Two exciting bits of news: 1) Fromagination has been voted Madison's "Best Specialty Food Store" by the readers of Madison Magazine, beating out perennial favorites Brennan's and Fraboni's. 2) Cesar Cheese is now available at Fromagination. Whoo-hoo on both accounts!
I visited Fromagination on Saturday after reading Cesar Luis would be sampling his cheeses at the shop during the morning. I love Cesar and his wife, Heydi. They are two of the most honest and hardest-working people I have ever met. And equally important, they make AWESOME cheese.
A brief recap to catch everyone up: Cesar learned the art of making cheese from his grandmother when he was a young boy in Oaxaca, Mexico. Longing for the taste of home, he dreamed of making cheese himself once he moved to America. He spent three years training to become a license cheesemaker, took classes, worked at a cheese plant and passed a rigorous written test administered by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.
Today, he travels three hours one way every Tuesday to make several styles of authentic Hispanic cheeses at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. He and Heydi leave their home in Random Lake at 3 a.m. and usually don't get home until past 8 p.m.
The long hours are worth it, Cesar says, because he's doing what he's always wanted to do: make cheese. The rest of the week, he works as an auto mechanic, tearing apart and rebuilding engines. But his favorite day of the week is Tuesday - cheesemaking day.
My favorite is Cesar's Queso Oaxaca, a Mexican string cheese made in the traditional manner, by hand. Wearing three layers of gloves in order to handle the 100+ degree cheese, he pulls the fifty pound ropes of cheese through his fingers into thinner and thinner strings. Then his wife, Heydi, cuts and forms the ropes into balls and ties them into knots, the traditional shape of hand-stretched, Oaxacan-style string cheese.
Cesar & Heydi also form their Oaxaca into traditional sticks of American-style string cheese, sold in packs of about 7 or 8 sticks. And let me warn you, it's expensive. Available at retail stores anywhere between $12 and $16 per pound, a package of eight sticks will set you back about $10. Fear not, it is TOTALLY worth it. I've never had string cheese this good - it stretches into angel-hair pieces and the taste is amazing. Fresh, creamy, the way string cheese should be. I bought eight packages last Saturday and four are already gone. When people hear I have Cesar's string cheese in my fridge, they make a point of stopping over.
Cesar also makes an amazing Queso Quesadilla cheese, a soft, elastic Mexican cheese that is the base cheese for quesadillas. It's also great for nachos. Cesar's now making it in a couple of flavors, including Jalapeno and Chipotle. Both have the perfect amount of flavorings - not so much as to overpower the cheese, but just enough to give it just the right kick of spicy.
The final cheese crafted by Cesar is traditional Queso Fresco, meaning literally, "fresh cheese." It's a traditional Mexican cheese and a quintessential part of Mexican cuisine. In Mexico, queso fresco is usually a raw milk cheese, but here in the U.S., it has to be made with pasteurized milk, because it's no longer "fresh cheese" once it reaches the mandatory 60-day aging rule for U.S. raw milk cheeses. With its crumbly texture and slightly acidic flavor, it can be crumbled atop beans, salads or even rice dishes.
If you have the opportunity to purchase Cesar cheeses, I would highly recommend all of them. In addition to Fromagination, I know they're also available at Larry's Market in Brown Deer, at several of the Sendik's stores in eastern Wisconsin, and nationally, they are now being carried by Cowgirl Creamery. You'll be hard-pressed to find any more authentic Mexican cheeses than those made by Cesar!