Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Roelli Cheese Renovated

A Wisconsin cheese factory which sat dormant for 10 years is today up and running, with a fourth generation cheesemaker and his father once again crafting Cheddars and Swiss cheese in a custom-made micro-cheese vat in which they plan to use to develop future artisan cheeses.

Roelli Cheese, on State Hwy 11 between Shullsburg and Darlington, has long been known as one of southwest Wisconsin's best retail cheese stores, offering almost every cheese produced in Green County. Today, the store not only offers quality area cheeses, but is also beginning to stock its coolers with its own creations.

Chris Roelli and his dad, Dave Roelli, began renovating their family's mothballed cheese factory four months ago. Cheesemaking is in their blood - Dave had a successful run making 40-pound cheddar cheese blocks decades ago, but got out of the industry when the cheddar block market was no longer profitable. Today, son Chris is leading the family cheese renaissance and is determined to make Roelli Cheese known for more than its retail store.

The Roellis are starting with what they know best - cheddar. Chris and Dave make fresh cheddar curd four days a week and promptly sell out as soon as they make it. At $5.59 a pound for curd, Dave says they're making a better profit on this one venture today then when he made making 40-pound cheddar blocks in the late 80s.

"I got tired of working seven days a week only to make pennies on block cheddar," Dave told me yesterday during a visit to the plant. "This is fun again - we're working with a small vat, making cheese together and making some money. We're starting with what we know, but looking forward to developing some more varieties."

Those varieties will include a cellar-aged special reserve Swiss cheese, for which they are currently developing labels. A prototype has their cheese named after their family's hometown in Lucerne, Switzerland with wording that reads like an award-winning label: "This cellar aged special reserve Swiss style cheese has been handcrafted in small batches by the Roelli family who have been making cheese for 100 years."

Chris recently also made a batch of Emmentaler, which is aging in the back room. He's looking forward to working with cheese recipe development experts to create a signature artisan cheese that will be a perfect fit for his family's history.

The Roellis will celebrate a grand opening at their new cheese plant and retail cheese store on Saturday, Oct. 6. The event coincides with the Shullsburg Cheese Fest, and Chris plans to have buses shuttling visitors between his new plant and the festival. He'll start making cheese at 5 a.m., and the viewing area will be open all day. Be sure to arrive between 8-10 a.m. to see cheesemaking in full swing.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Caprine Supreme Expands Line

In exciting news, a Wisconsin couple is expanding their operation to become the state's first farmstead dairy to offer a full line of goat's milk products, including goat's milk yogurt, bottled goat's milk, fresh goat's milk cheese curds and chevre style spreadable goat cheese.

Caprine Supreme, located near Black Creek, Wis., is owned by Todd & Sheryl Jaskolski. This husband-wife team and their six kids (Sheryl is the herd manager and does the milking, Todd is the licensed cheesemaker, and the kids no doubt follow orders but will someday look back at their childhood as a "character building" experience) recently renovated an existing building on their farm and have expanded their Grade A goat dairy processing facility.

If you've been lucky enough to taste their products (they have a meeting this week with a major distributor - keep your fingers crossed), you'll know that Caprine Supreme is instantly recognizable for its clean, fresh taste -- no billy goat aftertaste here. In fact, many people who buy their cheese curds locally don't even recognize they are made from goat's milk.

Todd attributes this remarkable non-goaty clean taste to the fact that after the goats are milked, the milk is immediately pumped to the cheese vat - sometimes while it's still warm - and then crafted into goat's milk cheeses, yogurt or bottled within hours. The operation uses no growth hormones or antibiotics and uses all natural ingredients.

I had the opportunity to taste Caprine Supreme's new chevre style spreadable goat cheese after a meeting at the Department of Agriculture on Friday. Flavors include: plain, garlic, chive and jalapeno. Of these, my favorite was the jalapeno, but I must say my real favorite was their new chipotle - a flavor they are currently test marketing. Let's hope it makes the cut because I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

All of Caprine Supreme's products are only currently available regionally, so if you live near Black Creek, good for you. Meanwhile the rest of us will have to wait. Let's send good thoughts Todd & Sheryl's way for their distribution meeting next week. Here's hoping Caprine Supreme is soon found on a retail shelf near me.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

New Concept: Artisan Blends

An interesting press release fluttered into my inbox this week. The headline: "Sargento’s Artisan Blends Feature Cheese From Roth Käse, Maple Leaf, Burnett Dairy, Zanetti Family of Italy."

Since one does not often see the words "artisan cheese" combined with "Sargento", I was rather perplexed by this notion. After all, Sargento is a national cheese brand best known for its pre-packaged sandwich cheese slices and shredded commodity cheeses carrying the Green Bay Packers logo. Based in Plymouth, Wis., it's one of our state's best known commodity cheese makers and its line-up of packaged cheeses is found in nearly every grocery store across Wisconsin.

Well, turns out that Sargento is now plunging into the artisan cheese market by creating a "ground-breaking product for the specialty cheese category." As far as I can tell, this product consists of packages of blended shredded cheeses from three Wisconsin cheese companies and one Italian cheese company.

According to the press release, Sargento’s Artisan Blends will arrive in stores nationwide next month and will be available in six shredded varieties:

  • Parmesan made with Zanetti imported Grana Padano

  • Parmesan & Romano made with Zanetti imported Grana Padano

  • Whole Milk Mozzarella and Whole Milk Mozzarella & Provolone made with Burnett Dairy Whole Milk Mozzarella

  • Double Cheddar made using Sharp Cheddar from Maple Leaf

  • Swiss Blend made with Roth Käse Grand Cru Gruyere.

Sargento has even spiced up its website by adding earth tones, a fancy schmancy set of intro screens and declaring itself as: "Persnickety People, Exceptional Cheese."

So to recap, Sargento is blending and shredding cheeses from the following companies: Roth Käse USA, Inc. of Monroe, Wis; Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe, Wis; Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg, Wis; and the Zanetti family of Italy.

They are then re-packaging these cheeses and calling them "Artisan Blends".

While this has to be good for the business side of Wisconsin cheese companies, I can't decide if the entire concept is marketing genius or if it's the next step on a slippery slope that may eventually negate the meaning of the words "artisan cheese."

Time will tell. I'll be interested to sample the products once they hit my grocery store shelf.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Wisconsin Wins Big at ACS

Last night was a record breaker for Wisconsin, as 20 of my favorite cheesemakers took home 74 total awards, including Third Place Best of Show here at the 24th annual American Cheese Society annual competition in Burlington, Vermont.

One of the best moments of the awards ceremony was watching two farmstead cheesemakers win coveted first-place blue ribbons in their first-ever showing.

Farmstead goat cheesemaker Diana Murphy, of Dreamfarm near Cross Plains, captured first place for her Fresh Goat’s Milk Feta. She also took third for her goat’s milk cheese marinated in olive and safflower oil.

Meanwhile, farmstead sheep’s milk cheesemaker Brenda Jensen, of Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, scored a blue ribbon for her Driftless Natural, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese. She also took two third places for Driftless Basil and Driftless Honey Lavender.

Brenda looked completely overwhelmed and said as much just moments after accepting her ribbons. She told me that to take home three awards in her first year was really gratifying. In exciting news, she is planning to launch at least two new flavors of fresh sheep's milk cheese, as well as entering an aged sheep’s milk cheese next year - she just placed her first wheels in her farmstead cave 2-1/2 weeks ago.

Out of a record 1,208 total entries, Wisconsin farmstead and specialty cheesemakers took home 74 awards - for everything from aged cheddars to American Originals.

Of the top three Best of Show awards, Roth Kase USA of Monroe, Wis., captured Third Runner Up Best of Show for its Roth’s Private Reserve. Second Runner Up Best of Class was Beecher's Handmade Cheese of Seattle for their Flagship Reserve.

Best of Class went to Leelanau Cheese, of Suttons Bay, Michigan, for their Aged Raclette (samples were gone by 6 p.m. at tonight's Festival of Cheese - I sampled it early and it was to die for).

One of the most decorated Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers at the competition was (as usual) Sid Cook, of Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis. Sid received 28 awards, including eight first-place ribbons for his cheeses. This is the fourth consecutive year Carr Valley has taken a record-breaking amount of awards at the competition. Go Sid!

And congratulations to all the cheesemakers who are celebrating their well-deserved awards tonight!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

On Location: Special Edition

My favorite game show as a kid was Wheel of Fortune. I still tune in occasionally usually to find Pat and Vanna spending a week promoting the beautiful local sights of some remote location.

Well, guess what? This week is sort of like Wheel of Fortune on location -- only better -- because I'm in Burlington, Vermont at:

Buy a vowel: The Am_r_c_n Ch__s_ S_c__ty annual conference.

Considered to be the Holy Grail of conferences for artisan cheesemakers and cheese enthusiasts like me, The American Cheese Society (ACS) annual conference is not a posh event for cheese snobs and wine pairing connoisseurs. Instead, it resembles a family reunion. And that's precisely why I like it. This is my fourth conference so I'm enjoying seeing many old friends. But even if it's your first conference, I guarantee you'll leave with at least a half dozen new best friends by conference end.

ACS is like the Midwest: we're a friendly bunch, gosh darnit.

Yesterday was pre-conference tour day. I chose the Vermont Cheese Trail: Creamery Tour. This is my first trip to Vermont, so half the fun was really seeing the Vermont countryside and driving through villages that looked like museums. I kept wondering -- where are all the Home Depots? Where are all the fast food restaurants? Where the hell do these people buy shoes?

But after about two hours I started to appreciate the lack of billboards, lack of chain stores and frankly, the lack of people. There are 650,000 people in this ENTIRE state. Montpelier, the state capital, has 10,000 people - and no, I didn't forget a zero. Vermont may very well be my new favorite place.

Not only is it picturesque, Vermont has lots of cheesemakers. Jed Davis of Cabot Creamery served as our tour guide for the first half of the trip and was quick to point out that Vermont has more artisan cheesemakers per capita than any other state. He was quick to add, however, that when the population of your state is smaller than most major cities, you can pretty much secure the "most fill in the blank here per capita" titles that you want.

After touring and meeting with the cheesemakers of both Cabot Creamery and Vermont Butter & Cheese, I felt a sense of pride in a state's dairy industry that I have never experienced before outside Wisconsin. These people are passionate and innovative.

Case in point: Vermont Butter & Cheese owners Allison Hooper and Bob Reese started their company in 1984 with $2,400 in capital -- $1,200 each out of Allison's and Bob's pockets - as well as a $4,000 loan from the United Church of Christ and a $10,000 loan from the local bank.

Today, Vermont Butter & Cheese supports a network of more than 20 family farms and has earned a worldwide reputation for its goat's milk and cow's milk cheeses. My favorite part of their story has to be their 800-pound butter churn. They found it abandoned along side the road. Seriously - I'm not kidding. They then refurbished it and now make three churns of butter a day.

In fact, they were the first American company to make French-style cultured, high-fat butter. More importantly, it's extremely yummy. I cleaned out the last of it during a tasting following the tour. If I could find this stuff in Wisconsin, I'd buy it by the case.

The story at Cabot Creamery was similar - although quite a bit larger, you can still sense the pride every employee wears inside the plant. Cabot began in 1919 as a cooperative and today has more than 20 million pounds of cheese in storage. Their specialty: cheddar, aged 60 days to 60 months. Cabot makes up to 18 vats of cheese a day, 4,000 pounds per vat.

I suspect both Cabot Creamery and Vermont Butter & Cheese will again do very well at this year's ACS competition (winners to be announced on Friday). I'll be cheering them on (right alongside our Wisconsin dairy artisans, of course.)