Friday, March 30, 2007

Tasting Rooms Go Upscale

What's the hottest trend for Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers today? I've discovered it's creating an upscale culinary kitchen & tasting area to show off your cheese.

First there was Sid Cook (but then again Sid prides himself on his trend-setting ability). He built a beautiful kitchen/tasting area at his new Carr Valley Cheese retail space in Sauk City last year and has seen great success with his recent culinary classes featuring well-known chefs.

Then last fall, Roth Kase USA created a spectacular culinary center at their plant in Monroe - this one featuring glass walls looking out over a cavernous new affinage room with thousands of wheels of gruyere lined up on boards from floor to ceiling (if you ever get the chance to see it - it's well worth the trip).

The latest specialty plant to move on up to the east side is Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese near Waterloo. Their tasting room - which just opened this week -- is absolutely magnificent. Located in their new affinage addition - the "tasting room," as Debbie Crave calls it, comfortably seats 25 - 30 guests in an upscale cavern-like setting with cozy tables set with modern place settings.

The focal point of the room is an eight-foot rectangular fieldstone kitchen island with amazing commerical kitchen taking the width of the room behind it. (I would share a photo, but alas, I left my camera at home).

On the other side of the tasting room wall are two cellars housing hundreds of wheels of Les Freres and Petit Les Freres slowly aging and just waiting to be enjoyed. While we were there, Debbie shared a new recipe she's currently perfecting that she had baked that morning - a combination of pie crust, Les Freres cheese, craisins, walnuts & apricots. Yummy.

Debbie is a master of creating recipes for her farm's cheeses and has just about perfected a Chocolate Mascarpone Pie using Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese fresh sweet mascarpone made right at the farmstead cheese plant. She made a pie for us on Wednesday, and eating such a decadent dish in such a beautiful cavern environment was really amazing. Makes me realize how far our Wisconsin dairy artisans have come!

On a side note, the Craves also recently partnered with Roth Kase in producing a seven-minute DVD called "The Distinct Appeal of Cellar Aged Cheese." It gives a great overview of the aging process of artisanal and specialty cheeses in Wisconsin - just one more example of Crave Brothers going above and beyond.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sweet Gouda Gold

A first generation American farmstead cheesemaker struck gold with a new style of Gouda at this month's U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in Milwaukee.

Dutch-born Marieke (pronounced muh-REEK-uh) Penterman of
Holland's Family Farm earned Best of Class in the Open Class for Flavored Semi-soft Cheeses with her amazing new Feonegreek Gouda.

Marieke, who with her husband and family moved from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2003 to operate a 480-Holstein dairy farm, started crafting farmstead cheese in the style of her home country at her new farmstead dairy plant last fall.

She currently makes 13 varieties of Gouda in five sizes of wheels ranging from 1/2 pound to 16 pounds, and although most of her current production is still quite young, she plans to age much of it out, differentiating herself from most of the young American Gouda currently on the market.

If you have a chance to try her award-winning Feonegreek Gouda, I would whole-heartedly endorse it. I got the opportunity to try some yesterday , and while it was still very young - it was almost like eating a dessert cheese - sweet & creamy. It seems to be the type of cheese that will only get better as it ages. Order it online by emailing the Pentermans at

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

First Contest: First Medal

While the 2007 United States Championship Cheese Contest last week once again proved Wisconsin cheesemakers produce more award-winning cheeses than any other state (our cheesemakers took 89 total awards, 32 of which were golds), it also proved new Wisconsin farmstead cheesemakers are making some of the best cheese in the country.

In an exciting development, Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery of Westby, Wis., earned her first gold medal and Best of Class distinction in the Soft and Semi-soft Sheep's Milk Cheeses category with her Driftless Cheese, Honey Lavender. She also captured second and fourth places in the same categories with her other two varieties of Driftless Cheese.

This was the first year Brenda entered the contest - mainly because she just started crafting cheese last fall. Brenda and her husband, Dean, run a farm at the end of a winding road, perched on top of a high ridge in the heart of the Coulee Region -- on the patchwork terrain of Wisconsin’s “Driftless Area." (During the ice ages all the glaciers passed it by, hence the "Driftless" name.)

The Jensens milk 115 Lucane and East Friesian dairy sheep, which graze seasonally. The farm is also situated in a heavily populated Amish family community and Brenda and Dean work closely with the Amish. Dean serves as a community counselor and clinical therapist to the community.

The Jensens farm the old fashioned way, with draft power and no tractors or heavy equipment -- only Percheron Draft horses. However, their dairy and milking parlor is a grade A farm with completely modern, new equipment.

In fact, Brenda left her management position in the corporate world to become the full-time Hidden Spring’s cheesemaker/ marketer, shepherd and gardener, investing her time in growing their farming business. She and Dean's vision for Hidden Springs Farm and Creamery is to be sustainable environmentally as well as financially: an all-natural, back-to-basics, old-fashioned, original farmstead approach to farming, crafting their food products, as well as their marketing.

“Driftless Cheese “is made traditionally, using only natural products. Nothing is added to the natural product except: fresh sheep’s milk, culture, rennet and salt. They now have 3 varieties: Natural, Fresh Basil w/ extra virgin olive oil and Honey w/ lavender (all of which won awards at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest).

Congratulations to Brenda & Dean on going 3 for 3 at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Father & Son: WI Cheesemakers

Sixteen years after closing down the family cheese plant, a father and son are preparing to once again enter the make room - this time handcrafting artisan cheeses in micro batches.

Dave Roelli, 61 and son Chris, 37 have nearly finished remodeling the plant they closed in 1991 after razor thin commodity cheese margins forced them out of business. Since then, they've operated a thriving retail cheese store near Shullsburg, and even spent part of last year successfully making cheese onsite in Darlington Dairy Supply's modular dairy unit, "Cheese on Wheels."

But a few months ago, Chris got the itch to make cheese again - this time in his family's historic cheese plant. So he & dad started remodeling the 90-year-old family business. The pair are nearly finished and expect to be up and running later this summer, starting out making flavored cheddars but then graduating into original artisan cheeses.

"We're looking at new recipes," Dave told me today on the phone. "We've done mass-produced cheeses in the past - where we want to go now is to make a cheese that's unique to us or to the area. We want to be a unique visitor-friendly experience."

With four generations of cheesemakers in their blood, I have no doubts father & son will come up with an award-winning cheese. Yet another reason to visit southwest Wisconsin - the cheese mecca of the Midwest - again this summer.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another Cheese Quest

It must be nearing spring in Wisconsin - cheese event coordinators are emerging from the affinage closet to organize new events almost weekly. The newest announcement involves craft beers as well. Sounds like a win-win to me.

Here are the details: Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast is hosting a "Tasting of Craft Beers -- Pairing With Wisconsin Artisanal Cheeses" on Sunday, March 18 from 4 - 6 p.m. at the
Milwaukee Public Market. Cost is $10 at the door.

Wisconsin artisan cheeses to be featured include: Widmer's Cheese, Natural Valley, Chalet Cheese, Edelweiss Graziers, Montfort Bleu and Penterman's Holland Family Cheese.

Wisconsin beers will be represented as well - with brews from Capital Brewery, Grumpy Troll, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee Ale House, New Glarus, Sprecher Brewery and Tyranena.

Tasting notes will be provided by Lucy Saunders, editor of Check out her beer pairings with cheeses - this is especially good. Lucy is also apparently going to be signing copies of her new book --Grilling With Beer. Hmmm, I may have just found my husband's next birthday present ...

On a related note, if you're looking for a tour guide map that lists Wisconsin's breweries, wineries and cheese plants offering tours,
request one here. After all, it's only a matter of time until the snow melts and Wisconsinites once again hit the road in quest of cheese.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Affinage Opportunity

Just learned that Randolph Hodgson, founder of the United Kingdom's famed Neal's Yard Dairy, will visit Wisconsin later this month to offer affinage expertise to state cheesemakers and industry reps.

While Hodgson will spend several days visiting individual cheesemakers across the state and discussing cheese aging practices, he will also be available for a public affinage workshop in Monroe, Wis. at Roth Käse USA on March 24. The event runs from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Cost is $25 per person and registration is limited to the first 25 advance sign-ups. Call 608-224-5083 to register. I know this one will sell out fast so hurry if you want in the door!

If you haven't had the chance to meet Hodgson or hear him speak, you should know that he is a renowned cheese aging expert and was pivotal in championing the preservation of British farmhouse cheeses in the early 1980s.

Randolph has continued to work with cheesemakers, inspectors and retailers to build the United Kingdom's artisan cheese industry. I first heard him speak at an American Cheese Society luncheon and when he talked, people listened. Not only did they listen, they stopped eating, as in the room was completely silent - the audience hung on his every word.

Randolph commands respect across the world. Can't wait to meet him and hope you get the chance, too.