Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Culture Cocktails: A Cheesemaker's Best Kept Secret

When 21 staff members of Cook’s Illustrated recently sampled 10 American artisanal cheddars, proceeded to rate each on flavor, texture, and sharpness, and then published the results, I'm pretty sure they had no idea they were about to expose what is one of the best kept secrets in the cheesemaking world: the rise of using "culture cocktails" to enhance Old World favorites and create New World originals.

The "Artisanal Cheddar Taste Test" in the soon-to-be-published July 2012 issue of Cook's Illustrated  (read an online version here) starts out innocently enough. Much like its previous taste comparisons of balsamic vinegar, whole bean coffee, and even potato chip brands, the staff selects 10 varieties of American cheddar cheese from among top sellers at cheese markets and recent winners of American Cheese Society awards.

They then proceed to compare them on flavor and texture, thinking, I suppose, that a cheddar is a cheddar, right? How different can these cheeses really be?

But then it gets interesting. After a minor error where they don't realize that it's rennet, not culture, that causes milk to separate into curds and whey, the panel opens one of my favorite cheeses: Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery in Iowa, made by two of my all time favorite cheesemakers, Galen Musser, and his father, Rufus (alas, if we could only get these guys to move to Wisconsin). It's at this point the panel realizes that perhaps a cheddar is not always a cheddar.

In a copy block titled "Culture Shock," the article wonders why Prairie Breeze - ultimately dubbed as the magazine's favorite cheddar in its taste-testing exercise, can taste so different from similarly packaged cheeses also labeled as cheddars:

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? According to (Dean) Sommer, (a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research), the moisture level of the cheeses could play a role, but so could each maker’s specific blend of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial culture in our favorite cheddar (Prairie Breeze) likely had a big influence on its flavor. This cheese maker takes the culturing process to another level by adding a second round of bacterial cultures to its cheese. We learned from Sommer that it’s not just a repeat of the first culture cocktail; these secondary bacteria are strains more typically found in Parmesan and Emmentaler than in cheddar, lending the cheese the subtle “butterscotch-y” and “gamy” undertones that earned tasters’ highest praise.

This discovery prompts the tasting team to then go back and check the culturing details of every other cheddar they had tasted:

As it turned out, the particularly “toasty,” “earthy,” “complex” flavors of two other cheddars, including our close runner-up (Cabot Cellars at Jasper Hill Clothbound Cheddar), are also the result of that second dose of alternative bacteria. So much for plain-Jane American cheddar. 

And so much for an American cheesemaker's best-kept secret.

In the past few years, I've watched a growing number of American cheesemakers begin using "adjunct cultures" in their cheeses. Some even have specific "culture cocktails" they commission from culture houses made especially - and only - for them. And that's fine. Adding cultures to the milk to make cheese has always been part of the process.

But two weeks ago, I inadvertently walked into an industry meeting where a new culture house, having just opened up shop in the U.S. a few weeks before, boasted its ability to translate every customer's need or demand into a "just right" culture.

I listened with a mixture of shock and awe as the saleswoman touted the company she worked for had developed cultures to mask bitterness, speed up the aging process, and "achieve refined flavor distinction without any drastic changes to the production process or yield."

Need an adjunct culture to achieve the same fruity, sweet note as a Gouda? Check.

Want to replicate the raw-milk, "farmhouse" taste in a cheese without the raw milk or farmhouse? Check.

Need to develop a smear-ripened flavor without ever actually smear-ripening your cheese? Check.

The presentation got more interesting. We then proceeded to try samples of every cheese the company had made with each of these different cultures. Some were very good and some were so bad I inadvertently spit them out into a napkin before catching myself.

After much oohing and ahhing from the audience, I raised my hand. I told the sales lady that here in the United States, we preach the "art and science" of cheesemaking to consumers - telling them, and rightfully so in my opinion - that a cheese develops its taste because of how carefully the milk is handled, how well the cows, goats or sheep are cared for, and that good milk, paired with fine craftsmanship and affinage skills of a cheesemaker, are the true determinants of a cheese's flavor profile.

The sales lady blinked at me, tilted her head, and spoke to me in a tone of voice that one might expect from a disapproving teacher toward an unruly student: "But why wouldn't you want to use these cultures if they were available to you? These flavors are what the consumer wants. We're only giving cheesemakers the tools they need to sell more cheese."

Perhaps. But I would argue (and hope) that true American artisanal cheesemakers will use adjunct cultures and culture cocktails only to make good cheese better. Because in the marketplace, good cheese will sell. But a good cheese, made by a good cheesemaker, that carries an authentic story, will sell better.

P.S. If you're wondering how Wisconsin cheddars stacked up in the Cook's Illustrated article, only one cheddar from our state - Widmer's Two-Year Aged Cheddar - was chosen for taste-testing. Deemed as “mild” and “lackluster” in comparison with others in the lineup, as it did not contain adjunct cultures, the magazine staffers took a pass, recommending readers "not go out of your way to mail-order it."

No worries, Joe. I, right along with thousands of others of customers, will keep ordering and eating your good, old fashioned cheddar. And then we'll order some more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Slow Food

Matt Feifarek, chair of Slow Food Madison, said yesterday that good food is born not just from good ideas, but from good ideals. In other words, it's not enough to make a food that tastes delicious. That same food should also be made in a way that is good, clean and fair.

As a way of living and eating, Slow Food has got it going on. At its annual member meeting yesterday in Madison, about 75 people gathered to celebrate the spirit of Slow Food in Madison, which it turns out, was one of the first adopters of the movement in the United States. Madison Chefs Leah Caplan and Tami Lax chartered Slow Food Madison back in 1999, before Slow Food USA even hit New York in 2000. As usual, our city's foodie ladies led the way, and today, Slow Food Madison boasts about 250 supporters.

At the meeting, much of the talk by Feifarek and Slow Food District Governor Martha Davis Kipcak centered around the "fair" in Slow Food's mantra. Because let's face it, good, clean and fair food is not available in all parts of our city, state or country, and is not affordable to all people in our society.

This thought made me remember a commencement speech given by L'Etoile Founder and Chef-Author Odessa Piper, to the graduating class of 2006 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here's my favorite part:

"Hey, if all you can afford to eat is fast food, you can still eat it slowly. And don't discount the big solutions that can emerge out of small acts of faith in an idea. In my life, I have witnessed the decline and rebirth of entire farming communities in Wisconsin. By the '70s so many small farms were losing their hold in an ever-industrializing agriculture. Conventional farming practices were sending too much of Wisconsin's best topsoil down the troubled Kickapoo River. And yet the same region now has one of the highest concentrations of vibrant, vital small family farms organic farms, sustainable farms in the country and is rebuilding its communities through a new urban/rural partnership."

Piper continued: "I predict that the good farmers, the citizens and the partners, and educators at the University of Wisconsin and all educators of this state of Wisconsin will lead the country in the coming decades by demonstrating regionally reliant alternatives for our food systems to the current oil-dependent food distribution system that we have. And I believe that this good state and this partnership in the Wisconsin Idea are going to do much, much more."

Every once in a while when I sneak a small fry and chocolate shake at McDonald's, I think of Piper's comments. There was a time in my life when meager starting salaries meant that going to McDonald's on a Saturday night with our 15-month-old daughter was that week's one and only night out - a highlight filled with Happy Meals and a McDonald's "Play Land" with pink slides and plastic ball pit. As a family, we were on our way to realizing what good food was, but we didn't yet have the resources to eat it full-time. Today, when I open my fridge and see an entire drawer of artisan cheeses made by hand from that same Driftless Region of which Piper remembers, I appreciate the good, clean and fair food I now enjoy on a regular basis.

I am proud to be a member of Slow Food and am appreciative this young organization is working to attain a goal of finding ways of good, clean and fair food for all. If you're not already a member of your local chapter, check out Slow Food USA to see where you can make a difference.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Birth of a Wisconsin Cheese Curd

Yes kids, this is what happens when you take your awesome technoid hubby to a cheese factory. He takes a bunch of video, loops it together, sets it to Lady Gaga and puts an embarrassing photo of you at the end. Enjoy this two minute movie showcasing the "Birth of a Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Curd".