Saturday, October 30, 2010

Water Buffalo Mozzarella

When there's only a thin electric wire between you and a one-ton bovine named Amando, who's sporting a ring in his nose and massive curling horns the size of a rhinoceros, one begins to appreciate what it takes to make the only Mozzarella di Bufala in Wisconsin.

The story of how Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese began making water buffalo mozzarella this summer starts with a man name Dubi Ayalon, who three years ago, moved with his family from Israel to rural Wisconsin and bought a small farm, sight unseen. Since then, he's put all of his effort - which is considerable - into persuading a small herd of water buffalo purchased from various herds in Vermont, California and Florida, to let him milk them.

It hasn't been easy.

"It took three years for the milk to come," Dubi told me when I visited him at his farm near Plain, Wis., last week. When I arrived, he was chopping wood, wearing a back brace, sporting stylish, if beat-up Dolce & Gabana eyeglasses, and pretty much covered in dirt, dust, and what I would later come to appreciate because I'd have to hose it off my own boots, water buffalo manure.

"For three years, the water buffalo ate hay and Dubi ate shit," he said (for those of you whom have met Dubi, you know his language is a bit, ahem, "colorful"). I believed him whole-heartedly after looking at the size of the massive water buffalo in the nearby pasture and comparing it to the size of Dubi, who as a former Israeli army officer and high school principal, could no doubt hold his own against an unruly citizen or student, but who doesn't stand much of a chance compared to a one-ton animal who goes wherever the hell it wants to go because it weighs 2,000 pounds.

For the past three years, Dubi has been beat up by water buffalo. He gently sings to them in Hebrew, luring them with grain into the barn, where they sidle up into a custom-built stanchion and then proceed to kick the crap out of him as he milks them. He says it's worth it. For every pound of milk he lures from his seven milking water buffalo, he gets paid $1 a pound. That's $100 for a hundredweight. Compare that to cow's milk, which goes from between $12-22 a hundredweight, depending on the market price.

But the high-paying milk comes at a high cost. For the past three years, Dubi has worked to gain the trust of his herd, of which, there are only seven that will concede to being milked. The rest are going to market this fall, as Dubi believes he will never be able to tame them enough for milking. But there's hope around the corner: Dubi has a pen full of yearling heifers he's kept from the calmer cows, and inside the barn is a small group of 2-month old calves who lick his hands when he nears them.

"It's all about gaining their trust," Dubi says. "Water buffalo are not like cows. You can't push them into doing what you want them to do. They have to want to do it."

And what Dubi wants them to do is give more milk. Currently, each cow is giving about 14 pounds of milk a day. Dubi wants to increase it to 15 pounds next year, and as his heifers and calves mature, eventually grow the herd to 20 milking animals. At that point, he believes he can make a pretty good living.

So does Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who's been buying Dubi's water buffalo milk and crafting it into mozzarella. At 8 percent butterfat, the milk is rich and luxurious. Cow's milk generally makes a 10:1 ratio of milk to cheese (1,000 pounds of cow's milk would make 100 pounds of cheese). Water buffalo milk is more like 4:1.

Last week Cedar Grove Cheesemaker Ryan Meixelsberger, who's been making cheese for 18 years, said the water buffalo milk is unlike anything he's ever encountered. "The yield is higher. The protein and fat are both higher. Our ability to make cheese from this milk has been on a steep learning curve. It's finicky and unpredictable, but we're getting there."

On the day I visited, Both Meixelsberger and his assistant, Blair Johnson - who moved from Vermont three weeks ago to help make the water buffalo cheese - had just pumped the milk into the vat from the pasteurizer, where it would wait about three hours to acidify before they cut it, stir by hand, put in paddles, and then cook and stir for another 2-3 hours, all in an attempt to try and get the acidity level to about 5.8.

While that time-intensive process sounded incredibly enticing, I decided to pass on cheesemaking for the day, and instead talked Ryan and Blair into posing with some cheese they'd made last week - beautiful mozzarella balls and a wheel of mozz. The pair make water buffalo cheese just one day a week, on Mondays, stretching some of the curd into fresh mozz balls, and then pressing the rest into blocks or hoops, where it is either shredded or sold in wedges.

Cedar Grove Cheese milk truck driver and maintenance man Dale Fingerhut, a former dairy farmer who admires the way Dubi treats his animals, picks up about 525 pounds of water buffalo milk a week from Dubi. Dale lugs it in 80-pound stainless-steel milk cans, hauls it back to the plant, and then cools it into a bulk tank until Ryan and Blair are ready to make cheese.

The entire operation, from Dubi's farm - to Dale's hauling - to the cheesemaking at Cedar Grove by Ryan and Blair, is a grueling, time-intensive process. The result is a cheese that sells for $13-15 a pound, and as far as I can tell, is worth every penny.

You can find Cedar Grove Water Buffalo Mozzarella in Madison at Metcalfe's Market and Fromagination. It's also available at Cedar Grove's retail store at the plant just outside Plain. Other than those outlets, Cedar Grove water buffalo mozz is hard to find, as production is limited and the fresh product needs to be consumed in a timely fashion. The way I look at it, Dubi's Mozzarella di Bufala is just one more reason to move to Wisconsin.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Holy Crap Moments

This week, I was blessed with not one, but a total of three "Holy Crap" moments. These are the times that after tasting something so amazing, I say those two words without even thinking, usually to the amusement of those around me.

Holy Crap Moment No. 1 -- New Mixed Milk Cheese: Last week, I trapped Hidden Springs Creamery Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen in my backseat while driving to Marion Street Market in Chicago for a Wisconsin Cheesemaker Dinner and talked shop for a total of five hours of driving. Along the way, we tasted - and by we, I mean me - her new Meadow Melody, a mixed milk cheese made with cow's milk and sheep's milk.

Holy crap, is this cheese good. At only 3 months old, I think it's ready to sell. Rich, creamy, complex and made in the same two-pound wheel forms as Brenda's Ocooch Mountain, the new Meadow Melody is a future award contender. Let's just say that this cheese is so good, I ate basically the entire wedge corn-on-the-cob style while motoring down the road. Yum.

By the way, the cheesemaker dinner at Marion Street Market was fabulous and included five courses featuring cheeses from Wisconsin's Chris Roelli, Brenda Jensen and Andy Hatch. After dinner, Chris, Brenda and Andy were all in demand, as people bought the new 2011 Portrait of a Wisconsin Cheesemaker Calendar and had the cheesemakers sign their featured months. It's official: Wisconsin cheesemakers have attained rock star status. For photos of the evening, as well as all the dishes, visit my Wisconsin Cheese Originals Facebook site.

Holy Crap Moment No. 2 -- New Cedar Grove Cheese: Thursday night, I headed to Quivey’s Grove Restaurant and Stable Bar in Madison for an evening of tastings of Cedar Grove cheeses, Capital craft beers and select wines from Stone’s Throw Winery in Door County. The event drew a nice crowd and was co-sponsored by, a new cheese-of-the-month club featuring Wisconsin artisan cheeses delivered directly to your door.

The highlight of the evening was discovering a new cheese from Cedar Grove, which I am a little embarrassed to say I can't remember how to spell. I'm pretty sure it's called Heide, but after a few beer and cheese pairings, I can't read my notes. In good news, I'm headed to Cedar Grove tomorrow to make buffalo mozzarella with Bob, so I will pick up some more then and report back. Let me just say this is an amazing aged cheddar, with nutty, Asiago notes and a perfectly, clean finish. It goes really well with Capital's Wisconsin Amber.

Holy Pork Tenderloin: My last "holy crap" moment came yesterday, as I was judging the Dueling Chefs competition at the Madison Food and Wine Show. Of course, I never get lucky enough to judge the heat where the secret ingredient is cheese, but this year, I got to judge a heat where the secret ingredients were pork tenderloin and pork belly. Oh yeah, baby.

Chefs Dave Heide from Lilianna's and Jesse Matz of Bunky's squared off, each having only 30 minutes to prepare two unique dishes using the mystery ingredient. My favorite of the four different dishes was the last one by Liliana's, where Chef Dave seared the pork tenderloin and then accompanied it with sauteed Peruvian purple potatoes, and brussels sprout salad. Awesome. Chef Jesse won the match by a closer-than-close score of 210-209, but both chefs did a fabulous job. Will be fun to see who wins the grand champion chef contest today at the show. You never know, might just be another "holy crap" moment.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Why is Wisconsin Cheddar Orange?

There's no law that says Wisconsin cheddar has to be orange, but much of it is. While most cheddars coming from Vermont and New York are white, the majority of Wisconsin cheddar is colored. Why? No one knows for sure, but two prevailing theories suggest it's all about marketing.

First of all, what makes cheddar orange? All cheese is naturally white, or off white, or even a golden yellow, depending on the type of milk used. But you'll never find a cow that gives orange milk. The color instead comes from the flavorless Annatto seed, which gives Wisconsin cheddar that pumpkin orange hue.

Sid Cook, fourth-generation owner of Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., believes the state's cheddars were tinted orange as far back as the late 1800s. In the early days of Wisconsin cheesemaking, cows dined on carotene-rich pasture, and their milk naturally produced a cheese with a rich golden color. Gradually, some dairies moved their cows off pasture and onto dry feed, with the resulting milk yielding paler cheese. Because consumers already associated the gold color with quality, cheesemakers used Annatto to bring back the color.

Another theory holds that Wisconsin cheesemakers wanted to differentiate their cheddars from those coming from New York, so they used Annatto seed and turned their cheddars orange, using it as their own claim to fame and capturing a portion of the market.

No matter the color - white, yellow or orange -- Wisconsin cheddar rules. Today, a handful of the state's cheesemakers are even turning back the clock and crafting Bandage Wrapped, or Cloth-Bound Cheddar, the way cheddar was made in England before the days of refrigeration. Two of my favorites:
  • Eagle Cave Reserve, made by Meister Cheese near Muscoda -- crafted in 6.5 pound "mini" truckles, and aged 6-9 months, this new cheese on the market is one to watch.
  • Cave-Aged Bandage-Wrapped Cheddar by Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. A perennial favorite and award-winner. Can't go wrong with this one.
Both of these cheddars are a natural whitish color and you can find both varieties at Fromagination in Madison. If you're looking for a good aged cheddar, Wisconsin has the corner on that market -- my favorites are:
  • 10-Year Cheddar, Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point
  • 6-Year Cheddar by Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa
  • 4-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle
All of these cheddars are orange and are widely available in specialty cheese shops. No matter the color, it's hard to go wrong with Wisconsin cheddar.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This Just In: Walmart to Save World

It's getting harder to hate Walmart.

I've been trying for years. As a starving college student who really could have used their "Always Low Prices," I refused to shop there because they didn't provide decent benefits for their workers. In my late 20s, I boycotted it because every time the big box mammoth infiltrated a community, it seemed like a local downtown dried up. Lately, I've avoided their "Save Money, Live Better" philosophy because, well, because I've always avoided it. Plus, I thought I was living just fine without shopping at Walmart.

But then in March, writer Corby Kummer penned a thought-provoking article on why Walmart, and not Whole Foods, will save the farm and make America healthy. I remember thinking, "What the hell??" when I read the article, published in the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic, a publication one would not expect to find a pro-Walmart article. At the end, when Corby admitted if there were a Walmart closer to where he lived, he would probably shop there, my hatred began to soften.

And now today, the Mother of Top Fortune 500 companies has to go and announce this little gem: "Walmart unveils global sustainable agriculture goals: retailer will buy more from small and mid-sized farmers around the world; reduce food waste; and sustainably source key agricultural products."

Ahhh, come on Walmart. I want to hate you, but now you're going to save the world by helping small farmers earn more income for their products, reduce the environmental impact of farming, and strengthen local economies by providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food?

Yeah, I copied that last part word for word from Wal-Mart's press release, published on PR Newswire. It's such a well-written and captivating press release, that even Yahoo Finance published it word-for-word, with no reaction from industry. Big sigh. Makes me wish I were still a reporter.

So, in case you're wondering how Walmart is going to save the world, here's a hint. The company has announced even its global markets have established country specific commitments. For example:
  • In India, Walmart will source 50 percent of its fresh produce through its Direct Farm Program;
  • In China, it will upgrade 15 percent of Direct Farm products from Green to Organic certified;
  • In Japan, Walmart will reduce in-store food waste by 35 percent and increase the number of produce farmers it sources from directly from 15,000 to 17,000;
  • In Canada, it will purchase 30 percent of the produce assortment locally on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, back home in the U.S., Walmart's own Heritage Agriculture program, launched earlier this year and praised by some, but criticized by others, will help the company double the sale of locally grown food. Three of Walmart's largest Heritage Agriculture programs are in the I-95 corridor along the East coast, the Delta region in the South and the Midwest. Sourcing examples include tomatoes, blueberries and broccoli in the I-95 corridor, peaches, cucumbers and strawberries in the Delta region and potatoes, onions and apples in the Midwest program.

The press release doesn't mention cheese, but who knows? Maybe Walmart will start its own Super Duper Local America's Dairyland Specialty Cheese Program Designed to Save the Dairy Industry and procure all of its cheese from Wisconsin. That would be cool. That might actually make me start shopping at Walmart. Until then, I'll only believe the rhetoric when farmers tell me they see results instead of press releases.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Goat Gas

Finally something to be excited about: more than 200 homes in my hometown of Belmont, Wis., are about to be powered by goat gas.

Yes, my father's modest two-bedroom ranch will soon be electrified by methane gas created from goat cheese whey. I'm already envisioning the conversation possibilities the next time I visit. It's going to be awesome.

Why goat gas? Because Montchevre-Betin, one of the largest goat cheese plants in the nation, is about to debut a new $3.5 million anaerobic digester in Belmont, population 914. The digester - the first one installed at a goat cheese factory in America -- will break down whey and wastewater from the cheese plant to create methane gas, which will then be captured and sent to a generator and converted into electricity.

This is no small deal for southwestern Wisconsin. Montchevre is one of the largest employers in the area, employing about 150 people. Last year, it processed about 50 million pounds of goat milk from 300 dairy farms throughout Wisconsin, Iowa, southern Minnesota and Missouri into 8 million pounds of goat cheese. Company vice president and cheesemaker Jean Rossard says the market for goat cheese is only growing, and Montchevre will grow with it.

The digester project is adding 22,000 feet to the 90,000-square-foot-plant, which has undergone several additions and remodeling sessions since I lived there. Today, Montchevre is a respected goat cheese manufacturer with products in most supermarkets across the country. It makes everything from goat milk cheddar to feta to goat cheese logs. And now, it can add electricity to its list.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Brilliant Marketing 101

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board sent out their Fall issue of "What's New from Wisconsin" this week, and on the front page is a new line of Seasonal Cheddars from Carr Valley.

Borrowing a concept from Otter Creek Organic Farm, which rolled out its own seasonal cheddars years ago, Carr Valley has brilliantly repackaged its different cheddars into seasonal selections. The labels are absolutely gorgeous and could open for their own art show. All of the cheeses are made in 23-pound wheels and sport different outside wax colors, depending on the season. Here's the rundown:

Irish Valley Cheddar: Named for the valley where owner and Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook grew up, this cheddar is produced in the early spring. The label features lots of clover, which ties in with both the Irish theme and early spring grasses. It is a bandaged white Cheddar and dipped in vibrant green wax.

Field of Flowers Cheddar: I'm guessing here, but I think this may be the cheddar that Sid used to call Wildflower Cheddar. It tastes about the same, and the label matches the description: made with summer milk and floral notes. This is a bandaged yellow Cheddar and is dipped in bright red wax.

Autumn Harvest Cheddar: I haven't been able to find this one at retail, but I'm wondering if it's similar to the company's Apple Smoked Cheddar, as the label says it's smoked lightly with apple wood. Either way, sounds good.

Winter Solstice Cheddar: This Cheddar, as implied by the name, is made in the winter months when Wisconsin cows eat preserved hay. This one is a bandaged white Cheddar and dipped in brilliant blue wax. Hmmm ... can you say Christmas gift??

As I was perusing Carr Valley's website to check out more info about the cheeses, I stumbled upon another little brilliant marketing move: dipping Carr Valley cheeses in ivory wax and selling them as wedding cakes. They even provide several different ideas with "cheese" cakes topped with fruit, flowers and white lace. Almost makes me wish I was getting married again. Maybe my husband and I will have to renew our vows?