Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Sturgis of Organic

Harley riders have Sturgis. Film fans have Sundance. Cheese enthusiasts have the American Cheese Society.

All are destinations for like-minded folks to meet, share and celebrate their interests. So here's one more -- if you appreciate organic food and are looking for a bit of local flavor, then you now have your own Sturgis. So get in your car, jump on your bike, or stick out your thumb and flag down a ride, because Organic Valley is once again hosting the Kickapoo Country Fair, the Midwest’s largest organic food and sustainability festival of its kind.

Organic Valley – a farmer-owned cooperative of more than 1,300 organic family farmers nationwide – actually launched the Kickapoo Country Fair six years ago as an annual celebration of life in the Kickapoo River Valley in southwest Wisconsin. A few people came, pitched a tent and bonded over organic food. Today, it’s become a major event venue where thousands of fair-goers from across the country gather to hear and meet nationally recognized organic leaders, celebrated musicians and renowned authors.

The goal? To connect around food, arts and regional culture. And, if you're like me, to mostly eat really good food.

Held Saturday and Sunday, July 25-26 in tiny LaFarge, Wis. (pop. 750), the Kickapoo Country Fair features two days of food, music, bike and farm tours, cooking demonstrations, theater, kids’ activities, dancing, author readings, and a keynote panel featuring organic pioneers.

I know what you're thinking. Why would I want to go hang out with a bunch of granolas and what does this have to do with cheese?

Because Organic Valley is an important player in Wisconsin's dairy industry. We have more organic dairy farms - 433 to be exact - than any other state in the nation, and these are not great days for organic dairy farmers (or any other dairy farmers for that matter). With milk prices once again at cyclical lows and feed prices at all-time highs, it's actually costing Wisconsin dairy farmers more to produce milk than they are getting paid for it. In fact, according to a recent report, organic dairy farmers are losing $3 per hundredweight of milk and having to borrow money just to keep running.

So I'd encourage you this year to head on up to the Kickapoo Country Fair to support the state's dairy farmers and celebrate local food. As an added bonus, I'll be leading a Wisconsin artisan cheese tasting at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The event as a whole is a great way to celebrate connections to friends, culture and community. Weekend passes, which include access to all activities, are $10 for adults, $8 for kids 12 and under, and kids five and under are free. Buy them online here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cheese Lady Tying the Knot

I received what may be the best press release of all time today. The headline: AR-R-R-RG, Cheese Lady Be Tying The Knot, Wisconsin Native Using Cheese to Celebrate Nuptials.

Here's the scoop: on July 4, near the shore of Lake Michigan, Sarah Kaufmann,“The Cheese Lady,” will marry Bill Parry in an outdoor ceremony in Manitowoc, Wisc.

Sarah is known as “The Cheese Lady,” because she is an amazingly talented and nationally-recognized cheese sculptor. She has carved hundreds of commissions across the globe, including life size sculptures at every American Cheese Society conference I've attended, and is a well-known fixture at grand openings and food festivals, always busily carving mammoth wheels of cheddar for special events.

Here is the best part about the story: Sarah & Bill's wedding will be complete with a 32-foot long ship, christened the MV (Matrimonial Vessel) Cheese Lady near the banks of Lake Michigan. Guests received their cheese carving illustrated invitations via messages in glass bottles and have been instructed to attend in full costume. On the wedding day, yellow flags with blue anchors announcing “Love Anchored in Cheese” will fly from the ship’s yardarm and decorate the tents.

“Even our wedding rings are designed to look like cheese – bands of gold with cheese dimples and holes!” says Sarah.

Sarah met Bill, a retired U.S. Naval officer, while traveling to San Diego to present a 600 pound, six-foot-long USS Ronald Reagan cheese carving at the home-porting ceremony. “We met because of cheese and everything we do is because of cheese,” Sarah says.
In true “Cheese Lady” fashion, Sarah has ensured her favorite food will be fully incorporated. Sarah will create a Jolly Roger cheese carving for the appetizer table; Bill will cut out cheese hearts of Pepper Jack, his favorite, and gold "dubbloon coin" circles of yellow cheddar. There will also be a Wisconsin artisan cheese tray, made by Sara Hill of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

The “Supper for the Crew” menu created by Linda Miller and provided by Jim Vnuk of All Occasion Catering in Manitowoc, will consist of whole turkey legs roasted pirate style, roast pork with sauerkraut, corn on the cob, summertime garden fresh salad, chunky fruit salad, carrot cake with Jolly Roger flag art and Cedar Crest ice cream with Wisconsin summer berries and chocolate fudge sauce. Beverages will include lemonade (with or without grog!), Wisconsin microbrews, Wisconsin old-fashioneds, Captain Morgan spiced rum, and other assorted spirits.

“And Limes! So we don’t get scurvy,” Sarah added.

In full pirate garb, surrounded by friends, family and cheese, Sarah says she and Bill won’t need to “Say Cheese” to keep smiles on their faces. Here's toasting the happy couple and hope you enjoy your pirate wedding. Ahoy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eat, Drink & Be Merry

It's summer in Wisconsin and that means it's time to plan an event around what else .... cheese! My inbox is filling up with upcoming events. If you're looking for something to do this summer revolving around cheese, the options are endless. Here are a few happenings around the state:

Tuesday, July 7: Betty Lou Cruises in Madison is hosting a special Wine & Cheese cruise on Lake Monona from 6:30 – 9:30 pm. You'll get to see the full moon rising over Madison's skyline and eat local specialty cheeses paired with wines. Cost: $60. Sign up online.

Tuesday, July 7: Bunky's Café at 2425 Atwood Avenue in Madison will play host to a Wine, Cheese and Hors d'oeuvres Tasting to benefit local food nonprofit REAP Food Group. I will actually be leading an artisanal cheese tasting. Chef Dan Fox of the Madison Club, Peter Robertson of RP's Pasta and food writer Terese Allen will also each prepare small bites that highlight their culinary specialties. The event runs from 5:30 to 8 pm. Cost: $20 per person with all proceeds benefiting REAP Food Group programs. Payment at the door. No RSVP necessary.

Saturday, July 18: Wisconsin Cheese Originals is sponsoring an exclusive tour of Roth Kase USA, including the first-ever tasting of Roth Kase experimental & trial cheeses (varieties never before tasted by the public), and an amazing fondue tasting in Roth Kase's elegant culinary center, overlooking thousands of wheels of cheese, gently aging to perfection. This experience is open to all Wisconsin Cheese Original members - join here. Event cost: $15.

Monday, July 27: Chef Andrea Curto-Randazzo, co-owner of Talula in Miami Beach, Florida, will lead a class at the Carr Valley Cooking School in Sauk City, Wis. She will share her eclectic blended style of cooking from her special risottos and homemade pastas to southwestern styled seafood. Chef Andrea is one of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's 2009 Chef Ambassadors. Event runs from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Cost: $45. Sign up online.

Tuesday, August 25: Larry's Market in Brown Deer, Wis., is hosting a series of cheese classes all summer (go here to view them all), but one of the most interesting will be the Blue Ribbon Cheeses Event. You'll be among the first to try some of the award winning cheeses from the American Cheese Society’s annual competition and Wisconsin’s State Fair competition. Cost: $25.00

Happy cheese eating!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cesar Cheese Now at Fromagination

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!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Making Big Wheel Emmentaler

Bill from Fromagination and I continued our "dark and early" tour of making cheese with Wisconsin cheesemakers this morning. Today it was off to Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello, Wis., to craft 180-pound wheels of Emmentaler (Swiss) with Bruce Workman. Here's a play-by-play of this morning's adventure:

2:10 AM: Cat wakes me up.

2:30 AM: Alarm goes off. The cat is now
sound asleep on top of my head. Extract myself from
cat and get ready to start the day.

2:45 AM: After a quick breakfast, leave the house in my CHZ GEEK car.

2:48 AM: Realize I forgot the sandwich I made for later at home. Turn car around, retrieve sandwich.

2:50 AM: Back on the road again.

2:59 AM: See first deer, slow down.

3:02 AM: See second deer, slow way down.

3:10 AM: Possum begins to cross road in front of car, sees headlights and immediately flops on its side to play dead. I swerve to miss him. I determine possum really need to find a better
defense mechanism in the 21st Century.

3:30 AM: Arrive at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello. All the lights are on and a semi is in the driveway, already unloading a tanker of milk. Apparently I am not the first one up this morning.

3:45 AM: Bill and his girlfriend, Stephanie, arrive. We are ready to make cheese!

3:48 AM: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, the only man in America still making Big Wheel Swiss, informs us he threw his back out about 30 minutes ago while scrubbing the copper Swiss vat and it's apparent he's going to continue to make cheese all day today in massive pain. With Bruce, though, it's hard to tell, as he's always in a good mood. We pledge to help as much as possible.

4:25 AM: Vat is finally full of milk, time to add the culture.

4:30 AM: Add rennet

4:45 AM: Assemble giant cheese forms, attempt to put cheese cloth over boards. Fail miserably. Bruce helps - it's very apparent he's done this before.

5:00 AM: Cut curd

5:10 AM: Turn up the heat to cook the curd for an hour.

5:15 AM: The sun is starting to rise. Whoo-hoo! Sky is a beautiful pink color. Bruce informs us: "You all may get to live in Madison, but I get to see this everyday. Ha ha. I win."

5:30 AM: Bruce makes the first pot of coffee of the day. THANK GOD. I ask if he has any cream. He smirks at me, tells me to follow him, and then gently drops a stainless steel dipper into the cream tank and hand ladles FRESH CREAM into my coffee. "That's 42 percent butterfat -- cheaper than a latte!" says Bruce. He's right. This is the best coffee I've ever had.

5:35 AM: Time for a quick tour while the curd is cooking. We learn Bruce makes cheese so early in the morning, because between 10 PM - 10 AM is considered "off peak" time by the power plant. He runs his plant on half the cost of electricity by making cheese in the middle of the night. Smart move.

5:55 AM: Bruce gives us the run down of what will happen to the cheese after today. First, it will set in the press for 18 hours. He will then hand stencil it, using the cheese plant’s original Big Wheel Swiss metal stencil. Then the cheese will go into a salt brine for 48 hours. Then it’s off to a cooler for one week. Then to the “warm room” for 60-90 days so it can develop eyes, where it will also be flipped and washed twice per week. Final step: scrub, poly coat, apply the label and maintain in a cold cooler until it’s ready to sell. As Bruce says, “Making it is the easy part – it’s the aging and the maintenance that are the work.”

6:05 AM: The caffeine from the coffee has kicked in. Feeling more awake. This is a good thing.

6:10 AM: Curd has reached the correct temperature. Time to turn off the heat and start the gradual cooling process.

6:40: AM: Bruce measures the temperature, “Rock n roll – We made temp,” he announces. After donning his apron and rolling up his sleeves, the pumping of the curd commences. Turns out that 8,250 pounds of milk is going to only make four wheels of 180-pound Big Wheel Swiss. Yikes. This is a completely different type of cheesemaking than I’ve ever seen.

6:42 AM: Curd starts pumping into vats, creating mini fountains of curd and whey.

6:55 AM: Copper kettle tips up automatically to drain the last of the curd out.

7:15 AM: Forms are all filled. Time to put on the lids, boards and lock everything into place. Wow, this stuff is heavy. Bruce recommends eating "meat and potatoes when you make cheese -- it will put meat on your bones." I wholeheartedly agree. Here's a look at this step in the process:

7:20 AM: Time to start taking apart equipment and wash the dishes.

7:55 AM: After draining the whey, the press table automatically flips. Way cool! The wheels of cheese will now sit in the presses for 18 hours. That’s when the real work will begin, but we won’t be here. Bruce and another cheesemaker will handle the cheeses by hand – lifting from the press into the brine, and then 48 hours later, Bruce says, “Instead of bobbing for apples, we’ll bob for cheese,” and then he and another guy will hand-lift the cheese out of the brine for its journey to the cooler. A year from now, our cheese will be ready to eat. Thanks, Bruce for a great morning of making cheese!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Great American Cheese Board

Roth Käse USA has launched what it calls "the perfect solution for customers searching for an upscale, yet attractively-priced, grab-and-go cheese selection" - three single-servings of cheeses and complimentary condiments, all packaged together as 'The Great American Cheese Board.”

This nifty little product includes Wisconsin cheeses, paired with three crackers, condiments and a wooden pick. The packaging is a technical feat in itself -- each cheese is individually sealed, allowing for a 120-day refrigerated shelf life.

Normally, I'm not a big fan of an extended shelf life, but this product is changing my mind. I can totally see these single-serving gourmet kits being used by airlines, theme parks, movie theaters, and any retail outlet looking for distinctive single-serve offering.

The Great American Cheese Board comes in three varieties, each with three-quarter ounces of three cheeses. We had some friends over last night and here are our reviews of each:

Artisan Selection: Starring three single-servings of Buttermilk Blue, Grand Cru Gruyere and Vintage Van Gogh cheeses, three water crackers and a single serving of fruit and nut mix. This one was by far the favorite. The Blue was excellent, the Gouda (Vintage Van Gogh) was nice and creamy and even had small eye formations, and the Gruyere was Roth Kase's signature cheese - of course it was yummy. The nuts were still fresh and crunchy. A winner.

All-American Selection: Featuring three single-servings of Cheddar, Pepper Jack and Colby Jack cheeses, three water crackers and a single serving of dried apple chunks and cranberries. First off, the dried apples looked terribly unappetizing, but tasted surprisingly good. They were still nice and juicy. The cheeses were better than I expected - the Cheddar had some age on it and was very flavorful, the Pepper Jack had just the right amount of kick and the Colby was mild and slightly salty - perfect. This would be a great choice for kids.

Italian Selection: Three single-servings of Gorgonzola, Asiago and Fontina cheeses, three water crackers and single serving of Kalamata olives. The Gorg was good - nice and creamy, great flavor, the Fontina was your basic Fontina - a mild, almost tasteless cheese, and the Asiago could have been aged more. I couldn't get anybody to try the olives -- no olive lovers in this group, apparently, so can't tell you much about the "perfect-paired condiments" in this one. Of the three, probably the least favorite.

All in all, this product is pretty cool. The packaging is innovative and attractive, the cheeses all taste good, and if you can get past the appearance of the dried fruits, you're set to go. Bring on The Great American Cheese Board!

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Cows Are Out. Now What?

I finally had a chance this weekend to catch up on my farm/ag reading, including the June e-newsletter from Sassy Cow Creamery. If you don't subscribe to this little treasure trove of info, you really need to. It's a great combination of useful dairy tidbits and entertaining farm updates. My favorite part of this month's newsletter is the column by co-owner James Baerwolf, describing the process for rounding up cows who have escaped their pasture.

Here's an excerpt -- if there are any farm kids out there reading this who are now working at desk jobs, you'll particularly enjoy it. I know it brought back memories for me. If you've ever met James (pictured above at a grand opening last year) and know his sense of dry humor, it's doubly entertaining.

From James Baerwolf, Sassy Cow Creamery:

"I wish the cows would be as cooperative as the weather has been. One group of young ones has been particularly mischievous. We got a call late at night that some cattle had been spotted on the road and it was thought they may be ours. In fact they were and they had gotten as far as East Bristol which is three miles from their home. When adult cattle get out at night they usually stay close to home but the young ones always seem to make a road trip out of the occasion. If they start their excursion at the right time of night they can get quite far by morning.

When we arrived at the scene we only found a portion of the perpetrators and we knew that the others had to be out there somewhere in the dark. By 1:00 a.m we had to give up because they could be hiding out anywhere in a five square mile area. In the morning we resumed our search and found them split up in two groups about a mile apart from each other. Rounding everyone up and getting them back to their pasture took a good part of the morning but they didn't give us to much grief. They seemed to know they were in trouble and were happy to be back in their pasture.

Fortunately in June the crops are still small and you can spot a cow that may wander. By later in the summer when the corn gets tall a whole new dimension is added to finding an escapee. It can actually become quite a rush for the thrill seeker but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Being in a tall corn field at night in the dark with a large group of cows that are out is a whole new sensory experience. I would describe it as a cross between running with the bulls in Spain and being in a corn maze with no trails.

First off it is dark so they can't see you and you can't see them. However, you can hear them as they lumber through the field. They can hear you and sometimes that will spook them into running. So imagine standing in a dark cornfield and you hear the cornstalks crashing as a herd of cows are coming through and you know they can't see you. Slightly scared for your life comes to mind as you don't want to be trampled down by the oncoming rush so you start to run as well hoping you are going in the right direction. It is a good time to yell as well so hopefully they hear you above the roar and avoid you. If the group runs by you and you are unharmed then the adrenaline rush is over and you can go after the stragglers.

The smart ones figure out that the main herd is back in and they head back as well. The not so smart ones need some assistance. Now an exercise in silence begins. You go into the corn field and listen as intently as you can for the sound of an eighteen hundred pound cow in a corn field.

Standing there they can be silent but moving always gives them away. When you hear something you start to hone in on the location and seek her out. When you get a few out of the field and it keeps getting later you desperately hope you won't hear anymore. Then you do and you start the process all over again. Eventually it becomes quiet and you know you have gotten them all. All is back to normal, however they now have gotten a taste for corn and you had better make sure your fences are extra sturdy from that time on. You certainly don't want to repeat the experience anytime soon.

If you are getting the picture that farming is a lot of work interrupted by moments of excitement and unknowns you on the right track. When you get up in the morning you really aren't sure what you will all be doing or encountering that day but that makes life interesting. Next month I will tell you about some of the social things that farmers do. One small hint. They usually involve beer tents and tractor pulls." -- James Baerwolf

Ahh, makes me realize my day job pales in comparison. Thanks, James, Kara and all the folks at Sassy Cow for keeping me entertained!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Cheese Curds

It's June Dairy Month, so here in Wisconsin, it's all about dairy for the next 30 days (yes, we will be eating, talking about and consuming even more dairy products than normal - God love us). That means giant cheese billboards, even more cheese commercials, an influx of cheese festivals and of course, press releases revolving around cheese.

My favorite press release so far (and granted, it's only three days into June Dairy Month) is a piece by the state milk marketing board extolling the scientific and nutritional virtues of cheese curds. The release attempts to give consumers specific reasons to eat cheese curds, including:
  • Snacking is a popular part of the American diet
  • 61 percent of consumers view cheese as a healthy snack
  • Curds offer a low carbohydrate, high protein option full of calcium
  • Curds offer the ideal combination of flavor, nutrition and convenience
Obviously this press release was written for people who have never had a cheese curd in their life. Because I don't know anyone who buys cheese curds for their nutritional value. I only know people who eat cheese curds because they taste really freakin' good. If I were writing the press release, here's what I would highlight:
  • Only buy cheese curds if they are fresh -- anything over a day old just isn't the same. If that means you can't get them where you live, then move to Wisconsin.
  • Cheese curds are cheese, so while we may try to pretend they are a super nutritious food, let's face it, they are high in fat but also high in taste. This is why everyone I know has at some point in their lifetime eaten cheese curds until they got physically sick and lived to tell the tale that yes, it WAS worth it.
  • Cheese curds are squeaky, fresh and fun to eat. Just remember to pack a toothpick to get out all those little orange pieces of cheese from between your teeth when you're done.
Traditionally, cheese curds were the leftover bonus from a batch of Cheddar that cheesemakers brought home for their children to eat. Today, cheese curds are a staple in the diet of most Wisconsinites. One company - Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in Ellsworth, Wis., even dedicates their entire cheese production to making cheese curds. The company plans to expand its curd distribution to all 50 states with a new vacuum-seal packaging that extends the shelf life of cheese curds to 14 months. Yikes. I bet they won't be squeaky.

Stick with the fresh cheese curds, people. Because a curd over a day old is just simply a piece of cheddar cheese. And if you can't get fresh cheese curds where you live, then plan a vacation to Wisconsin centered around visiting cheese plants and eating fresh cheese curds straight from the vat -- here's a map. I'd recommend visiting us in June, when we celebrate dairy in all its glory.

Long live the cheese curd!