Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rock Stars

Artisan cheesemakers are the rock stars of the dairy world. No where is that more obvious than when you're standing next to one at a trade show.

My first experience was at the Kohler Food & Wine Show, where I was helping staff a table for the organization I work for, and at my table was
Mary Falk, the cheese goddess from LoveTree Farmstead Cheese near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, selling her famous Trade Lake Cedar, a raw sheep milk cheese aged on the boughs of cedar branches in her fresh air-aging cave.

I was standing to the left of Mary, and as traffic flowed by our table, I would just begin talking to someone about Wisconsin artisan cheese when they would spot Mary next to me in her ponytail and pink t-shirt, get all starry-eyed and then completely pass me by as they gushed over the fact they were getting to meet THE Mary Falk. The first time it happened, I figured - OK, this person doesn't get out much. The 32nd time it happened, there was no doubt in my mind that Mary was a rock star of the artisan cheese world and I was her groupie. By the end of the day, I was feeling pretty cool about myself - hey - I got to share a booth with THE Mary Falk. I packed up my brochures and went home a happy camper.

Maybe I'll change my title on my business card to: Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Groupie.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Affineurs Unite!

What started out as a small gathering of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers talking about affinage has now turned into a full-fledged movement!

A meeting next Wednesday, in which we invited David Gremmels, president of The Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, to guest speak on affinage, has now mushroomed into a 40-person sit-down dinner event at Harvest, a Madison restaurant well-known for serving Wisconsin artisan cheeses.

Owner Tami Lax and chef Justin Carlisle are creating a menu especially for the cheesemaker meeting - I'm hedging my bets on a kick-butt cheese platter. It's always fun to eat a bunch of artisan cheeses with a group of artisan cheesemakers - they are never shy with their opinions on the competition!

Stay tuned for any exciting news from the event - I have a feeling this is the start of something big.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Affinage - the "real" cheese underground

I hear a small group of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers who specialize in affinage (the art of aging cheese) are occasionally meeting to share ideas on how they can work together to make even BETTER aged artisan cheeses.

These folks are the real "cheese underground." Some are aging their cheeses in natural caves while others are using state-of-the-art temperature and humidity-controlled rooms. As Wisconsin's artisan cheese industry matures, it seems more cheesemakers are studying and mastering affinage - it's another way for them to put their own signature on a piece of cheese and add a little to their bottom line along the way. Once a cheese is aged for 6 months, a year or three years, it carries more taste, becomes more valuable and people like me are willing to pay more for it.

A good example of someone pushing the affinage envelope is Willi Lehner,
Bleu Mont Dairy, near Blue Mounds. He's been selling his cheese at the Dane County Farmer's Market on the Capital Square in Madison since 1988 (pictured above) and has a cult following of cheese connoisseurs. This guy has a straw bale "cave" on his farm - and he's started making bandaged cheddars and aging them until the rinds resemble a piece of art. The last time I walked into his aging room, a co-worker - and I am not making this up - literally squealed in delight at the sight of Willi's cheese's blooming molds. I've got to admint that it's not something you see every day.

That experience made me realize that not only are Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers crafting amazing-tasting cheese, they're molding a product that routinely makes people gasp at its beauty. Could there be anything better?

Monday, April 10, 2006

New farmstead milk bottler opening May 1

Got farmstead milk?

If you've never tasted glass-bottled farmstead milk, you're missing out on one of the greatest moments ever in beverage consumption. The first few times I bought farmstead milk (don't worry - it's pasteurized, meets all the Wisconsin food safety laws, etc.) and
brought it home, my family almost didn't believe it was milk. We've all grown so used to drinking milk out of plastic jugs or plastic bags, that we don't realize what really fresh milk is supposed to taste like - really cold, really crisp and no "plastic" aftertaste.

While I currently have the unfortunate luck to live about 2 miles from the nearest farmstead milk home delivery route in Wisconsin, that may all change once Nick Kirch of
Blue Marble Dairy comes online May 1. Nick is a dairy farmer near Barneveld and last July broke ground on his own $500,000 farmstead milk bottling facility. He's going to offer cream-line mlk, bottled directly from his 70-cow dairy herd. He's hoping to sell his milk through local retail outlets and establish a home delivery route (yay!). He's also working with a group of Southwest Wisconsin dairy artisans to establish an "artisan delivery network" that will specialize in home delivery of milk, meat, honey, maple syrup, cheese, egs and almost any other locally produced Wisconsin product. They're hoping to have deliveries start in June.

So if you live in southwest Wisconsin, odds are you may have a chance to buy fresh farmstead bottled milk before summer. For those of you living elsewhere in the state, here are the other bottlers that I know of - some are doing home delivery - some offer retail outlets - contact them for more info (most of these folks are too busy to design a website, so just call).

· Castle Rock Organic Farm, Osseo, 715-597-0085

· Crystal Ball Organic Dairy, Osceola, 715-294-4090

· Davis Farm, Kennan, 715-474-3454

· Lamers Dairy, Appleton, For
delivery info, phone 920-887-9288

· Tetzner Dairy, Washburn, 715-373-2330

· Weber Dairy, Marshfield, 715-384-5639

Wisconsin Organics, Bonduel, phone: 920-475-7606

· Sunshine Farms, Portage – Goat’s Milk, 715-526-1752.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Meet Mike Gingrich, artisan cheesemaker

Before I launch into dishing about the new, funky cheeses I've encountered this week, I thought I'd write a quick blurb for any newbies out there who might be just discovering Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers and let you know of two opportunities next week to try one of THE best artisan cheeses made right now in the United States.

Part of the excitement of tasting an amazing cheese is when you get the opportunity to meet the artisan who actually makes it. For those of you living near Milwaukee or Chicago, you have the chance next week to meet one of America's premiere artisan cheesemakers - Mike Gingrich - who crafts Pleasant Ridge Reserve (that's him - pictured above in his affinage room). His cheese was voted Best of Show out of nearly 1,000 cheeses at the 2005 American Cheese Contest, took the same award at ACS in 2001 AND was named the U.S. Champion Cheese in 2003 (that's a lot of accolades for a cheese that's made at a farmstead cheesrie on a dairy farm near Dodgeville, Wis.)

Mike is one of the sweetest, most humble people you'll ever meet - and one of the smartest when it comes to making cheese. Buyers from around the U.S. order his cheese to sell at their specialty cheese shops. If your schedule allows, don't miss an opportunity to meet him and taste his cheese at these two events:

  • April 12: Stop in at one of Chicago's leading specialty artisan cheese, wine & bread shops - Pastoral at 2495 N. Broadway - to meet Mike Gingrich and sample his cheese. Event runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and is free. For more information, visit http://www.pastoralartisan.com/ or call 773-472-4781.

  • April 13: The Milwaukee Public Market will welcome Mike Gingrich, Chef Jack Kaestner, Oconomowoc Lake Club; and a founding member from Slow Foods Wisconsin Southeast to share how to use local ingredients to prepare amazing recipes using Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Mike will talk about how he produces his Beaufort style cheese while Chef Jack will prepare cheese bruschetta, celery root salad, winter root vegetable gratin, and homemade cheese biscuits with cheese "fondue" sauce. Class runs from 5:30 - 7 p.m. and fee is $30. To register or find out more info, call 414-336-1111 or visit http://www.milwaukeepublicmarket.org/cookingclasses.shtml

You can't ask for a better opportunity to try one of America's favorite cheeses!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Welcome to The Cheese Underground

Are you a "picture postage stamp" person? Then this blog is for you.

Wait a minute, I hear you saying - you thought this was about cheese, right? Let me explain. If you're the type of person who walks into the post office and spends five minutes considering all the stamps available before you buy a stamp to mail a birthday card to your mom, then you're probably also the type of person who enjoys looking, smelling, tasting and discovering artisan cheeses - you know - the ones with the really funky molds, or varieties made from mixed milks such as cow's, sheep's and goat's milk?

Through both my work and personal interests, I get the opportunity to meet and work with the current and next generation of artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in Wisconsin. Every week, I taste cheeses and sample other artisan dairy products that aren't yet on store shelves. But most of the time, I'm either alone, or with a handful of coworkers. It's kind of like taking a walk by yourself, discovering an amazing waterfall off the beaten path, and not having anyone by your side to share it with.

This blog is about sharing my cheese discoveries with you. Eventually, most of the products I taste end up on store shelves, and sometimes are already available - it's just that really funky cheeses are sometimes too new and not well-known, or perhaps the cheesemaker (like all of us) concentrates so hard on making a signature product, that he doesn't have time to tell the world about it.

Welcome to the place where the world finds out about great Wisconsin artisan cheese. Welcome to Cheese Underground.