Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Silver Lewis: Success Story

After 100 years, Silver Lewis Cheese, one of the original four-corner crossroad cheese factories perched on the back roads of Wisconsin, is not only still making cheese, but is going full speed ahead. Having just completed an expansion that not only doubled its size, but doubled production, this 15-farmer strong cooperative is one of Wisconsin's best examples of what can happen when a rural community pulls together.

It was nearly five years ago when the plant's long-time cheesemaker decided to retire and put the cheese factory up for sale. Back then, six dairy farmers were shipping milk to the plant - one of them being Don Silver, as in THE Silver in Silver Lewis Cheese.

Don is the fourth generation dairy farmer in his family to ship milk to Silver Lewis Cheese. His great grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the cheese plant and Don's grandfather, father and now Don have been milking cows on nearby Silver Road ever since. 

"In 1897, two local dairy families decided to develop a cheese plant here -- one was the Lewis family, who donated the land for the factory, and the other was my great-grandfather who put up the money to build the building," Don told me this week, as we waited for Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen to arrive. Don and five of his dairy farm neighbors - most of them board members of the Silver Lewis Cheese Cooperative - gathered at the plant on Monday to host the Secretary, who was visiting to see this Wisconsin success story.

And it IS a success story. Silver Lewis is now up to 15 dairy farm "patrons", has doubled the plant size with a recent expansion, added a 20,000 pound cheese vat, added four employees, and is now making cheese six days a week. 

The dairy farm patrons are quick to give "new" owners Josh & Carla Erickson all of the credit. The Ericksons purchased the factory in 2005, taking over from long-time renowned cheesemaker Bob Gmur. As a couple of "young kids" -- they have grandchildren of their own, but they seem pretty young to me -- the Ericksons set out to bring Silver Lewis alive. And boy have they succeeded.

Josh is the lead cheesemaker and Carla pretty much does everything else. She takes orders, waits on customers at the plant's hopping retail counter, oversees packaging, shipping and even flips cheese forms when she's walking through the plant (example A: picture above - that's Carla on the right).

They've also started having monthly meetings with their dairy farm patrons, keeping everyone apprised of the financials of the plant. It's pretty obvious both groups have nothing but great respect for one another, and it's showing with the growing number of cheese being shipped out of the place. I was there for only an hour on Monday, and in that time, seven pallets of cheese -mostly Edam and Muenster - were wheeled out the door onto waiting semi tucks.

Also, good news for those of you who by now are thinking you should start looking for Silver Lewis cheese in your stores. The truth is, you've probably been eating it for years. Up until now, the plant has sold nearly all of its cheese as private label to the cheese distribution industry, who sells it under dozens of brands. However, Carla proudly showed the first Silver & Lewis labels to Secretary Nilsestuen on Monday. The labels show off the plant's Old World cheese and speak to the high quality of the Silver Lewis product. 

So, finally, after 112 years, Silver Lewis cheese will soon be in a store near you, with the Silver Lewis name on it. My favorites are the veggie cheese - Monterey jack with a plethora of vegetables mixed in - Havarti, Day Old Brick and Muenster. But then again, it's going to be very hard to go wrong when you see the new Silver & Lewis label. Feel free to try them all.

Friday, February 20, 2009

And the Oscar Goes To ...

Ever wonder why we spend so much time honoring movies in America? This Sunday is the 81st annual Academy Awards, and with all the media hype, you'd think Hollywood had achieved world peace or solved world hunger. Yeesh.

Well, I vote we start an annual Academy Awards Ceremony of Cheese. The creative folks at Fromagination gave me the idea, with their weekly newsletter touting this year's "The Cheese Oscars," so I'm running with their idea and making a few categories of my own. Of course all the winners are from Wisconsin. Deal with it, people.

And the winners are: 

Outstanding Performance by a Goat Milk  Cheese: Snow White Goat, Carr Valley. This cheese won Best of Show at the 2008 American Cheese Society Conference and FINALLY put Wisconsin goat cheeses on the map. Hallelujah.

Best New World Adaptation: Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese. This cheese is a cheddar blue style and is quite possibly the best new cheese I tasted in 2008. Watch for Chris Roelli to become the new rock star of cheese in 2009.

Outstanding Achievement in Affinage:  Lil Will's Big Cheese, Bleu Mont Dairy. Made from the milk produced during the high grazing season in southwest Wisconsin at Uplands Cheese and then aged to perfection in Willi Lehner's underground cave, this cheese is the epitome of Wisconsin terroir. It's also really expensive. At almost $40 a pound, eat slowly.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese. Mike and Carol Gingrich are responsible for showcasing Wisconsin's dairy Renaissance, when in 2001, their one and only Wisconsin artisan cheese won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society. The American and foreign press suddenly discovered Wisconsin was - and is - more than a cheddarhead state (although we make a damn fine cheddar as well).

Best Supporting Cracker: Potter's Toasted Sesame. Crafted in Madison, Wis., and using nearly all Wisconsin ingredients, Potter's Crackers are the best artisan cracker you'll find. Period. Available in nearly 100 seasonal flavors, the classic Toasted Sesame is still my favorite. Pair it with a slice of Marieke's Fenugreek Gouda and welcome to culinary heaven. 

There, all done. And you didn't even have to spend four hours at your television to see who won! Now I just need to craft a Cheese Oscar Statue, and we'll be all set.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Japanese Cheese

I sometimes get questions from alert Cheese Underground readers who are under the impression that I actually know something about cheese. While I really don't know that much, I am lucky enough to know people who do.  So when reader YuFeing Sullivan sent me the following question this morning, my immediate response was: holy cats, I have no idea. Here was his question:

Greetings Jeanne,
I have stumbled on your cheeses blog site that you have created and I am wondering if you can help me with this.
For all these years, every Japanese bakery I go into, they ALL have this type of "Japanese French cheese" bread. They usually would either dice the cheese up and stuff it inside of breads or on top of any crusty breads. The cheese is pale yellow and it is wonderful. Until this day I can not figure out what type of cheese it is but I would like to find out and start making my own cheese bread that saves me trips to Japan just to have the breads that bring me back my childhood. I have attached a picture for your review and hopefully you can help me with this.

Since YuFeing was kind enough to send along a picture (posted above), I forwarded his email to a few cheesemakers and industry experts I know who have traveled the world in their quest to make cheese. And lo and behold by 10 p.m. this evening, one of those people knew somebody who knew the answer. 

Hi, YuFeing

This is Itsuki Tomiyama from USDEC Japan office. We would like to answer to your question for Jeanne.

Japanese bakers use many kinds of Processed Cheese produced by domestic cheese manufactures. One example is the show in your picture. When cheese is used in baking, they should be melted, but like in your picture these kinds of PC has heat-resistance characteristics. That is why they can hold the dice shapes. I assume they use cheddar to make most of PC, but how they make is their top secrets.

If you have any more question, please let us know.

Thank you, Itsuki Tomiyama/USDEC Japan

So there you go. Apparently it pays to know people who actually know something. Plus, it's fun to be a conduit of information. Happy Japanese French Bread eating.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Life is Short so Eat Good Cheese

Winter in Wisconsin means we don't get out much.  Between the below freezing temperatures, six-foot snowdrifts and icy roads, we tend to hunker down and say, "See ya in the Spring." 

I am reminded of this every year when one of our many neighbors seems to always have a baby in the late summer or fall.  We go to visit the new bundle of joy, take over the customary gift basket, wave to mom and dad every day as they walk by with the stroller, and generally feel good about life and its many blessings.

And then winter hits and we don't see these people again for six months. In the spring, their babies are no longer pink and blue bundles -- these little folks have transformed into walking, talking toddlers in what seems a blink of an eye. And I think, holy crap, where does the time go?

One of my friends sent me an email this week that said:

Five simple rules to be happy:
1. Free your heart from hatred.
2. Free your mind from worries.
3. Live simply.
4. Give more.
5. Expect less.

I would add one more, with apologies to Michael Pollan, whom I am totally ripping this off from and making it my own: 

6. Eat good food. Not too much. Especially Cheese.

And for the love of god, please think spring. I really do want to see my neighbors again.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Making Cheese With Marieke

It's amazing how heavy cheese can be. Now I know why cheesemakers have so many muscles.

On Monday, I had the awesome opportunity to make cheese with Marieke Penterman at Hollands Family Farm in Thorp, Wis. From adding the rennet to washing and then pressing the curd, to cutting the curd and then finally heaving giant blocks of pressed curd into forms and then into the cheese presses -- making cheese is a lot of work. It reminds me why I have so much respect for cheesemakers.

I left Madison at the insane hour of 5:20 a.m. (nothing like driving two hours in the dark to NOT wake you up) to get to Marieke's place in time to add the rennet to the morning's milk, which travels a whole distance of about 50 yards from the farm's milking parlor to the cheesrie. Four days a week, Marieke and her small crew turn 1,000 gallons of milk into 800 pounds of different styles of Dutch Gouda.

Monday marked the inaugural make of Basil Pesto Gouda - Marieke promised us we could try it in 60 days, as all of her cheeses are raw milk cheeses and must be aged a minimum of 60 days to satisfy USDA rules. I did eat some of the raw curd right out of the vat, though, and not surprisingly, I am still alive. Raw curd tastes a lot like whole milk, by the way - yummy.

All of Marieke's equipment, including her brand new double O cheese vat (it's shaped like a snowman) comes from her home country of Holland. All the equipment, all the ingredients, even the wax coating is shipped from Holland. As Marieke says, "the only thing from America is the milk."

In 2002, Rolf and Marieke moved to the United States to start a dairy farm and in 2006, Marieke built a cheese plant on the farm because she missed her Dutch Gouda so much. Since then, she's won dozens of awards for her Fenugreek, Raw Milk, Aged, Cumin, Black Pepper and Smoked Goudas, and it's easy to see why: she and her small staff are absolutely vigilant in their cheesemaking routine - every step is recorded, every batch is meticulously watched and sometimes even the "mistakes" taste good - such as the batch of green cheese she made a couple of months ago in honor of the Green Bay Packers, which actually turned teal. Whoops. It still tastes good, though.

I even had the honor of tasting the very first wheel she ever made in November of 2006 - she still has about a 2-pound wedge left - and wow, was it amazing. She's working on keeping a few wheels from certain batches to age out longer, and I can't wait. I bet an extra aged wheel of Marieke Gouda would taste like pure heaven.

Marieke doesn't only make good cheese - she makes amazing meals and is one of the most patient mothers I've ever seen.  I can't even fathom how she gets everything done. The woman has four children - four-year-old twin daughters, a two-year old son and 1-year-old daughter.  

And, she's expecting another baby Penterman in May - yes do the math - she will have five children under the age of five. OMG. She also makes lunch and dinner every day from scratch -- she made a special batch of homemade vegetable soup and rundulees scalada (Dutch potato salad with beef, pickles and onions) for us - of course all the staff takes turn breaking for lunch - who wouldn't with food like that available? 

She's also a great boss and it's easy to tell that her staff adore her. Her husband, Rolf, is also an amazing guy - he manages the 800-cow dairy and also helps in the cheesrie. The pair make a great team. And I have a feeling the next generation will do just as well!