Monday, July 27, 2009

My Happy Place

I found my happy place this weekend. A place where no one honks when you take a wrong turn, where crowds cheer when you talk about cheese, and where the locals celebrate the end of their marriage by stapling handwritten cardboard signs to intersection road signs, pointing "This way to the Davis/Matthews divorce party". That was my experience this past weekend at the Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge, Wis.

In its tenth year, the Kickapoo County Fair now draws an average crowd of about 10,000 people over a period of two days. Everyone from the 450 Organic Valley local dairy farmers and their families, to national organic experts, to tourists from the tri-state area, gather on the grounds of Organic Valley Headquarters, eating local food, talking about the latest national food industry news, and listening to a variety of local and nationally-known music groups including The Squeezettes, the Lawful Contra-band, Brett Dennen and Synister Dane and the Kickapoo Disco Cosmonuts.

It's quite a sight to behold. Tents full of vendors, stands full of food, stilt walkers dressed as giant fairies, and educational seminars galore - with topics ranging from "organic eating on a dime" to "the basics of home energy performance" to "gardening by the moon" -- all taking place over the course of two days.

I was on hand to lead the "Wisconsin Cheese Renaissance" seminar, where I talked about farmstead and artisan cheesemakers for an hour to a crowd of about 100 people. Of course, the cheese stole the show -- we tasted Hidden Springs Creamery's Driftless Cheese, Marieke Fenugreek Gouda, Organic Valley Raw Milk Cheddar, and Hook's 10-Year Cheddar. I left home with 10 pounds of cheese and returned with an empty cooler.

Then it was on to a two-hour beer & cheese tasting, where Mark Knoebel of Sand Creek Brewing Company and I led another 100 people through a series of 10 beer and cheese pairings. Let's just say that after drinking eight glasses of beer, I don't remember too much of what I said about the last two cheeses, other than people were cheering when I exited the stage. I figure this is a good thing.

Often after I agree to do these kinds of things, I regret having said yes -- knowing it will take two days out of my schedule, put 300 miles on my car and time away from my family. But this event was amazing. I got to meet and talk one-on-one with so many interesting people -- everyone from Woody Tasch, who's leading a Slow Money effort, to Tim LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute. I also got to reconnect with several industry folks I hadn't seen in awhile - people like Peter Weber, founder of Potter's Crackers, the best artisan cracker around. I also have to give a shout-out to Mark Dohm, chief volunteer at the event, whom I haven't seen much of since our days working together at the Exponent, college newspaper at good ol' UW-Platteville.

After spending two days eating nothing but healthy food and talking endlessly about how many toxins are being built up in our bodies from all the corn syrup-induced foods being force-fed down our throats from corporate America, I really had a craving for a Diet Coke. So on my way home I stopped at the local Kwik Trip to get my caffeine/sugar fix.

Standing in line, holding my commercial, corn-syrup-laden, toxin-inducing beverage, I felt kind of guilty. What if someone I had talked to all weekend walked in only to see my giving in to corporate America?

My fears were nearly realized when the man standing in front of me in the check-out line, dressed in jeans, a cut off t-shirt and leather belt with "JACK" branded into the back, turned around to politely talk about the weather with me to pass the time. I had taken him for an organic farmer and was trying to hide my soda. Then I looked down, noticed he was holding a bottle of Mountain Dew and a box of Glazer Donuts, and inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. It just goes to show that it's easy to talk the talk, but really freakin' hard to walk the walk. I'm still trying.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sneak Peak at New Cheese Festival

Exciting news! I've just announced the line-up for my upcoming First Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, to be held in Madison, Wis., Nov. 6 - 7. Tickets will go on sale exclusively to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals starting Aug. 11 and to the general public on Aug. 18.

No tickets will be sold at the door for any event -- all tickets must be purchased in advance. So mark your calendars now and pick which of the events you'd like to attend:

Meet the Cheesemaker Gala Reception
Date: Friday, Nov. 6, 2009
Time: 6 - 9 PM
Location: Grand Terrace, Monona Terrace, Downtown Madison
Tickets: $25 per person

Shake hands and talk shop with the current generation of Wisconsin rock star cheesemakers. Sample dozens of Wisconsin original cheeses, network with hundreds of foodies and cheese buyers, and have the opportunity enjoy your favorite wine or microwbrew at a cash bar. Autographs free. :) View a list of participating cheesemakers (the list will continue to grow) here. This event is limited to 300 tickets.

Saturday Morning Tours
Tour Option A: Farmer's Market & Artisan Cheese Tasting
Date: Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009
Time: 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Tickets: $35 per person

Join a small group of 4- 5 people for a personalized walking tour of the nation's largest producer-driven farmer's market with personal introductions to more than six cheesemakers. Lunch at
Fromagination included. This event is limited to four small group tours of 4-5 people.

Tour Option B: Cheese Plant Tour & Fondue Lunch
Date: Saturday, November 7, 2009
Time: 8 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
Tickets: $55 per person
Join a small group of cheese enthusiasts on a private coach bus to tour two Green County cheese plants and end with an amazing Fondue Lunch at Roth Käse USA in Monroe. This event is limited to 25 tickets.

Saturday Afternoon Seminars
Date: Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009
Time: 1 - 5 p.m.
Location: Monona Terrace Hall of Ideas
Tickets: Ranges from $25 to $35 per seminar
Choose from a variety of six seminar topics, all focusing on celebrating Wisconsin artisan cheeses.
Seminar topics and speakers are listed below.

1:00 - 2:00 PM - Choose from one of the following seminars:

Seminar A: Wisconsin Cheese & Wine Pairings
Description: Experience tells us there are natural partners in certain wines and cheeses. Taste and compare four wines with four exclusive Wisconsin cheeses to find your favorite.
Presenters: Jady & Gisele Grad, local wine & cheese connoisseurs
Tickets: $30, limited to 48 seats

Seminar B: Rebirth of Washed Rind "Stinky" Cheeses
Description: Stinky cheese is back! You'll taste three different washed rind cheeses, including Les Frères, Limburger & Aged Brick, and learn more about the science and art that goes into crafting these nose-holding beauties.
Presenters: Moderator Bill Anderson, Fromagination; George Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese; Myron Olson, Chalet Cheese Cooperative; Joe Widmer, Widmer's Cheese Cellars
Tickets: $25, limited to 40 seats

2:30 - 3:30 PM - Choose from one of the following seminars:

Seminar C: Wisconsin Pasture-Grazed Cheeses
Description: More Wisconsin cheesemakers than ever are crafting "seasonal" cheeses from the milk of cows grazing on the lush, green pastures of Wisconsin. What makes these cheeses so
special? You'll taste Otter Creek Seasonal Cheddar, Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Edelweiss Grazed cheese.
Presenters: Moderator Jeanette Hurt, author; Bartlett Durand, Otter Creek Organic Farm; Mike Gingrich, Uplands Cheese; Bert Paris, Edelweiss Graziers
Tickets: $25, limited to 40 seats

Seminar D: Goat & Sheep Cheeses of Wisconsin
Description: Wisconsin has become a mecca for sheep and goat cheesemakers, as the state is now home to more dairy sheep and dairy goats than anywhere else in the country. Taste four amazing goat, sheep & mixed milk cheeses and hear from four cheesemakers on why they call America's Dairyland home.
Presenters: Moderator Bob Wills, Cedar Grove Cheese; Al Bekkum, Nordic Creamery; Cheesemker Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese; Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery.
Tickets: $25, limited to 40 seats

4:00 - 5:00 PM - Choose from one of the following seminars:

Seminar E: Wisconsin Cheese & Craft Beer Pairings
Description: Explore why pairing artisan cheeses with craft beers is the new black. You'll taste six different Wisconsin cheeses and a variety of micro-brews from around the country.
Presenters: Sara Hill, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board & Lucy Saunders,
Tickets: $35, limited to 48 seats

Seminar F: Wisconsin Cave Aged Cheeses
Description: Making cheese is one thing; aging it is another. Learn why cave aging cheeses is a science all its own. Hear from three distinctly different cheesemakers on how they age their cheeses. You'll taste Cloth-Bandaged Raw Milk Cheddar, Dunbarton Blue and a unique cheese from Lovetree Farmstead.
Presenters: Moderator Steve Ehlers, Larry's Market; Mary Falk, Lovetree Farmstead; Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy; Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese.
Tickets: $25, limited to 40 seats

Saturday Evening Dine Around
Date: Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009
Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
Location: Six participating Madison Originals Restaurants
Tickets: $75 per person

Experience a culinary sensation at one of a six participating Madison Originals restaurants, where each chef will partner with a unique Wisconsin cheesemaker and host an amazing three-course dinner. You'll join the featured Cheesemaker at a private table for 12.

Restaurants & paired cheesemakers include:

Blue Marlin Restaurant & Fantome Farm
101 N. Hamilton St., Madison, WI
Partnering Cheesemaker: Anne Topham, Fantome Farm

Captain Bill's Restaurant & Hook's Cheese
2701 Century Harbor Road, Middleton, WI
Partnering Cheesemakers: Tony & Julie Hook, Hook's Cheese

Delaney's Restaurant & Hidden Springs Creamery
449 Grand Canyon Drive, Madison, WI
Partnering Cheesemaker: Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery

Edgewater Hotel & Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese
666 Wisconsin Avenue, Madison, WI
Partnering Cheesemaker: George Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese

Lombardino's Restaurant & BelGioioso Cheese
2500 University Avenue, Madison, WI
Partnering Cheesemaker: Gianni Toffolon, BelGioioso Cheese

Quivey's Grove & Carr Valley Cheese
6261 Nesbitt Road, Madison, WI
Partnering Cheesemaker: Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese

Remember -- if you're a member of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, watch for some special log-in info to buy tickets starting Aug. 11. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on Aug. 18 here. Looking forward to seeing you all in November!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Valfino Returns

In exciting news for "stinky" cheese lovers everywhere, a Wisconsin washed-rind cheese that hit the market a couple of years ago, only to disappear for the last 18 months to undergo more research & development, is preparing to relaunch later this year.

Valfino: a creamy, runny, mild stinky cheese similar to the Italian Tallegio, is alive once more. It sports flavor profiles of beefiness, earthiness and a hint of spice and fruit. Made by Roth Kase USA in Monroe, Wis., the cheese was made originally by mistake. And it's the mistakes that are the hardest to reproduce, says Kevin Davis, Quality Assurance Guru at Roth Kase.

"We were working on a higher moisture Alpine Cheese and something went wrong. When we sent it the customer, they went wild and ordered more. So then we tried to duplicate it. It's taken awhile to figure out what we originally did wrong to create this cheese," Kevin told us Saturday during a private tour and tasting for members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. "It's really hard to duplicate a mistake - you have to go back through every step and see what you did differently."

In good news, the folks at Roth Kase have apparently figured it out, because Valfino is back, baby, and it's amazing. Of the four experimental and trial-batch cheeses we had the honor to taste (two blues and a low-fat cheese), Valfino is in a class all its own (pictured here in the upper left corner).

Turns out that Roth Kase actually does quite a bit of experimenting with new cheeses. In fact, they own two small copper kettles - each of which only makes about 100 pounds of cheese - that are completely dedicated to research and development. Kirsten Jaeckle, director of marketing, says that of all the cheeses they experiment with, only about 10-15 percent are ever "killed." Of the others, a percentage goes on to market and the rest stay in the R&D pipeline until they're perfected.

Another of their new cheeses -- Moody Blue -- is just entering the market now. I had a chance to taste this cheese at last year's American Cheese Society. It earned a second place at that contest. It also just made it onto AOL’s 2009 List of Food Editors Picks. They describe it as: "Roth Käse Moody Blue Blue cheese -- we love it. Smoke -- also a passion. Combine the two and you get Roth Käse's Moody Blue, a smoked blue that at first blush might sound odd, but tastes like you've entered the pearly gates of fromage heaven."

Ahhh ... fromage heaven ... sounds like a good place to end up some day. I'm in no hurry though.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Raw Milk Cheese

There's nothing like the subject of raw milk cheese to make a group conversation turn very interesting in a very short time.

It's like having a big family dinner and someone starts talking about politics. Voices raise, people stand up with arms akimbo arguing with the person across the table, and at some point, the family patriarch says "Enough!" and changes the subject. Everybody sits back down, the meal continues, and we all eventually leave the room shoulder to shoulder, sticking together as family once more.

That was my experience yesterday, as about 30 cheesemakers, industry experts and state regulators gathered for a "discovery session" on Wisconsin raw milk cheese, sponsored by the Dairy Business Innovation Center (full disclaimer - I do consultant work for this group).

With about 20 cheese plants making at least one type of raw milk cheese in Wisconsin, the state is on the forefront of the subject and is in the position to potentially better define what exactly is a "raw milk cheese."

The Raw Milk Cheesemakers Association defines raw milk cheese as: "Cheese produced from milk that, prior to setting the curd, has not been heated above the temperature of the milk (104°F, 40°C) at the time of milking and that the cheese produced from that milk shall be aged for 60 days or longer at a temperature of not less than 35°F (2°C) in accordance with US FDA regulations."

U.S. cheesemakers, however, have a much looser definition of raw milk cheese, and in Wisconsin, you can label pretty much any cheese that is not pasteurized as "raw milk". In fact, the state Dept. of Agriculture did a survey of 20 plants producing raw milk cheese, and asked what temperature each plant heats their milk to and for how long. Answers ranged everywhere from "keep it at the temperature that comes out of the cow and never heat" to "88 degrees for 50 minutes" to "110 degrees for 60 minutes " to "160 degrees for 16 seconds." By the way, the definition of pasteurization is heating the milk to 161 degrees for 15 seconds.

So some of these cheesemakers are coming pretty close to actually pasteurizing their milk and still labeling it as raw milk cheese, which by the way, really irked a few of the purist raw milk cheesemakers in the session. Their argument, and to which I agree, is there really should be two labels for raw milk cheese. One for actual raw milk cheese, made to the specifications of the Raw Milk Cheese Association (not heated above the natural temperature from which it comes from the cow), and one for cheesemakers who want to do some sort of heat treatment without getting to the magic number of 161 degrees. Perhaps they could state something on the label, such as: "Raw Milk Cheese, partially heat treated".

At least then the consumer would know what they're getting. After all, the entire point most of us buy raw milk cheese is because of the flavor. As Greg O'Neill, of Pastoral, said yesterday, "Raw milk cheeses tend not to be one-note. They have more complexity from start to finish. Pasteurization can take away some of the nuances that true cheese connoisseurs are looking for."

At the end of the session, after tempers had cooled, smiles had returned to faces, and conversations started to return to other topics, our friend Gigi, a very bright graduate student from France who is in America this summer doing a research report on raw milk cheese, said it best: "You don't eat cheese because you are hungry. You eat it for the pleasure."

Amen, French sister.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Yes I am a Cheeseaholic

Hello, my name is Jeanne and I am a cheeseaholic.

I came to this conclusion after opening my fridge this morning and inexplicably finding a case of Raspberry Bellavitano. An entire case - as in 12 pounds of Raspberry Bellavitano wedges, neatly packaged in beautiful labels.

There was a note attached from my husband that said: "Did you order this? I'm guessing yes. If so, you owe Ken $69.20."

Turns out yes, yes I did order the cheese. I just can't entirely remember why.

Here's the thing: I can't help it, I love cheese. I especially love really good cheese, and I really, really love getting really good cheese for a deal. A friend of mine was visiting the Sartoi cheese plant in Antigo last week and asked me at our weekly Rotary meeting if he could pick me up some cheese. I vaguely remember telling him. "Sure." He said the best deal was to buy it by the case, so I told him to pick me up a case of Raspberry Bellavitano -- one of the best new cheeses on the market right now for introducing consumers to artisan cheeses. It's sweet, mild, yet has a little kick of flavor. It's one of those great tipping point cheeses -- if I can get somebody to taste and love Raspberry Bellavitano, there's a good chance they will eventually try bigger, bolder cheeses and perhaps eventually even someday order a Limburger sandwich on rye at Baumgartners with me in Monroe.

This is what I tell myself, anyway. I can dream.

Turns out a case of Raspberry Bellavitano may not actually last that long. I've already given 1/2 pound wedges to two of my neighbors who were out watering their lawns this morning and gave a couple of chunks to my bug guy, Bernie, who shows up at 6 a.m. four times a year to kill the spiders in my basement. He was super happy. And so was I. Only 10 pounds left to go! Raspberry Bellavitano, anyone?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Cheese & Burger Society

The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board launched a very cool web site today called the Cheese & Burger Society. You know a web site's going to be awesome when they refer to cheese as "The Grand Poohbah" in the second sentence on the home page.

The site, designed to look and flip just like an old-time Rolodex, features 30 signature cheeseburger recipes, using - no surprise here - authentic Wisconsin cheeses. The photos are spectacular, as life-size cheeseburgers covered with an assortment of toppings leap out at you from your screen. The absolute best part of the site however, are the voice descriptions of each recipe.

There's no doubt you will recognize the voice, but based on your age, one of the following characters are going to suddenly hit you. Upon turning up the volume and listening to the voice describe the "#1 burger - The Casanova -- with two slices of Wisconsin Swiss, some mushrooms and ham, it's a cheeseburger and mouth love affair waiting to happen," you will immediately either think: "oh my god, that's Puddy," or "oh cool, it's The Tick," or "Dude, it's the guy from Rules of Engagement" or perhaps, "Hey mom - it's Kronk."

Any way you have it, the voice is none other than Patrick Warburton, quite possibly my favorite Hollywood actor ever. His voice is like melted dark chocolate - smooth, rich and leaving you wanting more. When he describes the #25, the Mamma Mia Burger, I've got to admit my heart flutters a bit before I break into giggles:

"Number 25 - the Mamma Mia -- Wisconsin mozzarella, pepperoni and pizza sauce on crusty Italian bread. The food gods have spoken loud and clear and maybe with a slight Sicilian accent."

Or here's another one: "Number 18 - the Pioneer - give your mouth a big old bear hug with a cheeseburger made from Wisconsin aged Swiss, sauteed wild mushrooms, crimini mushrooms with rosemary and crispy bacon."

In addition to great descriptions of 30 burgers and recipes for each, a third tab features a description of the cheese being used. Here are some of my favorites, with descriptions read by, of course, Puddy himself:

#4 - Brie - "I once got dumped by a woman named Brie."
# 7 - Limburger - "I once fought off 300 grizzly bears to protect my Limburger. True story."
#12 - Brick - "Well you haven't really lived until you've stuffed your face with Brick cheese."
# 16 - Camembert - "I named my first born child after a slice of Camembert. His name is Camembert."

The last two buttons on the Rolodex link to a couple more features -- the first is a monthly "Chef's Choice" burger, featuring a favorite recipe by a famous chef. This month's feature is "The Pilgrim" burger by Matthew Silverman of the Vintner Grill in Las Vegas. The second link is a way for you to follow the Cheese & Burger Society on Facebook. Let's just say I'm it's biggest fan.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Cheese Head Hustle

Apparently when true cheeseheads travel, they actually take their cheeseheads with them. Tom Cinealis, a member of the Wisconsin-based Badgerland Miata Club, sent me this news from Grapevine, Texas. It's too entertaining not to share. Here you go - thanks, Tom!

As part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Mazda Miata which was held in Texas over the Memorial Day weekend, members of the Wisconsin based Badgerland Miata Club showed the rest of the clubs in attendance a little game called the “Cheese Head Hustle”.

Although they do things big in Texas, Wisconsin let them know that when it comes to cheese, Wisconsin does it bigger and better.

The object of the game was for the passenger of these little two seater cars to retrieve the various types of oversized foam cheeses from their stands and place them on the driver's head while the driver maneuvers his (or her) Miata through the slalom course. One of the major stumbling blocks for each team was that the contestants must attempt to hold all the cheeses on the driver's head while maneuvering through the course.

After a signal to go from the starter, the driver races to the first cheese. To get a good base for this “stack and drive” game, the first cheese is obviously going to be a wedge shaped hat of cheddar, not that un-similar to the Cheddar heads of Green Bay Packers fame, only larger.

The other cheeses go on top of the cheddar. However, these foam cheeses, such as a 15” Gouda wedge or a 9” ball of Mozzarella don’t stack very well.

Of course the passenger can be a great asset to the driver while maneuvering through the course, but it’s a little hard to hold numerous cheeses on your partner's head while reaching half way out of the car -- especially when the driver doesn't get you close enough to grab the two foot long section of Swiss, or a brie the size of a hat box.

Did I mention that once all the cheeses are collected, their total height is well above the normal reach of anyone outside the NBA? So it takes two people to hold this collection of cheeses over the driver's head, who by the end has usually shrunk down so low in their seat that the view of the course is through the steering wheel.

Once all the cheeses are collected, it’s a race to the finish line in an attempt to make the best time. And best time some of them did. Although the average time was well over a minute and half, several teams came in under 50 seconds, the best being under 43 seconds. Quite a feat since no one outside of Wisconsin has ever seen this game. Of course just to keep it fair, none of the Wisconsin contingent participated -- they only officiated.

In the end it didn’t matter if you played the game, watched those that did, or hadn’t even tasted all the real varieties of the cheeses being used, (we did bring a supersized block of Velveeta for the Chili Con Caso eaters for just this reason). Just being in the presence of supersize cheeses from Wisconsin was fun for all.