Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Crossroads of A Community

Seventy years ago, a Wisconsin cheese factory wasn't just a cheese factory. It was a destination, the crossroads center of a community. Farmers waiting in line with their wagons and horses to unload their can of milk passed the time by catching up on neighborhood news. Younger farmers helped older farmers unload the heavy milk cans and cheesemakers used their noses to determine the quality of milk.

Cheesemaking was a lot less technical back then, too. Everybody made cheddar, and cheesemakers would use a hot iron to determine when their curd was ready to mill - in fact, the curd had to string out a certain distance before the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.

How do I know this? I discovered an amazing website today:
In our Own Voices, courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, who is working with Ed Janus, a freelance radio journalist (pictured above).

Ed's been busy traversing the Wisconsin countryside, interviewing young and not-so-young Wisconsin cheesemakers, as well as dairy farmers such as Dan and Shelly Truttman, grass farmers working with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman to make their own artisan and specialty cheeses out of their grass-based milk.

I gleaned the opening statements of this post from an audio interview with Sam Cook, 92, retired cheesemaker and father of Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, of Carr Valley Cheese fame. Of the eight audio features on the website, the interview with Sam Cook is my favorite. The man knows how to tell a good story.

Another favorite audio piece is with Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman at the iconic crossroad cheese factory in Green County: Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative. Although Maple Leaf typically lists its address as Monroe, it is actually in the "thriving metropolis" of Twin Grove -- home to a tavern, lumberyard, cheese plant and 14 houses.

"If there are two cars at the stop sign in the morning, that's a pretty busy morning," Jeff says in the audio piece.

Jeff is man "with milk on his shoes" (listen to the audio to get the full meaning of this statement) who states matter-of-factly: "Cheesemaking isn't a job, it's a way of life." It's been a way of life for Jeff's family for generations, as his dairy farmer father, grandfather and great grandparents were all patrons of the Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative.

Accompanying each audio feature is a series of photos that you're welcome to click on at your own pace. It's a wonderful package and great way to learn more about the old and new of Wisconsin's cheese history.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Castle Rock Organic Dairy

An organic farmstead milk bottling facility that opened a couple of years ago in northwest Wisconsin is now also making 13 flavors of farmstead ice cream and seven styles of cheeses, including a very good blue that peaks at about 8 months old.

Wayne & Carla Kostka, along with various partners and members of their family, run Castle Rock Organic Dairy near Osseo. The last time I was there was for a field day last summer, and the Kostkas & Co. were gearing up a home delivery program in the Eau Claire area. Today, they have not only developed a successful delivery program, but are making an array of farmstead dairy products themselves.
I tried their Pumpkin Spice farmstead ice cream yesterday and it was extremely good. A seasonal flavor, it's offered in the fall. This December, they will also make a Christmas Mint, which sounds promising. I also tried their Molasses Chocolate Chip, which was definitely a great combination.

In addition to fresh organic farmstead milk and ice cream, Castle Rock has also begun crafting cheese. So far, their lineup includes the standbys of fresh cheese curds every Tuesday, as well as colby, mild cheddar, aged cheddar from 3-12 months and a raw milk cheddar. They're also branching out and crafting a Harvest Moon -- an aged cheddar with some kick to it, as well as a blue cheese. The blue I tried yesterday was five months old and very good. Wayne says it peaks at about 8 months.

Castle Rock became well-known across the country in March, 2006, when it was included in the Cornucopia Institute report on the U.S. organic dairy industry. The New York Times broke the story, reporting that in Cornucopia's ranking of organic dairies nationwide, small and large, Castle Rock scored 1150 out of 1200 points, ranking them near the top of the charts.

Indeed, the Kostkas are one of Wisconsin's dairy family farm success stories. Five generations of farming runs in their blood, with son Barry managing the dairy herd and father Wayne and mother Carla and their partners managing the dairy plant. Their dairy plant retail store is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. For the latest info on what this Wisconsin farm family is up to, check out their newsletter, published quarterly.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Green Cheese

While I don't usually advocate eating green cheese -- in fact, that's usually the part most of us scrape off -- I whole-heartily congratulate Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese on becoming Wisconsin's first "green cheesemaker."

That's because Cedar Grove Cheese near Plain, Wis., is the first food processor in the entire Midwest to meet a stunningly complex set of standards for sustainable practices established by Food Alliance, a national nonprofit that provides third-party certification throughout North America.

The Food Alliance certification assures buyers of the company's safe and fair working conditions, conservation of energy and water, reduction and recycling of waste, and other sustainable practices. Along with Cedar Grove Cheese, 13 dairy farms were also certified for standards that include labor conditions, humane animal treatment, and conservation of soil and water, enabling them to supply Cedar Grove Cheese with milk for Food Alliance certified cheeses.

Cedar Grove processes about 130,000 pounds of milk a day, producing more than 4 million pounds of traditional and specialty cheeses per year.

Wills and company have long been known for their commitment to sustainable agriculture. In 1993, with support from its dairy suppliers, Cedar Grove was the first cheese maker in the U.S. to market cheese made with milk from cows that were not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). And then in 2001, Cedar Grove further distinguished itself by pledging to make its cheeses without the use of genetically modified organisms. And then there's the plant's wastewater treatment facility called the Living Machine. Located in a greenhouse, the earth-friendly wastewater processor has the ability to clean all wash water from the manufacturing facility in an environmentally responsible way.

Wills said he sought out the program because as more companies make marketing claims about their "natural" products, he wants to give his customers the maximum assurance of a third-party audit.

Congratulations to Cedar Grove Cheese for further distinguishing itself as one of Wisconsin's most innovative cheese plants.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Cobblestone Red

While food science students at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcon Foods Dairy Plant have crafted cheese and sold it on campus for years, Faculty Associate Ranee May and one of her experiential dairy processing learning classes have spent the past two years developing a signature artisan cheese they hope to distribute nationwide.

Cobblestone Red, a creamy, semi-soft cheese made with local Chateau St. Croix’s Chateau Rogue wine, has been selling briskly on campus and at trade shows, May said. The wine’s blend of currants, black cherries and vanilla comes through nicely in the American Original, a cross between a cheddar and a jack.

“It’s a taste that people get excited about,” May told me yesterday at World Dairy Expo in Madison.

The Cobblestone Red is available in one-pound half wheels for $7 and can be purchased at the Falcon Foods store at the UW River Falls campus. May is currently working with distributors to launch the cheese into state, regional and national retail markets. In addition, the cheese will soon be available via mail order on the web.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cheese Stores Galore

It doesn't happen very often, but two new cheese shops opened in Wisconsin within a day of each other last week, one in Milwaukee and the other in Madison. This is extremely good news for us cheese-starved Wisconsites.

WHAT???? Yes, I hear you saying - cheese-starved Wisconsites?

Well, let me be the first to tell you that while you may think it's easy to find good cheese in a retail setting in this state -- as we're America's Dairyland and all -- it's actually not. More than 90 percent of all cheese made here is shipped to the coasts. In fact, I've had better luck buying Wisconsin artisan cheese in San Francisco and New York grocery stores than my local grocery store, although admittedly, it costs twice as much.

In any case, all that is about to change, thanks to two entrepreneurs who decided to end the retail dearth of Wisconsin artisan cheese.

First, there's the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe at the corner of S. 69th and W. Becher streets in West Allis. When the original store burned down in February, owners Mark and Linda Lutz knew immediately they would rebuild. The result is a spacious, well-lit, modern-looking cheese store carrying 250 cheeses from around the world, U.S., and yes, Wisconsin. Gone however, is the terrazzo floor, the marble-topped checkout desk and the rest of the Old World ambiance the former store boasted.

However, if you're looking for Old World ambiance, Fromagination at 12 S. Carroll Street on the Capitol Square in Madison, fits the bill. With its reclaimed slate floor, vintage fans, old clocks, antique shopping baskets and wide selection of Wisconsin artisan cheeses, this particular store has answered the cheese prayers of south-central Wisconsin consumers.
Owner Ken Monteleone (pictured above) was absolutely packed on opening day -- in fact, there was a line-up of five deep all along the counter waiting to buy cheese, with one man repeatedly wailing at the top of his voice, "It's so wonderful - I feel like I'm in Italy again!" This being Madison, no one gave him a second look.
Ken is featuring exclusive Wisconsin artisan cheeses for the first 30 days he is open, and then plans to expand his coolers to include cheeses from around the world and U.S. in time for the holidays. He also offers a small lunch counter, catering, gift baskets and an entire store full of "perfect companions" for cheese. This could indeed by my new favorite place in the world.

Congrats to both the Lutzes and Monteleone for giving Wisconsin much-needed retail space for Wisconsin artisan cheese!