Monday, April 27, 2009

Getting Paid to Party

Here's an amazing marketing move to get people to eat more cheese -- according to today's Wall Street Journal -- 1,000 American homes will hold wine-and-cheese parties on June 4, courtesy of the French government.

Which leads me to say ... what the hell?

Apparently the French government is fearing the country's highbrow food traditions have "alienated the average consumer." So, in an attempt to boost sales of wine and cheese -- France's most lucrative exports -- it is promoting a world-wide "aperitif" -- the moment before dinner when the French kick back with a glass of wine and finger food.

The French Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, along with a bunch of French wine and cheese producers, is going to spend $2.1 million to sponsor cocktail parties in 19 countries across the world, including the United States.  More than 14,000 Americans have already signed up to host a party, but only 1,000 lucky few will get chosen. Those chosen will receive coupons offering 15 percent discounts on certain French wines and a free gift when they order French cheeses on specific websites. They'll also get a hamper of French-themed party gear, including a CD featuring pop singer Carla Bruni, wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In return for the gifts, hosts must hold a party, take photos, and blog before and after, all in an effort to create a buzz about French wine and food. Afterward, they have to answer a questionnaire about how they like the products they tasted. French wine and cheese producers plan to follow up with a series of special promotions of French goods at local shops and supermarkets.

Actually, the more I think about this, the more brilliant this appears. Who doesn't want to get paid to throw a party?  There's got to be a way to apply this to Wisconsin cheeses somehow ... anyone want to sponsor 1,000 Wisconsin wine and cheese parties during June Dairy Month?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eat Cheese or Die

So by now, you've probably read the hoopla the Wisconsin Tourism Department's been getting over our new state slogan: Live Like You Mean It. Apparently, we paid $50,000 to an ad agency to come up with this catchphrase, which wouldn't be so bad except it's already been used in a Bicardi Rum ad campaign. And, since our last slogan celebrated "Wisconsin Originals," you'd think we perhaps could have come up with something more, dare I say, original?

I personally have always thought state slogans are a waste of time, especially in a state such as Wisconsin, where let's face it: Wisconsin = Cheese. I don't care where you are in the world - and I've been to some fairly remote places - you tell people you're from Wisconsin, and they smile and say "cheese". It's a universal language.

Yesterday, the New York Times entered the discussion we've all been having about the worthiness of the new state slogan, in an op/ed column by Gail Collins. The title: Come Visit. Live Life. Eat Cheese. 

Gail points out that we Wisconsinites were perfectly happy with our America's Dairyland slogan until 1985, when then Governor Tony Earl decided we needed something catchier. He sponsored a contest for a new state slogan, which drew an avalanche of suggestions. A screening committee declined to consider the popular favorite: “Eat Cheese or Die.” 

I think Eat Cheese or Die is actually a quite catchy slogan, but I'd love to hear what you think. Here's a deal for my loyal Cheese Underground readers: the first seven readers who email me what they think the new Wisconsin state slogan should be will receive one of the super cool magnets I just bought today at the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum. 

Here are the rules: your new state slogan must contain one of these words: butter, bubbler or cheese. Why? Because here are the prizes, with information courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Museum:

1. No thanks, I'm having Butter.  
Like many states, Wisconsin has had laws prohibiting and/or taxing colored oleo-margarine since its introduction. Butter shortages caused by World War II led to the scaling back of oleo laws nationwide, but Wisconsin held firm in its pro-butter position. The battle against oleo-margarine came to a climax in 1965, when state senator and butter proponent Gordon Roseleip failed a blind taste test (his wife had been secretly serving him margarine in place of butter for years). Soon thereafter, the majority of oleomargarine laws were repealed, leaving Wisconsin Statue 97.18 the lone remnant of oleo legislation.

2. It's a Bubbler
Perhaps you are familiar with the unique way many Wisconsinites refer to a machine that dispenses water in public places. To most Americans, it is a water fountain or drinking fountain. To many Badger State natives, it is a BUBBLER. "Bubbler" is recognized by the Dictionary of American Regional English and the use of the term is fiercely defended by its users (most notably, my husband).

3. Real Wisconsin Cheese Curds.
 For many years, only Wisconsinites and lucky visitors knew the glory of cheese curds. In Wisconsin, cheese curds are sold at virtually every grocery store, gas station and farmers' market. Fresh curds squeak against the teeth when bitten into, which give them their defining characteristic. For a special treat, batter and deep fry a handful. Yummy.

So put on your creative caps and let me know what you think our new state slogan should be. I'll list the suggestions in an upcoming post. And remember - if you act fast enough and include your mailing address, I'll send you a super cool magnet. Happy day!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wisconsin Blues

UPDATE:  U.S. officials have announced they are postponing new import tariffs on European Union products (including the 300 percent tariff due to be placed on Roquefort today) due to progress in resolving a trade dispute over US hormone-treated beef.  On the eve of today's deadline, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk announced a new delay to May 9 in imposing the additional duties "due to recent signs of progress in negotiations with the EU."  And the saga continues ...

A 300 percent tariff levied by the Bush administration on Roquefort cheese is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow, making the French King of Blues too costly to sell at cheese shops in the United States. 

However, fear not my friends, as usual, Wisconsin cheesemakers have stepped up to fill the gap.

Even though the media likes to portray Wisconsin as the King of Cheddar (and rightly so, of course) did you know our cheesemakers make more than 40 types, styles and varieties of blues? That includes everything from a goat's milk "Billy Blue", to a sheep's milk "Bohemian Blue," to 36 different cow's milk blues, including a cheddar-style "Dunbarton Blue."

That's a lot of blue cheese.  

And before you argue that none of it compares to Roquefort, you should know our cheesemakers are pretty darn creative when it comes to making new styles of blues. Here's my list of the nine best original blue cheeses currently made in Wisconsin:
 
9. Black River Blue, North Hendren Dairy, Willard, Wis.
North Hendren's been making cheese for 85 years, but in 2001, began specializing in blues. I'm a sucker for both their Black River Blue and Black River Gorgonzola, both award winners and striking blue-style cheeses.
 
8. Buttermilk Blue, Roth Kase USA, Monroe, Wis.
The expert cheesemakers at Roth Kase crank out a ton of original cheeses, and their Buttermilk Blue is one of my favorites. This blue is creamier than most and is made from raw milk.
 
7.  Montforte Blue, WI Farmers Union, Montfort, Wis.
A group of farmers decided six years ago to hire a cheesemaker and start-up a cheese plant in tiny Montfort, Wis. They've since struck gold with this award-winning beauty, featuring a piquant flavor and classic blue marbling. Montforte Blue won first place in its class at the 2006 American Cheese Society competition.
 
6.  Billy Blue, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.
The only goat's milk blue on my list, this cheese is unique. Its bright white color, soft, crumbly texture and mild flavor from the goat's milk contrasts nicely with the sharpness of the blue veins.
 
5.  Smoky Blue, Castle Rock Organic Dairy, Osseo, Wis.
This family dairy began bottling its own milk in 2005, and two years ago, started experimenting with crafting farmstead cheeses. The full-flavor of their Smoky Blue takes you by surprise - I've never had another blue cheese like it. Yummy.
 
4.  Ader Kase, Seymour Dairy, Seymour, Wis.
The folks at Semyour Dairy craft a full line of authentic blue cheeses, but my favorite is the German-style blue similar to Cambozola or Montagnolo. Also offered as aged, it blooms into a full earthy, mushroomy cheese.
 
3.  Original Blue, Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point, Wis.
This signature cheese crafted by veteran Wisconsin cheesemakers Tony and Julie Hook is considered THE standard for blue cheeses and is prized by chefs. The Hooks also make several other blues, including Tilston Point and Blue Paradise, but my favorite continues to be their Original.
 
2.  Bohemian Blue, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wis.
I absolutely love the label on this brand new cheese, which reads: "For people with artistic or literary interests who disregard conventional standards of behavior." Created just this month as a joint venture between Hidden Springs' cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and Hook's Cheese's Tony Hook, this cheese will be available for sale in about three weeks.
 
1.  Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, Wis. 
Chris Roelli's newest creation is an earthy flavored cheddar blue with just the right amount of blue mold bloom. Open-air cured on wooden shelves, this cheese continues to be my new favorite cheese of 2009.
 
So there you have it -- this list of blues should ease your misery over losing Roquefort. Pace yourself and work your way through each and every one. They're worth it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Era of Grilled Cheese

April is apparently National Grilled Cheese Month, but I hadn't noticed, since every month is pretty much grilled cheese month here in Wisconsin. Need a quick snack? Make a grilled cheese. Too tired to actually cook dinner? Make a grilled cheese. Bored? Make a grilled cheese. 

This is the mantra of every Wisconsinite. When we're hungry, we eat cheese. It just comes naturally.

So when I read a column posted today by Ron Krueger, of the Flint Journal, on grilled cheese, it immediately took me back to my childhood, watching my mom pull the Velveeta from the fridge, which she kept in a specially-made green plastic Velveeta container with a lid (everyone had one of those back then), slice a couple of big old slabs of the gooey orange stuff they called cheese, sandwich it between two pieces of buttered bread, lightly toast on a pan over the old farm gas stove, and voila, three minutes later, I had the greatest snack ever.

Ron is exactly right when he says Kraft and Wonder Bread had a corner on the grilled cheese in the 70s and 80s. Heck, here in Wisconsin, people I know STILL make grilled cheese with white bread and Kraft Singles (one step up from Velveeta, I suppose).

But since it's National Grilled Cheese Month, let's break out of our Wisconsinite pattern, people, and actually buy some real cheese and real bread. Here's a secret I've learned over the years -- you can use almost any cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich as long as you shred it first. Most cheese, when shredded, melts beautifully.

My favorite is an aged cheddar grilled cheese -- Hook's 5-year or Widmer's 6-year are best -- just shred the cheese a bit, butter your bread, and toast until done. Aged cheddar is particular good with any sort of artisan bread -- a sourdough is a nice touch. I also enjoy a Swiss & marbled rye grilled cheese -- again, just shred your favorite Swiss cheese and toast on buttered marbled rye bread. Yummy.

Laura Werlin has a great book on grilled cheese that came out several years ago, but it's always worth repeating -- she's also doing some recipes for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board this month for off-the-beaten-track grilled cheese. Check them out here

In the meantime, try making a Grilled Blue Cheese & Bacon Sandwich -- here's the recipe:

• 1/2 c. blue cheese, crumbled
• 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
• 1 green onion, thinly sliced
• 1/2 t. black pepper
• 8 slices artisan onion bread
• 2 T. butter, softened
• 4 slices bacon, cooked crisp

In a small bowl, blend blue cheese, cream cheese, green onion and black pepper. Butter one side of each slice of bread.

Spread the cheese mixture on the non-buttered side of 4 bread slices. Cut bacon slices in half and place 2 halves on top of each blue cheese- topped slice. Cover with remaining bread, buttered side out.

Place sandwiches on an electric griddle heated to 275 degrees or in a skillet heated on medium. Cook 4-5 minutes per side, or until bread is golden brown and cheese is melted.

Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wanna Be a Cheesemonger?

Here's a class I'd love to go to if I had a chance -- Becoming a Cheesemonger, offered in Portland, Oregon, by the esteemed Steve Jones of Steve's Cheese.

The press release announcing the class hit my inbox a couple of months ago, and in true post-journalistic form, I skimmed it quickly, decided there wasn't a story, and hit Delete. Today, another email filtered through, this time announcing the May 1 registration deadline and now I'm thinking -- wow, this is actually pretty cool. I could go to Portland for three days, hang out with Steve Jones, and learn how to be a real cheesemonger. Awesome.

The class runs for three days in June and is billed as a mini-apprenticeship. Steve, the son of a herdsman for Maytag Dairy, has had experience in every aspect of cheese distribution, purchasing and sales.  He directed the cheese department for Provvista Specialty Foods Inc., and then spent more than two years as head cheesemonger at one location of New Seasons, the groundbreaking boutique supermarket chain. His next venture was acting as a broker for a group of Oregon artisan cheesemakers. In his spare time, he also did an internship at London’s revered cheese merchant, Neal’s Yard Dairy.

In November, 2005, Jones opened Steve’s Cheese, which can only be described as a compact wonderland of fine cheeses, cured meats and related hand-made food products.  Read an interview with Steve here

So, in addition to working with a great guy for three days, you'd also get to rub shoulders with Sasha Davies, of Cheese By Hand acclaim. Sasha is working at a cheesemonger at Steve's Cheese these days. I got to hang out with her for a day at the California Artisan Cheese Festival last month -- we toured some California farmstead dairies together and it was nice to catch up.

So for all you aspiring cheesemongers out there -- this class sounds like a great opportunity to learn some tools of the trade.  Now if I could just squeeze it into my schedule ... sigh.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Unwrap and Roll Hits You Tube

While You Tube is full of guys singing in self-filmed tributes to Wisconsin cheese like this one, I've never before seen a Wisconsin cheese company promoting itself on You Tube and listing the link on its sell sheets.

Leave it to BelGioioso Cheese to break this marketing barrier. Francis Wall, VP of Marketing, sent me a copy of the company's new sell sheet for Unwrap and Roll Fresh Mozzarella, and directly on the top of the sheet, in bold red writing, is this: Check out our demonstration on You Tube! 

So I click on the link -- see it here -- and sure enough, there's Francis on You Tube, talking about how he's found the perfect appetizer for tonight's dinner -- the new Unwrap and Roll from BelGioioso. 

I have to admit that this product is actually pretty cool. It comes wrapped in a plastic package and at first looks like just any other log of fresh mozz. But when you open the package, it's actually a big sheet of mozzarella that you can unroll, put anything you want on top, and then roll it back up. Then when you slice it - voila - you've got an instant appetizer.

While Francis of course demonstrates the new product using fresh basil and tomatoes - the classic appetizer - you can really put anything you want it this baby.  I recently bought some at the store and started experimenting -- turns out just about anything is good wrapped in fresh mozzarella.  

If you've got kids, try putting in pepperoni and some pizza sauce, roll it up, slice it, and bam - you've got instant mini pizzas.  Or, if you're really lazy, just get out some cookie cutters, push into the sheet of fresh mozz, and serve to your kids as a fun snack.

My husband is a big fan of bacon, so we tried cooking some bacon and wrapping that up -- yummy. Then we went way out of the box and pretty much tried putting anything in the fridge inside fresh mozz, and it turns out that it's actually pretty hard to screw it up. The worst combination we found was whipped cream. Wouldn't recommend it.

Anyhoo, if you're looking for an easy, classy appetizer, I'd highly recommend it. Impress your friends and look like a foodie - but stick to the classic ingredients for best results.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bohemian Blue

Geez, I leave town for a few days and all hell breaks loose back home.  Apparently some nutjob stole a plane in Canada, flew to Wisconsin, steered it close enough to the State Capital building in Madison to have it evacuated, and then got arrested after fighter jets forced him to finally land on a highway in Missouri. 

I always miss the exciting stuff.

But in more important breaking news that revolves - I mean, what else - around cheese, Wisconsin cheesemaker Brenda Jensen emailed me this week with the most glorious news. While I've been traipsing the back country of New Mexico with the family on spring break, Hidden Springs and Hook's Cheese have been busy teaming up to make a sheep milk blue cheese.

Brenda is calling the creation Bohemian Blue and it will be ready for sale in about three weeks. I absolutely love the label, which reads: "For people with artistic or literary interests who disregard conventional standards of behavior."

Brenda, who makes several fabulous sheep milk cheeses at her Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, and Tony & Julie Hook, who make world-famous blue cheeses and aged Cheddar at their plant in Mineral Point, connected at a party at Fromagination earlier this year.  They started talking about the U.S. government's intentions to assign a 300 percent tariff to Roquefort, the world's most famous sheep milk blue made in France, and thought perhaps the U.S. might be ready for a domestic sheep's milk blue to fill the gap.

While their new concoction can not be called Roquefort, due to AOC regulations, Brenda's new cheese should resemble the King of Blues. I can't wait to try it -- I'll let you know just as soon as it hits cheese shop shelves.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Stinky Cheese is Back

Check out today's issue of the Wisconsin State Journal and you'll read that "Stinky cheese makes a comeback."

Freelance writer Brian E. Clark did a great job writing about the renaissance of stinky cheese in the United States. He was also kind enough to interview me for the story and asked me rank my top seven stinky cheeses currently being made in Wisconsin. 

So get out a clothespin and try these one at a time. Ranked in order of “stinkiness”, with the most pungent listed as No. 1., here are my favorites:

7.  Fleuri Noir, Fantôme Farm, Ridgeway, Wis.
This award-winning bloomy rind goat’s milk cheese is hand ladled into forms, dusted with ash and salt, and then allowed to age for several weeks. Cheesemaker Anne Topham sells this pyramid-shaped delicacy at the Dane County Farmer’s Market between April and November.

6.  Petit Frere, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, Wis.
Cheesemaker George Crave created this rich, rind-washed cheese to reflect his family’s Irish-French heritage.  Made in small batches, ladled into draining molds, and then washed daily, the cheese carries an earthy, fruity flavor and velvety texture.

5.  St. Pauline, Capri Cheesery, Blue River, Wis.
This mixed milk, washed rind cheese is crafted using both goat and cow milk and is aged four to eight months by cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer. A firm, raw milk cheese, it is an American Original best described as a cross between gouda and havarti. Cured on cedar boards for at least three months.

4.  Brau Käse, Roth Käse USA, Monroe, Wis.
The aging cellar masters at Roth Käse USA gently coat this rind-washed Brau Käse cheese with brewer's yeast to impart an earthy flavor, creating a creamy interior perfectly balanced with a slightly assertive rind.

3.  Aged Brick, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wis.
Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer makes this surface-ripened stinking beauty by hand, filling each cheese mold with curd and weighting it down with the same bricks his grandfather used. After resting in a brine bath, the cheeses are aged on wooden shelves and hand-washed daily. 

2.  Earth Schmier, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds, Wis.
This signature raw milk, washed-rind Havarti-based cheese was created by cheesemaker Willi Lehner. He injects the cheese with microbes harvested from his farm in southwestern Wisconsin, giving a whole new level to  the meaning of “terroir”.

1.  Country Castle Limburger, Chalet Cheese Cooperative, Monroe, Wis. 
The last of all U.S. cheesemakers crafting the granddaddy of stinky cheeses is Myron Olson at Chalet. This pungent smelling, surface-ripened cheese is often compared to the odor of stinky feet, but once it reaches the palette, it pairs exceptionally well with hearty rye breads and a slice of onion.

Remember to buy these in small amounts if at all possible, and eat it all in one serving. Because I don't care how many layers of foil or plastic wrap you put around these cheeses, they are still going to "stink up" your fridge - in a good way of course. Happy eating stinky cheese!