Monday, September 28, 2009

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

I'm not sure how well Aesop's fable, the Tortoise and the Hare, translates into Spanish, but I'm always reminded of this story every time I talk with Cesar Luis, cheesemaker/owner of Cesar's Cheese in Random Lake, Wis.

I called Cesar last week and asked him to ship me some of his infamous Queso Oaxaca, or as we boring Americans call it: String Cheese. I wanted to buy a bunch and sample it at the Food for Thought Festival in Madison on Saturday. As promised, the cheese arrived right on time, still cold from the ice packs, and I went to work cutting it up for samples. I figured 10 packages of 10 sticks, cut up into bite size pieces would be enough for a morning of sampling, right?

Uh ... wrong. I started sampling Cesar's Queso Oaxaca at 9 a.m.. and it was gone by 10:30. Good thing I had brought a variety of other Wisconsin artisan cheeses with me, as Cesar's string cheese was the hit of the day (by the way, you can buy it in Wisconsin at Fromagination in Madison, Larry's Market in Brown Deer, at select Sendik's stores, including the one in Germantown, and nationally via Cowgirl Creamery).

Why is Cesar's string cheese so good? Because it's the only 100 percent hand-pulled string cheese that I know of currently being produced in Wisconsin. Each Tuesday, Cesar and his wife, Heydi, drive 3-4 hours from their home in Random Lake to Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, spend about 8 hours stretching 15-pound, 50-foot ropes of string cheese in a vat of 100+ degree hot water, and then drive home again. An auto mechanic by day, Cesar may be the best part-time cheesemaker I know.

He's also incredibly wise. Cesar is slowly building his company, one step at a time, without going into debt. I'm always encouraging Cesar to make more cheese, attend more trade shows, start building his own cheese factory, etc., because I want everyone in the United States to be able to eat his amazing cheeses. And he always tells me: "I follow my grandfather's advice. He said to do as much as you can with what you have. Build slowly, or pretty soon you have nothing."

I'm thinking that if Cesar and his grandfather were in charge of our country's economy, we may have avoided the current recession, because Cesar takes his grandfather's advice to heart. He's been working incredibly hard and steadily building his business the past year. When I called him last week, he was excited because he had just acquired the needed permits to expand his garage at home and build a 10' x 10' cooler to store more cheese.

He was also excited because his new cheese labels are finally finished (see above). Picturing him and his wife, Heydi, with the words: "Handcrafted in Wisconsin ... the Authentic Mexican Way", the labels tell Cesar's story perfectly.

Cesar is also busy crafting new kinds of cheese. He recently started making a Mexican Manchego, which he calls "Cheeser" (an obvious combination of the words Cesar and Cheese). It's creamy, flavorful and holds its own on a cheese board or in a recipe. He's also working on a new Cave Aged Cheeser, which is his Manchego with a washed rind. He took a wheel of this newest creation to a cheesemonger recently and got an order for several more wheels.

I told him this was exciting news and since it looks like he's going to have another hit on his hands, I started dreaming up new ways for him to market his business. He very politely let me finish, and then, again repeated his grandfather's mantra to me: "Build slowly, or pretty soon you have nothing."

Ahh yes. Cesar's right. Slow and steady WILL win the race. I just need to learn some patience. In the meantime, I'll just keep ordering more of his cheese.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Organic Valley Pasture Butter

There aren't too many foods in life that butter doesn't make better. And last Friday, I got the chance to see butter made from beginning to end. Not just any butter mind you, but Organic Valley's Pasture Butter, which I occasionally sneak into the grocery cart when my cost-conscious husband isn't looking.

Part of the fun of running your own organization is planning tours that you personally want to take. So I booked a mini charter bus, invited members of my Wisconsin Cheese Originals organization to join me, and off we went for a Farm to Fork Tour of Pasture Grazed Butter.

First stop: the Chaseburg Butter Plant, which produces all of Organic Valley's Cultured Butter and a large portion of their pasture-grazed butter.

Dave Larson, head buttermaker and plant manager, gave us a personal tour of the butter factory, which is generally not open to the public. We got a behind the scenes look at the company's giant butter churn, ghee production facility, and packing equipment.

The Chaseburg dairy plant has been around forever. It began its life as a butter plant, but then in the 1950s was converted to a commodity cheddar cheese plant. It changed owners several times and in 1999, was shuttered by Swiss Valley. Two years later, Organic Valley purchased the facility and today operates it 24/7, with three licensed buttermakers and a staff of several local
employees. In the town of 302 people, the butter plant is the heart of the community.

The facility's make room is square, relatively small, and features what is probably the original terracotta block floor and giant glass block windows. Standing in the center of room, soaking up all the attention it duly deserves, is a ginormous stainless steel butter churn, which cranks out about 22,000 pounds of butter a day.

Next to the giant, rotating butter churn o' goodness is a long, horizontal spatula-type contraption on wheels which scoops the butter out of the churn, and dumps it in a trough. As we walked in, the churn has just dumped its latest haul - 3,500 pounds of butter per churn - into the trough. What I wouldn't have given for a piece of toast at that point, but alas, we were just there to watch!

Once dumped into the trough, another machine squeezes the beautiful golden yellow butter through a stainless steel tube to the packing machine, where it's pressed into waxed-paper-covered sticks and then packed by employees into one-pound paperboard boxes.

Each churn-load uses 7,000 pounds of cream and yields about 3,500 pounds of butter. Dave told us that batch churns similar to the one used at the Chaseburg Butter Plant are a rarity these days, as most plants use continuous-production equipment, which has to be WAY less exciting than watching cream turn to butter through the window of a giant batch churn.

It takes about an hour and a half to make a batch of butter at the Chaseburg plant. Dave explained that first, the cream thickens into whipped cream. Then, after about 40 minutes, the butter begins to "break" - which (I looked up later) means to separate from the residual liquid.

Dave then drains the buttermilk off and continues churning the butter until it reaches the right texture and firmness. We went back in after our first trip through the make room just in time to see this process in action, and Dave even opened up the door for us to take a peek.

As if seeing 3,500 pounds of freshly churned butter isn't enough to impress anybody, the smell of fresh butter is acutely amazing. I kept secretly hoping Dave would look away so I could reach my finger in and take a swipe of butter, but alas, the darn quality control managers were always watching.

"It's a lot like cooking," Larson told us, as I was trying to concentrate on his words and not on reaching my hand into the butter churn. "Anybody can follow a recipe, but that doesn't mean it's going to come out right."

At Chaseburg, it almost always comes out right, and that's due to the high quality work of the plant's buttermakers. It also probably has a lot to do with the recipe, which was originally created by Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi provided the recipe for Cultured Butter to Organic Valley several years ago and the plant still uses it.

I did get my wish to try the butter later in the day, as the folks at Organic Valley Headquarters in LaFarge very kindly hosted us for lunch in their Milky Way Cafe.

Tripp Hughes, director of product management, then led us through a butter-tasting experience. We tried five Organic Valley butters: European-style Cultured Butter, Pasture Butter, Organic Valley Salted Butter, a new whipped butter product and one more that I apparently never wrote down because I was too busy eating the Pasture Butter. Ahhh .... butter ... how I love thee velvety-golden goodness.

Later that afternoon, long after our butter comas had warn off, we stopped at the Miller Organic Dairy Farm near Columbus. Co-owner Jim Miller gave us a tour of his fifth-generation farm, which ships its organic milk to the Chaseburg Butter Plant, where it's made into the butter we got to try at lunch.

The final treat of the day: watching the first cow of the evening milking step onto the farm's new age carousel parlor, which rotates by floating on water. Chewing her cud and swishing her tail, as the Miller family employees began putting milkers on each cow one by one, I couldn't help but think: these are happy cows.

And happy cows make great butter.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sterling Reserve

It's official: I have a new favorite cheese. It's called Sterling Reserve and as my friend Barrie Lynn, the Cheese Impresario, would say: "This cheese totally rocks."

Sterling Reserve is a raw milk, cave aged goat cheddar brand new to the market. Available just this week at Fromagination in Madison (and hopefully elsewhere soon), this naturally-rinded, complex flavored beauty is crafted by Mt. Sterling Cheese Cooperative in tiny Mt. Sterling, Wis.

The cheese has been a long time coming. Marketing Director Pat Lund (who is also a dairy goat producer and member of the Mt. Sterling Cooperative) first presented the idea of making an artisan cave aged goat cheese to her board of directors back in 2003. She calls it a "producer inspired" cheese, and it is, in fact, just the first of what will be an entire line of artisan goat cheeses dreamed up by the cooperative members.

"We wanted to reflect the original intent of forming a co-op, so we produced a goat cheese simple in nature, powerful in presence and complex in flavor," Pat says.

That's a pretty good description of Sterling Reserve. Crafted by cheesemakers Al O'Brien and Bjorn Unseth in 2-pound daisy wheels, the raw milk goat cheddars are aged at the plant for about 30 days, and are then shipped to a farmstead cheesemaker in northern Wisconsin, where they are washed and aged in a true cave environment for another 60 days.

The result is a cheese that can hold its own on any cheese board in any restaurant or cheese contest anywhere, any time. It recently earned a gold medal at the 2009 Los Angeles International Dairy Competition in the ripened goat's milk cheese competition, beating out three cheeses crafted by the venerable Redwood Hill Farm in California. In fact, when Pat recently presented the cheese to some accounts on the West Coast, she says they were all blown away.

"When they asked me where Mt. Sterling was from and I told them Wisconsin, they simply nodded as if to say, 'Of course, where else?"

If you're interested in tasting the magnificent Sterling Reserve, Pat will be at the Wine & Dine in Milwaukee on Oct 10-11, and at the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala at the Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival in Madison on Nov. 6. Until then, call your local cheesemonger and tell them to order it - one taste and they'll be hooked. And no, I'm not sharing what's left of the wheel in my fridge. You'll have to find your own.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Making Jack at Mt. Sterling Cheese

For the folks out there who continue to doubt whether an artisan cheese can really come out of a medium-size plant, I have four words for you: Mt. Sterling Cheese Cooperative.

Located in the heart of 1,000 acres of apple orchards in western Wisconsin on the edge of the thriving metropolis of Mt. Sterling (population 215), this tiny cheese factory has been crafting quality cheeses since 1913. In 1976, a handful of goat farmers banded together to form a co-op, and in 1983, they purchased the creamery. Today, about 20 dairy goat farmers ship their milk to Plant Manager Al O'Brien and Cheesemaker Bjorn Unseth, who together craft a variety of amazingly-good, award-winning goat cheeses, all by hand.

With the lure of asking me to try a new artisan, cave aged cheese (more about that later in the week - it deserves a blog posting all its own), Al invited me today to help him make a couple vats of cheese - one Jack Style Goat cheese, and the other Goat Cheddar.

I got there just in time to witness the Jack Style curds being stirred in preparation of scooping them into 40-pound cheese molds. (Monterey Jack is made a bit differently in that the curds are washed with cold water to cool them down and reduce the acid content). Monterey Jack is a fairly young cheese - usually only aged about a month or so and is very buttery.

At Mt. Sterling, they handle all the curd by hand - there's nary a curd pump in site. Helper Brett was very good at scooping cheese, weighing each bucket to make sure the forms would be filled to uniform weights, and then dumping the curds into each 40-pound block form. Here's a video of that process:

Today, the cheesemakers at Mt. Sterling made 26 blocks of jack style cheese, 15 plain and 9 blocks of flavor, including a couple blocks each of garlic, jalapeno, tomato basil, basamic vinegar & olive, and dill. The flavors are stirred directly into the curd and then scooped into forms. I got to taste them all, and I liked the dill and the balsamic vinegar & olive the best.

Monterey Jack is a fast cheese to make, as the 40-pound blocks only have to press for about an hour. Then it's time to take them out of the presses, one by one, and on to the cryovac machine, where they are sealed, boxed and then wheeled into the cooler until sold. Here's a video of that process:

Mt. Sterling makes about 300,000 pounds of cheese annually and is ramping up production: "Our sales are strong and our inventory is short, so we've got to keep making more cheese," Al says. In addition to their plain and flavored jacks, they also make one of the best raw milk sharp goat cheddars in the country (it received a third place ribbon at this year's U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in the Hard Goat's Milk Cheese Category).

One of the more interesting aspects to me about Mt. Sterling is that both Al and Bjorn are fairly new to the Wisconsin cheesemaking scene. Al, age 52, got his cheesemaker's license in 2005, after retiring as a dairy farmer (he milked about 40 cows just eight miles from the plant), and Bjorn earned his cheesemaker's license just last May. Neither are from cheesemaker families - they both walked into the field pretty much by accident.

Bjorn, age 28, (he was named by his Norwegian aunt) was working construction just a couple of years ago, when his brother recommended him for a job at the Mt. Sterling plant. After just an hour, Al hired him on the spot, recognizing a good worker when he saw one. Bjorn has since earned his cheesemaker's license and is busy recommending other young adults in the area to consider pursuing cheesemaking as a career.

"The more I get into cheesemaking, the more I like it. It's interesting to learn new things, and we've been winning awards these past couple of years. It makes you proud. I'd like to see more high school kids considering entering agriculture and cheesemaking as a career - there's a lot of opportunity here," Bjorn says.

For what Al & Bjorn lack in years of experience, their talent seems to make up for it. The pair are continually earning more and more awards -- in fact, a new cave-aged artisan cheddar they're now making earned a gold medal at the 2009 Los Angeles International Dairy Competition in the ripened goat's milk cheese competition, beating out three cheeses crafted by the venerable Redwood Hill Farm in California. I tasted this cheese today, and let's just say it's pretty freakin' amazing. But you'll have to wait for the full review until later this week ... stay tuned.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Tuscan Dream

I have fond memories of reading Dave Barry when he still had a weekly column in the Miami Herald. My favorite part was when he would refer to an "alert reader" who had written him with "important" news. Turns out I apparently have some "alert readers" as well, and thanks to one lady named Katheryn, a new Wisconsin cheese is now available on the retail market.

Back in June, as part of my "dark and early" summer cheesemaking tour, I made Big Wheel Emmentaler with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, Wis. When I arrived at 3:30 a.m. that day, Bruce had already filled one of his other cheesemaking vats and was on his way to making Bel Paese cheese for a private label client. With all the excitement of making 180-pound wheels of Swiss, I have to say I never gave that other vat of cheese another thought until alert reader Katheryn emailed me on July 28 with this important question:

"When I was in Italy for several months in college, one of my favorite cheeses was Bel Paese, which was buttery and mild. I ate it for lunch almost every day, along with bread from the San Lorenzo market in Florence. Do you know if there is anything similar available in Wisconsin?"

I emailed Katheryn back, with the news that I knew of a Wisconsin cheesemaker making Bel Paese, but it was being sold under another label. When I asked Bill at Fromagination about it, his thought was immediately - "I bet we can get some straight from Bruce."

Well, alert readers, another Wisconsin cheese is now born. Bruce has launched his Bel Paese under the name of Tuscan Dream and it is now available at Fromagination. The first wheels were delivered to the shop yesterday, and it's just as Katheryn described - mild and buttery. A cow's milk cheese, it matures for six to eight weeks, and has a creamy and light milky aroma. The color is a pale, creamy yellow. Bruce is making it in 4-5 pound wheels. I'd say it's somewhat similar to a French Saint-Paulin or German Butterkäse, but not as stinky and much milder.

The best part about this story? This morning, I got to email Katheryn, with the joyous news that a Wisconsin Bel Paese was now on the market. Being the alert reader that she is, she emailed me back almost immediately, saying: "Thanks so much for hunting this info for me. I'll be enjoying a good piece of Bel Paese soon, along with fond memories of Tuscany. :)"

Ahh, another happy cheese consumer. Life is good.