Saturday, January 21, 2012

Widmer's Brick & Colby: Wisconsin Originals

Brick and Colby: perhaps two of the most underrated cheeses in America. Some folks call them boring. Others simply write them off as commodities. After all, Colby is really just Mild Cheddar, right? And blocks of Cheddar sell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, along with cattle, corn and cotton. So why should these cheeses even be considered interesting, much less blog-worthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three reasons: 1) Joe Widmer,  2) Joe Widmer, and 3) Joe Widmer.

Every once in a while, I teach a class on what I call "Wisconsin Classics." Attendance is usually down because people note what cheeses we'll be eating, proceed to yawn, and then wait to sign up for the next month's class on American Originals. But the truth of the matter is that both Brick and Colby are indeed American Originals, as both were invented in Wisconsin in the 1800s.

Today, there's no one in Wisconsin making better Brick and Colby than Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa. To the skeptics who call Brick and Colby "bland," I challenge you to taste Joe Widmer's Mild Brick and Authentic Colby and not call these cheeses anything but artisan and full-flavored.

Fifty years ago, you might have known more than a dozen Joe Widmer-types, all crafting authentic stirred-curd Colby in little cheese plants across Wisconsin. That's because until the 1970s, by law, Colby was required to have an open texture, meaning the curds could not be tightly pressed. This allowed a more milky, dairy flavor to develop, and depending on the cultures used and cheesemaker who crafted it, a flavor all its own.

That all changed in the 1970s, when lobbying from the state's ginormous Cheddar makers resulted in Wisconsin statutes being changed to allow Colby to have "a closed body," the same as Mild Cheddar. That allowed big cheese plants to make more Mild Cheddar and label it as both Mild Cheddar and Colby, thereby accessing two market shares with the same cheese. Two years ago, I did some research on this very topic and wrote a post called The Colby Conundrum, which resulted in a flurry of anonymous hate mail from what I suspect are some of the state's biggest Cheddar makers, and which explains why today, many people unfortunately still consider Colby to just be Mild Cheddar.

The USDA doesn't even take Colby seriously. It lumps it with Monterey Jack in the “Other American Types” cheese category when reporting annual production. Luckily, the folks at the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service do appreciate it a bit more. Their stats show Colby cheese production exceeded 100 million pounds for a number of years in the 1970s, and even approached 200 million pounds in the mid 1980s.

Joe Widmer is good at putting that number in perspective. During Colby's peak years, Joe says it accounted for almost 20 percent of the state's total production of American–type cheeses, and for more than 10 percent of Wisconsin's total cheese production. That's pretty significant.

Colby production has been on the decline since the mid '80s, both in terms of total production and in terms of its importance in Wisconsin’s cheese production picture. In 2000, Wisconsin produced 86.4 million pounds of Colby, or less then half the level of the mid '80s. And today, at least according to my research, there are only three cheesemakers left making authentic stirred-curd, non-pressed Colby: Joe Widmer at Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa; Tony Hook in Mineral Point; and Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Most others are simply making a stirred-curd Mild Cheddar with a closed texture and labeling it as Colby. You can tell the difference pretty easily - the next time you buy Colby in a store, check to see if it has pin-prick holes in the body. If it does, it's authentic. If not, it's likely Mild Cheddar being labeled as Colby.

Brick cheese, like Colby, is another Wisconsin Original. It was created in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss immigrant who was running his own Wisconsin cheese factory by the time he was 14 years old. Much like Jossi, Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager, and Brick is one of his specialties.

Widmer crafts about 360,000 pounds of Brick cheese a year, using the same open vats in the 12,000 square-foot facility that his grandfather bought in 1922. And he still uses the same well-worn bricks his grandfather used to press the whey from the cheese. In fact, he's credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country to continue to use real bricks as part of the make procedure of his Brick cheese.

After pressing, Joe removes the bricks and places the cheeses in a brine solution to take on salt. He also makes a German-Style Brick, a washed-rind "stinky cheese" soaked in a solution to take on bacterial cultures. This cheese is cured in a "warm room" - about 70 degrees - where the bacteria works its magic and is then “smear ripened” with a top-secret Widmer mixture of brine and whey.

"Most people don't even know what real Brick is," says Joe. This alone drives his mission to craft the real deal and share with cheese lovers everywhere - and he does mean everywhere, including his very own dinner table. "A Wisconsin cheesemaker can spend a lifetime perfecting his craft," Joe says,  "much of it spent resisting the urge to eat all the cheese."

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Learning to Cook

There are two types of people in this world: those who like to cook and those who don't. Those of us (like me) who don't particularly enjoy spending time in a kitchen unless it's to lick cookie dough from a beater, tend to seek out people who do.

Take my husband, for example. He is a marvelous cook. I'd like to say I sought him out for this particular feature, but it unfortunately took me a while to discover his hidden kitchen skills. In fact, for almost the first full year we were married, I did almost all the cooking, as I was a new wife, a stay-at-home mom, and thought I could pull off the Betty Crocker image. Turns out, not so much.

For what had to be 10 excruciating months, my husband patiently suffered evening meals - night after night - from a box. Hamburger helper? Check. Instant potatoes? Check. Just-add-meat Taco Kits? You betcha. Before you judge, let me just say even though I grew up on a farm, I somehow never learned to cook, despite the fact that both my mother and grandmother were amazing cooks. At some point in our early childhood, our parents must have had some sort of late-night huddle and designated my older sister as the house helper. This meant she helped Mom - and subsequently learned - how to cook, sew, can vegetables, tend a garden, shop at a grocery store, and other generally useful life skills.

I, on the other hand, was designated as the outside farm helper - a role I relished, because really, who wants to be stuck in a boring old house when you can be outside with crops to plant and animals to feed? Consequently, I helped - and therefore learned - how to do such things as drive a tractor, harvest crops, sort cattle, fix fence and stack a wagon with exactly 92 small square bales of hay. You know - the sort of skills that come in REALLY handy as a city dweller with a desk job.

Thankfully for my new husband and daughter, early on into the marriage, I decided to return to work. With both of us now working full-time, cooking became a switch-off duty. Well ... let's just say it was supposed to be a switch-off duty, but after about a week of eating real food prepared with fresh ingredients and watching my husband cook with actual pans - wait, we had pans? -  I voluntarily never entered the kitchen again. These days, our house mostly runs like a restaurant. The hubby asks what I want, I give a suggestion, he gleefully cooks it (and seems to enjoy it) and then calls me from my home office when it's done. It's true, I AM living the dream life.

Fast forward 14 years. We now have a teenage daughter, who is showing some interest in learning to cook. So far, I've pretty much exhausted my list of home-cooked specialties, which includes, and I must stress this - IS limited to: fried egg sandwiches on toast, apple pie made with store-bought crust and pre-made apples, and heating up Schwan's frozen hash browns. With no tractor to drive, fence to fix or cattle to sort, it appears my list of pertinent life skills is exhausted.

I've come to the conclusion that maybe it's time for both my daughter and me to learn how to cook.

Luckily, a copy of Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food arrived in the mail yesterday - a free press copy from the publisher who hopes I'll write about it. Check. Written by Sam Mogannam, second-generation owner of San Francisco's Bi-Rite Market, the book efficiently guides one through the grocery store, one department at a time, and explains how to identify incredible ingredients, decipher labels and terms, build a great pantry, and reconnect with the people and places that feed us (yeah, I copied that right from the book jacket, but in this case, it's actually true).

Normally I just sort of scan these types of books and then copy something from the book jacket in a review - um wait - but this time I actually connected with the author when I read this paragraph on page 10:

"We have a general idea of what kinds of things we should be eating, but when we're actually standing in the aisles at the supermarket, it's hard to put theory into action. With all this knowledge about the food world today, too many of us still don't know what to put in our shopping carts."

Whoa. It's like Sam Mogannam is speaking to me.

It's true: I do know what I should be eating, and I do go to the grocery store all the time. But mostly I buy bananas, yogurt, cheese, frozen yogurt and boxes of Wheat Thins. If left to my own devices, this would be pretty much be my diet, because I have no idea how to make actual ingredients become real food.

But I have to say - and I am in no way, shape or form getting paid to say this - I've become inspired by this book. With easy tips and logical reasoning on why and what to buy at the deli, meat and produce departments, dairy case, bakery, cheese counter and wine and beer department, I may actually be able to pull this whole cooking thing off.

And learning how to cook should certainly be an easier and less expensive way to bond with the teenager than buying a farm, right? Hmmm ... I do remember my husband lobbying to buy a tractor a few years back - though God knows where we'd put it or what we'd use it for on our 1/4 acre lot in suburbia. I'm sure he'd think of something. Because if I enter the kitchen and actually start cooking, anything's possible, right? Someone point me to the pans.