Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Singing the Blues

People in southern France are unfortunately the recipients of one of former President George Bush's parting gifts as he left office last week: a tripling to 300 percent in import duty on their world-famous Roquefort cheese.

On Jan. 15, U.S. Trade Representatives released a new list of tariffs on products from the European Union. Roquefort, a French blue cheese, is the only product on that list whose tariff will be raised to 300 percent when the changes go into effect in March.

France regulates the use of the name “Roquefort," which is applied only to cheeses made near Roquefort sur Soulzon, a city in the south of France.

American cheesemakers can not make a Roquefort, as only certain approved producers using certain approved methods in a designated part of France can make true Roquefort.

So why is Roquefort so special? Dani Friedland, author of the blog French Toast, recently interviewed the man considered to be THE national expert on cheese production, who turns out to be none other than Wisconsin's very own Dr. Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. 

Dr. Johnson describes the parts of Roquefort production that make it distinctive: "The cheese is made from raw sheep’s milk mixed with a mold called Penicillium roquefortii, which is also used to make other blue cheeses including Stilton. Cheesemakers poke holes in the cheese to distribute the oxygen needed for mold growth throughout the wheels.  The cheese is then ripened for at least three months in caves. This is the crucial step," he says.

"The cheese can be made in the surrounding area, but it has to be ripened in those caves,” he says. “These caves are unique in that they have the right humidity and the right temperature that allows the mold to grow.”

I've never had the honor of visiting the caves in southern France that age Roquefort, but I can only imagine it to be an amazing place. It gives new meaning to the concept of terroir - in additional to reflecting the milk from the animals in the area, it also pertains to the very specific location and conditions in which the cheese is aged.

So, stock up on Roquefort between now and March, boys and girls. After that, it's going to probably cost three times as much. Super.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fondue is Back

It's official: I am turning into my mother. And it's all because of fondue.

When I was a kid in the '70s, my mother, a city girl who married a meat and potatoes farmer, tried desperately to get her family to join the fondue craze. I remember her having friends over around our old farm kitchen table, elegantly dipping pieces of bread into a big pot of warm cheese and thinking it was the most disgusting supper ever. 

Where were the meat and potatoes? Where were the vegetables? Where was the apple pie? C'mon people. Eventually, my father and I won our battle against fondue, and the fondue pot and silly long forks got shoved somewhere in the far reaches of the old wooden cupboards, never to be seen again.

Alas, today, I must add my aversion to fondue to the long list of things for which I need to apologize. Because here I am, about to buy my first real fondue set - an earthenware pot from Fromagination in Madison, which, by the way, thoroughly sucked me into the fondue craze with their signature fondue mix. (In fact, Fromagination is hosting a fondue lunch every Wednesday in February, with three seating times around the noon hour - call ahead for a reservation). 

Turns out I REALLY like fondue. Apparently it's like a lot like wine -- until you've had a really good version, you don't realize the potential of the medium.

I first discovered exceptional fondue at Roth Kase cheese in Monroe. Roth Kase built a beautiful culinary center a couple of years ago, and I've been lucky enough to be invited to a few of their sit-down fondue lunches with groups of cheese buyers, retailers and media. Through Roth Kase, I've learned the secret to good fondue: quality Gruyere and emmenthaler cheeses, and exceptional kirsch - a clear, dry brandy.

In fact, The Melting Pot, a chain of fondue restaurants, uses Roth Kase cheeses almost exclusively for all of their fondues, but  my favorite one is an Alpine-style fondue made with Grand Cru Gruyere Reserve, Grand Cru Gruyere Surchoix, MezzaLuna Fontina, Pinot Grigio and lemon juice. Serve it with artisan bread, apples, grapes and pears, as well as a little nutmeg and black and white pepper, and voila - I introduce you to heaven.

And so the tradition carries on ... I informed my daughter of our plans to host a fondue dinner with friends and her face contorted to resemble -- I'm just guessing here -- the same face mine must have looked like when I was a kid and my mother served fondue for the first time. Somewhere, my mother is smiling.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

America's Dairyland?

When I was a kid, I used to be convinced that someday, the business world would be divided into two sections: those companies owned by Coca Cola and the rest owned by Pepsi. 

I remember the day my beloved independently-owned Dr. Pepper went belly up and was eventually scooped up by Coke - Dr Pepper still doesn't have a dedicated bottler in the United States so actually finding it can some days be a challenge, but alas I digress -- read the whole sad story on Dr Pepper here.

Now I'm thinking that we Americans should be so lucky as to ever think the world would eventually be owned by two American companies. Global competition has fully engulfed us, and with it, the foreign investment/ownership of just about everything in the U.S.

So with that said, it was with mixed emotions that I read this week of the sale of Roth Kase USA, in Monroe, Wis., to Emmi, the largest milk processor in Switzerland. Only 17 years old, Roth Kase is one of Wisconsin's brightest success stories: a start-up specialty and artisan cheese plant that's won more than 100 awards for its cheeses since 1991.

Roth Kase Marketing Manager Kirsten Jaeckle told Cap Times Food Editor Susan Troller today in a story appearing in 77 Square: "This is a growth related acquisition for both organizations. Our assortment of cheeses are only growing, and there are no plans to change the direction we've been heading."

Roth Kase is a highly-regarded company that employs about 125 workers and has gotten rave reviews and many awards for its Swiss style cheeses, with Gruyere being a particular flagship cheese. And, although Roth Kase is one of the 100 largest milk processing plants in the United States, it is small in comparison to Emmi, which employs over 3,000 workers worldwide, and reported sales of over $1 billion in the first half of 2008.

Critics agree, and Troller says it best: "Roth Kase has been one of the catalysts for the explosion of interest in artisan cheese making and marketing in Wisconsin. It was one of two Wisconsin cheese companies that were honored Jan. 12 by the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a not-for-profit group that offers technical assistance and encouragement to Wisconsin dairy producers and processors. The DBIC award went to Roth Kase, and to Hidden Springs Creamery of Westby, a new Wisconsin creamery which has taken the cheese world by storm with its award-winning sheep's milk cheeses."

So I'm very glad to hear Roth Kase USA is going to continue making cheese in Wisconsin. It's too valuable of a company for us to lose. But, it joins a growing list of Wisconsin cheese plants now owned by foreign companies including: 
  • Arla Foods: This world-wide dairy products corporation based in Denmark, purchased White Clover Dairy in Holland, Wis., in January 2006. The sale has been very good for the company, with Arla pumping in money, renovating the old Holland plant, and retaining hundreds of jobs for the local economy.

  • Saputo: Canada's largest dairy firm purchased Wisconsin's largest farmer-owned cooperative, Alto Dairy, in April 2008. Alto was just in the beginning stages of converting itself from a commodity cheddar company to a specialty aged cheddar house, and had launched its highly-acclaimed Black Creek Classic Cheddar about a year before the sale. I see the Black Creek product is still in stores, so I'm very hopeful Saputo will continue the line.

  • Agropur: This Canadian dairy cooperative bought Trega Foods, a cheese company that was formed by combining three of Northeast Wisconsin's oldest cheese plants. The sale was announced at about the same time as the Alto Dairy sale, causing many to worry if perhaps Canadians were taking over Wisconsin. True to its word, Agropur has kept all three cheese plants up and running and the company appears as strong as ever.

  • Woolwich Dairy: One of North America's largest goat dairy processors, purchased land two years ago in Lancaster, Wis., and is now running a highly successful goat cheese plant with local workers in this small community. Word on the street is that the company is getting ready to expand the Lancaster facility due to high demand of its product in the U.S.
So as far as I can tell, the largest cheese companies left in Wisconsin that are privately owned by a U.S. citizen are: 

  • Sartori Foods, based in Plymouth, Wis. and run by third-generation Sartori family member Jim Sartori. This company purchased Antigo Cheese in 2006 and has rapidly expanded its line of American Originals.

  • BelGioioso, based in Denmark, Wis., is run by Errico Auricchio, who in 1979, moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. His children, Francesa and Gaetano, are both heavily involved in the company.

  • Sargento, owned by the Gentine family, is a Wisconsin-based dairy company that purchases cheese and crafts it into shredded blends, sliced products, "potato finishers" and cheese snacks.

  • Grassland Dairy, with 300 employees, is family-owned and currently operated by the third and fourth generations of the Wuethrich family, based in Greenwood Wis. The company just got a grant to develop and roll out a new artisan butter.

  • Klondike Cheese, owned by the Buholzer family, has a fifth generation coming up to take over the reins of this Monroe, Wis., cheese plant that makes feta, brick and muenster.
The good news is that Wisconsin still makes more cheese than any other state in the country, and we have more small, specialty and artisan cheesemakers coming online all the time. But the question remains: will we continue to be America's Dairyland? I would say yes. Will we be owned by Americans? Time will tell.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Cesar Cheese

Three years ago, a man named Cesar called me saying he wanted to be a cheesemaker. I must say this happens a lot. People get it in their heads that being a cheesemaker is a romantic way of life full of fortune and fame, and then they call me, only to have me burst their bubble by telling them it's a lot of work for often little pay.

So that's what I told Cesar and his wife when I met them three years ago. Having recently immigrated from Mexico, Cesar had a passion to make cheese like he'd eaten in his own country. I remember telling him he would have to go to school, get his cheesemaker's license, and then intern with someone for 240 hours if he wanted to make cheese. 

It seemed like a long shot.

And then last week, Cesar called me again. "Do you remember me?" he said to me on the phone and right away, I knew it was Cesar. It turns out he did go back to school, he is working with a licensed cheesemaker, and he's now selling his own cheese under his own label: Cesar Cheese.

"Remember you told me to go back to school? Remember you said it would be a lot of work? Well, here I am," Cesar told me. "I am making cheese."

And he's making REALLY good cheese. Every Tuesday from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Cesar travels from his home in Random Lake, Wis. to Roelli Cheese near Shullsburg and makes cheese. It's for sale at the Roelli Cheese store, as well as the Piggly Wiggly in Cedarburg, and a few other little cheese shops in the area.

My favorite is his Hand Stretched String Oaxaca Style Cheese -- it's string cheese the way string cheese was meant to be. Yum. Cesar is also making Queso Fresco and Quesadilla Con Chile Rojo (with red peppers). The Queso Fresco is good on salads, tacos and tostadas.

I asked Cesar if being a cheesemaker was everything he hoped it would be, and he said emphatically answered yes, except for one thing -- when he gives and sells cheese to his friends and co-workers at his day job in Random Lake, nobody believes he actually crafts it. 

"I take the cheese home and nobody believes that I make it," Cesar says. "I need you to write about me and put a picture of me stretching my cheese on your blog - that way people will know for sure it's really me."

No problem, Cesar. Here you go. I wish you well in your future of cheesemaking!!