Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dueling Chefs & Cowboy Cheesemakers

Last weekend marked the 10th annual Madison Food & Wine Show, an annual shindig that brings about 6,000 people to town to sample local foods and spirits from 150 different vendors.

I am eternally lucky that show organizers ask me to be a guest judge at the show's yearly Dueling Chef competition, pitting seven of Madison's best chefs against each other in dual 30-minute cooking competitions over the course of three days. The competition has become quite fierce with impressive bragging rights, so chefs take it incredibly seriously, practicing extensively beforehand, and bringing in their best sous chef and special equipment to gain an edge over the competition.

My assigned dueling chefs were David Heide of Liliana's and Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, two amazingly talented guys running great restaurants. The mystery ingredient - always unveiled with a flourish at the very beginning - was this time a "Breakfast Box," containing boxes of Captain Crunch and Bisquick, a carton of eggs, a container of grits, bottles of maple syrup and buttermilk, as well as packages of English muffins and Black Earth Meats sausage. Oh, and a pineapple, apparently thrown in just for fun.

Both judges and chefs are used to a single mystery ingredient - think mushrooms, or swordfish, or pork belly - so a box of random mystery breakfast items threw everyone for a loop. The chefs, however rallied quickly while we judges started drinking wine to prepare for what we could only imagine would be breakfast dishes, and in just 30 minutes, each chef produced two innovative dishes highlighting both their talents and the mystery ingredients.

My favorite dish was a trio of breakfast appetizers (pictured at the top of this post), prepared by Nicholas Johnson of 43 North, which included a round of goat chevre, rolled in Captain Crunch and flash fried, served on half of a toasted English muffin drowned in maple syrup. That dish may have put him in the lead, as 43 North edged out Liliana's by just two points out of 200 to win the round. Nicholas and his 43 North went on to the next round only to be beaten by the battle's eventual winner, Jesse Matz of Bunky's, (pictured at left with son Kaden and restaurant owner Teresa Pullara), who with sous chef Peter Lidstrom, pulled an upset and beat reigning champion chef Bee Khang of Sushi Muramoto in a final battle of exotic fruits.

After the Dueling chef competition, with my stomach full of non-traditional breakfast food and a half bottle of red wine (did I mention it was barely noon?), I went in search of new cheeses at the show. Lo and behold, I ran into sixth generation dairy farmer Jay Noble, a cowboy cheesemaker sampling his brand new Jalapeno Juustoleipa.

With a never-ending line of hungry show-goers waiting in line to taste his toasted cheese, I snagged a bite, snapped a quick photo and waved an enthusiastic hello. It was awesome to see Jay in action, as the last time I'd chatted with him - six months ago on a seven-hour bus ride between Ann Arbor and Madison -- he was just starting his cheese business.

I call Jay a cowboy cheesemaker, because even though he wears a baseball cap (not a cowboy hat), he is the kind of man, who when he puts his mind to it, accomplishes the impossible, such as building a dairy farm from scratch, renovating a shed into a licensed dairy plant, and rigging a giant pizza oven into a state-approved cheese baking oven.

His venture is called Noble View Creamery, and his cheese of choice is Juustoleipa, a cheese native to Finland that translates into "bread cheese." The Finnish like to eat it for breakfast with toast and jam. It's a unique cheese, finished by baking a crust on it just before shipping, which helps it keep its shape and not melt when heated. It's best served warm to bring out a buttery flavor and squeaky texture.

The story of how Noble View Creamery cheese came into being is a long and windy tale of which I learned on the afore-mentioned seven-hour bus ride. So try and keep up - and keep in mind this is the REALLY short version.

2000 -- Jay buys into the family dairy farm.
2001 -- Jay gets married to a woman whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, but whom I can only imagine is a lovely and patient woman.
2003 -- Jay starts his own dairy venture with said lovely and patient wife, raising dairy heifers.
2004 -- Jay buys a 500-cow dairy in Fredonia, Wis., on a foreclosure sale. He starts milking cows.
2006 -- A "guy from California" knocks on Jay's door and wants to buy Jay's farm. The next day, Jay's dad calls and says: "I'm retiring. Do you want to buy me out?" Jay says yes to all of the above.
2007 -- Jay builds a new dairy in the middle of a farm field that's been in the family since 1842. Once again, he starts milking his own cows.

Which brings us to present time: with six employees and his own trucking company, Jay is now milking 400 cows, but because milk prices are so unstable, he decides to explore a "value-added" venture for his dairy farm. He settles on cheese - Juustoleipa in particular - and somehow talks super busy Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese into making it for him. Jay then trucks the cheese to his newly renovated and licensed dairy plant in Union Grove, bakes it in an oversized pizza oven, and then packages and ships it for sale. 

Boom. Mission accomplished.

In addition to Juustoleipa, Jay's also making and selling a line of Hispanic cheeses under his Alqueria label. Queso Tostado is a ready to heat and eat Queso Blanco, while his Queso Quesadilla is a smooth, soft and mild cheese, suited for snacking and melting. All cheeses are available through Noble View Creamery, which I can only guess will soon be coming to a cheese store near you. And knowing Jay, that day will come sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marcoot Jersey Creamery

Seven generations of Marcoot family members have milked Jersey cows on an 1840 homestead in Greenville, Illinois, but it’s the latest crop of Marcoot women: sisters Amy, Beth and Brooke, who are transitioning the family operation into a farmstead creamery.

The entire family now pitches in to make a line of farmstead cheeses, all made solely from the milk of the Marcoot's 60-head herd of grass-fed, registered Jersey cattle. The family’s latest creation is Cave Aged Forrest Alpine, a raw-milk, gouda-style cheese aged up to 12 months in the farm’s cellars, modeled after aging caves in Switzerland.

I discovered this cheese nearly by accident, after Amy joined Wisconsin Cheese Originals last month. She paid for two memberships: one for herself, and one for her cheesemaker, Audie Wall. This peaked my interest, so I asked what kinds of cheese she was making, and the conversation bloomed. The family's Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is due to be featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Culture Magazine, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery cheeses are gaining traction.

The Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is a beautiful cheese with a rich, creamy flavor and clean finish. It has almost what I call a "cultured" flavor - the same kind of sweetness and bite that one finds in Prairie Breeze Cheddar.

In Wisconsin, more farm families are transitioning to building on-farm creameries and producing farmstead cheeses. The same is happening in Illinois. A bit of history about the Marcoot family sheds light on how they got to be crafting a farmstead cheese.

The Marcoot family came from Switzerland in 1842, and Amy says the story goes the Marcoots brought a Jersey calf with them on the boat from Switzerland. She's a bit skeptical about this legend, but does know that the first Marcoot born in America - Maurice Marcoot - did have a herd of Jersey cows, as the family has a letter from his farm. To date, the Marcoot family has had Jersey cows for seven generations, with Amy and her sisters being the seventh generation.

Amy says that as the dairy industry changed during the past 40 years, her dad, John Marcoot, worked hard to change with the industry. About 11 years ago, her uncle left the family farm for a job elsewhere. At that point her dad and uncle were milking 135 Jerseys. Her dad, knowing he needed to simplify things a bit, decided to turn farmland that had traditionally been corn and beans into premium pasture for cows.

And with that seemingly simple decision, the Marcoot family farm switched from being primarily a TMR based farm (Total Mixed Ration) to primarily grass fed.

In an email interview last week, Amy told me she remembers calling home from college and asking her dad how the cows were adjusting. '"He said, 'Amy, they are happier.' I told him he was going crazy and he said, 'Seriously, they seem much more content.' Sure enough, when I came home from college I could see what he was talking about."

"My parents had four daughters," Amy said. "They told us growing up that we all needed to go to college, get our degrees and find a stable job. They also said, 'Give yourself a lot of options.' I can't tell you how many times I heard that! So we did."

Amy went to the University of Illinois and earned a degree in Agriculture and physical education and also has a Masters degree in Counseling. Sister Beth got a degree in Agriculture and is finishing her masters degree now. Another sister, Brooke, got her degree in education. The fourth sister, Brittany, who is not involved in the operation, has a degree in accounting.

Amy says she was living overseas for a year when her parents called to let her know Dad was considering selling the cows in five to seven years. "At that point my sisters and I started talking about what we could do to keep the farm," Amy says. "After many ideas and thoughts we decided that doing a value added business to sustain our family farm. We considered fluid milk, but quickly agreed that cheese would be the best option for us. We began working with a few different cheesemakers, taking classes, reading books, visiting numerous other creameries, asking annoying questions over and over again. Then we started making cheese. Neville McNaughton is our primary consultant and he has worked with us much over the past year. We are still learning so much!"

Amy hired Audie Wall to be the family cheesemaker and today, she primarily works with Neville and other consultants to grow and learn as a cheesemaker.

"Audie has done a great job for us," Amy says. "She grew up on a farm about 25 miles north of our farm. She is basically a member of the family as she has been my best friend since we were 10."

Audie's undergraduate degree is in Industrial Design and before becoming a cheesemaker, she worked in design engineering. "A few years ago, Audie started looking for something else to do because she was tired of sitting behind a desk. Who knew that meant she'd be making cheese!" Amy says. "She has been able to grasp the concepts and processes of cheesemaking very well. I think much of that is because of her engineering background."

Three sisters. One best friend. A mom and dad who were willing to try something new: welcome to a new generation of American cheesemakers. Welcome to Marcoot Jersey Creamery.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Events Abound for American Cheese Month

All hail American Cheese Month!

To recognize and raise awareness of the quality and diversity of American cheeses, the American Cheese Society has declared October as the First Annual American Cheese Month.American Cheese Month.

That's good for us cheese lovers, as cheesemakers, retailers and foodies around the country have embraced the idea, scheduling hundreds of tasting events in almost all 50 states. Here's a few events celebrating Wisconsin artisanal cheeses - check them out!

October 15: Pinot Noir & Wisconsin Cheese Pairing. Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Milwaukee.
Whether you are a foodie or just enjoy an occasional glass of wine, you will enjoy this focused tasting exploring four Pinot Noirs from different regions, expertly paired with four Wisconsin Cheeses. Location: The Wisconsin Cheese Bar, 1048 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee. Cost: $16 in advance, $20 at the door. Purchase tickets here.

October 16: Great American Cheese and the Beverages That Love Them. Kendall College, Chicago.
Hosted by Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Marion Street Cheese Market, this pairing event includes a guided tasting featuring cocktails by Death's Door Spirits, beers by Goose Island Brewery and Wisconsin artisan cheeses. Held at Kendall College, 900 North Branch St., in Chicago from 3:00 - 4:30 p.m. Cost: $20 per person. Purchase tickets here.

October 18: Meet the Cheesemaker. Savory Spoon Cooking School, Ellison Bay.
The Savory Spoon Cooking School in Door County welcomes Joe Widmer, third generation cheesemaker from Theresa, Wis., for a guided cheese, and salumi tasting. Enjoy a glass of wine and listen to Joe Widmer tell the story of his family's cheesemaking heritage. Cost: $30 per person, sold in advance. Purchase here.

October 20: American Cheese, Beer &Wine Tasting. Fromagination, Madison.
The folks at Madison's premier cut-to-order cheese shop are hosting a free American Cheese tasting, paired with local beers and wines. The event runs from 4:00 - 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20 at Fromagination, 12 S. Carroll St. in Madison.

October 21: Goat Cheese Tasting. Student Center, UW-Platteville.
Try nearly 50 goat cheeses from across the nation at a special tasting reception during the annual Focus on Goats Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville on Oct. 21. The goat cheese reception runs from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Pioneer Student Center on campus. You'll taste award-winning goat cheeses, seasonal fruits, nuts and fresh-baked baguettes. A number of cheesemakers who specialize in goat milk cheeses will also be on hand to meet and greet guests. Cost: $5 at the door.

Enjoy American Cheese Month!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Last Look: Food in France

If every day was a 31-hour day like yesterday, I'd sure get a lot more done. You've got to love leaving Paris at 12:15 p.m. and arriving in Chicago after a nine-hour flight, only to have it still be 2:15 p.m. the same day. That's because our group of 20 Wisconsin Cheese Originals members flew home from spending 10 days in France where we toured dairy farms, cheese factories, aging caves and cheese shops in Paris, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Roqeufort, Dijon and Beaune.

But France isn't all about cheese. It's about food, too. So here's one last look back at some of the foods we enjoyed while across the pond.

Butter: for sale in every specialty cheese shop just like this one. My favorite was the Beurre de Baratte, an AOC cow's milk butter.

Eggs: delivered daily to specialty shops, eggs sit out in the open, unrefrigerated, where daily shoppers pick up what they need to cook for the next day or two.

Coffee: usually offered with warm milk and served with a cube of sugar. Hello, cafe au lait.

Pastries: looking back at all the photos my hubby took on this trip, it's hard to find an intact pastry. That's because I had usually eaten most of it before he could get a shot. One of my favorites: the Napolean. The French refer to it as  mille-feuilles, or thousand leaves. The perfect combination of snowy whipped cream, eggy custard and crisp puff pastry.

Ice Cream: the French eat a lot of La Glace: an Italian-style gelato, that history says was introduced in France by Catherine de Medici in the late 16th century, when she married into the French royal family.

Snails: offered as a first course in nearly every nice French restaurant, I found they were best when drowned in garlic and butter. If you can get past the fact that you're chewing a snail, they're actually pretty tasty little buggers.

Crepes: offered savory or sweet, crepes are served everywhere, but nobody does them like restaurants in Paris. This one boasted the traditional combo of nutella, bananas and whipped cream. Who needs dessert when you can order this as your entree?

Seafood: the open air seafood markets in Paris are amazing. Most sell every kind of seafood imaginable, on ice.

Pork: the French like their meats roasted. This little piggy never made it home.

Chicken: roasted and offered at open air farmers markets in every city in France.

My first Boeuf Bourguigon was the third course in an amazing regional dinner at Au Clos Napoleon in the tiny village of Fixin, France. Eaten after scooping the beef, juice and onions and pouring over freshly made pasta. Heaven.

Quite possibly the best plate of food I've ever had: Toasted bread with poppy seeds and poached eggs in sauce made with Epoisses. The first course at Au Clos Napoleon in Fixin, France.

Mustard: the guys on the trip loved the mustard shops in Dijon, where mustard magically flows from spigots.

The wine: thousands of wines to choose from, they all start with a grape. Harvest was nearly completed by the time we arrived, but we gladly enjoyed the fruits of their harvest.

And finally, the cheese: you've read many a post on the cheeses of France, but here's a last look at one of my favorites: Epoisses.

Dining outside: the weather was amazing while we were in France: 10 days of sunshine with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. This is our group enjoying our favorite appertif: Kir, in the vineyards of the Burgundy region.

Parting shot: my family joined me on this tour. Thank you to Uriah for all the amazing photos and to Avery for all of her help. On to Italy in 2013!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

On Location: The Making of L'Epoisses

You know you're having a good time in France when you forget you're going to tour the only raw-milk commercial cheese factory in the world making Epoisses.

Such was the case yesterday morning, as our group of 20 climbed on the bus for another day of cheese touring. After an amazing dinner the night before - and several bottles of wine - I couldn't quite remember where we were headed. So you can imagine my delight when our guide and driver (thank goodness someone is in charge) directed the bus to Gaugry Fromagerie for a tour and tasting of raw milk L'Epoisses.

Oh. My. God. I'd forgotten how much I liked this stinky, washed-rind AOC cheese. Traditionally manufactured for centuries by the monks and farmers of the region of Epoisses, today it is made by three commercial factories and one small farmstead dairy in the Dijon region. Gaugry Fromagerie is the only commercial factory making raw-milk Epoisses, and we were delighted to get a tour of the plant and a tasting.

When we arrived, Francoise Gaugry herself greeted us at the door. She and her two brothers currently own and run the company, started by her grandfather in 1946 in the city of Dijon. Seven years ago, they built a large and modern factory on the outskirts of town, complete with a long hall of viewing windows, tasting room and retail shop.

In her beautiful, lilting and very formal French (one of the pleasantries for me on this trip is listening how people in different regions of the country have different accents and styles of speaking), Francoise explained the make process, which our guide, Catherine, translated.

In a nutshell, the milk from local, regional farms is brought to the factory, where it is pumped into vats, with cultures and animal rennet added, and allowed to coagulate for 18 hours. Francoise explained this is the ancestral method of "lactic clotting" practiced by the monks.

The clotted milk is then placed into forms. This is the part we got to witness, as workers were filling forms when we arrived. I had not before seen the technology they were using to do this - bringing stainless steel tubs of curd to a machine, placing knives and forms over the tub, inserting into a rotating cylinder, which then turned upside down, cutting and dropping the curd into forms in one fell swoop. Here's a series of photos so you can better see what I mean:

Once the cheese is put into molds, it is allowed to drain, flipped twice, and then removed. The cheeses then go through a dry salting machine, which coats the wheels in a "cloud of salt" - we saw a video of this process, as they weren't doing it during our visit. Wheels are then placed in the drying room. Here they are:

Then, they are moved once again to the aging room, where workers wash them with a mixture of salt, brine and red bacteria, which gives the wheels they're reddish-orangish final look. Wheels shipped to market have a 10-week shelf life.

In addition to AOC Epoisses, Gaugry Fromagerie makes several other types of Epoisses-style cheeses. We had the opportunity to try five of their cheeses in the new tasting room, built beautifully with plates of cheese and wine waiting for us at the bar. Francoise led us through the tasting.

The picture at right says more than I could ever say with a few words. I'll just say that each cheese was amazing in its own right, and if there were any way I could get this cheese back to the U.S. in my suitcase without TSA confiscating it, I'd do it.

Oh well, that's why we came to France -- to taste and learn about cheeses we're not able to get in the United States. Thanks so much to Francoise and her team at Gaugry Fromagerie for a wonderful tour and tasting.

While we can't take their cheese with us, we did leave a bit of Wisconsin behind, in the tasting room's guest book. Au revoir, raw milk Epoisses.