Saturday, May 30, 2009

Making Cheese with Willi Lehner

After spending eight hours with Wisconsin cheesemakers Willi Lehner and Chris Roelli last week, it occurred to me that making cheese is a lot like doing dishes after a long and fulfilling Thanksgiving dinner.

You've been standing at the sink for what seems forever, washing every last plate, glass and piece of silver your family owns, and just about the time you think you're done and ready to pull the plug to let out the wash water, somebody unceremoniously plops yet ANOTHER dirty pan in your sink. You sigh, resign yourself to scrubbing it clean, and get back to work.

Multiply this experience by 100 and you'll get a good sense of what cheesemaking is all about. It's not just about making cheese - it's about washing, rinsing and sanitizing every last piece of stainless steel in a cheese factory. Over and over. And then once more to just to make sure.

I've got to admit, the few times cheesemakers have let me in their make rooms to watch the cheesemaking process, my apron and boots have pretty much just been for looks. I'm usually busy taking photos, asking questions, and writing notes.

That all changed last Wednesday when the head cheese buyer at Fromagination invited me to tag along and make cheese with him and Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy near Blue Mounds. Willi owns his own cheese cave on his farm, but doesn't own his own cheese factory, so he takes turns renting out different cheese vats and time at neighboring cheese plants. Last week, he was off to Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg to make a batch of his Earth Schmier and a new type of blue cheese he's going to call Bleu Mont Bleu. And I got to ride along.

We arrived at Willi's house at 5 a.m., jumped in his pick-up, and were at Roelli Cheese by 6 a.m. I had brought along my boots, so I put them on, and got out my notebook and camera to start taking pictures. And then I promptly put them away when Willi told me to find an apron because I was going to hold the hopper to fill the cheese forms.

Alrighty then.

Chris graciously loaned me an apron, and being the eternal optimist I am, I stuffed my camera in my pocket, thinking I could take photos and told whatever a hopper was at the same time. Turns out, not so much. Because holding a hopper while Willi dumps pail after pail of very wet curd and whey to fill 50 forms of cheese is a full-time job. And messy. And really wet. By the time we were done, I was pretty much covered in cheese goo and had no photos. But I did get one shot of Willi smoothing over the curd when were done (above). Whoo-hoo!

Holding the hopper to fill the cheese forms was the beginning of a long, tiring and extremely fun and fulfilling day. After we filled the forms for the Earth Schmier, it was time to make the Bleu Mont Bleu. I got my hands dirty. And washed them. And sanitized them. Again and again. I lifted curd out of the vat, squished it into forms, carried it to the press table and assembled the presses. All in between washing dishes. Over and over. Every time you touch anything in a cheese plant, you have to wash it. And your hands. And then once more, just to make sure.

By 1:30 p.m., I have to admit, I pretty much thought I was going to die. I hadn't worked this hard since I was a kid on the farm. And that's when I was young and in shape. I'm now middle-aged and very much out of shape. I also very much now know why every cheesemaker I've ever met has some serious muscles. I'm thinking I've found a new exercise regimen ... only the curd I eat while making cheese will probably zero out the calories I'm burning.

Oh well, it's worth it! Thanks to Willi and Chris for a cheesemaking education and I'm looking forward to eating Earth Schmier and Bleu Mont Bleu in a couple of months. Look for it at the Dane County Farmer's Market, where Willi sells his cheese every Saturday between April and November.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Making Cheese at Hook's

I've eaten my fair share of cheese curds during my lifetime, but I've never had a chance to make fresh, squeaky curds from beginning to end. So when Bill, the head cheese buyer at Fromagination, asked me if I wanted to tag along and make cheese with Tony Hook in Mineral Point last Friday, I cleared my calendar and off we went.

Tony starts making cheese at 3:45 a.m. Big sigh. I like to think I'm pretty dedicated to cheese, but frankly, I'm not dedicated enough to get up at 1:30 in the morning, drive 25 minutes to Madison to pick up Bill, and then drive another hour to Mineral Point. So I slacked off, got up at 3:45 a.m., picked up Bill in Madison, and got to Mineral Point by 5:30 a.m. It was perfect timing, as all the action was just starting -- Tony was just about to cut the curd.

While the curd was cooking, Tony gave us a tour of the plant. I'd been there before, but it had been about two years, and I was surprised at all the new stuff Tony and his wife, Julie, are doing. One of the most exciting developments is the construction of a small aging room they're using to age their new sheep's milk cheese, a joint project with Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery.

Tony and Brenda make cheese a couple times a month, and then each takes half the production home. Brenda ages her wheels in her cheese cave near Westby. She just started selling it as Bohemian Blue. Tony, meanwhile, ages his in his new cooler and is going to add another 45-60 days before he starts selling his as Little Boy Blue. Though made at the same time in the same manner, I predict these cheeses will both be amazing and slightly different, as they are being aged in different environments and sold at different ages.

After touring the new sheep's blue aging room, Tony took us to his original cow's milk blue aging room, where he ages out his perennial favorites, Original Blue, Paradise Blue and Tilston Point. I noticed a funky looking, thinner wheel aging in cryovac on top and asked what it was. Turns out it's a brand new cheese Tony just started selling - called "Bloomin' Idiot"

Bloomin' Idiot is a brand new way of making blue cheese for Tony, as he inoculates the milk with blue spores as usual during the make process, but in a different twist, never actually pierces the wheels to encourage the blue to grow in the paste of the cheese. Instead, he lets the blue mold ripen naturally around the outside. The end result is almost a brie-like blue, soft and creamy and mild on the inside, and as you get closer to the rind, more pungent and bitter. It's pretty awesome.

After a quick check on the cooking curd, Tony then led us into his cavernous cheddar aging room, where pallets (notice the correct spelling, Jane) of cheddars ranging in age from just a few days to 14 years -- yes, 14 YEARS -- were sitting and aging gracefully. In exciting news, Tony will release his oldest cheddar next year as a 15-year cheddar. Whoo-hoo!

After the tour, it was back to the work of making cheese. Tony pushed the curd to each side of the vat and then began draining the whey. Then it was time to start the cheddaring process -- here's a video of the first flipping:

The cheese is actually flipped a total of four times. Here's a video of the third flipping -- notice how easy Tony does it. It's actually much harder than it looks. That's why we don't have a video of me flipping the cheddar - way too embarrassing. :)

After flipping the cheddar curds a total of four times, it was time to mill them. Tony wheeled over the milling machine and we threw the slabs of cheese into the mouth of the milling machine. Voila -- instant cheese curds!

After stirring them a bit more and salting the curd, it was down to more work. We hand scooped about 400 pounds of cheese curd out of the vat and then began to bag it by hand in individual 1-pound baggies. Customers starting arriving at 9:45 a.m. to buy their weekly bag of curd -- Tony makes cheddar curd every Friday -- and soon a steady stream of locals and tourists were wandering through the front door to buy their little bags of squeaky heaven. Bill and I begged off after bagging a paltry 75 bags, and were on our way. All in all, an awesome day! Thanks, Tony & Julie!!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dairy Goats Going Strong

Wisconsin has been known as America's Dairyland for decades, and we've earned that distinction by being home to more dairy farms than any other state -- 13,294 as of April 15 to be exact. With 1.2 million dairy cows roaming green pastures and hanging out in free stall barns, Wisconsin dairy farmers produce enough milk to make 2.5 billion pounds of cheese every year.

Now, a new breed of farmer is enhancing our America's Dairyland title. Enter the dairy goat. According to new statistics released this week by the Wisconsin Dept of Agriculture, the state has 40,000 dairy goats - the most in the nation - and up from 35,000 last year.

Trends in the dairy goat industry include more and larger herds, says Jeanne Meier, director of the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Initiative at the Dept of Ag. She says many smaller farmers are expanding their dairy operations. Meanwhile, on the processing side, factories are sharing milk and working together on product marketing.

Montchevre in Belmont (shout out to my hometown of the Braves) is Wisconsin's largest processor, handling milk from 84 dairy goat farmers, while Woolwich Dairy in Lancaster is second with 26. Both plants have/are expanding their plant operations, with Montchevre about to break ground for an anaerobic digester that will consume their production waste and produce electricity.

Besides Montchevre and Woolwich, Wisconsin is home to a goat cheese cooperative - Mt. Sterling Cheese -- as well as five farm-based plants, including Fantome Farm, Dreamfarm, Capri Cheesery, Caprine Supreme and SommHerr Dairy. Several more plants are making goat's milk cheeses and mixed milk cheeses, including Carr Valley, Nordic Creamery, Cedar Grove Cheese, and Saxon Homestead Creamery -- which is using goat milk from the farm of Larry & Clara Hedrich to produce a great new cheese and one of my favorites: Evalon.

The industry is growing at such a pace that dairy goat industry officials are conducting a study to determine whether it would be feasible to have a research herd in the state. The UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm is a possible site for such a herd. The state will also host a Midwest dairy goat conference in October at Sinsinawa Mound in Grant County. To learn more about field days and upcoming events, a good website to check out is the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association.

To check out all the goat's milk cheeses and products being made in the state, as well as a complete list of Wisconsin's 60+ farmstead, artisan and specialty cheeses, farmstead bottled milk, yogurt and ice cream, email me and I'll mail you a 2009 directory. Just because I like you. Happy day!

Copycat Cheese Blog

In good news, the copycat cheese blog I wrote about this week has been taken down. The company that employs the author called me today and was deeply apologetic. Apparently they were building a demo site for a client and used my content as an example of what a foodie blog might look like. So I'm putting away the pitchforks, blowing out my torch, and returning to what I like to do best, which is writing about cheese. I've taken down my original post, as I did rant and rave on a bit too much.  Thanks to all my loyal readers for their comments. I do appreciate all of you.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

LW Dairy Thinks Big

If you think the days of bottled milk being delivered right to your doorstep are long gone, then you need to meet Larry and Maria Westhoff.

I first met this power couple about four years ago through my work with the Dairy Business Innovation Center. At the time, they were buying milk from a local bottler and running a home delivery business, delivering glass bottled milk and local food products to homes in the Milwaukee area. They had approached the DBIC for help exploring the possibility of building their own milk bottling plant and run their home delivery business from start to finish. 

The Westhoffs knew the dairy industry inside and out. Larry grew up on a Missouri dairy farm where his dad still milks cows today. He moved to Wisconsin where he worked on dairy farms in the New London area and then operated his own dairy farm. In 2001, they stopped milking cows and bought a fleet of trucks and delivered milk door to door for an Appleton-based dairy.

It was about in 2005 that my colleague, Norm Monsen and I, agreed to meet them at their home to talk about possible next steps in growing their business. As we sat at their kitchen table inside their spotless kitchen, I remember admiring the green and burgundy wallpaper and the design of the house. I asked if they had any kids, because frankly, the house looked WAY too clean for any little ones to be around.

Well, turns out the Westhoffs are as efficient at running their home as they are their dairy plant. Because at at the time, my jaw about dropped to the floor when Maria said they had six kids under the age of 8. Today, the kids, ages 5 to 12 (pictured above), are all busy with age-appropriate jobs in the Westhoff's brand new dairy plant they built near their home last summer in Ashippun, Wis.

The Westhoffs have successfully built LW Dairy into a start to finish operation, bottling milk at their own plant and then running an extensive home delivery route featuring a catalog of whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim and chocolate milk. They also market juice and bakery products, as well as a host of Wisconsin cheeses.  Larry's route is in the middle of the night, so customers wake up to milk on the doorsteps in the morning.

He runs to the Lakeshore area on Milwaukee's east side on Tuesdays, Madison on Wednesdays, and the Cedarburg, Grafton and Mequon area on Thursdays. On Friday, he heads to the Germantown, Menomonee Falls and Brookfield area. My guess is he collapses on Saturdays.

Maria does the grocery store runs in Hartford, Oconomowoc, Watertown, Wauwatosa, Brookfield and several other communities. She also does in-store demos. 

Currently, the Westhoffs buy their milk through a cooperative, but are hoping to develop a direct relationship with a local farmer in order to eliminate the middleman.  They're hoping this next step will help make their milk even more affordable to their customers while allowing the farmer to get a premium for high-quality milk.

If past experience is any indication, the Westhoffs will be nothing but successful. What a great example of a hard-working Wisconsin couple doing things on their own terms. Congrats!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Wisconsin Cheese Originals on Facebook

In exciting news, my friend Jeska helped me set up a Facebook page for my new organization, Wisconsin Cheese Originals. I love people who know how to use technology. Now you can keep up to date and share opinions on what all we should talk about at the first annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival this November. Check out the discussion board and give me some ideas on seminar topics for Saturday afternoon!

If you're interested in attending, I'd highly encourage you to become a member of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Tickets to the festival will go on sale to members in August and remaining tickets will be available to the public in September. All events have limited seating and I'm expecting everything to sell out in advance.

Here's an update on the schedule of events -- plans are shaping up nicely. Whoo-hoo!

Friday, Nov. 6, 2009: Meet the Cheesemaker Gala Event -- you'll get to meet a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers and sample their artisan, farmstead and specialty cheeses.  Appetizers served.  Cash bar available.
Time: 6 to 9 p.m.
Location: Grand Terrace overlooking Lake Monona, Monona Terrace, Madison, Wis.

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009: Morning events

Tour Option A: Dane County Farmer's Market & Fromagination Cheese Tasting
Time: 8:30 a.m. — meet in lobby of Madison Hilton Hotel
You'll join a group of 5-6 people for a personalized walking tour of the nation's largest producer-driven farmer's market with special cheese tasting afterward at Fromagination. Lunch at Fromagination included.

Tour Option B: Green County Cheese Plant Tour & Fondue Lunch
Time: 8:30 a.m. — meet in lobby of Madison Hilton Hotel
You'll join a group of 25 cheese enthusiasts on a private coach bus to tour two Green County cheese plants and end with an amazing Fondue Lunch at Roth Käse USA in Monroe.

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009: Afternoon events

Educational seminars: Choose from a variety of seminar topics, all focusing on celebrating Wisconsin artisan cheeses.
Time: 1 - 4:45 p.m.
Location: Hall of Ideas rooms at Monona Terrace.

Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009: Evening events

Artisan Cheesemaker Dine Around at participating Madison Originals Restaurants
Time: 6 to 9 p.m.
Location: Participating Madison restaurants
Experience a culinary treat at one of a several participating Madison restaurants, where each chef will partner with a unique Wisconsin cheesemaker and host a special dinner.

Stay in touch via Facebook, or become a member, and I'll send you a monthly newsletter with news and happenings in the Wisconsin cheese world. Great fun!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New Foster Cheese Haus

A new cheese shop featuring cut-to-order Wisconsin artisan cheeses, an on-site artisan bakery and deli, and a wine, cheese & microbeer cave is slated to open June 1 near Osseo.

The Foster Cheese Haus -- a 20-year landmark along I-94 between Osseo and Eau Claire -- is getting an extreme makeover, courtesy of Wayne Kostka, Nathan Berg, and their partners. An extensive remodeling job commenced January 1, when the cheese house changed ownership, and the new and improved version will open in about three weeks.

"We're still in the 'stuff could go wrong era', so the June 1 date could change, but that's what we're shooting for," General Manager Nathan Berg told me this morning. Nathan is a long-time area chef and most recently ran Native Bay Restaurant near Chippewa Falls. The Foster Cheese Haus is his newest project and from his description of the new place, should keep him busy for a while.

The cheese house is located off the "Foster exit of I-94" -- that's Exit 81 for you non-locals -- and looks nothing like the original. Wayne Kostka -- co-owner of Castle Rock Organic Dairy, a farmstead milk bottling, cheese plant and ice cream manufacturer just up the road -- is in the midst of his magical stone masonry work, creating a stone tower, stone arches and wine & cheese cave where a dingy roadside cheese shop stood just six months ago.

Foster Cheese Haus will feature Wisconsin artisan cheeses exclusively at its opening, and will have a 10-foot cut-to-order cheese cooler featuring "the best of the best cheeses of Wisconsin." Two more coffin coolers will hold pre-packaged cheeses, and customers will be invited to sit and enjoy their cheese in a big sitting room that seats 30. The focal point will be a huge stone fireplace built by the Kostkas.

The shop will also feature Wisconsin foods, including frozen organic and grass-fed meats from local farms, and of course, bottled milk, cheese and ice cream made at the Castle Rock plant. A 15 x 15 sq. ft. wine, cheese and beer cave will also be open to the public. And an on-site artisan bakery crafting artisan breads and crackers will be run by Royce Roberts, Nathan's former sous chef at Native Bay. Customers will also be invited to purchase soups and sandwiches, homemade pizza and deli items made on site with fresh Wisconsin products.

"It's a multi-faceted operation, but the Wisconsin connection really ties it all together," Nathan says. "You could think of it as a renaissance of the highway cheese shop -- we'll still have cheese curds, but they will be fresh and still warm from the Castle Rock vat on Tuesdays & Fridays. We'll still have cheeses, but they will be artisan cut-to-order. The whole building is being remodeled in a 'green' fashion - using recycled barn lumber, local stone, and local products."

"We're taking the highway cheese shop to a whole new level," Nathan says. "It's going to be amazing."

Whoo-hoo! Can't wait to see it. I feel a road trip to Osseo coming on about June 1 ....

Friday, May 08, 2009

Lovin' My Limburger

An amazing thing happened to me this week: I went from believing that I didn't like Limburger cheese to realizing that I actually REALLY enjoy it. As my dad would say: "Congratulations, you've finally grown up, kid."

This earth-shattering revelation happened on Wednesday, during a tour and visit to the Chalet Cheese Cooperative near Monroe, Wis. Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson is the only person left in the entire United States making this infamous stinky cheese. Though I'd been to the plant several times before, I always sort of hemmed and hawed myself out of really eating the Limburger, opting to go for the buttery baby swiss Myron makes instead.

But something happened this time. During a course I took at the Center for Dairy Research this week, I learned about how why stinky cheeses are stinky, and during multiple sensory flavor sessions, learned more about the composition of milk, milk solids and those infamous Brevibacterium linens that turn an inconspicuous cheese into something that can clear a room in less than five minutes. 

Suddenly, in my mind, Limburger turned from a stinky cheese into an amazing composition of milk, rennet, enzymes, salt and bacteria. Turns out once you break down what Limburger really is, you can train your tongue to actually enjoy it.

Traditionally, Limburger is eaten on dark bread such as Rye or Pumpernickel, with onion slices, mustard and a cold beer.  During the early to mid 1900s, this was a popular working man's lunch, as Limburger was an inexpensive cheese - a poor man's cheese.  The cheese actually originated in Limburg, Belgium. First made in the U.S. in New York, it made its way to Wisconsin in the late 1860s.  It never left and is today the only place it's made in North America.

So the next time you see that little foil-wrapped piece of Limburger on the store shelf, remember, it's not just a stinky cheese. It's the perfect combination of milk and bacteria just waiting for you to pair with a cold beer. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Crave Brothers Expand

Eight years, 45 employees and three plant expansions later, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese has come a long way since four brothers decided to add value to their Wisconsin dairy farm and build a small cheese plant across the road from their milking parlor.

It had been about a year since I'd had the chance to tour the Crave Brothers farm and cheese plant with George and Debbie Crave and yesterday was my first chance to get an up close and personal tour of their expanding operation. (I'm taking a five-day "Pasture to Plate - the World of Cheese" course at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, and yesterday was tour day for us participants).

Today, the Craves farm 1,700 acres, milk 1,050 cows, raise another 2,000 head of young stock on the farm, and turn 2/3 of all the milk they produce into amazingly-good farmstead cheese. Milk is pumped from the milking parlor through a 350-foot underground stainless steel pipe into the cheese factory every day.  

Out of 30 million pounds of milk produced this year on the farm, Cheesemaker George Crave and his crew of 45 employees will turn 20 million pounds of it into Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella, Farmer's Rope String Cheese, Les Freres and Petit Frere. They are also in the process of developing new products, which may include an Italian-style ricotta and pizza cheese.

The Craves recently expanded the plant again -- this time adding a 20,000 sq. ft. addition to streamline and expand cheese operation. The plant also features a beautiful underground culinary kitchen and entertaining room, where family chef Beth Crave prepares amazing dishes using Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

George jokes that the farmstead cheese plant is the result of a mid-life crisis. The Crave Brothers family had been dairying in the area since the late 70s when they decided to build a cheese plant on the farm in 2001.

"Some guys get a girlfriend, some buy a race car, others take a European vacation. I built a cheese factory instead," George said with a smile. "I went to my 30-year high school class reunion just recently and the first thing I see is a classmate rolling up in a new red sports car. Then another guy strolls in with a new trophy wife. And everybody is talking about their latest and greatest world-travel adventures. I said -- 'Hey, I've got one better than all of you - you oughta see my separator.' (insert ba-ba-bing here). "

After Debbie (who I would argue is already a trophy wife - she and George have been married 27 years and she looks younger than I do) nudges him and tells him to give a serious answer as to why a farm family would go to all the work of building a cheese plant, George says the brothers spent 1-1/2 years researching ways the family could add value to the operation and give the next generation an opportunity to be involved if they so choose. "It made the most sense to add cheesemaking to the farm, plain and simple," George says.

Today, the Craves have won dozens of awards for their cheeses, including medals at the World Cheese Awards in London, the American Cheese Society Competition in the United States, as well as the U.S. Cheese Championship held every other year.  Most importantly, they make REALLY GOOD cheese. 

I'd highly recommend their Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics Chocolate Mascarpone Pie, a signature recipe developed back in the beginning by Debbie. Enjoy!

Crumb crust:
1 cup chocolate wafer cookie crumbs
3 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted, plus more for pan

Filling: 16 oz. Crave Brothers Farmstead Classics Mascarpone
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, melted
2 Tbsp. Kahlua or Amaretto

For the crust: (if you're like me, I'd just buy an Oreo cookie crust, but for you purists out there, here are the directions): preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter a 9-inch pan. Stir cookie crumbs, sugar and melted butter together. Press crumbs evening in the pan. Bake six minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling: stir the mascarpone and melted chocolate together until blended and no white streaks remain. Stir in the Kahula or Amaretto. Immediately spread into the cooled crust. Cover and refrigerate one hour. Serve with whipped cream. Serves 8.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

New State Slogan

Thanks to everyone who responded to my call for a new state slogan involving the words I think best describe Wisconsin: butter, bubbler or cheese. Enjoy those magnets!

Of all the submissions from loyal Cheese Underground readers, here are my favorites: 
  • "Wisconsin, where the bubblers flow with butter" -- submitted by Amanda
  • "THE WHEY WE LIVE...It's curds all the way in WISCONSIN!" - thanks to Amy
  • "Wisconsin cheese ... bite  me" -- courtesy of Kathy
  • "Wisconsin: It's not just for cheeseheads anymore" -- thanks to Lo
  • "Come to the Original Dairy State, because life's too short to eat bad cheese" -- courtesy of Sarah
And then there was Matt from North Carolina, who not only submitted four slogans:
  • Live Butter in Wisconsin!
  • Cheese, Wisconsin's Natural Choice!
  • You say drinking fountain, I say Bubbler.  You say wow, I say Wisconsin!
  • The Bubbler and the World's Greatest Cheese, Brought to you by Wisconsin!
but who also submitted copy for an ad campaign. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board should take note -- here it is:

Cue the music used in the American Express ads ... and .... action!

Real Wisconsin butter with no fillers -$4.95
Real Wisconsin farmstead cheese made by a farmer's hands-$15.00
Using gas to drive around and find one of the last sources of free water at a bubbler in Wisconsin -- $5.00
Experiencing Real Value, Real Life, and Real Wisconsin -Priceless!

I couldn't have said it better. On Wisconsin!