Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Klondike Cheese

Around Green County, they're known as the "Buholzer Boys" and boy, do they know how to make cheese.

Klondike Cheese has been a fixture in Monroe, Wis., since 1925. Today, venerable Master Cheesemaker Ron Buholzer and his brothers Steve and Dave, own this third-generation Wisconsin cheese company, with a fourth generation involved in day-to-day operations and ready to someday take over the reins.

The Buholzer Boys, as they are fondly called, are some the nicest, most fun guys you're ever going to meet. In fact, the term "he'd give the shirt off his back," was probably crafted just for them.

Klondike Cheese flies mostly under the radar of the media and even consumers. Google Klondike and the you'll find information about ice cream bars, a solitaire web game, and the gold rush in the Yukon Territory in 1897, but no cheese. You also will most likely never find a Klondike cheese label in the marketplace -- despite the fact this company makes 35 million pounds of feta, muenster, brick and havarti cheese annually.

That's because the 1.28 million gallons of milk from 85 locally family-owned dairy farms that Klondike turns into cheese every month is sold under as 100 different private labels -- buyers purchasing Klondike cheese and putting their own labels on it. Their feta is sold under the popular "Odyssey" brand.

There's no doubt about it -- the Buholzer boys make good cheese, evidenced by the many awards they've won over the years. This past year, they were named the Small Business of the year by the SBA and earlier this month, Ron was interviewed by the BBC as one of five U.S. business men and women asked to give their opinion on the upcoming presidential election.

The Buholzers also believe in buying locally whenever possible to support their local economy and other small family owned businesses in their community. They are members of countless industry organizations, have served on numerous boards, and have given generously to local charities and organizations, although you'd rarely know it because they fly under the radar and do most of it anonymously.

The end product -- high quality cheese -- is what's important to the Buholzers. Making cheese, even with automated equipment, is still an art. It's not something you learn out of a book. It takes years to do it right.

So the next time you buy Odyssey feta or one of the various private labels of havarti, brick or muenster coming out of Wisconsin, there's a good chance you're eating Klondike cheese. Be sure to thank the Buholzer boys.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

America's Sheepland

Sheep's milk cheeses are hot. Long considered one of my favorite types of cheeses (give me an aged sheep's milk cheese over a hunk of cheddar any day) -- the media seems to have discovered Wisconsin and our sheep's milk cheesemakers. Whoo-hoo!

First, there was an article in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal declaring sheep's milk cheeses to be one of the Top 10 Foods to eat this fall. Our very own Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery made the cut with her Ocooch Mountain.

And then in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, there is a full page plus feature with lots o' color photos of sheep's milk cheesemakers, including the Wisconsin Dairy Sheep Co-op, Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese and once again, Wisconsin's sweetheart: Brenda Jensen.

If you haven't yet tried Wisconsin sheep's milk cheeses, now is the perfect time. I would highly recommend the following:

Ocooch Mountain -- this 4-6 month aged sheep's milk cheese by Hidden Springs Creamery is not only a blue-ribbon winner, it's becoming one of Wisconsin's most famous cheeses -- featured everywhere from Murray's Cheese in New York to Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. You can get it in Wisconsin at Larry's Market in Brown Deer and Fromagination in Madison.

Dante -- this aged sheep's milk cheese is made by Bob Wills for the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. I consider this a good cross-over cheese -- if you're throwing a party with a bunch of guests whose cheese experience is limited to cheddar and colby, this is a nice, mild sheep's milk cheese that will introduce them to the more bolder flavors of Wisconsin artisan cheeses. This cheese is available at lots of retail outlets.

Gran Canaria -- this is a mixed milk cheese of sheep, goat and cow made by Sid Cook of Carr Valley. I almost always have a hunk of this cheese in my fridge -- it's a personal favorite and a crowd pleaser. I've even got my friend, Holly hooked on this cheese and this is a woman who still buys Velveeta. Hey, people, I'm trying ...

Faarko -- another mixed milk cheese, this time sheep and cow's milk, is made by Bob Wills at Cedar Grove Cheese. This is another excellent "starter" cheese -- serve to your artisan cheese virgin guests without telling them it's a sheep's milk cheese and they'll love it. Then spring the sheep part on them and they won't believe it. Yummy.

Trade Lake Cedar -- this robust raw sheep milk cheese is a LoveTree Farmstead Cheese original made by Mary Falk. It's a natural rind cheese that is aged on boughs of cedar branches in Mary's fresh air-aging cave. You can really only buy it at farmer's markets in the Twin Cities -- Mary sells almost all of her cheese in Minnesota. Mary just did a great interview on NPR -- listen here.

You can't go wrong with Wisconsin sheep's milk cheeses!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Sheep's Milk Feta

In exciting news, a Wisconsin dairy artisan is now crafting a fresh sheep's milk feta, and as usual, we have a chef and a slew of cheesemaker mentors to thank for it.

Farmstead Feta, made by Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery, is a fresh, farmstead sheep's milk feta that doesn't taste like any feta you've ever had. It has a creamy texture and less salty flavor than your classic feta -- it's very fluffy and dreamy. And it can be yours for upwards of $20 a pound at retail outlets such as Fromagination.

It's worth every penny, says every person I've seen taste it. The cheese itself was inspired by Chef Jack Kaestner of the Oconomowoc Club, who has been asking Brenda to make him a sheep's milk feta for months for use at his restaurant.

Brenda delivered. After a few mentoring sessions with Wisconsin cheesemakers Al Bekkum and Tom Torkelson, and the loaning of feta cheese forms from nearby K& K Cheese, Wisconsin can now add sheep's milk feta to the list of 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese now being made in the state.

I had the exceptional honor to visit Brenda at her farmstead cheese operation last Friday, where the raspberries are at full peak (I strategically stopped us near the patch for a quick interview and continuously ate berries at full speed while writing at the same time). The dairy sheep are just beginning to dry up for the winter before lambing again in January, so I was lucky to be there while she is still making cheese.

Brenda crafts her feta (along with her famous fresh Driftless cheese, Ocooch Mountain and Bad Axe) in a 200-gallon vat in a cheesrie she and her husband, Dean, built into the side of a hill across from their farmhouse. The 200-gallon vat is a big step up from her original 40-gallon vat, in which she had to use herself as the agitator (often stirring for 90 continuous minutes -- and I wonder where she gets her muscles?) She then packs the feta in five-gallon buckets and sells to a host of local retailers and chefs.

While the feta is just starting with local distribution, her other Hidden Springs cheeses are now available at Murray's Cheese in New York and the Cowgirl Creamery outlets in San Francisco and Washington D.C.

She says orders have really picked up in the last month since ACS -- where she won a jaw-dropping eight awards for her sheep's milk cheeses. She's now using ALL of her sheep milk production, plus purchasing ALL of a neighbor's sheep milk for her cheeses. And, she's planning on expanding -- she'll add 40 ewes next spring and her farmer is considering doubling his herd.

More sheep's milk = more sheep's milk cheese, and if you're a fan of Hidden Springs, that means more cheese in a store near you. Whoo-hoo!