Monday, March 29, 2010

Grilled Cheese Academy

The folks at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board are getting ready to roll out their latest brainchild to sell more Wisconsin cheese, and it's actually pretty cool. The Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Academy is a "microsite" - touting the tastiest and most sublime gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches ever to grace a plate.

Easy to use and visually appealing, the site provides 30 recipes for some of the most innovative cheese sandwiches you’ve seen yet, ranging from classic and elegant to fun and weird. My favorites:

The Sergeant Pepper -- pepper jack, cheddar, roasted cauliflower and caramelized onions. Yum.

The Lisa Marie -- butterkase, peanut butter and bananas. Kudos for thinking outside the grilled cheese box.

The Appleton -- cheddar, fresh apples and salted caramel sauce atop a slice of brioche. Double yum.

The site also has a "Tips" section, providing info that's pretty useful when making a grilled cheese. For example, it's almost always better to grate or shred your cheese when making a grilled sandwich. You'll see a smoother, faster and more even melt. Also, it's easier to grate cheese when it's cold, so grate it right out of the fridge, and then let it sit out to room temperature before making your sandwich. It will melt better when it's a bit warmer to begin with.

So all in all, a thumbs up from this grilled cheese lover. The only thing left to ask is who is the woman doing the voice overs? Let me know if you figure it out.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Rebirth of Liederkranz

Following a 25-year hiatus, a Wisconsin-based cheese distribution company announced today it will reintroduce the one and only Liederkranz, an American replication of Germany's Limburger cheese, first made famous by a New York cheesemaker in the 1800s.

DCI Cheese in Richfield will partner with Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe (the only cheese plant left in the country making Limburger) to make Liederkranz (pronounced “LEE-duhr-krahntz”), an American-made, surface-ripened stinky snack cheese. It should be available for purchase by month's end in specialty stores across the Midwest.

Liederkranz is an American replication of Germany’s Limburger cheese, made subtly different by the use of a distinct bacterial culture for ripening. It has the same texture and unique aroma as Limburger, but features a distinctively robust and buttery flavor. Similar to Limburger, it's made in small, rectangular blocks and has a moist, edible, golden yellow crust with a pale ivory interior and a heavy, honey-like consistency.

The marketing gurus at DCI say Liederkranz is particularly well complemented by dark bread and dark beer and can be used as an appetizer, on salads or sandwiches, or with fruits. As the cheese matures, the crust turns golden brown and the cheese a deeper color. Both flavor and aroma become much stronger.

Liederkranz has a long and colorful history. It was created in the late 1800s by Emil Frey, an apprentice cheesemaker at the Monroe Cheese Company in Monroe, New York. The owner, Adolphe Tode, also ran a successful New York delicatessen. At the time there was a heavy wave of German immigrants and Tode received many requests from them for Bismarck Schlossk√§se, a traditional soft, smelly cheese. Due to inadequate refrigeration, much of this delicate cheese spoiled in transit. To meet the demand, Tode challenged his company’s cheesemakers to duplicate the popular German cheese. After years of experimentation, Frey stumbled upon a spreadable, Limburger-style product.

The first samples of this new cheese were taken to the famous New York City singing society, the Liederkranz Club, whose members were patrons of Tode’s deli. When they pronounced it wonderful, the cheese was named “Liederkranz” in their honor. Translated from German, the name means "wreath of song" (which is I guess, a good thing??)

After a series of ownership changes, production was moved to Van Wert, Ohio, in 1926. This aided the cheese’s distribution, bringing it closer to its biggest purchasers: the Midwest’s heavily Germanic population. Liederkranz was last manufactured in Ohio, but disappeared from the market in 1985, no doubt losing its dwindling market share to its cousin, Limburger.

In good news, with the rebirth of stinky cheese connoisseurs in the United States, DCI Cheese has apparently decided now is the time to reintroduce this infamous cheese, which I think is great. Stinky cheese is back, baby.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wisconsin Legend: Dave Small

Carr Valley Cheesemaker Dave Small is a Wisconsin industry legend whom you most likely have never heard of. And, as a matter of fact, that's been just fine with Dave. I have no doubt that if he would have had his way, he would have probably preferred to remain completely anonymous until the day he retired (if that day ever actually arrives, that is).

You see, Dave has spent the past 50 years making cheese for the same company at the same cheese plant in tiny LaValle, Wis. And for a cheese geek like me, that's just too good of story to pass up. So when I found out that Dave was being honored at a dinner last Saturday night at the infamous Jimmy's Del-Bar in Wisconsin Dells, I jumped at the chance to go. For two hours, I got a glimpse of what it was like to work with Dave for 50 years, as 30 of his closest friends, co-workers and family members gathered to celebrate a big-hearted guy named Dave Small.

Dave's boss, Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, his fiancee, Lisa, and senior administrator Patty Koenig, hosted one of the nicest dinners I've ever seen in the private Garden Room, and presented Dave with a one-of-a-kind crystal cheese trophy, thanking him for his 50 years of dedication. After talking with Dave and his co-workers, one begins to wonder if, in another 50 years, Sid will be handing Dave another trophy.

At age 69, Small - like most cheesemakers who work in a cheese sauna for 12 hours a day, does not look anywhere near his age - started working for the Mueller Brothers (what Carr Valley was called before Sid Cook bought it in 1986) as a 19-year-old back in 1960. (Former owners Don and Bernice Mueller were at Saturday night's dinner and looked to being enjoying themselves). I asked Dave, if at age 19, he ever thought he'd be working for the same place for five decades. He gave me a perplexed look and said, "I guess I've always enjoyed it, so I stayed. When you work with good people, you don't look for another job."

Actually, it turns out that both the Mueller Brothers and Sid Cook must be amazing people to work for, as nearly everyone in the room Saturday night had worked for them for decades. After making polite conversation with the man sitting across from me, I learned Mr. Louis Nachreiner had been working for the LaValle plant for 53 years -- yes, 53 years -- as the dairy field rep. He had actually started as the dairy field rep for the Sauk Milk Improvement Cooperative back in 1957, when there were 11 cheese plants in the Sauk County area. Today, only three remain - Carr Valley, Cedar Grove, and Mill Creek - and Louis still services them all.

And, while many of the people in the room were close to retirement, one guy caught my attention, as he had to be at least 30 years younger than most of the others sitting around me. I asked him his name and found out that at age 22, Mr. Bob Koenig, had already been working for Carr Vally for nine years (yeah, I know, do the math).

Bob helped out at the cheese plant after school for a few years, and then earned his cheesemaker's license at age 16 under Dave Small. He's been making cheese for Carr Valley ever since. Turns out Dave's trained quite a few cheesemakers over the years, and still works 12 hour days fairly often. Sid says it's hard to get him to go home, as Dave lives in a house literally 100 feet from the plant.

"He's a hard worker, a dedicated cheesemaker and a good friend," Sid said about Dave on Saturday. "He's one-of-a-kind and I'm lucky to have him." And from the sounds of it, Dave will be making cheese for a few more years. He has no plans to retire.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

World Champion: Swiss Gruyere

An international panel of expert judges may have named a Swiss Gruyere as the 2010 World Championship Cheese today, but Wisconsin cheesemakers still captured 21 of 79 gold medals during the three-day contest.

Cheesemaker Cedric Vuille, who operates Fromagerie de La Brevine in the Swiss village of La Brevine near the border between Switzerland and France, took top honors out of 2,318 entries from 20 countries for his Gruyere. Out of possible 100 points, Vuille's cheese scored 98.79 in the final round of judging, during which judges re-evaluated all gold-winning cheeses to determine the champion. (Note that this is updated info - the contest sent out a correction on Friday with the correct name of the cheesemaker).

First runner-up in the contest, with a score of 98.52, is Andeerer Traum, a smear-ripened hard cheese made by Sennerei Andeer company in Switzerland. Second runner-up is Gmundner Berg Premium, a semi-soft cheese, made by Alois Pesendorfer Crew, of Gmunden, Austria, which scored 98.46.

Overall, U.S. cheesemakers dominated the competition, earning gold medals in 51 of the total 79 categories judged. Canada and the Netherlands came in second among the countries, with five golds apiece. Denmark had four gold medals, while Austria, Spain and Switzerland all took three. New Zealand won two gold medals, and Australia, France and Ireland each captured one apiece.

Among U.S. states, Wisconsin dominated with 21 gold medals. New York took six golds, while Idaho earned five and California four. Vermont capture three golds, Georgia and Pennsylvania two, and Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon and South Carolina each took one gold medal.

Today's announcement of the World Champion wrapped up an amazing three days here in Wisconsin, as Madison was lucky enough to host the contest right in my backyard. On Wednesday night, Wisconsin Cheese Originals partnered with the contest to host a tasting spectacle called Wisconsin Vs. The World.

About 300 people sampled and compared 15 international cheeses vs. their Wisconsin artisan cheese counterparts at the sold-out celebration, all the while meeting dozens of renowned cheese judges from around the world, as well as 11 award-winning artisan Wisconsin cheesemakers, all sampling their best of the best.

My favorite international cheese was an Aged Cheddar from Ireland, which was all decked out in honor of St. Patrick's Day. Cheese cutter volunteer extraordinaires Sara Hill, Patty Peterson, Dee Wideman and Chris Luken (who by the way did all the prep work on 15 world cheeses - THANK YOU) carved the Irish cheddar block into a giant "I", topping with feather boas and beads. Poof! Instant cheese party.

The evening ended only as a Wisconsin cheese event should: with cheesemaker Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy, closing with his famous Swiss yodeling. I only got the last part on video, but it's worth it:

All in all, this week was a good one to live in Wisconsin. Good cheese, good company, and a chest of gold medals. Rock on.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

World Cheese Contest

The Monona Terrace is a regular who's who of international and national cheese superstars this week, as the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest kicks off today in Madison.

Walking around this judging floor is like strolling the red carpet at a Hollywood awards show (well, if cheesemakers were as celebrated as movie stars, that is - and you all know it's my life mission to make that happen). Within the span of 100 yards, I chatted with a dozen judges from 15 countries and six continents, along with some of the most well-known cheesemakers and industry legends from across the nation.

(This seems like a good place to name drop - so here you go: we've got David Lockwood, of Neal's Yard Dairy paired with Neville McNaughton, international cheesemaker extraordinaire, judging the smear cheese category (there are 74 cheeses in this class, and David & Neville have got to taste them all - yikes), while at the next table is Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer for Whole Foods assessing wheel after wheel of Brie, while Kate Arding of Culture Magazine is sniffing and spitting semi-soft sheep's milk cheeses. Down the way, Max McCalman, Dean of Curriculum at Artisanal Premium Cheese Center, is intently squishing flavored soft cheeses, while Shigenobu Murayama, School Master at the Cheese & Wine Academy in Tokyo, is judging ... wait, I can't tell what he's judging -- too many people in the way.)

All the judges are here to sniff, taste and sadly, spit out (it's a judging technique) more than 2,300 cheeses and butters from 20 countries, coming from as far away as Cypress, Argentina, Greece and Japan. This year's contest is the largest cheese contest ever held in the world - entries were up almost 20 percent from last year -- and are all competing for eternal glory as the world's big cheese.

Each of the judges will taste about 150 entries over the course of two days, with all judges then tasting the 77 gold medalists in Thursday's final round to pick one World Champion. Yes, out 50,000 pounds of cheese, one cheese will be named the ultimate winner. Bring it on!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Buttermaker License

With Wisconsin facing a shortage of licensed buttermakers (yes, you really do need a license to make/sell butter in this state), several industry groups are finally working to update the rules related to obtaining a buttermaker’s license in America's Dairyland.

The most exciting news is that, as part of this process, the Center for Dairy Research is offering a new Buttermakers Short Course on Sept 14-16 in Madison. This year, the course is limited to 25 Wisconsin residents and will cover the production of quality butter with an emphasis on flavor, composition and shelf life. Cost is $350. To register, call 608-263-1672, and make it snappy, because this class will sell out soon.

The new Buttermakers Short Course reflects an alternate rule, currently being drafted by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, with input from Wisconsin’s dairy industry, including artisan and farmstead buttermakers.

In January, the state Agriculture Board unanimously approved a scope statement to begin the process of altering the rules to earn a license. Under current law, anyone applying for a buttermaker’s license must pass an exam and match at least one other qualification, including: 1) working under a licensed buttermaker for at least 24 months, 2) working under a licensed buttermaker for 18 months and have completed a training course approved by the agriculture department, or 3) possess a four-year degree in food science, and have worked under a licensed buttermaker at least 12 months.

With only 43 licensed buttermakers left in the state, I would argue that if the rule is not updated, Wisconsin’s butter industry is at risk of not being able to take advantage of new market opportunities, including meeting a growing demand for farmstead and artisan butters.

In good news, it is expected that the new rule will offer another option in obtaining a buttermaker’s license that will include attending the Center for Dairy Research’s Buttermakers Short Course, apprenticing for a certain number of (much more limited) hours under a licensed buttermaker, and then passing a state exam.

The new licensing rules are expected to be finalized by September. Stay tuned for additional updates.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Driving Tractor

Every once in awhile I rediscover a piece of writing I did in an earlier life. This one appeared in The Country Today back in July, 2003, when I was working there as a regional editor. It's an oldy, but a goody. Hope you enjoy.

Everything I need to know, I learned driving tractor

You know the book, “All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten?” It argues the basics you learn in kindergarten lead you through life. I’ve often thought that book must have been written by someone who grew up in town, particularly illustrated by the line that says: “Take a nap every afternoon.”

I agree that kindergarten is important. But I would like to argue – that as a former farm kid - all I really needed to know, I learned driving a tractor.

For example:

1. Follow your nose. This was my all-time favorite direction given to me from my father, stated matter-of-factly whenever he set me up on a tractor to “teach” me a new task, whether it was raking hay for the first time, driving baler my first day or discing ahead of the corn planter on a windy spring morning.

After giving me the obligatory two-minute overview of the levers I needed to use and the general direction I should be headed, he would follow with, “Follow your nose, kid.” That was it. No other words of wisdom, no useful bits of advice about how to disc end rows correctly, no direction as to how to rake the hayfield corners perfectly.

As a kid, I really hated that expression, especially when halfway through the task, Dad would jump off his tractor, come racing across the field, frantically waving his hands back and forth, stop me, and chew me out because I had done it wrong.

However, looking back, I understand he was giving me room to figure it out myself, giving me confidence and trust, letting me hone the ability to think on my feet. Those aren’t life lessons I learned in kindergarten – I learned them on a tractor.

2. Plan ahead. After I mastered the “following my nose” technique, I got this sage advice from Dad: “Look far enough ahead so that by the time you get to that corner or to the end of the field, you know exactly what you’re going to do before you get there.”

I learned the hard way that there’s nothing worse – especially when the clouds are rolling in, the sprinkles are starting, and your father is giving you the sign to throw the throttle up a notch – that there really is no bigger tractor-driving sin than to stop mid-field and contemplate, “How exactly do I bale the corner without wiping out the fence?”

Anticipation: probably the most useful skill every farm kid learns to master. By always looking ahead to the next corner, the next task, or the next challenge, time can be saved and mistakes avoided.

Life lesson number two: learn to look ahead and anticipate what’s coming – whether it’s an obstacle or an opportunity – so that by the time you get there, you’ve thought out your options and end up making the right choice.

3. Don’t look back too often. One of my rookie mistakes when driving tractor was to constantly look behind me, making sure the baler was taking all the hay, or the disc was on its mark.

Not only did my neck start to hurt, but I would also start to veer off course. Worse yet, I violated rule No. 2: I was so busy worrying about what I was doing at that very minute, that I hadn’t anticipated how to handle the next tricky spot.

One thing you learn quickly when driving a tractor is that there’s a fine line between looking back often enough to make sure you’re doing a good job, and looking back too much that you lose track of where you’re going.

Life lesson number three: look to the future more than the past, but look back often enough that you don’t repeat your mistakes. Not only will you be more successful in life, your neck won’t hurt as much.

Growing up, I often thought the kids who grew up in town were the lucky ones – they could go swimming on the days I was helping my family bring in the hay crop, or they could go shopping when I was racing to beat the clouds that would end corn-planting too early.

Today I realize how lucky I was to be a farm kid, because now I’m looking for ways to teach those same tractor-driving life lessons to my daughter, who lives in town and spends her free time riding her scooter around our block or going swimming with her friends.

I guess I’ll have to find new ways to teach her the lessons I learned while I was driving a tractor.

On second thought, maybe I can talk her grandpa into teaching one more generation to “follow her nose.” Let’s head to the farm.