Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Favorite New Cheeses of 2009

With the kind of year Wisconsin's farmers have faced (flat milk prices, bottoming of the economy, low or no profits), everyone in the agricultural sector seems to be quite intent on writing off 2009 and looking ahead to 2010.

But in the world of artisan cheese, 2009 was a pretty good year. Many of our state's cheesemakers took time to experiment and create new American Originals, with at least 10 new cheeses debuting over the past 12 months. So, in true end-of-the-year tradition, here's my top 5 list of favorite new Wisconsin artisan cheeses that debuted in 2009:

5. Bohemian Blue, Hidden Springs Creamery & Little Boy Blue, Hook's Cheese. This partnership between the Hook's and Hidden Springs Creamery has resulted in two outstanding sister sheep milk blues. Crafted by Tony & Julie Hook at their plant in Mineral Point using sheep's milk from Brenda Jensen's farm near Westby, after the make, the wheels are split 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 and sell as Little Boy Blue. They are two, very distinctively different cheeses and both amazing in their own ways.

4. Valfino, Roth Kase USA. This washed-rind cheese actually hit the market several years ago, but disappeared for two years to undergo more research & development, so I'm still counting it as a new cheese for 2009. Valfino is a creamy, runny, mild stinky cheese similar to the Italian Tallegio and sports flavor profiles of beefiness, earthiness and a hint of spice and fruit. Made by Roth Kase USA in Monroe, the cheese was originally a mistake, and we all know it's the mistakes that are the hardest to reproduce. This is one cheese I'm glad is back on the market!

3. Queso Oaxaca, Cesar Cheese. This was the year string cheese made a comeback in Wisconsin. As the only 100 percent hand-pulled Queso Oaxaca (or as we Americans call it: string cheese) made in the state, this has become one of my all time favorite cheeses. Each Tuesday, cheesemaker Cesar Luis 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. I can't wait to see what he's got up his sleeve in 2010.

2. Pastoral Blend, Sartori. This cheese proves that you don't have to be a tiny artisan cheesemaker to craft an amazing, original cheese. Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski debuted this beauty to rave reviews at the American Cheese Society conference in Austin, Texas this past summer. Pastoral Blend is a hard sheep/cow mixed milk cheese, and perfectly compliments this company's new line of BellaVitano cheeses. Now in limited release -- I just purchased some at Fromagination in Madison - Pastoral is a cheese to keep your eye on. It may just sweep the 2010 award season.

And my most favorite cheese of 2009 is ....

1. Sterling Reserve, Mt Sterling Cooperative Creamery. Dairy goat producer and cooperative member Pat Lund wanted to reflect the original intent of forming their farmer co-op, so she proposed crafting a goat cheese "simple in nature, powerful in presence and complex in flavor." Turns out that's a pretty good description of Sterling Reserve. Crafted by cheesemakers Al O'Brien and Bjorn Unseth in 2-pound daisy wheels in tiny Mt Sterling, Wis., this raw milk goat cheddar is aged at the plant for about 30 days, and then shipped to a farmstead cheesemaker in northern Wisconsin, where it's 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. No question this is my favorite cheese of 2009!!

Here's to a long and prosperous New Year full of new American Originals crafted by Wisconsin cheesemakers!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Saxony

Still looking for the perfect cheese to serve for the holidays? Look no further. I have one word for you: Saxony.

Crafted by the experts at Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wis., Saxony is made from the milk of the Klessig/Heimerl dairy farm, where cows graze near the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer. The Klessig/Heimerl family first started making cheese in 2005, when they converted an abandoned beer warehouse into a state-of-the-art cheese factory. They've been making top-notch cheese every since.

While I've enjoyed their first two cheeses, Green Fields and Big Ed's, I have absolutely no qualms in announcing that I am a HUGE fan of Saxony. Cheesemaker Neville McNaughton was kind enough to give me a quarter wheel two weeks ago to taste, and I served it in three different venues, with three sets of very different people, and got the same result every time.

The first was at the holiday party for the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a non-profit where I do communications work. All 20 consultants agreed it was the best Saxon cheese so far, and to get 20 dairy consultants to agree on ANYTHING is an achievement in itself.

The second venue was for 12 women friends who are all foodies and who have come to expect good cheese when they visit my house. Saxony was the hit of the evening - every one of them kept asking where they could buy it. Saxony is just now starting to hit the retail market, so if your favorite cheesemonger doesn't yet carry it, ask them to order it.

The third venue was for 21 high school juniors and seniors, all of whom when asked about their favorite cheese, either said cheddar or muenster. After tasting a series of several different Wisconsin artisan cheeses, all proclaimed Saxony to be their favorite. One 18-year-old even pronounced it would be worth paying $20 a pound for. How's that for an endorsement?

The thing I like about Saxony is that it's a crowd pleaser. It's sophisticated enough to satisfy the cheese critic, yet subtle enough to win over the artisan cheese novice. It's also absolutely beautiful. If you get the chance, try and buy at least a quarter wheel - that way you'll enjoy the wine-colored rind and raised leaf pattern on the edges. Put it on a wooden cheese board for your holiday table centerpiece and then eat it during the meal. Voila -- your table is complete. Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Skinny Cheese

This just in: women who ate an ounce of full-fat cheese daily gained fewer pounds over time than their less-cheesy peers, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and reported in the December 2009 issue of Self Magazine.

So if I eat one ounce of cheese a day, I'll lose weight? Hmmm ... according to that theory, the more cheese I eat, the more weight I should lose, right? Kind of like my husband's theory that the more often he uses the same towel out of the shower, the cleaner it should get?

I wish.

Apparently, the study says that because whole dairy contains conjugated linoleic acid, it can speed up my metabolism. So, by eating a single-ounce portion (about the size of my thumb), every day, apparently I should look like a model.

If only it were that easy. Have you ever tried to just eat one ounce of cheese? It's literally like trying to reach in and eat a single chip from a big bag of Ruffles. Anyone who can do that is a better person than I. Meanwhile, I've been shipping pounds upon pounds of Wisconsin cheese left and right to friends around the country for the holidays. I don't think I'll include a copy of Self Magazine in my gift boxes.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Chocolate Milk Review

I am not proud to admit this, but I had a temper tantrum in my local grocery store on Monday. I think I actually scared two other shoppers and their children, when much to my horror, I went to the milk aisle and there was no Golden Guernsey Chocolate Milk in the cooler.

Let me be clear: chocolate milk is a big deal to me. If I open my fridge and someone has drank the last of my half gallon of Golden Guernsey Chocolate Milk, there is hell to pay.

Hence my horror upon finding only Dean's Foods chocolate milk in my grocery store on Monday. Yes, Dean's Foods. No Golden Guernsey. Even the single serving Golden Guernsey Low-Fat, Regular and Chocolate Malt Chocolate Milks were replaced by Dean's single servings.

Arghhhhh!!!

Turns out it must have been a) a bad dream, or b) a fluke, because when I went back today, there were half gallons of Golden Guernsey chocolate milk back in the cooler (alas, it appears they've replaced the GG Chugs with Dean's single servings. Bummer). However, this got me to thinking -- last April, Dean's Foods bought Golden Guernsey. While these things happen all the time and the product usually stays the same, there is no guarantee Dean's Foods won't just keep their own chocolate milk recipe, discard Golden Guernsey's, and throw my life into complete and utter chaos.

I am actually so worried about this possibility that I've done two things: 1) I've contacted the Dean's Foods media dept., asking if they plan to continue the Golden Guernsey recipe and 2) scoped out other chocolate milks just in case my beloved Golden Guernsey gets kicked to the curb.

With this in mind, this morning I drove to three local grocery stores and purchased every different brand of chocolate milk I could find. Turns out that chocolate milk is a lot like artisan cheese -- different farmstead producers and local dairies make their own and each one tastes remarkably different.

While I would love to be able to get Tetzner Dairy Farm's milk in Washburn, or Castle Rock Organic Farm glass-bottled milk in Osseo, or Davis Farm milk in Kennan, alas, all of these farmstead producers live too far away and only have local distribution. Because I live in the Madison-area foodshed, the choices I have when it comes to chocolate milk basically break down to the following - I've rated each milk on a scale of one to five cows, with five cows being the best:

1. Dean's Foods -- the container I bought had the plant number of 55-96, which means it was bottled at the Verifine Dairy Products Company in Sheboygan (every carton, jug, bag or bottle of milk produced in Wisconsin is required to have a four-, five-, or six-digit number printed on the container. You can look up that number in this Wisconsin dairy plant directory and find out the exact place your milk was bottled. This is cool for dairy geeks like me, so thought I'd share.) Dean's Foods is a big company, so I'm guessing it may have multiple bottling plants. But its chocolate milk just tastes like a bad Hershey's syrup mix. Too sweet and syrupy. Wouldn't recommend it. Rating: 1.5 cows.

2. Organic Valley -- I keep trying this chocolate milk, hoping it will magically someday get better, but every time I drink it, it tastes like cardboard. No flavor. Nada. Nothing. I like the company, I like their products, but the choc milk just doesn't do it for me. Also, the only plant number I can find on the carton starts with a 27, which leads me to believe it's not actually being manufactured in Wisconsin, as all Wisconsin dairy processing plant numbers start with a 55. Disqualified. Rating: 0 cows for not being bottled in Wisconsin.

3. Kwik Trip -- this LaCrosse-based company has hundreds of Kwik Trip stores scattered throughout the tri-state region, and processes its milk at its own facility in LaCrosse. Although its chocolate milk is not bad, it's not great either. But, it does get points for convenience, as there are three Kwik Trips -- yes, three -- in my little town of Oregon, population 8,000. Rating: 2.5 cows.

4. Babcock Hall Chocolate Milk -- this stuff is pretty good. The problem is, I can only buy it at the Babcock Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Between the one-way streets, the masses of students zooming in front of me on their annoying Vespa scooters, and little to no parking in front of the store, this is just not an everyday option. Good for special events, but I'm looking for milk in my fridge every day. Rating: 4 cows.

5. Kemp's/Roundy's -- this "swiss style" chocolate milk is actually really good. In fact, it tastes exactly the same as my Golden Guernsey choc milk, although it is bottled at a different facility - plant number 55-1500, in Cedarburg, Wis. (whereas my beloved Golden Guernsey milk is bottled in Waukesha). One has to wonder if it's not the same recipe. In any case, if the Golden G goes down in flames, this is a good alternative. Rating: 5 cows.

6. Oberweis -- okay, so this milk is actually bottled in Aurora, Illinois, but much of the company's milk is sourced from Wisconsin dairy farms. Oberweis glass bottles can be found all over Madison, so it's a real alternative, except for the fact that I don't like it. It tastes similar to Dean's and has that Hershey's Syrup aftertaste. Blech. Rating: 1 cow.

7. Nesquik -- hailing from the great state of California, we have the infamous Nestle Nesquik Chocolate Milk. While I was out shopping, I kept coming across these single-serve plastic bottles, so thought, what the hell - let's try it. Yeah, here's my recommendation: don't. Remember when you were a kid and you mixed the Nesquik powder into your milk and drank it? It tastes like that, only worse. Yuck. Rating: 0 cows.

8. Sassy Cow Creamery -- last but not least, we have this locally-owned and bottled milk from the Baerwolf family between Sun Prairie and Columbus, Wis. This milk is the only chocolate milk I tried that is sweetened with sugar, instead of high fructose corn syrup, and you can tell. It carries a milder, sweeter taste - the kind of taste where you can suck down an entire half gallon without getting sick (don't ask). It also won first place at the 2008 World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest, earning an unheard of perfect score of 100. So this milk definitely gets a thumbs up. Rating: 5 cows.

So now I have seven half gallons of chocolate milk in my fridge, all opened, and all missing about 1/2 cup of milk. Well, except for Sassy Cow, which I actually drank most of because it was yes, that good. Time to break out another box of Lactaid.