Saturday, June 23, 2007

Great Artisanal Cheese Pairing Project

Greetings to all of you who may be discovering Wisconsin artisan cheese for the first time. As part of Fork & Bottle's Great Artisanal Cheese Pairing Project, I am honored to introduce you to the many great accompaniments that pair exquisitely well with Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

First, a bit about the cheese. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is handcrafted by Mike Gingrich on his dairy farm between Dodgeville and Spring Green in the rolling green hills of southwestern Wisconsin. Making only this single cheese - Uplands Cheese is a farmstead operation using the milk from a single dairy herd, rotationally grazed on pasture grasses, herbs and wildflowers.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve is made only in the summer (and occasionally if Wisconsin gets enough rain -in the early fall). Supply is very limited and carries a rare honor - winning Best of Show twice in 2001 and 2005 from the American Cheese Society, and named as the U.S. Championship Cheese in 2003. It is the only cheese ever to win both national awards.

Recognized as one of the top 10 American-made farmstead artisan cheeses, it is Beaufort in style. This washed-rind, complexly-flavored cheese is aged in a cave environment anywhere from six to 24 months. Depending on the age of the cheese, its taste can change dramatically (always for the good, of course).

Now, onto the pairings. I've enjoyed this cheese since it came on the market in 2000. I must say that Pleasant Ridge Reserve is usually eaten as a table cheese and is excellent just by its lonely old self as an appetizer or a dessert cheese.

However, I have been honored to conduct tastings with Cheesemaker Mike Gingrich and I thought I'd first start with Mike's favorite pairings, which include: pear slices, rosemary herb bread, apple slices, dried cranberries and sweet dessert wines. Mike especially recommends Torcolato - an Italian wine that fittingly is considered "a wine of meditation." I second this recommendation.

I myself am neither a wine nor a cheese pairing connoisseur, so I asked my friend Heather Porter Engwall (who most definitely is) for advice. Through her work with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Heather just finished working with a group of chefs on pairings for Wisconsin cheeses. Pleasant Ridge Reserve was among them. So, I slowly worked my way down the list she sent me and I must say, was blown away by some of these pairings. Here we go:

Classic Twist: pair Pleasant Ridge Reserve with marinated cucumber pickles, kirsh - a clear brandy made from double distillation of the fermented juice of a small black cherry (the European Union sets a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume for this drink - so pace yourself) and cumin spiced quince. One word: yummy. This is a Great Pairing.

Savory Pair: try pairing Pleasant Ridge Reserve with salami from your favorite charcuterie source, pickled white asparagus and roasted chanterelle mushrooms. Since I personally didn't care much for the pickled asparagus, this pairing was less than perfect, but it of course depends on your individual taste buds. I consider this one a Neutral Pairing.

Sweet Pair: chocolate covered cherries, paired with Mangosteen (a rather hard to find tropical fruit in Wisconsin - but those of you on the coasts would have an easier time of it) and guava. Wow, if you have a sweet tooth like mine, this beats just about any dessert I've ever had. This is a Great Pairing.

Drink Pair: try pairing Pleasant Ridge Reserve with any of these -- Moscato de Asti, a refreshing summer wine; a Rye & Cherry Manhattan or a Belgian Witbier - a barley/wheat beer brewed mainly in Belgium, although there are some coming out of the Netherlands. Great pairings.

Seasonal Pair: roasted purple cauliflower, persimmon and roasted squash rings are all a good bet. These are Good Pairings.

Last but Not Least: if all else fails, here are a few other things that I found paired amazingly well with Pleasant Ridge Reserve: fenugreek, chocolate pomegranate, plain old molasses, brandied peach halves, fig preserves and olive jam. All of these are Great Pairings.

Fork & Bottle provides a good reminder on their website: "Remember, always try the cheese after you try the pairing element - for example, taste the wine first and the cheese and then the two together. The butterfat in the cheese coats your palate and will change the perception of the flavor."

Pleasant Ridge Reserve enjoys a fairly decent distribution across the United States, so ask your favorite specialty cheese store if they carry it. If not, encourage them to! Also, if you're interested in discovering more Wisconsin artisan cheeses, visit: Wisconsin Dairy Artisans.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Modern Marvels: Cheese

Good news for those of you who don't live in Wisconsin - soon you'll get the chance for a first hand look at some of Wisconsin's best known cheesemakers.

At 9 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, The History Channel will air Modern Marvels: Cheese. The 60-minute documentary takes a look at both ancient techniques and new technologies behind some of the world's most popular cheeses as they visit several of the state's cheesemakers.

Anthony Lacques, producer for the show, says: "The main reason for including Wisconsin is the great diversity in specialty cheeses that are made here, from Gruyere and Blue cheese to Cheddar and Mozzarella. It's also the tradition that Wisconsin has; everyone knows what they're doing and can speak articulately about cheese."

The Modern Marvels production crew spent several days in Wisconsin visiting Chalet Cheese Cooperative (pictured above) and Roth Käse USA in Monroe, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Alto Dairy in Waupun and Winona Foods in Green Bay.

Modern Marvels: Cheese also travels through history from the Roman Empire's diversity of cheeses to the 19th Century birth of industrial cheese. The documentary takes viewers on a journey to help them discover how cheese is made.

Tune in to The History Channel on Wednesday, June 27, at 9 p.m. as our Wisconsin cheesemakers share their craft with a national television audience!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Definition of Artisan Cheese

I just ordered my copy of Jeffrey Roberts' new book: Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. The advance book reviews proclaim it to be the "first reference book of its kind." Organized by region and state, the Atlas says it highlights more than 350 of the best small-scale cheeses produced from cow, sheep, and goat milk in the United States today.

Roberts, who co-founded the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, notes that 190 artisan cheesemakers have begun production since 2000, and cheesemakers are located in 43 states. According to Roberts, California is home to the most artisan cheesemakers, with 36; Vermont has the most per capita, with 34, while Wisconsin weighs in with a paltry 22 artisan producers.

I'm anxious to get a copy of this book, as I'm curious whom Roberts has deemed an "artisan" cheesemaker in Wisconsin. Because I think we have more than 22.

But maybe that's because so many people define the word "artisan" differently.

According to the American Cheese Society, the word “artisan or artisanal implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese. Artisan, or artisanal, cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings."

But try googling the term "artisan cheese" and you'll find several companies across the United States labeling their cheeses as "artisan" without quite meeting those requirements. Does any state have regulations on what "artisan" equals in regards to labeling? I'd be interested in finding out.

Neville McNaughton and Dan Strongin, two veteran dairy industry experts, wrote an interesting article in the April 6 issue of The Cheese Reporter, proposing a series of new definitions for cheese categories, including: "farmhouse cheese," "farm cheese," "artisan," "artisan style," "specialty" and "commodity." If you'd like a PDF of the article, email me.

Specifically, they argue a cheese should be labeled "Artisan Style" if it is "manufactured in larger volumes with respect for cheesemaking traditions and the natural development of flavor, but utilizing mechanical aids to replace some of the traditional work done by hand, or made from the milk of many farms."

Sounds like a debate that perhaps the artisan cheese community should be having. As Wisconsin continues to produce more artisan, farmstead and specialty cheese, we need to be marketing it appropriately. Until then, I look forward to reading Jeff's new book.