Friday, June 10, 2016

Dandelion Addiction & Fini Sur La Paille Debut in Madison

There are distinct advantages to living in a state with a high percentage of third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers boasting Swiss and German descent who make some of the best Cheddar, Swiss, Brick, Colby, Havarti, Muenster (and of course, Limburger) in the nation.

There are also distinct disadvantages, however, including the fact that Wisconsin makes very, very few French style cheeses - including bloomy rinds like Brie and Camembert, or small, soft and delicate cheeses with sticky, stinky rinds. Apparently the French liked Quebec and Nova Scotia so much, they never ventured west to America's Dairyland. Dammit.

But a pair of cheesemakers in northern Wisconsin are on a mission to change Wisconsin's dearth in soft and stinky cheese. Michael Stanitis, owner of Sassy Nanny Farmstead Cheese, and Fred and Kelly Faye, owners of Happy Hollow Creamery, each make a variety of artisan sheep and goat milk cheeses at Fred's farmstead cheese plant near Bayfield, Wisconsin. Each has their own farm and their own animals, but share creamery space to make their cheeses.

Happy Hollow Creamery is located about as far north in Wisconsin as possible - just a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior. Fred hand crafts artisan sheep cheeses from the milk of his 70 ewes in extremely small batches, and until last week, his products were only available at at local farmers markets and co-ops in Bayfield, Ashland and Duluth. I say until last week, because that's when a box of Dandelion Addiction arrived at Metcalfe's Markets in Madison. Whoo-hoo!

Dandelion Addiction (I love this name) is a sheep's milk camembert-style cheese made in small rounds and hand-packaged in white breathable paper. If you stop by Metcalfe's to pick one up, don't expect a perfectly round, machine-made, hockey puck, stabilized brie in a wooden box. Instead, each round is a slightly different shape, of varying widths, and each carries a lovely and dreamy, French-style bloomy-rind flavor and aroma. This cheese is about as close to a French camembert that you're going to get while living in Wisconsin.

I first tasted this cheese at the Dairy Sheep Association of North America's annual conference last year, when I volunteered to coordinate tours for 100 people to Wisconsin artisan and farmstead creameries. Dandelion Addiction was featured at the event's evening of cheese, which included about 50 different sheep milk cheeses from across the continent. I had no idea it even existed until Sid Cook, master cheesemaker and owner of Carr Valley Cheese, walked a piece over to me and said: "You've got to try this." Let's just say that when Sid Cook tells you to try a cheese, you shut up and eat it.

The cheese was velvety, creamy and rich, just like I would have expected a sheep's milk camembert (sheep milk is much higher in butterfat than cow's milk). I guessed it was from Canada, or perhaps one of Veronica Pedraza's fabulous creations at Meadowood Farms (more about her cheeses in an upcoming post). But no, it was an honest-to-God Wisconsin sheep milk Camembert and the cheesemaker was standing across the room. I high-tailed to meet Fred Faye, and found out he was making the cheese in extremely small batches, and it was only available at farmer's markets and a couple retail co-ops in northern Wisconsin. I let him know if he ever had an extra batch or two, to give me a call.

That call came two weeks ago from Michael Stanitis, who it turns out, is ramping up his production of soft and gooey and oh-so-stinky goat's milk cheeses, and wondered if he could send me a sample of his Fini Sur La Paille cheeses along with a round of Dandelion Addiction. I nearly choked in happiness. The cheeses arrived, we scheduled a Saturday tasting with all the Metcalfe's cheesemongers, and then we promptly ate all of each of the rounds of cheese, completely ignoring customers in our five-minute state of satiated happiness. Needless to say, I placed an order the same day.

While Happy Hollow Creamery specializes in sheep milk cheeses, Michael Stanitis at Sassy Nanny makes small-batch artisan goat milk cheeses. Until last year, he raised and milked the goats himself, made all the cheese, marketed all the cheese and basically nearly died in exhaustion. In 2015, he wisely decided to let a nearby family take over the care and milking of his 25 does, so he now gets to actually sleep and have a life. As a consequence, he also has time to make more cheese, and that's why Metcalfe's also now has his Fini Sur La Paille, which translates to "finish on the straw."

If this cheese were made in France - and I'm telling you it tastes like it does -- it would be aged and "finished" on straw mats on wooden shelves in an underground cave with cobwebs. But this being America, it's aged in a you-can-eat-off-the-floor-it's-so-clean sanitary room with washable walls and stainless steel equipment. Because that's how America makes cheese. But Michael has done the near impossible and made a soft, squishy, French-style stinky cheese with just-right goat citrusy tang that's begging to be spread on a baguette and eaten for breakfast.

Similar to Dandelion Addiction, do not expect these wheels to be perfectly round and consistent. Each round was made by hand and is wrapped in white breathable paper, which allows the pungency of the cheese to eek through in all of its gloriousness.

Priced at $27.99 per pound, neither of theses cheeses are cheap, but they shouldn't be. When a cheesemaker has control of a product from start to finish - knows the names of each sheep and goat, what they've eaten that day, felt their milk in the palm of their hand, and then spent six weeks making the best cheese that represents that precious milk, the end result is going to cost a little more. I'd encourage folks to give these cheeses a try while they last - and they won't last long. Production is seasonal, farmer's markets are ramping up, and who knows how many more boxes I'm going to be able to convince Fred and Michael to send my way at Metcalfe's. Life is short. Spend it eating good cheese.

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