Saturday, February 27, 2010

Fat Bottom Girl

There's a new cheesemaker in town, and she's driving a Mini Cooper and packing MAC lipgloss. That's right, California cheese chick Seana Doughty and her Fat Bottom Girl have arrived on the cheese scene in the north Bay Area of California.

I met Seana this past week at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, where she was showing off her new hard sheep's milk cheese called Fat Bottom Girl. The cheese gets its name from its unique shape, which Seana says actually began as an accident. She had taken some cheeses out of their forms to be flipped, but then had to hurry out for afternoon milking. When she returned to the creamery (where she's been renting time/space), the cheeses had flattened a bit under their own weight and were starting to form a wide bottom.

She says she found myself frequently referring to these yet-to-be-named cheeses as her "fat bottomed girls," referring to the song by Queen that had come up on her iPod while working in the creamery. Apparently it was meant to be, and the name stuck. She has since continued to develop the process, coming up with the correct timing to achieve the perfect Fat Bottom Girl shape.

While Fat Bottom Girl is the only cheese Seana makes (she's currently sold out - bummer), she soon could be making several more, as she just roadtripped to Wisconsin in December and bought 10 of her very own sheep from sheep dairy farmer Paul Haskins. That trip is a story within itself -- she sums it up as "Operation Sheeporama" --featuring 1 truck, 2 girls, 5 days, 10 sheep, 4,200 miles and a lot of winter icy driving with 10 bleating sheep in the back of a "big ass 4x4 truck."

Sounds like a good time to me.

Seana has since named her 10 ewes, which are specialized 50/50 crosses between the East Friesian and Lacaune dairy breeds. East Friesian sheep originated in Germany and are considered to be the highest producing dairy breed by milk volume, while French Lacaune sheep produce milk with slightly higher milk solids. The famous Roquefort blue cheese from France is made exclusively from the milk of red Lacaune ewes.

Each of Seana's ewes has been bred to a Lacaune ram from the University of Wisconsin's Spooner Agricultural Reseach Station, the only university in the United States with a program dedicated to sheep dairying. If all goes well, her ewes will give birth to lambs in April 2010 and she can begin milking them in May. She plans to increase the size of her flock by keeping all of the ewe lambs and purchasing additional ewes.

Eventually, she'd like to be milking between 100-200 ewes and plans to use every last drop of the milk for her cheesemaking. While she's currently committed to California, I lobbied her pretty hard this week to move to Wisconsin, mostly because I'd love to serve a cheese at my table called Fat Bottom Girl, and her production is too small for any of her two-pound beauties to make it all the way to America's Dairyland. Either way, I have complete confidence that Seana Doughty will be a force to be reckoned with. Expect to hear more about this glam cheesemaker and her Fat Bottom Girl in the years to come.

Monday, February 22, 2010

On Location: Sonoma, CA

Today was my first day at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference here in California. This is a great little shindig hosted by Sheana Davis & The Epicurean Connection. With about 100 attendees -- all cheese trade folks -- it's a fabulous opportunity to talk with industry leaders and opinion leaders in a very intimate setting. Plus, it's 60 degrees and we're at a quaint hotel in wine country. I mean, really, why would I NOT be here?

One of the most interesting talks today was led by Mateo Kehler, co-founder/owner of the Cellars at Jasper Hill and maker of some of my favorite cheeses, including Constant Bliss and Bayley Hazen Blue. Mateo is working with the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the University of Vermont to study whether his state should consider developing a platform for "place-based foods."

Such a program would celebrate the terroir of Vermont and might be similar to a French AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) designation, where products (such as certain cheeses like Roquefort and Comte) must be produced and aged in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas.

While Mateo, being a Vermont cheesemaker, is of course interested in designating Vermont cheese as a "place-based food," he freely admits the work could benefit other industries -- including products such as Idaho potatoes, Kentucky bourbon, Virginia ham, California wine and Wisconsin Cheddar.

Such an idea is not as far-fetched on this side of the Atlantic as one might think. For example, just last year, our neighbor to the north established a Quebec-government-regulated label of IGP (indication géographique protégée), for Quebec’s Charlevoix lamb, making it the first food product in North America to be legally protected based on its region of origin.

With 43 farmstead cheesemakers making 150 different types of cheeses in a state with only 600,000 people, Vermont certainly has a unique angle on the cheesemaking industry. The question is, however, do Vermont cheeses taste different than other cheeses made in other parts of the country? I would argue yes. Just as I believe Wisconsin cheeses - especially those produced in the southwest part of the state where our sweet soils and limestone-filtered water grow grass unlike anywhere else on earth, and in time, grass becomes milk which becomes cheese -- Vermont has its own climate, own culture and own cheesemaking heritage. Compare a Vermont Cheddar to a Wisconsin Cheddar any day and you'll notice a distinct flavor profile difference.

Establishing a "place-based foods" designation just might be the one way to preserve what's left of Vermont's dairy industry. The state, like many others, has watched its smaller dairy farms disappear and its remaining farms get bigger to survive. Vermont, however, will never support large, confined dairy operations like those in Western states, because of "political, economic and environmental reasons," Mateo says.

"We have an iconic, pastoral, idealized landscape. When you think of Vermont, you think of patchwork land and fields," he says.

But getting Vermont farmers (and I would argue --farmers in any part of the country -- they're an independent bunch by nature) to collaborate and work together toward an AOC-type of designation for Vermont cheese will be hard, Mateo admits. "This type of initiative is going to have to be producer-driven, and frankly, I'm not sure if we Yankees have it in us to collaborate on anything."

Let's hope they at least give it the ol' college try, as this is one initiative that could be a good model for other industries around the country.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Geriatric Cheddar

The 2010 Winter Olympics weren't the only competition to kick off last Friday. With the release of a second batch of Hook's 15-Year Cheddar in Wisconsin, the hunt for geriatric cheese is officially on.

In December, cheesemakers Tony & Julie Hook in Mineral Point put 1,200 pounds of their super smooth, crumbly and not-a-bitter-note-to-be-seen-15-year Cheddar on the market. It promptly sold out within two weeks with customers literally fighting over the last wedge at area cheese shops. This time, the Hooks will sell 1,600 pounds, with the majority of it already at area specialty cheese shops and restaurants.

In Madison, the cheese is available at Fromagination, Metcalfe Sentry, Hy-Vee and Whole Foods. If you don't live Wisconsin, do not, I repeat, do not despair. You can order it from Fromagination, which when I breezed in today, was abuzz with phone and mail orders, shipping out blocks of $60-pound Cheddar like it was candy at a parade. Fromagination is also sell a "cheese flight" of 2-, 5-, 10-, 12- and 15-year cheddars, which includes a sheet of tasting notes. Poof! Instant cheese party.

So what's the difference between a 2-Year Cheddar and a 15-Year Cheddar? It's all about intensity of flavor. Good Cheddar will become richer, nuttier and increasingly "sharp" with age. Its firm texture will become more granular and crumbly. By the time it's 12 years old, a good Cheddar will be almost beefy with a caramel tone. At 15-years, it's in a class all its own. Tony compares it to a single-malt scotch, because yes, it's that good.

If you miss this round of 15-year Cheddar, in good news, Tony has another batch aging and expects to release it in December. After that, who knows? Tony says he'll have to continue to taste the current aging cheddars to determine their fate. Let's hope there's some late bloomers in there.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Gingerbread Jersey Grows Up

Five years ago, a dairy farm couple and their children in Augusta, Wis., took a leap of faith and began making cheese from the milk of their own 50-cow Jersey herd. They started by crafting cheese curds, a few flavored jacks and cheddar. Today, they're producing more than 80 kinds of cheese and are winning awards in national competitions.

In short, Gingerbread Jersey is all grown up.

I first blogged about this farmhouse dairy back in 2006, and I regret to say that I haven't done an update in four years. I ran into owners Virgil and Carolyn Schunk last weekend at the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest, and bless their hearts, they still remembered me from when I attended their grand opening on behalf of the Dairy Business Innovation Center in June, 2005. This is why I love cheese people.

At that time, the Schunks were the first dairy plant in the state to make cheese with Darlington Dairy Supply's Cheese on Wheels, a mobile, state-of-the-art cheesemaking plant housed in a 53-foot semi-trailer. Five years later, they're still making cheese in the mobile unit, only it's not quite so mobile anymore. They've built a viewing area adjacent to the trailer, so visitors can watch Virgil make cheese, which he does several days a week, including making fresh curds every Friday. Click here for a short slide show on the Schunk's farm & cheese plant operation.

One of their newest cheeses is Taste of Sicily, a Monterey Jack with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and garlic, which won a gold medal at the 2009 North American Jersey Cheese Awards. In fact, the Schunks won three awards at that conference, out of 77 entries from 29 different producers representing 15 states and Quebec. Not bad for a mom & pop operation making cheese out of a semi-trailer, eh?

In addition to Taste of Sicily, the Schunks are also expanding their cheesemaking repertoire and are making Asiago, Parmesan-style and Romano cheeses. Although Gingerbread Jersey is best-known for its cheddars and flavored jacks, its expanded line of cheeses are very high-quality and reasonably priced. Yum.

So, if you're ever in the Eau Claire area -- more specifically, right off Highway 12 eighteen miles east of Eau Claire (click here for a map), be sure and visit Gingerbread Jersey and say hi to the Schunks. They're good people making good cheese.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Wisconsin Vs. The World

Haven't you always wondered how Wisconsin’s best artisan cheeses stack up against their world counterparts?

Yeah, me too. That's why I'm partnering with the World Championship Cheese Contest and planning an event on March 17 in Madison, Wis., where we'll get to taste at least 35 different cheeses, meet 30 international cheese judges from six continents, and shake hands and sample cheeses from 11 award-winning Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

I mean, really, what more could you ask for?

Tickets for what I'm calling “An Evening at the World Championship Cheese Contest,” are $20 and are now on sale at www.wisconsincheeseoriginals.com. The event runs from 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. on March 17 at the Monona Terrace in Madison. All tickets will be sold in advance, and I expect this event to sell out, so if you're interested, buy early and buy often.

So what international cheeses can you expect to taste? Your guess is as good as mine. We'll be picking them out on Wednesday morning, after they've competed for gold medals in the 28th biennial World Championship Cheese Contest. I do know there will be cheeses arriving from Argentina, Australia, Cypress, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, so expect to see those countries represented for sure.

Wisconsin cheesemakers attending and sampling their finest cheeses will include: Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy; Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese; Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery; Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery; Al O'Brien of Mt. Sterling Cheese Cooperative; Al Bekkum of Nordic Creamery; Chris Roelli from Roelli Cheese; Jerry Heimerl from Saxon Homestead Creamery, Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese, and Joe Widmer from Widmer's Cheese Cellars. Cheeses from Holland's Family Farm will also be sampled.

Plus, when you get sick of eating cheese, you can nosh on yummy appetizers. A cash bar will also be available, but alas, no green beer. Hope to see you on March 17 in Madison!