Monday, March 28, 2011

On Location: Brie & Bacon

Today is the last day of the California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma and I'm leaving with a wealth of new friends, a notebook of new ideas, and a suitcase full of brie and bacon. Life is good.

While Northern California is home to two of my favorite foods - Marin French Brie and Black Pig Bacon - I always find it surprisingly similar to Wisconsin, in that the people are friendly, the cows are - well, cows - and the cheesemakers are genuinely innovative and open. And, while the past decade has brought an artisan cheesemaking Renaissance to Wisconsin, the same is true for Sonoma and Marin Counties. With more than 20 artisan and farmstead cheesemakers all located in a relatively small area north of San Francisco, the area is developing a well-deserved reputation as the Normandy of Northern California.

That's true in a large part due to the hard-working spirit of people like Joel and Carleen Weirauch, who just obtained a dairy processing permit and intend to make farmstead cheese in the coming weeks. The Weirauchs have built a small sheep flock and renovated a mobile classroom into a state-of-the-art creamery (inside pictured above). With no land of their own, everything they're building has a hitch on the front and can be moved if need be. Even the sheep milk parlor is mobile, and can be moved to a larger land base if the Weirauchs outgrow the 60 acres they're leasing north of Petaluma.

On a farm tour last Friday, the Weirauchs divided and conquered - Joel told us about building the creamery - "Putting up plaster really tests a marriage," he said with a smile, and Carleen gave us the farm tour. My favorite part? Standing in the middle of 50 newborn pastured lambs and their mothers, all huddled under a blue tarp to shelter them from the rain. While I stood there taking notes on how the Weirauchs plan to build their flock from 25 to 75 milking ewes, dozens of lambs patiently chewed on my trench coat and butted my leg for attention, while their mothers nosed them into compliance.

With nearly all of their needed permits in place, the Weirauchs should be making an Alpine-style cheese within weeks. They'll start with cow's milk cheeses, using milk from a neighboring farm, and then transition to sheep's milk cheeses once they have enough milk. Joel's end goal is to also make a semi-soft cheese such as Reblochon. He spent a year in France studying traditional cheeses and feels he has the knowledge to make an authentic artisan, farmstead cheese in Northern California. I'm sure looking forward to seeing the end result!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Best Cheeses of Wisconsin

Yesterday started out just like any other day. The cat jumped on my head at 5:20 am. I begrudgingly navigated the school parking lot from hell at 7:45 am. Stopped for coffee, the morning paper and checked in with the locals at 8 a.m. Sat at my desk for too long trying to meet writing deadlines so clients don't fire me. Picked up the kids from school at 3:30. Got another coffee.

And then at 4:30 p.m., the UPS truck backed up the driveway and delivered 14 boxes of cheese to my garage.

Holy crap.

That wasn't all. Those 14 boxes of cheese joined 11 other boxes, bags and totes that today all came together for the first ever "25 Best Cheeses of Wisconsin" photo shoot. Five hundred pounds of cheese and five hours later, we have the shot I want. It will debut on April 16 at a Wisconsin Cheese Originals Gala Tasting at Olbrich Gardens.

What possesses someone to take on such a project, you ask? Blame Dan Carter, a legend in the specialty cheese business. A year ago when Dan handed me a marketing poster in Italian featuring a glamour shot of 30 different Italian cheeses, he said he thought I'd know what to do with it. After months of studying the poster, I a) still can't speak Italian and b) decided to do a similar shot of 25 Wisconsin cheeses. So I hired a designer, a photographer and a printer. That was the easy part. What was more difficult was selecting 25 favorites out of 600 Wisconsin cheeses.

Gulp.

The task proved so tough, in fact, - and please don't tell anyone - that there are actually 26 different cheeses from 26 different companies featured in the 2-by 3-foot art poster. I realized this gaffe halfway through the shoot today. After slapping myself upside the forehead, I chalked it up to "oh well - who doesn't love a bonus cheese?" So while the "25 Best Cheeses of Wisconsin" project will actually be 26 awesome cheeses, I figure they're all winners.

If you're interested in finding out which Wisconsin cheeses I picked, meet me on April 16 at Olbrich Gardens, where we'll taste each and every one, and I'll send you home with a super cool cheese poster.* Because really, who doesn't want a giant picture of Wisconsin cheese on their wall? I know I do.

*Fine Print: all tickets sold in advance. Evening includes tasting 25 cheeses, appetizers from Bunky's and a signed & numbered Wisconsin Cheese art print. See you there!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Evalon Named U.S. Champion Cheese

A national panel of expert judges today named a Wisconsin goat’s milk cheese as the 2011 U.S. Championship Cheese.

Katie Hedrich, of LaClare Farms in Chilton, Wis., took top honors out of 1,604 entries from 30 states for her small-batch Evalon, a hard goat’s milk cheese made from the milk of her family farm's herd. Out of a possible 100 points, Evalon scored 99.06 in the final round of judging, during which judges re-evaluated all gold-winning cheeses to determine the champion.

Katie was pulling into the parking lot just as her name was announced. Her father, Larry Hedrich, called her at the same time. She said he told her to get inside, because there were going to be a lot of people interested in talking with her. "I told him I moving as fast as I can! I'm trying to find a place to park!"

Katie, pictured here giving an interview at the contest, is only 25 years old. She is one of the youngest cheesemakers to ever earn the U.S. Championship Cheese title, and is only the second woman in the history of the contest to claim the trophy. The first was Christine Farrell, of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York, who won in 2001.

Meanwhile, back at the contest, Wisconsin cheesemakers were heartily celebrating, as the top three cheeses were all from America's Dairyland.

First runner-up in the contest, with a score of 98.97, was Parmesan, made by John Griffiths at Sartori in Plymouth. Second runner-up was Aged Gouda, made by Marieke Penterman at Holland’s Family Cheese, of Thorp, which scored 98.95. Marieke had three of her Goudas competing for the top spot in the final round.

Capturing the most gold medals was Wisconsin, with 42 of the total 76 categories judged. California came in second among the states, with nine golds. Vermont had five gold medals, Idaho had four golds, while New Jersey, New York and Ohio all took three. Oregon and Pennsylvania won two gold medals, and Kentucky, Michigan and Utah each captured one apiece.

The United States Championship Cheese Contest is the largest cheese and butter competition in the country and is rooted in more than 120 years of history, beginning when the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association held its first cheese contest in 1891. In recent years, the event has flourished, more than doubling in size since 2001. This year, more than 30,000 pounds of cheese were entered into the contest.

Read complete results for all 76 entry classes and view contest photos, online here.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Celebrating Each Other

I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference last week (or as I affectionately like to call it: the annual Sheana Davis Shindig), giving tips to artisan cheesemakers on how to increase media exposure and drive sales (it's always a surprise that anyone might think I'm an expert on either).

Three days and at least a dozen new friends later, I'm back in snowy Wisconsin, carrying with me a renewed spirit that we when celebrate each other, we all win.

I don't know about you, but I'm really sick of the California vs. Wisconsin dairy story, or as the media likes to portray it: Big vs. Small ... Evil Incarnate vs. Virtual Goodness ... Happy Cows vs. Blustery Bovines ... California Dairy Princess vs. Alice in Dairyland (well except for that last one, either Wisconsin or California could be portrayed as either side).

And while the media seems intent on pointing out the differences between our industries, all I tend to see are the similarities. We both have a growing number of farmstead dairies and artisan cheesemakers, more medium-sized plants converting to specialty cheeses, and a dwindling number of automated giants trying to eke out a living on penny-a-pound-barrel-cheddar-and-commodity-mozzarella.

Just as Wisconsin's artisan and specialty cheese communities have enjoyed some amazing national and regional media coverage during the last few years, so too are California cheesemakers. In fact, a great article by Robert Digitale was published just today in the Press Democrat. The story opens with this statement: "A decade ago, the New York Times heralded the emergence of the region's artisan cheese makers, calling Sonoma and Marin counties 'a new Normandy, north of the Golden Gate.' Since then, the industry has come of age, adding new companies, adding conferences and festivals and further bolstering the region's reputation as a place that produces fine food as well as fine wine."

The article goes on to talk with several cheesemakers I had the honor of visiting with last week, including farmstead cheesemaker Karen Bianchi-Moreda of Valley Ford Cheese. Her farm's 440 Jersey cows provide the milk to make Estero Gold, one of the best new American artisan cheeses launched last year. The operation is a family partnership, including her brother Steve Bianchi, her father Paul Bianchi and now her son, Joe Moreda, a recent college graduate. "You're going to see more diversification from all dairy families," Bianchi-Moreda told the Press Democrat. "Making cheese and other value-added dairy products will attract those families that want to somehow stay on the farm."

Hmmm ... kind of sounds similar to Wisconsin, doesn't it? Value-added? Staying on the farm? Diversification? I can think of a half dozen Wisconsin farmstead cheesemakers, all of whom have started up in the last 10 years for exactly those same reasons.

And interestingly enough, the Press Democrat reporter decided to interview a Wisconsin dairy spokesperson, perhaps, in expectation of a negative California vs. Wisconsin sound bite. But what he got was far different. Marilyn Wilkinson, of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board -- who I've witnessed to be much more of a similarity-celebrator than a difference-divider, said: "It's really been a terrific renaissance in small-batch, high-quality cheeses throughout the country in the last few years."

Amen, Sister. Let's put this Us vs. Them slug fest to bed and instead start working together.

The more opportunity one has to travel around the country, the more similarities one sees among cheesemakers, no matter where they live. An early morning tour of Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma last week with Minnesota native and head cheesemaker Roger Ranniker (alas, Ig Vella's aging health no longer allows him inside the make room), proves that crafting small-batch, high quality cheese is pretty similar, no matter where it's made.

As Roger, who's been making cheese at Vella's for 24 years, points out: "There's basically only a dozen different steps for getting a different kind of cheese: you've got your milk, your starter culture, the size you cut the curd, the temperature you cook the curd, the temperature you rinse the curd, how you shape it, how you salt it and how you age it. Bam. You can get a hundred different cheeses by altering any one of those steps."

One of the best cheeses Vella Cheese makes from its own sequence of those steps is of course its famous Dry Jack. Behind the historic stone building (originally a brewery, but converted to a creamery by the Vella family in 1931) is what appears to be a long, green, wooden storage shed sporting a series of doors with numbers ranging from 1 to 9. Inside each door, however, is a different, tiny aging room, with its own climate control, each peacefully aging hundreds of wheels of cheese on wooden racks.

And as I, a Wisconsin girl, dedicated to promoting Wisconsin cheese, walked up and down those rows - inside a California cheese plant, housing California cheese, made by a Minnesota man who is now a California cheesemaker - it occurred to me that the sweet and nutty smells that come with aging cheese are not state specific. Good cheese is good cheese, no matter where it is made. And the more we start to celebrate the success of our neighbors, the better the American artisanal cheese community will grow. That's good for everybody, no mater whether you live in California or Wisconsin.