Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The More You Know

Three things I learned last week about the world of cheese: 1) the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know; 2) cheese pees; and 3) cheese can have nipples.

I garnered these extremely important bits of vital information as hundreds of cheesemakers and industry experts from around the globe descended on Madison, Wis., for the International Cheese Technology Exposition. All you had to do was stand in one place at the Alliant Center at any given time to hear at least three different languages being spoken, all in the name of cheese. Ah .. just think if I could speak French or Italian - I could have learned even more!

Thursday's 2010 World Champions Awards Banquet was especially moving - as cheesemakers from around the world flew in to Wisconsin to claim their gold, silver and bronze medals. The table of Swiss cheesemakers sitting next to me - all dressed in traditional Swiss clothing - seemed to have a VERY good time, whooping it up whenever a Swiss cheesemaker took the stage for an award.

Later, I was privileged to be part of a cheesemaking seminar with French Cheesemaker Ivan Larcher and Mateo Kehler, of Jasper Hill in Vermont. Ivan and Mateo taught us the science, chemistry and art of making Munster cheese from the Alsace region of France. All of the assumptions we had about making cheese in the U.S. were challenged - everything from cooking and cutting the curd, to sanitizing our surroundings, to aging cheese once it's out of the mold.

Much of the course was extremely technical, with flip charts on acidity evolution, aging bacteria and coagulation gradients. While the 12 cheesemakers in attendance - two of them Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers - soaked up the knowledge like sponges, my eyes pretty much glazed over. But I did learn two things: cheese can pee, and if aged incorrectly, cheese can develop nipples.

This highly technical information actually came up earlier in the week, as several cheesemakers gathered at a local cheesemaker's home, talked shop, and drank a large amount of Lake Louie beer. I learned that Cheese pee comes from big wheels of Swiss, when crafted with too much acidity, actually crack during the aging process. They "weep" or "pee" Swiss cheese juice, and in a day or two, can fill half a glass with such pee. Apparently it tastes pretty good. I brought up the idea of marketing cheese pee, but was greeted with completely blank stares and the advice to have another beer. Oh well.

Cheese nipples are another story. Apparently when cheese is drained improperly during the aging process, it can actually form little buds of moisture on the rind, which Ivan, with a completely straight face, deems "cheese nipples." I googled "cheese nipples", hoping to learn more, but actually learned WAY more than I wanted to about Welsh film makers who made a shoot-em-up short film called "Operation Cheese Nipples." Catchy theme music, though. That's nine minutes of my life I'll never get back. Think I'll go back to learning about cheese.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

My First Cheese Curd

The man who made the very first fresh cheese curd I ever ate will be honored next week as a Life Member of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Cheesemaker Mike Moran runs Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese factory in tiny Rudolph, Wis. He began his career alongside his father in 1962, when the family bought the plant. Since then, Mike has grown the business into one of Wisconsin's most innovative manufacturing plants and probably the busiest retail cheese store you'll ever visit in a town of 423 people.

I first visited Mike's plant back in 1993, when I was dating the man who would eventually become my husband. On a weekend trip to meet his parents in Wisconsin Rapids, we made what I would discover was the obligatory Saturday morning jaunt to the nearby Rudolph cheese factory. The Morans are known for not only making some of the best cheddar, jack and co-jack in the state, but for making fresh cheese curds six or seven days a week.

Along with the giant pile of cheese we bought, my husband threw in a bag of fresh cheese curds - still warm from the vat, and we ate them in his car on the way home. Believe it or not - at the age of 21, it was the very first fresh cheese curd I had ever eaten. Warm, squeaky, clean, salty - I ate so many that I later threw up in his mother's bathroom (great way to make a first impression on the future in-laws, by the way).

Today, my in-laws run Ricky's Bar & Bowl in Rudolph just down the street from the Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Factory, so needless to say, whenever we visit, we stop at the cheese factory first. Mike is almost always there, greeting customers, working the counter, scooping ice cream or managing the floor.

On a recent trip, my daughter and I were standing in front of the huge looking glass windows between the retail store and the cheese plant, and I was attempting to explain the cheese make process to my less-than-thrilled teenager. Mike must have seen me pointing and talking to Avery, trying to engage her in the process, so he promptly came out of the make room to greet us and say hello. He wanted to know if we had any questions.

My daughter explained to him that her lame mom was trying to tell her how cheese was made, but that he could probably do it better. So for the next 15 minutes, one of the busiest people at Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese explained to a 13-year-old how fresh milk is made into a cheese curd. And he did it with passion - like it was the first time he had ever told the story to anyone. We bought a lot of cheese that day, and my respect for Mr. Mike Moran grew to a new level.

Today, Mike is joined in the family business by his brother Dave, his son, John, and his daughter, Jill. Known for his modesty, Mike is known and respected across the Wisconsin dairy industry. In fact, in response to this award, his family penned this statement: "Mike is very passionate about his commitment to the dairy industry and strongly believes in continuing a tradition of excellence in the cheesemaking process."

Well said. Congrats to the Morans and Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Four Years Later

Happy day, cheese fans. In calendar news, I just realized that four years ago this month I started writing about Wisconsin cheese here on Cheese Underground. About 260 posts later, one might wonder if I'm in danger of running out of material.

Nope.

In fact, there's so much going on today that you're going to have to settle for a Monday mash-up. Here's the scoop, people:

Edible Madison to Launch in June: one of my favorite people, Jamie Johnson of Soldiers Grove, Wis., has launched her own company and magazine, celebrating the food of southern Wisconsin. Way to go, Jamie! Edible Madison will be a quarterly publication focusing on our region's food and agriculture and will feature stories about local farmers, food producers, chefs, food educators and forward-thinking organizations that are behind the region’s dynamic local food movement. In exciting news, I'll be writing a regular Wisconsin cheese column starting with the Fall issue, and a launch party is being set for June at Fromagination in Madison. Whoo-hoo!

Red Barn Family Farms Heritage Weis Cheddar: another one of my favorite people, Dr. Terry Homan, the veterinarian who started his own milk bottling company called Red Barn Family Farms, is now producing a great-tasting Cheddar. Called Heritage Weis, it's a true cheddar that's hand-milled and cloth-wrapped made by the folks at Springside Cheese Factory in Oconto Falls, Wis. It's mostly available in Wisconsin -- see a list of retail locations. Dr. Homan is the founder of the Red Barn Rules -- a list of animal care rules that farmers supplying milk to Red Barn must follow. These rules go above and beyond the American Human Association certification, so you know the milk that goes into Heritage Weis is coming from happy cows.

Carr Valley Cooking School: A series of nine cooking classes at Carr Valley Cheese in Sauk City kicked off this month. Classes are a great chance to meet your favorite chefs, and taste their creations using Carr Valley cheeses. Each class costs $45 and is well worth the price. I'm signed up for the May 20 "To Dream or Not to Dream" class with Chef Jason Gorman of The Dream Dance restaurant in Milwaukee. We'll be getting "A New Perspective on Steak and Cheese." Yum - my two favorite food groups. More info or sign up here.

Kelley Country Creamery to Host Grand Opening on June 19 -- I've been waiting for this date to be announced and you can bet I'll be there. The Kelley family will open the doors of their farmstead ice cream factory on Saturday, June 19 with farm tours, free samples and kids' activities. Karen and Tim Kelley, and their five children, operate a 200-acre farmstead dairy near Fond du Lac, Wis., and milk 65 Holsteins. That milk is being readied to turn into amazing ice cream in such flavors as Kelley's Irish Cream, Karen's Crazy Cake, Pitch Fork Pistachio and Country Bumpkin Pumpkin. Stay tuned for more info, but save the date now.

And that's the news for this Monday. See what I mean about never running out of material? There's just too much stuff going on in America's Dairyland.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Next Generation Cheesemaker

A 25-year-old woman planning to make cheese on her family farm is the recipient of the first-ever Wisconsin Licensed Cheesemaker Scholarship, a $2,500 award provided by Wisconsin Cheese Originals.

After using the scholarship money to earn her cheesemaker license, Katie Hedrich plans to rejoin her family and help construct a farmstead cheese plant and retail store at LaClare Farm near Chilton. With a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Northern Michigan University, and a degree in accounting from the Fox Valley Technical College, Hedrich is preparing herself to not only craft high-quality farmstead cheeses, but to also manage the marketing and business side of the operation.

“Ten years from now I will be the head cheesemaker and creamery manager at my family’s homestead creamery,” Katie stated in her award-winning scholarship essay. “I will be making a complete line of Wisconsin original goat milk cheeses, from fresh bloomy rind cheese to raw aged cheeses. I would like to be the first female Master Goat Milk Cheesemaker.”

You go, girl.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals is an organization I started last year in an effort to help grow and promote the Wisconsin artisan cheese community. As an organization, we (and by we, I mostly mean me and the people I talk into helping me - my husband, my daughter, my various exchange daughters who, every year, come to live with us not liking cheese and leave as cheeseheads -- ahh, mission accomplished) host seminars, tasting receptions, cheesemaking tours and the annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, scheduled this year on Nov. 5-7 at the Monona Terrace in Madison, Wis.

In fact, the scholarship is the direct result of first-ever Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival last year, in which I actually made a little money. Whoo-hoo! As I didn't do the event to make a profit, I instead decided to offer a scholarship to a burgeoning cheesemaker with plans to make it an annual award, because really, the goal of the scholarship fund compliments the goal of the organization: which celebrates Wisconsin’s original cheeses and helps connect consumers to farmstead, artisan and specialty cheesemakers.

I was a little nervous in offering the scholarship - I mean, who wants to throw a party and not have anyone come - but was amazed to receive nine absolute stellar applications from aspiring cheesemakers by the March 15 deadline. I then gave copies of each application to my five-person scholarship committee (made up of industry leaders and cheesemakers) and asked them to pick the recipient.

Needless to say, I am absolutely delighted that Katie is the first scholarship winner. I'm very much looking forward to following her career and tasting her Wisconsin Original cheeses in the coming years. Congratulations, Katie!