Thursday, October 26, 2006

First Place for Artisan Goat Cheesemaker

Last week's National Dairy Goat Convention in Milwaukee brought big honors to a small artisan Wisconsin goat cheesemaker. In an emotional awards ceremony, Wisconsin's very own Felix Thalhammer of Capri Organic Creamery took home a blue ribbon in the Smoked Goat category and was honored by dozens of his national cheesemaker peers.

This is Felix's first blue ribbon since he started making cheese in 2001 and I'm not sure he's going to ever stop talking about it. Felix is quite a fellow. A native of Switzerland, his energy and exuberance are contagious. He has an opinion on just about everything and isn't afraid to try anything. A couple of years ago, he was the first dairy artisan in Wisconsin making goat's milk ice cream. Today, he hand crafts and sells a half dozen varieties of goat's milk cheeses every Saturday at the Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison. (That's Felix pictured above right with farmer Norm Monsen).

Felix first got into the goat business because one of his children couldn't drink cow's milk as a baby. So the family bought a few goats. Anyone who knows anything about goats knows that you don't have just a "few" goats for long. Soon Felix had to find another use for his growing supply of goat's milk, so in 2001 he started making cheese in a tiny (yes it's licensed) cheeserie on his farm in the rolling hills of Blue River, Wis. He now makes a host of flavored fetas, a "govarti" and is experimenting with a couple different hard, aged goat cheeses including one that I hear he's calling St. Felix.

Congrats to Felix and his family for an award long overdue. May the goat force be with you!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Grass-Based Cheddar

Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman shipped the first batch of his new grass-based cheddar out of Edelweiss Creamery last week. After making cheese for 35 years and having earned his Master Cheesemaker's license in five different cheese categories, Bruce finally made his very first vat of cheddar in July using exclusively grass-based milk from the Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative.

I asked Bruce how he could have been making cheese since 1971 and have never made a vat of cheddar in life. Easy - he said - everybody else was doing it. Why follow the commodity crowd when you've got enough imagination and ambition to be the only cheesemaker in Wisconsin currently making 180-pound Big Wheel Emmentaler (that's him with the monster wheel above).

But when Bruce got the opportunity to make what is one of the first grass-based cheddars in the state, he stepped up to the plate. Now he's eagerly waiting to see how the market responds.

Today, Bruce makes several different kinds of cheeses at his plant near Monticello including gouda, monterey jack and the afore-mentioned grass-based cheddar. Since taking over the once-abandoned plant in 2003, he's put $1.2 million in renovations into the facility and now spends most days making cheese starting around 1 a.m.

In July, he sold the building and milk silos to the new Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative and in the summer months is making grass-based cheese exclusively for this three-farm organization. He said he's got about another four weeks of grass-based milk to make cheese and will then switch back to conventional milk from a neighboring farm for the winter.

Although making cheddar is new to this veteran cheesemaker, making big wheel emmentaler is not. He makes the 180-pound wheels in a copper vat that holds up to 12,000 pounds of milk that he hauled over from Switzerland two years ago. He currently ages the wheels in a small affinage room in the back, but in a few months plans to transfer them to a new affinage facility in Monroe. He'll then be able to expand his cut, wrap & package room to better accomodate increased production of grass-based cheeses.

So just when you think our veteran Wisconsin cheesemakers might be too set in their ways to learn a new make process, think again. Congrats to Bruce and his crew for launching a new product to the market. I can't wait to see it in stores.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Happy Birthday Roth Kase

Roth Kase USA celebrated 15 years of specialty cheesemaking last week in Monroe, Wis. by unveiling a new culinary education center that most chefs would kill for, as well as an affinage facility its cheesemakers already love. The company hosted a snazzy ribbon-cutting and anniversary celebration that drew more than 150 industry leaders from around the nation.

President Steve McKeon says the culinary education center has been part of Roth Kase USA's plans since the early days of locating in Wisconsin. (The company has European roots that date back to 1863 when 20-year-old Oswald Roth, a licensed cheesemaker from Niederbipp, Switzerland, founded O. Roth & Cie, a cheese company specializing in crafting and exporting Emmentaler).

The new state-of-the-art culinary facility, which was used during the opening celebration for the first time by "Taste This TV" host Chef Joseph Ciminera, is part of Roth Kase's two-phase expansion and marks the conclusion of three years of construction and planning. The new addition also includes an expanded affinage facility where cheesemakers age washed rind specialty cheeses, a spacious area to house the company's new brine system and an expanded packaging area.

Roth Kase USA is one of Wisconsin's larger specialty cheese companies. During the anniversary celebration, I found out they receive 350,000 pounds of milk per week from more than 80 local farms and serve more than 300 customers. Since its beginnings in 1991, Roth Kase has increased from 50 to 100 employees; increased its production and marketing from 3 to more then 50 varieties of cheese; and has earned more than 100 awards in regional, national and international competitions.

And by the way, their cheese rocks. My favorites are Vintage Van Gogh - crafted in limited quantities from fresh, full cream milk and aged for at least six months; and Grand Cru Gruyere - handcrafted in an imported copper vat and cured in their cellars. It's a very full-bodied, robust cheese that is true and even better than the classic Swiss original.

Here's cheering on Roth Kase for 15 great years of specialty cheesemaking in Wisconsin and hoping for 100 more!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Butter Feast

I've been to lots of artisan cheese tastings over the years, but Tuesday night was the first time I ever had a dinner revolving around artisanal butters.

Harvest Restaurant in downtown Madison hosted an amazing "butter dinner" to coincide with World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis. With more than 15,000 people in town for that event, I guess a dinner based on butter makes sense.

Owner Tami Lax and Chef Justin Carlisle prepared a special 4-course meal for about 30 registered guests and started with warm rolls and four different butters to taste. My favorite was Mt Sterling Cheese Cooperative's goat butter. I found out during dinner that the butter is made by cheesemaker Al Bekkum and is literally churned by hand in micro-batches. Mt. Sterling is currently trying to decide on how to package and sell the product - my vote would be to handpack it in an attractive circular container showing off its true artisanal qualities.

After plowing through three baskets of dinner rolls and four different mounds of butter, my table realized we still had three more courses to eat. So we took a breather, finished off our glasses of wine and prepared for the next round of butter-laced cuisine, which was of course king crab. While that dish - served with white corn grits and sprouts was truly impressive, the next course was my favorite: braised short ribs with collard greens. We found out later from Chef Justin that he had cooked the meat at 215 degrees for 6 hours using an entire 40 pound block - yes, 40 pounds of butter - that Westby Creamery had sent him for the dinner. Creamery Manager Pete Kondrup was in attendance and offered to send more next time. Yikes.

With that news and the feeling of my arteries hardening, I of course then completely finished off my huge piece of buttercream cake crafted with butter courtesy of Pine River Dairy near Manitowoc. Buttermaker Shari Riesterer was in attendance and described how her family has crafted butter for 60 years, also in small batches. They make spiced and European style butters as well. Who knew this stuff was being made in Wisconsin?

When it was time to go home, many of us marveled at the fact that while Wisconsin is world-renowned for its cheese, not much is really know about our buttermakers. Hopefully, with more events like Harvest's butter dinner, that will change. Mmmm...butter.