Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Tis the Season

A Saturday morning farmer's market is just like Christmas morning for us foodies. We get up at the crack of dawn to see what's under the tree - or in this case, try to beat the rush to our favorite artisan cheesemakers' stands to discover what seasonal gems are available today.

Saturday was the best Christmas of them all at the Dane County Farmer's Market. Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy debuted his "Irish Gem" - a one-of-a-kind Willi inspiration that we will probably never see again after this spring's farmer's market season is over.

That's because Willi crafted and aged the cheese using mold from authentic Irish farmstead cheeses he purchased on a visit to Great Britain last year. He used these scraped Irish rinds to wash his own cheddar-base recipe, aged it and voila - a Wisconsin orginial. Upon setting it out at the market on Saturday, he promptly sold out by mid-morning. Even his bandaged cheddar - which has been available for a little over a year - sold out by 10 a.m. In this town, if you're a late riser, forget about taking any cheese home. Willi does promise he will have more of both varieties at the market this Saturday, so if you're interested, arrive early.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sid Cook: Master O' Cheese

Wisconsinites and those visiting our dairy air via I-90/94 will soon have a new opportunity to buy cheese from one of the most decorated cheesemakers in the state. During a visit to Carr Valley Cheese in Mauston this week, I found out the scoop from store manager extraordinaire LaVonne Voltz that Carr Valley is converting an old miniature golf course/building at the north-bound Mauston exit into a new retail shop for Carr Valley Cheese.

LaVonne says the coolers were delivered last week and the doors should be open for June Dairy Month - just in time to lure tourists off the interstate and discover Cocoa Cardona, Marisa, Mobay, 10-year Cheddar and any of the 50 other varieties crafted by Sid Cook.

If you haven't yet met Sid, Master Cheesemaker and the wizard behind the curtain at Carr Valley, tonight's your lucky night. Sid, along with a half dozen of Wisconsin's leading artisan cheesemakers, will be at the Orpheum Theatre in Madison at a gala event celebrating a new "Living on the Wedge: Wisconsin's Artisan Cheesemakers" documentary.

The event also features seven premeire Wisconsin chefs preparing dishes with cheeses featured in the film. Starts at 6 p.m. - tickets are $15 at the door. Other artisan cheesemaker rock stars you can expect to meet include: Anne Topham, Mike Gingrich, Bob Wills, George Crave, Willi Lehner, Diana Murphy and Tony & Julie Hook. Whether you're a foodie or just someone who likes cheese, tonight will be the grand ball of them all.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Not your average Cheddar

You don't have to live in Wisconsin anymore to eat one of the best cheddars made in the world. For decades, Alto Dairy Cooperative in Black Creek, Wis. has produced a cheddar that is often considered to be the gold standard for its category. Now Alto is partnering with Winona Foods to repackage it, remarket it and distribute it nationwide as "Black Creek Classic Cheddar."

Once of Wisconsin's best-kept flavor secrets, this naturally-aged, hand-selected cheddar is made by Master Cheesemakers whose fathers and grandfathers were cheesemakers. Cheddar runs in their blood.

Master Cheesemaker Gregg Palubicki says he inspects each batch of Black Creek Classic Cheddar to make sure it meets his standards before it's shipped. And then, to ensure that full flavor is in every bite, Alto hires licensed cheese graders to critique the body and texture of the cheese to make sure that 17 - yes, 17 - flavor profiles are in every wedge.

The aged cheddar will be packaged in 7-ounce and 15-ounce tapered wedges and will be available in delis in the following types: 9-month, 3-year & 5-year. I'm guessing that by the time you eat the 5-year, you can basically consider it part of the family.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Flavored Cottage Cheese

A brand new product is hitting store shelves this month: it's a six ounce, single-serving cottage cheese cup available as unflavored or mixed with fruit. Made by Westby Creamery in southwest Wisconsin, it comes in three fruit flavorings: pineapple, mandarin orange or peach.

I tried the pineapple version last night, and it's pretty good. The cottage cheese is extremely fresh and the fruit is not over-powering. It's just the right size for a lunch pack. I can envision kids really liking this stuff.

Westby Creamery General Manager Pete Kondrup said his farmer-owned cooperative decided to launch the new 2 percent lowfat single-serving cups after a similar product made with zero fat didn't test well with consumers a few years ago. This new product is faring much better - it's newly available in all Kwik Trip stores in Wisconsin.

When I stopped in at my local Kwik Trip last night, they only had a couple left on the shelf and the manager said it's selling really well. Kondrup says he's also been in touch with a half dozen Wisconsin school districts and nursing homes who want to add it to their lunch programs.

Good stuff.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cheesecake Bliss

You may have read about Lisa Lathrop, owner of Wisconsin Cheesecakery in Time Magazine this week. Lisa is a small-business owner handcrafting amazing cheesecakes in Madison, Wis. One of our most innovative bakers, she's now using Wisconsin artisan cheeses in a breakfast cheesecake.

Available Saturday mornings at the Westside Community Market at Hill Farms State Office Building parking lot (corner of Segoe Road and Sheboygan Ave.), Lisa is selling a single-serving, 4-oz breakfast cheesemake using award-winning Roth Kase's
Grand Cru Gruyere, made in Monroe, Wis. She combines the alpine cheese with ham from Willow Creek Farm near Baraboo, fresh asparagus and eggs on a croissant crust. A combination that turns many a head but always sells out!

Other breakfast cheesecakes include spinach, asiago cheese, mushrooms & garlic, and of course the ever popular bacon & cheese. Who knew cheesecake could be eaten for breakfast?

Friday, May 05, 2006

Tour a Farmstead Dairy

Looking for something to do on Saturday, May 13? Castle Rock Organic Dairy is celebrating its grand opening from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. near Osseo, Wisconsin. This could be your chance to drink fresh, glass-bottled organic milk, eat squeaky cheese curds right out of the vat or sample fresh farmstead ice cream.

Owners Wayne & Carla Kostka, along with a couple of partners, built their farmstead milk bottling plant last June. Now they're opening the doors to show the public all the steps between milking the cow and putting it in your fridge.

It's a neat story - all of the products made at the Castle Rock facility come from the milk of a single herd, managed by son Barry Kostka. The family decided to diversify their farm business in order to bring in the next generation of children & grandchildren (that's Barry, Wayne and two of Wayne's grandchildren pictured above in their dairy barn).

It's not a simple process in Wisconsin to start your own farmstead facility, but with the help of some experts and plenty of research, the Kostkas got off the ground pretty quickly. They're now running a home delivery route in Eau Claire and marketing their milk in several regional stores.

They value their customers, too. Every time I call Carla to talk shop, I get put on hold at least twice because a customer has walked into her on-farm retail store. That's good news - my job is to help folks like Wayne & Carla succeed. Congrats to them on their grand opening. I know they'd like to see you - location is S13240 Young Road, Osseo, Wis.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tivo Opportunity

I know what you're thinking when you walk into a specialty cheese shop. Is the Pleasant Ridge Reserve really worth $23 bucks a pound? And what the heck is Carr Valley's "Cave Aged Cheddar"? Wonder no more, my friends. Find out what sets these cheeses apart by viewing the premiere of "Living on the Wedge: Wisconsin's Dairy Artisans" on Wisconsin Public Television on Thursday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Featured in this 30-minute film is Mike Gingrich, maker of the aforementioned high-priced cheese; Sid Cook, who explains what sets his cheeses apart; Anne Topham, who introduces us to the goats that produce milk for her fabulous Fantome Farm fresh chevre; Julie & Tony Hook, who tell us about their blue cheeses; Willi Lehner, who shows us the difference between grazed-milk cheeses and conventional varieties; and Bob Wills, who talks about his "cheese incubator" factory near Plain, Wis.

Also making a guest appearance on the PBS documentary will be Odessa Piper, one of Wisconsin's most beloved and innovative chefs.

As an added bonus, if you like what you see during the May 4 television program, mark your calendars now to attend a gala tasting event on May 24 at the Orpheum Theatre in Madison from 6 to 9 p.m. An extended 60-minute version of the film will be shown, followed by an artisan cheese tasting matching six top Wisconsin chefs with six amazing cheeses featured in the film. Cheesemakers will also be mingling with the crowd. Tickets available at the door for $15. Not bad for a chance to meet some of the most talented cheesemakers in the U.S.