Monday, November 22, 2010

Urban Cheese

Ahhh ... the power of cheese. Evidenced by the growing development of farmstead cheeses on Wisconsin dairy farms, combined with the conversion of commodity to the more profitable (and tastier) specialty cheese produced at existing dairy plants, that glorious food we call cheese has been boosting the state's rural economy for years.

Now, cities are getting in on the action. Last week, a developer in Milwaukee announced plans to create a $7.2 million, four-story building with a cheesemaking plant on the street level in the Walker's Point area at 538 S. 2nd St.

The 30,000-square-foot building would be developed on a 6,400-square-foot vacant lot by Kaufmann LeSage LLC. The first floor would be leased to Clock Shadow Creamery, a cheese plant and retail shop operated by Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, well-known in the state for operating his own cheese-incubator company at Cedar Grove Cheese near Plain.

The proposed Clock Shadow Creamery would include public viewing areas and a cheesemaker apprenticeship program. The cheese plant's name is a reference to the nearby four-sided clock at Rockwell Automation Inc.'s headquarters (thanks to Milwaukee Daily Photo for the above image).

The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel reported last week that occcupying the second and third floors of the proposed development would be three health care providers: Aurora Walker's Point Community Clinic, which provides free primary and preventive care; The Healing Center, which offers support services for sexual abuse and assault survivors; and CORE/El Centro, which provides stress management, exercise classes and other health services. The top floor of the building remains available. Three non-profit organizations and two small for-profit companies have expressed interest in the space, according to Kaufmann LeSage.

The project got a boost last Thursday, as the city's Redevelopment Authority unanimously approved a $900,000 EPA brownfield cleanup loan to help pay for environmental cleanup work at the site, which was once used as a scrap yard and is considered to be contaminated. At a hearing last week, four people emailed objections to the plan, while eight others sent in letters of support.

Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel writes this morning that the objecting emails mostly involved residents who didn't want to see nightclubs removed from the neighborhood. But as one clever reader, named "EvilLiberal" wrote in a comment on a story published on the proposal last week, the development and its cheesemaking facility could be an answer to the neighborhood's reputation:

"Horror!! Shock!! Terror!! We MUST unite to prevent this travesty of family values to infest our streets! Milk maids everywhere! Milking in public!! And Maiding!! It will be chaos! All those lewd cows doing what cows do, and no shovels! Where are the strip joint proprietors when you need them?"

Sounds to me that cheese is just what this neighborhood needs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sheep Symposium

Sheep people from across the continent gathered this past weekend at the 16th annual Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium, the major annual event of the dairy sheep industry in North America. Every year, the event is held in a different location, and this year, lucky for us Wisconsinites, it was hosted in Eau Claire.

The event attracts dairy sheep producers and cheesemakers from Canada, Mexico and more than 20 U.S. states, from California to Alabama to Vermont. In a sign that the American dairy sheep industry is rapidly growing, the conference hosted a record number of 130+ attendees.

Looking around the room during Friday seminars was like looking at a regular who's who of American artisanal cheesemakers. Sitting to my left was Cindy Callahan, founder of Bellwether Farms in California. To my right were Tom & Nancy Clark, of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York. Ahead of me was Pat Elliott, of Everona Dairy in Virginia, and leading a seminar on sheep milk for cheesemaking was Bob Wills, of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis.

After two days of seminars, which featured presentations by innovative producers and top scientists from all over the world, including Master Cheesemaker Ivan Larcher from France, Saturday was tour day - yay! Two school buses of sheep people (and me, with my camera & notebook) motored to Spooner Agricultural Research Station, the oldest continuing research facility in the University of Wisconsin system.

Our tour guides at Spooner were none other than the venerable Dave Thomas, professor of animal sciences at UW-Madison, Yves Berger, Sheep Researcher, Phil Holman, Superintendent, Scott Butterfield, Animal Research technician, and Ann Stellrecht, lead milker.

The Spooner station is one of the only dairy research stations in North America, and is home to about 300 ewes of various breeds. Current research is focused on dairy sheep, especially the genetic improvement of dairy sheep and production of sheep milk for processing into cheese. Other research examines the impact of grain supplementation level on milk production while summer grazing and the effect of ewe lamb feeding level on future milk production.

After a 90-minute tour of the facility, we loaded the buses again and were off to Shepherd's Ridge Creamery, where Jeff & Vicky Simpkins milk 115 ewes and farm 160 acres. The farmstead creamery has been seven years in the making, and after three years of cheesemaking (Jeff says the first year's cheese was terrible, the second year's cheese was edible, and this year's cheese is actually pretty good), 2010 marks the first year the creamery has offered cheese for sale (see this September blog post about their awesome Oliver's Reserve).

Jeff provided us a tour of the sheep barn and the milking parlor, while Vicky showed us the creamery and cheese room. Her 100-gallon vat looks miniature compared to most standard cheesemaking vats, but it's just the right size for Vicky. She stirs the curd by hand - there's no agitator in sight - and crafts several different raw-milk, hard sheep's milk cheeses, which are aged in one of the prettiest caves I've ever seen.

Located right on the farm, the underground caves feature three distinct aging rooms, with handcrafted wooden doors, arches, a stone-lined entrance, and beautiful wheels of sheep's milk cheeses gracefully aging on wooden planks.

While I was entranced by the sheep, the caves, the cheeses and the four inches of snow falling to the ground, my daughter, meanwhile, was making friends with the Shepherd's Ridge farm cats. This one - pictured to the right - would have easily gone home with us, but, alas, mom said no. Thanks to everyone at the Dairy Sheep Symposium for letting me attend your conference as a sheep tourist and learning more about American dairy sheep.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Cheese Festival

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Here in Wisconsin, it takes a tight-knit cheese community to pull off a three-day artisan cheese festival, and boy, do we do it in style.

The Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival started Friday and ended Sunday. It included two all-day dairy tours, eight evening cheesemaker dinners, three morning farmers' market tours, eight different afternoon tasting seminars, an evening Meet the Cheesemaker Gala with 31 companies and 300 attendees, and a 50-vendor Artisan Marketplace that drew 400 people, all of whom went home sporting bright-red Wisconsin Cheese Originals grocery totes chock full of Wisconsin cheese and local gourmet foods.

Yes, more than 1,000 people from around the country spent the weekend in Madison, all in the name of cheese.

And I was afraid I'd throw a party and no one would come.

Thanks to 31 Wisconsin cheesemakers, 22 seminar leaders, 8 chefs, 17 volunteers and a husband who deserves a gold medal for putting up with the festival organizer from hell, another Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival is in the bag. Yee-haw. Thank you to everyone who presented, attended, ate, talked and schlepped cheese. You gave up a weekend to help me promote Wisconsin artisan cheese and I thank you.

Next up: mark your calendar for the Third Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival: Nov. 4, 5, 6, 2011. Same place, same shindig. Just bigger and better.