Friday, October 30, 2009

Cheese For Me, Or Not

Exactly one week from today, my First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival begins. Which means I am trying very hard to remain calm and not venture into nervous breakdown mode with my list of to-dos, last minute changes and irate phone calls from people who demand to buy tickets even though the event has been sold out for six weeks.

So I decided to kill five minutes and visit a new site designed by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, called "Cheese For Me." It promises that by just answering a few short questions, Cheese For Me will select the ideal cheese based on my flavor preferences, style and sense.

The site itself is very calming and soothing and I have to say I spent the first 45 seconds just admiring the cheese shapes swooping into the screen, followed by lovely autumn leaves slowly descending down the page. Ahhh ... feeling more relaxed already.

The first question: "Fall is harvest time. To celebrate, you'd like to sink your teeth into: a) a crispy juicy apple, b) toasted pumpkin seeds or c) squash risotto. Hmmm ... because a fresh donut from Greenbush Bakery on Regent Street was not an option, and because I don't particularly enjoy squishy squash or crispy pumpkin seeds, I went with "crispy juicy apple." Although, I'd still prefer a warm, crispy, juicy fried apple fritter, just for the record.

Second question: "To celebrate the first cold crisp day of the season, you can't wait to: a) snuggle up in your favorite warm, cozy sweater, b) jump in a pile of leaves and head for the pumpkin patch, or c) make the house smell great with a homemade apple pie." What I'd really like to do is to sit in my big purple Lazy-Boy, read my stack of newspapers and Entertainment Weeklies, and watch my husband make an apple pie. So I of course I chose the apple pie option (note it did not specify that I actually had to make it).

Third question: "It's football season and you're in charge of the tailgate party. Expect: a) store-bought chick wings and beer, b) a big pot of chili with all the fixins, or c) food and drink that match the color of my favorite team." Hmmm ... since a growler of Lake Louie beer, a wedge of Hook's 10-year cheddar and a slab of summer sausage were not an option, I actually have no idea how I answered this question. I started thinking about a pint of beer, good cheese and sausage and apparently randomly chose an answer, because the next question was:

"What's your favorite way to forage for food? a) all in one superstore, b) a couple of stops a week at your corner grocery store or c) your favorite specialty stores - the butcher, the baker and the cheese shop." This one was easy - I chose c, but let's face it, when do I really have time to visit the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker?

Last question: "Your ideal day would be: a) hanging out at the coffee shop with a good friend or a good book, b) a little work, a little play, balance is key to life, or c) one with no plans so you can follow whatever adventures you find with complete abandon." Wait -- there's an ideal day? I want to visit that world, so I chose C, the complete abandon option, but then remembered that the last time I had a day to myself I spent it sitting in front of my laptop organizing the dozens of various files that had accumulated on my desktop into actual folders. Truly sad.

Then it was time to click on the "Perfect Cheese for me is:" button. I admit it, I was kind of excited. I thought I might get something cool like Limburger, or maybe an aged cheddar, or a cave-aged Gruyere. Nope. Here is what it came up with:

"Wisconsin Farmer's Cheese"

Yawn. What the hell is Farmer's Cheese? From the picture, it looks like a hunk of boring white cheese cut into perfect little shapes perfect for a Ritz cracker. Blech. In good news, however, there was a "Dare to be different" button, based on my answers. I perked up a bit and clicked on it. The answer:

"Queso Blanco"

Wow. So what I think I can deduce from this exercise is that apparently I am a boring white person who should be eating boring white cheese. I think I'm better off getting back to work and trying to fill in a last-minute moderator spot for my seminars.

Check out the site and see what you get - maybe you'll have better luck!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

New finds at Madison Food & Wine

Thousands of people are trekking through the Madison Food & Wine Show this weekend, sampling hundreds of different specialty foods, wines and beers. I've gone to this show since it started seven years ago and it just keeps getting bigger and better.

Not only do I get to spend several hours walking and eating my way through a trade show, but I get to see the latest and greatest products being premiered at the show by Wisconsin food companies.

My top three finds this year include:

1. Sassy Cow Creamery - Miniature Gallons of Milk.
Oh. My. Gosh. If you're a
sucker like me for anything that comes in miniature, you will love Sassy Cow's brand new adorable one-quart containers, shaped like miniature plastic gallon containers. They just started marketing their white and chocolate milks, as well as heavy cream, 1/2 & 1/2 and eggnog, all in these mini containers. Look for them soon wherever you currently buy this amazing farmstead milk, bottled on the Baerwolf farm near Columbus.

2. Saxon Homestead Creamery - New Cheese: Pastures.
This raw milk, semi-hard, natural-rinded cheese is just hitting retail market this week. I've known it's been in production for awhile, and was thrilled to taste it for the first time tonight. Pastures is an old English farmhouse cheddar style cheese, aged for one year, and boasts a meaty, mellow flavor and lasting finish. This may be the best Saxon Creamery cheese yet.

3. Kelly's Kitchen - Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball.
Finally! Someone has combined my two favorite foods -- chocolate chips and cheese. This product is distributed by Wisconsin's Sugar Brook Farms, and is a combination of cream cheese, butter and rich chocolate chips - you know, your basic low fat, low calorie food. With an outer layer of almonds, this may be the best dessert every created. Apparently it also comes in Cherry Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip. Yum.

In addition to the above fabulous finds, this year's show was my most favorite ever, as I got to be one of the judges for the Semi-Finals for the Dueling Chef competition. Charles Lazzareschi of Dayton Street Grille went up against Justin Carlisle of Restaurant Muramoto. The event is a lot like Iron Chef, except the chefs at this show only have 30 minutes to prepare two separate dishes using a mystery ingredient, which tonight was leg of lamb.

Both chefs made amazing dishes, but in the end, we declared Chef Justin at Muramoto to be the winner. His first dish was actually three separate mini dishes of lamb prepared three ways: 1) grilled lamb with apple and fennel, with horseradish ice cream (more about that later); 2) braised lamb with sweet soy sauce, and 3) braised lamb with mini cucumber salad. The second dish was roasted barbecued lamb, with brussel sprouts, sausage, dried cherries and chipotle sauce. Amazing!

Chef Charles also made two amazing dishes - the first was a roasted leg of lamb with potato puree, mushrooms, smoked bacon and brussel sprouts. The second was roasted lamb with coconut milk, dried cherries and sweet potato hash. And, while tasting these four dishes was awesome enough in itself, here are my three favorite moments from tonight's Dueling Chef competition:

1. Watching Chef Charles grab a half pound of butter with his hands, smush it into his potato puree, and start mixing with his hands. This is proof that butter does indeed make everything better.

2. Trying to guess what Chef Justin was doing behind the counter, only to have him pull out a container of liquid nitrogen and pour it in a pan to make horseradish ice cream. That's what I call culinary magic.

3. Watching Chef Charles dunk spinach leaves into a deep fat fryer to turn them into the equivalent of spinach chips. Who knew?

The Madison Food & Wine Show continues through Sunday night, and tickets are still available. The final dueling chef will be at 3 p.m. Competing for this year's Chef Crown will be Justin Carlisle, Muramoto Restaurant, and Daniel Smith, Liliana's, in Fitchburg. Should be fun to watch!

Monday, October 19, 2009

More Sheep Milk

Take heart, dairy goat and dairy sheep cheesemakers: it's official, you have arrived. Out of a total of 314 cheeses taking home awards at the 2009 American Cheese Society, more than one-third - 133, to be exact, were goat, sheep, or blended milk cheeses.

And, of 133 of those goat, sheep or blended milk cheeses, 33 hailed from Wisconsin. Wowsers. What a difference a few years makes in America's Dairyland.

Ten years ago, if you milked goats instead of cows in the state of Wisconsin, you were most likely to fall into one of two categories: 1) you were Amish, or 2) you were considered to be nuts by your neighbors.

Even Anne Topham, who's been milking goats and making farmstead goat cheese for more than 25 years, says when she entered the industry, her dad told her it was sign she was at the end of her rope. "Only the people who were about to go broke started milking goats," she says.

Well, no more. Let me be the first to officially declare that Wisconsin is entering the glory days of goat and sheep milk, and as a result, goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses. Whoo-hoo!

Of course, this turn-around in our state's dairy industry didn't happen overnight, and it didn't happen by accident. Three years ago, the State of Wisconsin identified the need for helping grow technical resources for our burgeoning dairy goat industry and hired a Grow Wisconsin Dairy Goat Initiative coordinator (goat guru Jeanne Meier). Today, the state has the most dairy goats (33,000) in the nation, is hosting its second Focus on Goats statewide conference next weekend, and recently had more than 100 people - the most ever - show up at a dairy goat farm field day.

And in exciting news, just last month, the Dairy Business Innovation Center (full disclosure - this is a non-profit for which I do communications consultant work) hired the first-ever Dairy Sheep Specialist in the state of Wisconsin. Her name is Claire Mikolayunas, and after first figuring out how to pronounce her last name (say: Mc-o-lay-you-nis), I learned Claire is considered to be one of the premier sheep specialists in the nation.

Just as Jeanne Meier has partnered with host of state organizations, cheesemakers and dairy farmers to help lead the dairy goat revolution in the state of Wisconsin - mark my words - Claire Mikolayunas will do the same for dairy sheep.

With an undergraduate degree from Cornell, a master's in animal science, and an expected spring 2010 doctorate degree in animal sciences, both from the University of Wisconsin, there is no doubt Claire intellectually kicks most people's butts (including mine). She currently serves as the President of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America and on October 9, was selected as an American Dairy Science Association Midwestern Branch Young Scholar for 2010 based on her research accomplishments on the nutrition of dairy ewes with emphasis on protein utilization.

And if you're eyes haven't yet glazed over with all those accolades, let me be the first person to tell you that Claire is really cool, down-to-earth and ready to help people. In fact, if I hadn't dug up her resume and Googled her name, I'd know none of the above info. Because first and foremost, Claire is dedicated to growing Wisconsin's sheep milk industry, and frankly, we can use all the help we can get in that department. It's common knowledge in the state's inner dairy circles that our cheesemakers could easily use double amount the sheep milk currently being produced in the state.

Let me be clear -- it's not as if our dairy sheep farmers are sloughing off. Actually the opposite: Wisconsin leads the nation in production of dairy sheep milk products. With only 13 licensed milking sheep herds, we produce nearly 1 million pounds of milk annually. Nearly 95 percent of that milk is used in the manufacturing of specialty cheeses in Wisconsin and most is purchased by five Wisconsin cheese plants:
  • Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis., producing a variety of blended milk cheeses and sheep's milk cheese
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis., manufactures both its own brand of cheese and contracts with the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative to make Dante and Mona
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wis., this farmstead dairy sheep facility produces a variety of fresh and aged sheep's milk cheeses
  • Roth Kase & Sartori Foods in Monroe and Plymouth, Wis., respectively, are both new to the sheep milk market, but are experimenting with sheep milk cheeses.
The Wisconsin Agricultural Stats Service recently sent surveys to all Wisconsin licensed dairy goat and sheep operations, to follow-up with surveys done in 2006, when both industries were just starting their ascent to validity. Those results -- due to be announced at the Focus on Goats conference in Wisconsin, Oct. 30-31, will help industry specialists such as Jeanne Meier and Claire Mikolayunas better plan for research projects, educational seminars, field days and other areas of interest to help more farmers enter the dairy sheep and goat industries, and to help current producers and processors maximize their operations.

So, let me be the very first to officially welcome Claire to our dairy sheep team, and I'm looking forward to more sheep milk and more sheep milk cheeses made in Wisconsin!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cheezghetti

Tom Lechner needs his own theme music. As Wisconsin's very own "Cheese Power" superhero, Tom's been promoting Wisconsin cheese for years. When he's not working eight hours a day at John Deere on the manufacturing floor, he's coming up with new cheese products and marketing them to specialty retailer stores, one cheese buyer at a time.

His latest invention is "Cheezghetti." Yes, you read that correctly. It is indeed cheese shaped like spaghetti. I can't believe someone didn't think of this sooner. Cheezghetti is actually 1/8-inch wide, 15-inch long strings of Provolone cheese, made at a Wisconsin cheese factory. It pulls apart, just like string cheese, but carries the flavor punch of a provolone.

Tom called me last week, asking if I'd like to meet him and try his new product. He was on his way from Fond du Lac to Milwaukee and was willing to go through Madison to meet me. So at 8:30 a.m., I trekked to the east side Perkins, ordered a cup of coffee, and steeled myself to take notes on a spaghetti cheese. What I got was a whole lot more than a cheesy product.

Mr. Lechner may be one of the nicest, give-the-shirt-right-off-his-back-to-a-stranger-type-of-guys I've ever met. I learned he's been working in manufacturing jobs for the past 30 years. He lost his wife of 36 years to breast cancer last year. He's always been interested in Wisconsin cheese, as a family member runs a cheese plant on the eastern side of the state.

He's particularly devoted to getting kids to eat more cheese. "If I can get one kid interested in good eating habits by making a product they'll like, then that's my goal." But Tom doesn't stop at coming up with new cheese products. Three or four times a year, he suits up in his very own Cheese Power superhero costume, and talks up Wisconsin cheese at various events, high-fiving kids at Packer Games and posing for pictures at local parades.

"At a parade, my competition is a guy dressed up as Mickey Mouse. Kids don't yell for Mickey Mouse, but they'll yell for Cheese Power," Tom says. "We need to keep our dairy industry on the forefront of Wisconsin. If I can help our dairy farmers sell more cheese, then that's what I'm going to do."

You go, Tom. If you're interested in purchasing Mr. Lechner's new Cheezghetti product, it's available in Wisconsin at Woodman's, Piggly Wiggly and coming soon to Festival Foods and Pick n' Save. Look for it in the dairy section. And be sure to hum a superhero theme when you're buying it. After all, you're supporting the state's dairy industry.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Summer Butter

Ahhh ... Chicago. Home to a stellar food scene, great cheese shops, amazing shopping, and Barack Obama. How I used to adore you.

And then you had to go and steal all of my farmstead organic summer butter.

Damn you.

This week is the last chance Chicagoans (is that a word?) will have to buy Al Bekkum's amazing Summer Butter -- an organic, farmstead hand-churned, hand-packed golden butter Al's been making since August at Sassy Cow Creamery near Sun Prairie. Apparently summer is nearly over, and with it, the last of the summer butter is for sale. The truly sad part: I, like most Wisconsinites, never got any. (Stick lower lip out now).

I first learned about Al's Summer Butter through some Chicago blog writers, who were raving about an amazing Wisconsin farmstead butter being made by Nordic Creamery, who sold it in 12 oz tubs at the Green City Farmer's Market on Saturdays for $5.50.

Turns out that Al, one of Wisconsin's 43 licensed buttermakers, is indeed working with Sassy Cow Creamery (a farmstead milk bottling plant between Columbus and Sun Prairie) to produce specialty butters using Sassy Cow's organic cream and the plant's micro butter churn.

Every Thursday since August, Al has been trekking from his farm in Westby to Sassy Cow to make several batches of "Summer Butter," using fresh cream from the Baerwolf's organic, grass-fed cows. He churns between 50-60 pounds of butter at a time, and then hand packs it into 12 oz tubs while the next churn is working. He's been taking between 300-400 tubs of this golden treasure to the Chicago farmer's market every Saturday and selling out by noon.

While all this is good for Nordic Creamery, Sassy Cow and of course Chicago, meanwhile, I am Summer Butter-less. Fear not, however, Al assures me that because the season for Summer Butter is nearly over, he's going to start experimenting with a Cultured Butter, as well as a farmstead holiday butter for the Wisconsin markets. Next spring, he's even going to try making an organic whey cream butter, which I believe would be a first for the state.

"Customers are blown away by the taste of fresh butter - most people have never had a fresh butter before," Al says. "I make it on Thursday and take it to the market on Saturday. People are buying 20 cups at a pop. It's unbelievable."

"People are calling and emailing me every day asking where they can buy my butter in Wisconsin," he says. "Well, I just can't keep up with the demand right now, but I promise to have some butter in Wisconsin stores by Christmas."

I'm holding you to that promise, Al.

So, take note, Wisconsinites. Look for Nordic Creamery butter in specialty food stores by December. And if all else fails, head to the Green City Market in Chicago this Saturday. Better get there early.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Wisconsin Cheesemaker's License

I'm always getting beaten up for my support of Wisconsin's licensed cheesemaker program, but lately the detractors are getting a bit more vocal. On last week's posting, an interesting argument ensued in the comment section (read it here) that instead of writing about artisan cheesemakers, I should be advocating for the end of corporate cheesemaking and lobbying for the requirement of continued education for licensed cheesemakers.

While it's always a pleasure to have other people tell me what to believe, (I always wonder why these folks just don't start their own blog or do their own lobbying instead of telling me what to do), I do have my own views on this subject and am willing to explain why.

So let's briefly recap: Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require its cheesemakers to be licensed in order to craft cheese for retail consumption. The licensing process is no small endeavor. It can take between one and two years, about $3,000 in class fees, at least 240 hours of one's time interning under a licensed cheesemaker, and the passing of a written test, just to legally make and sell cheese in this state. It's a considerable investment in both time and money for an aspiring cheesemaker.

There are those who argue the current licensing system was set up by corporate good ol' boys to actively discourage new cheesemakers from entering the career field, and that today's licensing requirements serve merely as job protection for current cheesemakers. While the cynical side of me (developed through the process of working as a city government reporter for eight years) says aspects of that argument may have merit, it is my belief that in the end, Wisconsin's system of ensuring its cheesemakers be licensed is a good one.

Why? Despite the fairly obvious arguments that 1) requiring our cheesemakers to take basic classes in the science and sanitation of safely making cheese is a good thing (it's been a long time since any cheese make by a licensed cheesemaker in Wisconsin was recalled for lysteria), and 2) such a licensing system speaks to the integrity and how serious we take our America's Dairyland title, another argument has always made sense to me.

And that is -- anyone who is willing to spend at least $3,000 and take two years out of their life to study the art and science of becoming an award-winning cheesemaker is the kind of person I want making my cheese. Anybody can make cheese in their bathtub. That doesn't mean I want to eat it.

Wisconsin's licensing system does a good job of distinguishing the wanna be cheesemakers from the real deal cheesemakers, or as my dad would say "it separates the wheat from the chaff." In the six short years I've been actively involved in Wisconsin's dairy industry, working with non-profits by helping people start-up new dairy companies and launch new dairy products, I've been thankful for the cheesemaker license system.

Why? It's a very easy and early way to test how serious someone is about entering the business. It's equivocal to a business plan - if someone is serious enough about wanting to start a business, they generally go through the time and trouble to develop a business plan. If someone is serious about becoming a cheesemaker, they research and study the licensing requirements, and despite the cost and time involved, if they're committed to the cause, move ahead.

There is one hurdle in all this that I've been struggling with for awhile. And that is --what about the folks who ARE serious about making cheese, but don't have the money to do it? I'm not talking about those employed by medium- and large-scale cheese plants (they are generally sponsored, or at least cost-shared by their employers to obtain their cheesemaker licenses), I'm talking about the small-scale, artisan and farmstead folks who genuinely want to enter the profession but have to save their money for literally years to make it happen.

That's why, in 2010, I've decided to launch an annual Beginning Artisan Cheesemaker Scholarship Fund. Because of the amazing support of all the folks out there who have bought 660 tickets to my now sold-out First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, it looks like I'll be making about a $3,000 profit this year. Coincidentally, that's roughly the same amount it takes for an aspiring cheesemaker to enroll in the five classes needed for fulfilling the education requirements of a cheesemaker license.

So -- take note aspiring cheesemakers -- watch for an announcement from Wisconsin Cheese Originals in January for how to apply for this scholarship. It's my hope to use the profits from my cheese festival each year to sponsor at least one new Wisconsin artisan cheesemaker who is serious about entering this career path, and help him or her navigate the licensing system.

Wisconsin will always need more licensed cheesemakers and I'm looking forward to doing my part in helping make that happen.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Farmer's Market Finds

Farmer's Market season may be winding down here in pre-winter Wisconsin, but our cheesemakers never stop creating new cheeses or finding innovative marketing strategies. A stroll through the Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison on Saturday resulted in the following discoveries:

1. Bleu Mont Dairy "Cheese du Jour" -- I'd provide a photo of this lovely little hunk of golden bliss, but my family consumed it within an hour of it hitting my kitchen counter. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is a marketing genius. He apparently has a few wheels left of a Havarti-style cheese he made 2-1/2 years ago with milk from Uplands Cheese (the same milk used in the revered Pleasant Ridge Reserve), so he cut it up and is marketing it as his Raw & Unplugged Cheese of the Day. There should still be some left next week. I am not exaggerating when I say it's worth driving to Madison alone just to eat Willi's cheeses.

2. Fantome Farm "Moreso" -- Anne Topham, whose name I can never include without the accompanying my proclaimed title of "The Grand Matriarch of Wisconsin Goat Cheese", is still cranking out new stuff. Despite a tough year that included knee replacements and the usual bouts of fighting Wisconsin weather, Anne is a mainstay a the Saturday market. I picked up a lovely little disk of her Moreso, a fresh goat cheese rolled in ash. For a brief glimpse of the tranquility of Anne's farm and the milking of her goats, go here (video courtesy of Kate Arding, Culture Magazine).

3. Capri Cheesery "Celestesan" -- cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer (or as I often refer to him when describing to out-of-towners: "you know, that goat cheesemaker on the square - the short, Swiss quirky dude") has come up with yet another new creation. It's named after his daughter, Celeste, and is a Parmesan-style cheese with slight smoky notes. It is shredded, vacuum sealed, and then sold as a cooking cheese. Great on a burger or a fondue.

4. Hook's Cheese "Little Boy Blue" -- I've written about this cheese in its development stage, but this is the first time I actually got to see it and taste it. Oh. My. God. Amazing. To recap, this is the partnership between the Hook's and Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery. It's a sheep's milk blue, crafted by Tony & Julie at their plant in Mineral Point. Afterward, the wheels are split up between both parties. Brenda ages her wheels in her farm cave near Westby and sells it a bit younger as "Bohemian Blue." Tony & Julie age their wheels in their cellars in Mineral Point, age it a bit longer (the piece I had was made in May) and sell as Little Boy Blue. They are two, very distinctively different cheeses and both amazing in their own ways. Highly recommended.

P.S. for an entertaining and highly-expletive-laden review titled: "10 Things I Love About Madison", including a spot-on review of the farmer's market, check out Salon.com's entry from Sept 6. (I totally stole their photo - thanks, Jessabelle!)