Sunday, August 30, 2015

Wisconsin Cheddar Tour with Gordon Edgar

Exciting news, cheese peeps! If your lifelong dream has been to tour three cheddar cheese factories, eat lunch on a goat farm, enjoy dinner at a swanky Italian restaurant, and ride a bus with an acclaimed cheesemonger author, than I am about to make all of your dreams come true.

On Friday, October 23, my friend and author Gordon Edgar (of Cheesemonger fame) is coming to America’s Dairyland to celebrate the October release of his new book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

To celebrate, Gordon and I are going to lead an all-day tour to the heart of Wisconsin Cheddar country. We’ll meet at Larry’s Market in Brown Deer at 8:30 am to talk Cheddar with co-owners Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson.

Then we'll board our private coach bus and drive north for an exclusive tour of Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, the only cheese factory in America still making Mammoth Cheddar wheels. We'll tour the factory, talk shop with Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning, visit their charming retail store, eat some cheese, and get back on the bus.

Mammoth Cheddar Wheels at Henning's Cheese
Next stop: famous LaClare Farms, a farmstead goat dairy crafting raw milk goat cheddar and award-winning American originals, including the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheese, Evalon. We'll tour the goat farm on a tractor and wagon with farm patriarch Larry Hedrich,  enjoy lunch in the creamery, prepared especially for us by farm chef Jim McIntoshk, and do a little shopping in the farm retail store.

Then it's south to Theresa, this time for a tour and Cheddar talk with Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer at his third-generation family cheese factory, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. Joe and his son, Joey, are making some of the best Cheddar in the country, and we'll hear from the dynamic duo on their secrets to success.

Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer making cheese.
The evening concludes with a four-course dinner and cheddar tasting at destination Italian restaurant Trattoria Stefano with chef and owner Stefano Viglietti in Sheboygan, along with a Cheddar tasting and talk with Chris Gentine, of The Artisan Cheese Exchange and founder of Deer Creek Cheeses, including such award-winning cheddars as Deer Creek The Fawn, The Stag and The Doe. We'll be back to Larry’s Market by 8 pm.

On the bus in between stops, Gordon will entertain us with readings from his favorite chapters of his new Cheddar book. At the end, all tour attendees will receive their very own autographed copy!

Larry Hedrich giving a tour in the dairy
goat barn.
Cost for this Cheddar extravaganza is just $149 per person and includes:

•    Round trip coach bus transportation from Brown Deer to all tour stops
•    Lunch on the farm at LaClare Farms
•    Dinner and Cheddar tasting at Trattoria Stefano
•    Autographed hard-cover copy of Gordon Edgar’s new Cheddar book, to be released Oct. 5

This tour is limited to 30 attendees, and is already half sold out. Book your spot early at: www. WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com. I look forward to seeing you on the bus!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Build a Dairy, Name a Goat: Bifrost Farms Looks to Rise in Wisconsin

Everyone knows that in Wisconsin, it's not easy starting up a small-scale, farmstead cheese operation. Every cheesemaker selling cheese commercially must be licensed, his or her facility must be licensed, and an array of permits and bureacratic hoops written for the big boys must be navigated. And if you're a small goat or sheep dairy operation, good luck finding a banker to loan you money.

That's why Meg and Joel Wittenmyer, land stewards for a diverse 20 acres in northwestern Wisconsin that they call Bifrost Farms, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on barnraiser.us. Their goal? To raise $4,000 before the ground freezes to install critical infrastructure needs at their farmstead goat dairy so they can work on the interior of a new micro-creamery this winter.

“It’s scary enough starting a new career at 57," says Meg, a Wisconsin Licensed Cheesemaker, goat milker, hay thrower, animal wrangler and bottle washer (literally). "But one that requires not only physical stamina, but puts you in the position of being responsible for the lives of so many wonderful animals…well, it’s kind of daunting. But, I've faced challenges all my life and never met one I couldn't overcome."

The Wyttenmyers' first step is renovating a building on their farm for a new micro-creamery, with a goal to open in May 2016.  This fall, they are trying to get critical infrastructure work done before the snow flies, so early next year, when they apply (and hopefully receive) a USDA micro-loan, they are ready for the rest of the work.

Meg has been experimenting with making goat's milk cheeses for years, and after spending the past two years earning her Wisconsin Cheese Makers License, she's already found her first waiting commerical customer. After tasting samples of Meg's delicious Chevre and Farmhouse Feta, Menomonie Market Cooperative is eager to carry Bifrost Farms cheese as well as Cajeta (a thickened syrup usually made of sweetened caramelized milk, originally from Mexico) and, one day, Gelato. "We can't get this done fast enough," Meg says.

In addition to making goat's milk cheeses, Meg is also dedicated to opening her facility to aspiring cheesemakers looking to gain their 240 needed apprenticeship hours with a licensed cheesemaker. Small-scale operations that meet the state's requirements for internships are few and far between, especially on the western side of the state. 

Those hoping to have their own micro-creamery one day must do as Meg did. Part of her hours were attained at the UW-River Falls Dairy Plant over three semesters, (where incidentally, not only did she not get paid, but had to pay student tuition to be able to work in the plant for liability reasons). The balance of her internship time included a short stint of 30 hours with a small goat dairy two hours away, while the rest occurred at a medium-sized creamery, which was still 100 times larger than her plans for Bifrost Farms, and an hour’s drive from her home.

Once Bifrost Farms is operational, Meg plans to hang out her shingle for interns who not only want to make cheese, but need to understand what it's like to operate at a micro-level, where often times one or two people are doing all the work. This is not a new problem for small cheesemakers, but hopefully, with one more micro-creamery in the mix, it won't be so hard, she says.

If you're interested in helping Meg & Joel with their dream of building an on-farm goat's milk creamery, I'd urge you to visit their barnraiser.us site, and learn more about their operation. Even a gift of $5 or $10 adds up, plus they'll recognize you on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Larger donations come with more rewards, such as farm tours and baskets of cheese, once the dairy is licensed. My favorite reward? Donate $55 and you'll get to name a goat next Spring at Bifrost Farms. Because who doesn't want to name a goat? C'mon people!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Thousands Descend Upon Festival of Cheese in Providence

With more than 1,400 cheeses to try at last night's Festival of Cheese - the annual culmination of the American Cheese Society conference and competition - cheese lovers from around the world descended upon dozens of tables filled with cheeses sorted by category: flavored, fresh, farmstead, smoked, washed-rind, blues, international style, American originals, Italian-style, soft-ripened, cheddar and more, all in a quest to taste every cheese possible.

Some succeeded. Many failed. The rest of us are still in a cheese coma.

For me, one of the best parts of the annual Festival of Cheese is volunteering to prep the event. As usual, my husband and I were in charge of the cheddar table. Our mission: sort, cut, prep and tray 119 cheddar cheeses of every shape, color, variety and size, onto only seven tables. With one of the best volunteer crews ever assembled, we did it in just over six hours.

Here's a look at the process:

8 AM: Uriah and I pose for a selfie to remember how energetic we looked before shepherding hundreds of cheeses from cooler truck to speed rack to cutting tables to plating:


9 AM: three of my awesome volunteers starting to cut and plate cheddar. I always encourage my team to get creative in cutting and traying the cheeses, because after all, how often are we encouraged to play with our food?


10 AM: beginning to sort where the cheeses will land:



NOON: Here's a portion of our table, about halfway through the process. Time for lunch:



2:30 PM: We are almost done - just have to fluff up the tables with crackers, flowers and fruit. Time to take a team photo:



4 PM: And, it's showtime. Here's a glimpse of just a portion of our magnificent cheddar tables, with my hand-carved "cheddar mountains". Gosh, playing with cheese is fun:


Of course, the main perk of attending the Festival of Cheese is getting to try all the winning cheeses, including the Best of Show winners. Here they are, in all their glory:


It's also fun people-watching - here's a shot of U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Cecylia Szewczyk taking a photo of one of her many award-winning cheeses before the crowds arrive. The girl just keeps racking up the cheese awards:


Every year, I try to find the most unusual cheese at the event, and this year was no exception. This creative cheesemaker decided to insert a lemon into the middle of his cheese. Not surprisingly, the cheese was lemony in flavor:


If you missed this year's Festival of Cheese, fear not! The event will be repeated again next year, this time in Des Moines, Iowa. I look forward to seeing you there in 2016!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.