Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bacon Supper

As if we didn't already know that bacon makes everything better, the folks at the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference this week set out to take my favorite food group to a whole new level.

Bacon at a cheese conference, you ask? Yes, ma'am. After spending three days talking, breathing and eating nothing but cheese with nearly 100 of the top movers and shakers in the American artisan cheese community, we were all ready to experience a different level on the food pyramid. I suppose we could have had a salad, but really, who needs rabbit food when bacon is on the menu?

To prove my point, Sheana Davis, founder and owner of The Epicurean Connection in downtown Sonoma, hosted a Bacon Supper as the parting gift to her cheese conference attendees this evening. In attendance was Ari Weinzweig who wrote the book - yes, literally - on bacon. It's called Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon and features stories of pork bellies, hush puppies, rock n' roll music and bacon fat mayonnaise.

While Ari entertained us with bacon trivia (Q: What was the title of people who once shepherded hogs from farm to market? A: Drovers), chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the husband and wife proprietors of Zazu Restaurant + Farm and Bovolo Restaurant in Sonoma County, and owners of Black Pig Meat Company, prepared a four course meal featuring their Black Pig Bacon.

All of Black Pig Meat Co.'s pork is sourced from Pure Country Pork, a sustainable hog operation certified by Food Alliance. The pigs are a heritage breed, raised naturally and allowed to roam on pasture. As Duskie says: "We like to think the pigs really only have one bad day."

Duskie and John have risen to fame with their Black Pig Bacon, which is dry cured with brown sugar and smoked with real applewood in a process that takes nearly a month. This is compared to most supermarket mass-produced bacons, which are wet cured and injected with liquid smoke in a process that takes less than a day. The difference in taste is remarkable. Black Pig Bacon is salty, smoky and sweet, and its flavor resonated in each of the dishes.

Our first dish was a Bacon Terrine, prepared by Chef Antonio Ghilarducci of The Depot Hotel in Sonoma, paired with Delice de la Vallee cheese and bacon brown sugar jam, prepared by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection.

Three words: Best. Appetizer. Ever.

Next was a roasted brussel sprout and Black Pig Bacon salad with almonds, shaved Lucca, a mild alpine Italian-style cheese made by North Bay Curds and Whey in Tomales, and extra virgin olive oil from Tallgrass Ranch in Sonoma.

Nancy and Tony Lilly, makers of Tallgrass Ranch olive oil, happened to be sitting across the table from me (that's Nancy, standing up, below). Their farm is on a ridge in the Sonoma Valley overlooking the San Francisco Bay. They began planting their olive grove in 1998 and today hand-harvest enough olives to send between 40 and 100 gallons to market every year.

While I had olive oil producers on one side, on my other side sat Alec Stefansky, brew master at Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz. Alec had brought his Bacon Brown Ale - yes, beer infused with bacon. It turns out he had just finished up packing 257 cases of this brand-new beer, which shipped out of the brewery last week and is headed to distribution in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. (Maybe we can smuggle some into Wisconsin).

Next up was the main course. Brace yourselves, bacon lovers: the menu consisted of smoky baby back ribs, accompanied by backyard collards and bacon, cowboy beans and bacon, fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad and bacon, and Roelli Red Rock Cheese (from Wisconsin!) cornbread. Let's break it down in pictures, shall we?

First: ribs, cooked so slowly and amazingly that the meat fell off the bone

Second: backyard collard greens. I have never cared for collards and now I know why: I've never had them prepared properly with bacon. For a northern girl who views green food with suspicion, I had seconds and thirds of these babies

Next: cowboy beans -- a little on the spicy side, but once they mixed in with all the other food on my plate, felt right at home

And, of course: fingerling and bacon fat aioli potato salad

Finally: bacon and Roelli Red Rock cornbread. Yum!

Put it all together and it looked like this!

For dessert, we had not one, but three amazing treats. First was a bacon and currant rum gelato, paired side-by-side with Sheana's Creme de Fromage gelato, which tasted even better than cheesecake.

And then, we had a one-of-a-kind "PB & C" chicharron peanut butter cup, made with fried pig skins, crumbled into a peanut butter cup. Here are the chefs themselves, with their amazing chocolate creations:

A huge thank you to Sheana Davis, Duskie Estes and John Stewart of the Black Pig Meat Co., Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman's and all the folks who prepped and cleared dishes for what was one of the best meals of our lives. Can't wait until next year's Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

2012 World Championship Cheese Contest

Brace yourselves, Wisconsin. More than 2,500 cheeses are coming to Madison for the World Championship Cheese Contest in March. Are you ready?

In good news, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association is ready to roll. They've been hosting the World Contest for decades, and have a streamlined process of receiving, sorting, spitting, evaluating and awarding cheeses down to a science. That's a good thing, because this year, a record-breaking 2,503 entries from 24 nations around the world were entered.

All cheeses will be judged between March 5-7, with viewing open to the public during daytime hours at the Monona Terrace. The real shindig, however, will happen the evening of Wednesday, March 7, when the public is invited to attend an exclusive tasting of more than 20 international and Wisconsin cheeses, and witness the final round of judging, live and in person. Tickets for "An Evening at the World Championship Cheese Contest" are $25 and are going fast. Buy yours now at because this event WILL sell out.

This year, several new nations have entered cheese into the contest, including India, Romania, Estonia and Croatia. They'll join the returning nations of Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany,  Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Forty international judges will work from Monday, March 5 through noon on Wednesday, March 7 to sniff, taste and examine each entry, working in teams of two.  The top three scoring cheeses and butters in each class will earn gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Each two-person judging team pairs a U.S. judge with an international expert.  This year, judges hail from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, joining 20 judges from 13 states in the U.S.

More than 250 dairy industry volunteers -- including yours truly -- will provide support as judges work through more than 50,000 pounds of cheese and butter entries. I know I'm looking forward to my official "B-Team" ball cap again this year. Hey - there has to be a perk to hauling heavy boxes of cheese to judging tables all day, right?

It's important to note that the World Championship Cheese Contest is a technical evaluation of cheese entries, using an objective measure of cheese defects to select the products in each class that best exemplify perfection for a cheese variety. The highest scoring cheeses and butters earn a gold medal, with silver and bronze medals awarded to second and third place finishers in each class.

The Contest is open between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Monday, March 5 and Tuesday, March 6 in the Exhibit Hall of the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.  First round judging will be completed Wednesday, March 7 from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

This Championship Round, set for 7 p.m. during the Wednesday, March 7 public event, will be broadcast as a live, video-streamed program on the WCMA website.  In addition, contest results and digital images will be posted on the website throughout the competition.  Visit for complete contest coverage.

In 2010, cheesemaker Cedric Vuille from Formagerie de La Brevine in the tiny village of La Brevine, Switzerland, was named World Champion in the Championship Round for his Le Gruyere Switzerland. The Swiss cheeses have been popular, often winning the World title. A U.S. World Champion is long overdue. Fingers crossed 2012 is our year!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Birthday Sheep

Turning 40 years old isn't so bad when you're surrounded by your favorite people, especially when those favorite people happen to live on a sheep dairy and it's lambing season.

Last Wednesday was my big 4-0, so the hubby and I trekked to Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby to hang out with Dean and Brenda Jensen and their 350 sheep for the day. Brenda had hinted last fall my birthday would conveniently fall during prime lambing season, and really, who doesn't want to spend their 40th birthday in a barn surrounded by newborn bleating lambs? Hello, dream trip!

We arrived late afternoon, just in time for transporting the 11 lambs born that morning to an Amish neighbor's farm, as Brenda had run out of clean stalls (this occasionally happens when you have 275 moms giving birth to an average of twins in a 30-day period). Another 75 ewes will lamb in May, giving Brenda a longer milking season, and thus more milk to make cheese later into the season.

How do you transport newborn lambs, you ask? You pick them up from their stalls, carry them to the farm pick-up, carefully place them in tubs in the cab, and carry the extras on your lap. It's amazing how warm, snuggly and quiet a newborn lamb is - I think the one I was holding in my lap for the 3-mile ride may have actually fallen asleep after it pooped on me.

After returning to the farm, it was time for milking. Greg and Dave are the Jensens' evening milkers, and they're pretty good at what they do. Here's a look at milking sheep:

The Jensens are currently milking about 150 ewes, which takes just a little over an hour in their new double 10 Swedish parlor, a huge improvement over their home-made milking station they used the first five years they were on the farm.

After milking, we took a tour of the lambing facilities. The lambs start their lives in the nursery, born in straw pens, and then are moved to bigger pens as they age. On March 28, most of them will be sold at market - just in time for Easter dinner - and the Jensen farm will be a much quieter place.

The ewes still waiting to give birth, meanwhile, are so fat and fluffy that they look like caricature sheep - you know, the ones that came with your Little People Play Farm set? They're all wool, with short stick legs, kind of like this:

The Jensens' farm is absolutely breathtaking. Situated in the heart of Amish country, it's all hills, fences and pastures. Their morning milker is an amish neighbor, hence the buggy in the photo.

After morning milking, the evening's and morning's milk are combined, gravity fed into a stainless stell tank on wheels, and driven about 40 feet to the farm's creamery, where it is again gravity-fed into the farm's cheese plant, where Brenda makes cheese about four days a week. Here's a glimpse at the milk transportation process:

We didn't stick around to make cheese with Brenda in the morning - I've made cheese with her a couple of times before, once with my daughter, so we said goodbye to the Jensens and rolled down the driveway, although not without saying goodbye to the barn cats and Augustus Burdock Jensen, the farm dog.

Many, many thanks to Brenda and Dean for your hospitality, laughter and kindness in helping me celebrate the big 4-0! It couldn't have been any better.

Photos by Uriah Carpenter, copyright 2012.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Holland's Family Farm Looks to Expand

One of Wisconsin's best-loved farmstead cheesemakers thought building a new cheese factory, a 300-cow dairy farm and farmstead retail store with an agri-tourism focus would be welcomed by their entire local community. They thought wrong.

Holland's Family Cheese's Marieke and Rolf Penterman, along with their five young children, are facing opposition and open hostility from a very small but vocal group of Thorp residents, who argue a "factory farm" within city limits will lead to water contamination, air and soil pollution, and an increased risk of children developing asthma from the dust and odor of a working dairy farm.

Last week, Holland's Family Cheese company members appeared before the City of Thorp Planning Zoning Commission to ask for a re-zoning of 100 acres on the edge of Thorp's city limits off Highway 29.

The Pentermans have dreams of expanding and relocating their "Marieke Gouda" cheese factory from its current rural location to a more visitor-friendly parcel on the main highway. The proposal calls for building a new 300-cow freestall barn on the highway, which would provide milk for the family's authentic Dutch Gouda, winner of dozens of national and international awards.

The good news: the Planning and Zoning commission unanimously voted to recommend approval of the project to the City Council, with more than 100 people attending the local meeting. While some testified in opposition, most testified in favor.

The bad news: unfounded accusations pertaining to everything from the Pentermans' immigrant status, to whether they shop locally, to the cleanliness of their current 850-cow dairy have been floating amongst the community for weeks. These negative rumors have hurt the Pentermans, who until now, felt like they were accepted members of the Thorp community.

"Never did we expect that this would cause this kind of situation," Marieke says. "All these kinds of misleading rumors not only hurt us as a business, but also the whole dairy industry."

Marieke is asking Holland's Family Cheese supporters to post positive comments on both the City of Thorp and Thorp Chamber Facebook sites, as both sites are now filled with extremely negative - and sometimes, blatantly false - comments regarding the Pentermans and their proposal. "If anyone has any bright ideas or suggestions as to how to help this situation, please let us know," Marieke said.

Cheese Underground supports Holland's Family Cheese, recognizes their importance to the Wisconsin dairy industry, and has witnessed first hand their dedication to operating a top-notch, clean dairy farm and Grade A cheese plant, both in complete compliance with Wisconsin's strict dairy regulations.

Let's hope a vocal majority in favor of a new Holland's Family Cheese cheese factory and agri-tourism-focused dairy farm now takes the floor and allows the Pentermans to disseminate the facts of their new family farmstead operation, so it may be judged on its merits, and not on rumors.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

WeatherVane Creamery

Spunky people inspire me, and Sarah Kowal is just about the spunkiest person I've ever met.

Sarah first called me a couple of months ago, announcing she was working hard to open a specialty cheese shop in River Falls, Wisconsin. Yes, that River Falls - a thriving metropolis of 15,000 people. Big sigh.

Trying hard not to yawn, and instead thinking this was my requisite "call of the week" from a crazy person with a crazy idea who wanted me to magically help them achieve their dream, I politely listened. This caller did seem a little more enthusiastic than the usual suspects, and she did actually have a business plan and numbers to back up her dream.

Then she called me again. And again. And again. And by the fourth phone call, I really started to like Sarah Kowal. Because really, how many people are passionate enough to start a specialty food shop and cafe in a town of 15,000 people, and where winter is the predominant season?

That's why I smiled when Sarah, who is unfortunately faced with low capital and low collateral, announced she is launching an ambitious Internet campaign to raise $100,000 in 32 days to launch her dream, called WeatherVane Creamery. As a Wisconsin-only specialty shop and cafĂ© featuring farmstead, artisan and specialty cheeses, as well as organic, small batch churned scooped ice cream, gourmet sandwiches, WeatherVane Creamery "will celebrate all things Wisconsin.”

You have to give her credit, the girl's got spunk.

Don't believe me? View the video she produced for the crowd fundraising site, and then tell me this girl's not going to either succeed, or die trying.

So what inspires a twenty-something gal to embark on this path? It's a bit of a long and windy story, but I'll try to sum it up for you:

Sarah lived in River Falls 10 years ago as a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls where she earned her Bachelors of Science in Horticulture. Yes, Horticulture. During that time, she worked at Whole Earth Grocery and began to appreciate the local business community on Main Street. In fact, she says River Falls is where she got her first taste of running a business (unless you count the paper route when she was 11 or selling donuts at her dad's auctions at age 10).

From there, she moved on to greener pastures (or so she thought) to take a job in Chicago for the largest horticultural company in the world. That didn't pan out as well as she thought it would, so after a year or so, so she became a store manager for Starbucks on the commuter train line in Palatine, Illinois.

Selling coffee on a train was where she found her calling. Starbucks rewarded her for being a leader in fiscal responsibility, employee development, customer service and community involvement. Eventually she made her way to Portland, Oregon, where she was hired to expand a natural foods co-op. She developed systems and teams for two stores and connected with farmers. Last March, she found herself in a position to create another new chapter in her life, and entrepreunership was calling.

"After recalling with great fondness the wonderful things from River Falls, I packed up my trusty sidekick and set out on an epic journey across the country that began on Easter Day to come home and put down some deep roots," Sarah says. "What started out as an idea to open a coffee shop has evolved and expanded to become a celebration of all things I missed during my 10 years away from my home state."

She says part of WeatherVane Creamery's mission is to provide the community with a local business that is smart and quirky. She describes the shop as an "iconic Wisconsin destination store that successfully combines and appeals to traditional sensibilities with a hip and modern feel.”

If successful, Kowal aims to open WeatherVane Creamery on April 1, just in time for National Grilled Cheese Day on April 12. Want to be part of her project? Contribute just $1 or more on, and you can say you helped the spunky girl achieve her dream.