I love how they describe the college in this quick blurb.

"Madison's got a good hometown feel--wholesome and relaxing. This research driven mega school of the Midwest offers innumerable resources in its science and engineering programs. However, the arts and humanities remain neglected as a result. Seek out what you want and you shall find. Lots of clubs, intense school spirit, and more cans of beer than actual people gives students a very genuine taste of the college life. Students here love their overall experience. The routine is simple: beer, football...beer, study, class...beer, beer...more beer."

Hey, what about the cheese? Geez, people, beer & cheese ... let's get it right.

2. Grafton Village, Faribault Dairy Collaborate On New Layered Cheese: Grafton Village Cheese in Vermont and Faribault Dairy, located just across the border in Minnesota, have partnered to create a new, limited edition cheese called Grafton Duet. It's made of three layers of Grafton Premium Cheddar and two layers of Faribault Dairy’s St. Pete’s Blue Cheese. The limited edition cheese is available only through the Grafton Village website – –and at the company’s two Vermont retail stores in Grafton and Brattleboro.

Congrats to Faribault cheesemaker Jeff Jirik -- sure wish we could get you to move to Wisconsin. Big sigh. But I'll enjoy your cheese anyway. :)

3. Majority of U.S. Goat Processors to Expand Plant Capacity: a new report just released this week by the USDA reports that about two-thirds of goat milk processors responding to a recent survey plan to increase their plant capacity in the next five years, while very few goat milk plants plan on either going out of business completely or discontinuing production of goat milk products. Email me for a complete copy of the report -- it has some great statistics on types of goat cheeses being made, prices paid to farmers and details on expansion plans.

4. Turns out the Sky is NOT Falling: Ed Jesse, professor and and dairy policy specialist at UW-Madison released a major report this week reversing his sobering trend projections made earlier this decade of declining Wisconsin milk production. Instead, he says the state is poised to break its previous annual milk production record of 25 billion pounds set 20 years ago.

"Wisconsin’s dairy sector is in a positive state of growth and transition,” Jesse says.

Jesse says Wisconsin cow numbers bottomed out in March, 2005, at 1.233 million head. Last year, the average number of dairy cows on state dairy farms was 1.247 million head. The Wisconsin dairy herd expansion“has been steady for 42 months,” and "this kind of stability in cow numbers has not been observed in more than 20 years.”

And you all thought I was just being optimistic about Wisconsin's growing dairy industry by writing a blog about it. Ha! Take that, Wisconsin naysayers!

Seriously, just eat our cheese. It's awesome. Have a great weekend everybody!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Sassy Cows Make Good Milk

California may have "happy cows," but here in Wisconsin, we have sassy cows. And sassy cows make awesome milk.

Don't believe me? Then you need to try the bottled milk, ice cream and heavy cream from Sassy Cow Creamery, located on the Baerwolf farm between Sun Prairie and Columbus, Wis. (The website has a great listing of where to find the products in retail stores).

The Baerwolf's cows are so sassy, in fact, they now have their own collectible trading cards. Buy the milk and you can collect 18 cow personality cards that are real dairy cows living on the Baerwolf dairy farm. Who knew collecting cow cards could be so fun?

Sassy Cow Creamery has been bottling milk since it opened this spring, and is now making ice cream at its picturesque farmstead factory and retail store. If you live close by, stop by for this month's ice cream flavors: Apple Pie, Brownie Caramel and Pumpkin Praline.

I'd also recommend Sassy's chocolate milk, which just won first place at the World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest with a perfect score of 100 points. The Expo contest is the third largest contest in the world and the only one to include all types of dairy products, so earning first place -- much less with a perfect score -- is a VERY big deal.

If you live close enough, I'd also recommend trekking to the farmstead store to buy an array of local Wisconsin products, including local farmstead cheeses, packaged goods and specialty foods. It's a great place to do some holiday shopping, and the kids can watch milk being bottled through the display window right in the store.

One last heads up for an upcoming event at the Sassy Cow Creamery -- on Saturday, Nov. 22 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the farm will be making churned cream. Fresh samples will be available and kids can even make their own butter. Sounds like a sassy kind of day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

New Product Category

Two Wisconsin food companies are collaborating to launch a new retail product category of ready-to-heat gourmet meals made from locally-grown and produced Wisconsin ingredients.

RP’s Pasta Company, Madison, and Renaissance Farm, Spring Green, will unveil seven gourmet dinners on Friday at Sentry Metcalf at Hilldale in Madison. The dinners are available in the frozen section and retail for less than $8. Dinners range from Lemon Basil Pesto Ravioli, to Wisconsin Stuffed Acorn Squash, to Four Cheese Tortellini, to Wisconsin Macaroni & Cheese.

Wisconsin specialty cheeses, locally-grown vegetables and herbs, as well as locally-made fresh, gourmet pasta are featured in different dishes, with local ingredients listed right on the package.

“Our mission is to create and share flavorful, ready-to-eat gourmet dinners produced from foods grown and crafted right here in Wisconsin,” Mark Olson, President of Renaissance Farms, told me today (pictured above). “We know more families want to buy local foods to support their neighboring farms and strengthen their communities. This line of dishes is a great way for folks to savor Wisconsin’s growing season.”

The Wisconsin-based, ready-to-heat frozen dishes include a variety of local ingredients, including:
  • Aged Cheddar cheese crafted at Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis.

  • Butter Käse cheese crafted at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis.
  • Bottled milk and cream produced at Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, Wis.

  • Butter made at Grassland Dairy in Greenwood, Wis.

  • Parmesan, Asiago, Mozzarella and Ricotta cheeses made at Grande Dairy, based in Brownsville, Wis.
  • Gorgonzola crafted at Wisconsin Farmers Union in Montfort, Wis.

  • Feta cheese made at Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.

  • Gourmet fresh pasta crafted at RP’s Pasta in Madison, Wis.

  • Herbs, olive oils and pesto from Renaissance Farm, Spring Green, Wis.

  • Butternut Squash from Sutter Farm, Mt. Horeb, Wis.

  • Carrots, bell peppers and garlic from a variety of Wisconsin farms

The line of local food dishes from Renaissance Farms was developed by Chef Joel Girard, of Madison. Olson plans to collaborate with different chefs, farms and cheesemakers to develop future lines of ready-to-heat dishes. The first four dishes launched this week include:

  • Lemon Basil Pesto Ravioli with Roasted Garlic Cream Sauce

  • Stuffed Sweet Bell Peppers with Cedar Grove Butter Käse

  • Butternut Squash Ravioli with Montforte Gorgonzola Cream Sauce

  • Wisconsin Stuffed Acorn Squash with Carr Valley Feta
The line of dishes from RP’s Pasta was created by owner Peter Robertson, a master pasta maker. The first three dishes in the RP’s Pasta line include:
  • Macaroni & Cheese made with Hook’s Three-Year Cheddar

  • Four Cheese Tortellini with Basil & Tomato Sauce, paired with Local Buttered Carrots

  • Four Cheese Ravioli with Roasted Garlic Alfredo, paired with Local Buttered Carrots
“As the owners of local food companies, Mark and I work with fresh, wholesome ingredients grown and crafted by Wisconsin farmers and cheesemakers every day,” says Robertson. “This line of ready-to-heat dinners allows us to share our passion for local foods with the people we love best – our customers.”