Tuesday, November 20, 2007

BelGioioso Burrata

A creamy fresh Italian cheese born in the Puglia region of southern Italy 30 years ago is today influencing an American culinary revolution, thanks to a dedicated cheesemaker determined to resurrect a favorite delicacy of his youth.

Cheesemaker Mimmo Bruno, born in Italy, and now a Wisconsin cheesemaker, was one of the first artisans in the United States to recreate Burrata, a cream-filled fresh mozzarella. Today, he handcrafts the Italian delicacy for BelGioioso Cheese in Denmark, Wis.

Derived from the Italian word for butter, Burrata (pronounced boor-AH-tah) is known for its creamy, soft center and rich flavor. A darling of top American chefs, the cheese is finding a growing audience in the United States.

“Burrata is a very delicate cheese that must be made by hand – it’s a labor of love,” Bruno told me recently. “Because it’s filled with fresh cream, it must be very carefully handled. It’s truly an artisan cheese.”

Growing up in the Puglia region of Italy, Bruno remembers when the first local cheesemaker introduced Burrata in the 1970s. “It quickly became a regional favorite – everybody was soon trying to make it. But when I left Italy in 1986, Burrata was still very much a regional cheese – if you went 100 kilometers out of Puglia, no one knew what it was,” Bruno says.

A 30-year cheesemaker veteran, Bruno got his start at a local factory in Italy when he was 11 years old, scrubbing cheese vats and washing floors. Whenever he got the chance, he hovered around the veteran cheesemakers, watching and listening, and soon learned the trade. At 12 years old, he made his first vat of fresh mozzarella. Soon he was making 2,000 lire a week, equivalent to $1. The neighborhood cheese plant eventually became his after school destination, full-time summer job and “my home away from home.”

After a career in the Italian army, Bruno set out for the United States and started making cheese in California, eventually owning two different cheese factories on the West Coast. In 2006, after he sold his second plant, Bruno began working for BelGioioso Cheese Inc., and has since stamped his trademark “Delizie Di Mimmo” translated to “Mimmo’s Delights” on the Burrata cheese he now handcrafts in Wisconsin.

Made to order at BelGioioso and available in 8-oz hand-formed balls packaged in water, Burrata makes a striking appetizer when cut into pieces and drizzled with olive oil and plated atop a nest of arugula greens. The Italian delicacy also makes for a unique alternative to buffalo mozzarella, whether it’s added to a bowl of hot pasta or added to flatbreads and specialty pizzas.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Saxon Homestead Creamery

A well-known Wisconsin dairy farm family publicly launched its own farm cheese operation this week, debuting a series of new American Originals carrying patented three-dimensional labels.

Saxon Homestead Creamery, the brainchild of brothers Karl and Robert Klessig and brother-in-law Jerry Heimerl, is a dairy business 15 years in the making. Although their cheeses are still in the developing stages, the prototypes look amazing.

Saxon head cheesemaker and recipe developer is none other than Neville McNaughton, long known for his industry expertise and fondly called "the cheesemaker's cheesemaker." Neville has thus far created a a set of American Originals using milk from the Saxon Homestead that I predict will be in demand even before they hit the retail market early next year.

The most interesting aspect of the operation thus far is a brand new cheese wheel labeling system for which Saxon has patented. The wheel of cheese itself carries three-dimensional leaves on the sides and top, with the name of each cheese stamped on top in edible ink. This could very well be pure genius. I predict retailers will buy this cheese just to show off in their top cases no matter how it tastes (and if Neville's making it - I'm betting it will taste as good or better than it looks).

Saxon makes its cheese in an old beer distribution center in Cleveland, Wisconsin, but you'd never know it. The Klessigs, Heimerl and their staff have transformed the building into a world-class European-style creamery. All cheeses are made in 5,000-pound vats, allowing for very small batches and artisan crafting methods. Many of the cheeses seem to be continental, European-styles and are unique recipes. They carry wistful names such as Green Fields, Saxony, Pastures, Meadows and Grandpa Ed.

Saxon's new website - launched this week - has good descriptions of each of the new cheeses, including a future variety hailed as "top secret" and ready for launch in 2009. Called Hika Bay, Saxon tells us to "think small, think cute, think fluffy, like the clouds over Hika Bay."

I'm already thinking good thoughts. Can't wait to taste these cheeses!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Rediscovering Cheddar

Prior to 1850, nearly all the cheese produced in the United States was Cheddar. Cheddar production in Wisconsin began in the mid 1800's and by 1880, more Cheddar was produced in Wisconsin than any other cheese type. Today, it accounts for a large percentage of the cheese made in the state, which makes Wisconsin the leader in U.S. Cheddar production.

The problem is, I've been preaching for years that Wisconsin's dairy industry is about more than cheddar. I tell every group I meet that America's Dairyland is about much more than the foam cheddarheads we wear at Packer games and it's more than the commodity cheddar our factories have cranked out for the past 100 years.

I've been so focused on trying all the new funky, washed-rind, sheep's milk, goat's milk, original, fabulous cheeses our cheesemakers are crafting that I've been a bit remiss lately and have overlooked Wisconsin Cheddar.

Then I ran into two cheesemakers who set me straight and reminded me that Wisconsin still does cheddar proud.

First, it was Joe Widmer at the Madison Food & Wine Show in October. Joe, owner and third generation cheesemaker at Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis., has a saying, and it's this: "Take no shortcuts and accept nothing less."

Making cheddar is an art, just as is making a washed rind or funky American Original. It takes dedication, skill and true mastery to make a cheddar capable of aging out for 10 years or more. And Joe is one of the best when it comes to making cheddar.

Perhaps more well-known for his award-winning brick cheese, Joe's cheddar is equally exceptional. In fact, his 6-year cheddar consistently wins either first or second place every year at the American Cheese Society competition in the aged cheddar category.

Made in a traditional annatto-orange (and lately available in white - Midwest consumers are finally coming around to the fact that cheddar doesn't have to be orange to come from Wisconsin), Widmer's cheddars are rich & nutty and become increasingly sharp with age, hitting exactly the right notes in the initial tasting and finish.

In fact, Joe expects to do more mail-order business this year with his brick and cheddar cheeses than anything else -- in fact, he does just about the most mail-order business of anyone I know during the holidays, which is good for his bottom line (no middleman taking a cut) and good for consumers, since they get cheese right from his plant. Joe has a great series of holiday gift boxes lined up again this year, ranging in price from $28 to $41, which I think is more than reasonable.

The second cheesemaker that reminded me Wisconsin Cheddar is still king was Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese. Bob accepted an award from the Dairy Business Innovation Center yesterday for his outstanding work in helping launch at least a half dozen artisan cheesemakers out of his plant in the past 10 years.

Not only is Bob a master cheese technician and kind-hearted soul, he also is an amazing cheesemaker dedicated to crafting cheese in an environmentally-sustainable manner. I was reminded of just how good a cheesemaker he is when I bought a pound of his Organic Sharp Cheddar this week to serve to friends.

Cedar Grove's Organic White Cheddar is like discovering that your long lost best friend from elementary school actually lives across the street from you. This cheddar sings in your mouth and the finish is beautiful - sweet but tangy, creamy but a bit aged. Pair it with a plain cracker and welcome to the perfect food.

In Wisconsin, we seem to take our cheddar cheesemakers for granted. It's nice to rediscover what really good cheddar tastes like. Thanks to Joe & Bob for the reminder.