Monday, May 31, 2010

Prodigal Son Returns Home

Jon Metzig grew up - literally - on top of his family's Union Star cheese factory near Fremont, Wis. He started helping out in the family business at age 7, earned his cheesemaker's license at age 18, and after graduating from UW-River Falls with a degree in Ag Business and Food Science, did what a lot of young people do: he left home.

After a stint as a cheesemaker at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, and after a two-month trip to work with cheesemakers in Ireland, England and Switzerland, Jon Metzig has at last returned home. Today, he's once again working with his father - Master Cheesemaker Dave Metzig - but this time, he's making a cheese he'll call his own.

St. Jeanne is named after his grandmother - this family has great taste with naming cheeses, don't you think? :) - and is a semi-soft, washed rind beauty, similar to a Port Salut or Irish Gubbeen cheese - that's actually Gubbeen pictured above - I was so excited about tasting the cheese when I saw Jon in April that I forgot to take a picture, but it looks very similar). Jon ages it for six weeks and is selling it now as a fairly young, mild stinky cheese. However, he's thinking about starting to wash and cure some batches with beer, resulting in a heartier, stinkier cheese. He's trying to figure out if there's a market for such a cheese (I vote yes).

Jon comes from a long line of cheesemakers, and his family history is a bit colorful. As his father says on the family's website, it all began with the age-old question of “low fat.”

In the early 1900s, almost all Wisconsin dairy farmers sold their milk to local cheese factories. The introduction of the “Babcock Test” - a method for determining the butterfat content of milk – led to scaled pricing of milk based on fat content. Simply put, cheese factories were only willing to pay top dollar for milk with a high fat content. Thirteen farmers including Jon's Great-Great Grand Uncle, Henry Metzig, were upset that their milk was considered “low fat,” and responded by starting their own cheese factory as a co-op in Zittau, Wisconsin.

In 1911, Henry bought out the others and formed Union Star. To close that deal, however, Henry had to make a major commitment – agree to work on Sunday. Since the co-op had always been closed on Sunday, the local farmers’ wives had been left to deal with that day’s milk production themselves. This was no small task, because Sundays were focused on preparing the family dinner and going to church. In the end, Henry agreed that it was better for one cheesemaker to go to Hell than all the farmers' wives.

I guess you can say that the Metzig family's continued success is due, in part, to the cheesemaking’s own version of women’s liberation. Henry’s daughter, Edna, was one of the first women to become a licensed cheesemaker and work in a factory setting. It was no surprise that soon after marrying local cheesemaker Eugene Lehman, they were running the Union Star factory. What did surprise the neighbors, however, was when they opened a small retail storefront. You see, cheesemakers back then were not known for dealing well with customers.

Jon's parents, Dave and Jan, bought Union Star from Great-Great Aunt Edna in 1980. Dave had a degree in accounting and, just like his Great Grand Uncle, wanted to run his own business. The family tradition of independent cheesemaking carried the day and the Metzig's have been there ever since.

It's good to know the next generation of Metzig cheesemakers is coming up strong. Good luck with your new cheese, Jon, and just remember: the stinkier, the better.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Carr Valley Cooking School

Chefs and cheesemakers have a lot in common, says Dream Dance Chef Jason Gorman. They both work magic with food.

And no one works more magic than the combo of Chef Jason and Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, the wizard behind the curtain at Carr Valley Cheese. As part of the Carr Valley Cooking School in Sauk City last week, Sid hosted Chef Jason for "A New Perspective on Steak and Cheese." We had the opportunity to taste three different gourmet steak and cheese combos.

Chef Jason runs Dream Dance restaurant, located inside the Potawatami Casino near Milwaukee. His motto: "Go ahead, use the wrong fork. It's your call." Completely devoid of frou-frouism, Chef Jason started the evening by telling the 30 attendees that there are three things that make a good chef. The first: good ingredients - which was the reason he was at Carr Valley that night. As Jason - a native of Chicago - became more acquainted with Wisconsin cheeses during the course of his career, he says the varieties at Carr Valley immediately began to stand out because of their quality and originality.

"People ask me - 'What's your favorite cheese?' and I say, 'The one that Sid's making right now,'" Jason laughed. In fact, last year, Jason worked with Sid to make a signature cheese specifically for Dream Dance. The result is Sweet Vanilla Cardona, which you can also now purchase at the Carr Valley retail stores - go here for a listing.

At this point, Chef Jason began searing the first steaks of the evening, so we never learned what the two remaining keys to being a good chef were. But no matter. Jason then started talking about salts, which turned out to be fascinating. He says the key to have food taste good is either salt or acid. The key to using salt correctly is to not actually taste salt in the dish when you're done - but to treat it as an equalizer.

Each of the three steaks we enjoyed were each seasoned with a different salt. The first steak, a grass fed beef tenderloin from Australia, was served with Maldon Sea Salt, from Essex, England, and Carr Valley Apple Smoked Cheddar. The dish was garnished with was a Saba balsamic syrup, resulting in a sweet finish. The theme of this dish was "sweet and smoky," with the smokiness coming from the cheese.

Carr Valley Apple Smoked Cheddar is made in 12 pound wheels and is bandage wrapped. At 60 days, the bandage comes off and it's cold smoked for 12-15 hours. Sid generates the smoke from apple wood and can smoke between 500-600 wheels at a time. Then the wheels are hand rolled in paprika. It takes between 10-12 days for the smokiness to work itself to the center of the wheel, Sid says.

As good as the grass-fed steak was, the next dish was even better. A choice New York strip steak, it was served with Carr Valley Goat Feta, tomatoes, black olives, lemon olive oil and red clay salt, harvested from volcanic clay in Hawaii. The lemon really came through strongly, but the Goat Feta provided a nice balance.

Carr Valley Goat Feta boasts a strong, flavorful taste with a chalky body and crumbly texture. Most Feta for sale in the United States is actually made with cow's milk, and some cheesemakers add goat lipase, a cheesemaking additive, to give it a more traditional Feta taste. But Sid's is made with the real deal. It's also dry salted instead of brined, resulting in a slightly sweeter taste. Sid also makes a sheep feta, and occasionally, a goat/sheep feta mix.

The last dish of the evening was a Japanese Kobe Ribeye with Carr Valley Black Truffle Sheep Milk's Cheese, deep-fried Spanish Marcona almonds and finished with truffle oil. The steak was flown in from Japan and sells for $120 apiece at Dream Dance. Kobe beef comes from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan. According to popular belief, the cattle are fed one beer per day, massaged with sake daily, brushed to set their fur, and fed on grain fodder.

As Chef Jason says, "Up to the time I get them, these cows have had a better life than me."

As if the steak wasn't amazing enough, the kicker was the seasoning. Finished with Himalayan Sea Salt, a block of sea salt over 250,000 years old, this fabulous dish
was perfectly balanced with Sid's Black Sheep Truffle cheese. Inspired by the truffled cheese of Italy, Sid created this award-winning sheep milk cheese, which is washed in truffle oil and aged more than six months. It sports a sweet unique earthy flavor and took first place at the 2006 American Cheese Society Competition.

All in all, an amazing evening and an amazing meal. Thanks to Chef Jason and Sid Cook for making a little magic.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Uplands Cheese

Brace yourselves, cheese geeks. Pleasant Ridge Reserve - possibly the most famous only child farmstead cheese in America - is about to gain a baby brother.

The brainchild behind this new masterpiece is cheesemaker Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese. Similar to Vacherin Mont d'Or, a soft, rich cow's milk cheese made in the Jura region of Switzerland and France, Andy's new cheese will be sold in little round box
es and will be designed to be consumed out of the box, perhaps warmed, and served with a spoon.

Vacherin Mont d'Or is traditionally made from cow's milk in the fall and winter months, and Andy's cheese will follow suit, thereby fitting well into Uplands' schedule, as Pleasant Ridge Reserve is made only in the spring, summer and fall, when cows are eating fresh grass. It will do just fine on winter milk, Andy says, as the style depends not so much on grassy milk notes, but more on the cheesemaker's ability to put a particular touch on this fragile cheese.

So far, Andy has made several batches of this new raw milk cheese, and is working to age it to the magical date of 60 days - the time needed to sell a raw milk cheese in the United States. A high-fat cheese, it is rich and creamy and held together by a band of spruce tree bark.

Only about 3/4 of a pound in weight, these little wheels will be worth their weight in gold. I tried a version that was three weeks old. It was evident that this cheese is going to be very good, but it will be a challenge to get it to 60 days and still be in good shape to ship and sell. Then again, if anyone can do it, it's Andy Hatch.

The only problem remaining is its name. Pleasant Ridge Reserve was named after the ridge in which the farm sits - Pleasant Ridge. So it would be logical to name the new cheese after another nearby landmark. Andy says the headwaters to Rush Creek lay on the Uplands farm property, but he thinks Rush Creek sounds like a $4 bottle of wine.

I suggested changing it to Rushing Creek or Rushing Waters and was met with a blank stare and: "Um, right, but it's called Rush Creek." So obviously, the name of the cheese will need to be authentic and resonate with Andy, Mike & Carol Gingrich, and the region in which they live. If you've got any good ideas, I'm sure they'd be all ears.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Making Cheese with Andy Hatch

If what Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch says is true -- that half of the secret to making Pleasant Ridge Reserve is simply getting out of the way of the milk and letting its unique properties and flavor profile shine through -- then I'd say the other half to the secret of this near-perfect cheese is Andy Hatch himself.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve - arguably the most famous farmstead cheese to come out of America in the 2000s (it captured twin Best of Show awards at the American Cheese Society in 2001 & 2005, and was named the U.S. Championship Cheese in 2003), is a true Wisconsin Original.

Created by Mike Gingrich and the team at the Center for Dairy Research, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a seasonal Beaufort-style cheese, made only from the milk of cows when they are grazing on fresh grass. Today, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is crafted primarily by cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who joined the Uplands team in 2007, and who with Mike Gingrich (who has by all means, earned the right to slow down a bit), continues to craft the one and only Wisconsin artisan cheese that can be found at nearly every specialty cheese shop and on five-star menus across the country.

While I've been a fan of Pleasant Ridge Reserve since I came onto the cheese scene in 2003, I've never had the opportunity to actually help craft it until today. My friend Maggie Fitzsimmons
and I talked Andy into letting us crash his 19th day of the season's cheese make. We arrived just in time to watch him put in the rennet, and then waited for the milk to heat until it was ready to cut.

Then we learned about the process for healing/heating/stirring for creating the perfect curd that makes Pleasant Ridge Reserve. While we were waiting on this process, Andy gave us a tour of the four aging caves, and we got to meet Eric, Maria and Bob - the folks at Uplands who age PRR to perfection. We tasted several ages of this perfect cheese - everything from a sweet 7-month old wheel made last fall, to a nutty, complex 12-month wheel made a year ago, to a 2-year aged wheel that boasted a meaty, earthy flavor.

You can find different ages of PRR at different shops around the country - every cheesemonger prefers a different age. But it's not just all about age - every batch matures at its own pace, and some batches peak before others. One wheel from each batch is plugged six to eight times to determine the perfect time to ship.

Just as we were starting to learn about a new cheese Andy is working on (more about that later in the week), it was time to head back to the make room. After a bit more heating/stirring, we pumped the curds & whey to the press table, which is actually an old cheddaring table for Kraft, cut in half and customized to fit Uplands' needs.

Maggie and I were in charge of keeping the curd away from the whey drainage slots, until enough whey was drained to ready the curd mass for pressing. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is pressed under its own whey, one of the steps that makes this Alpine cheese special.

After a period of pressing, it was time to lift the lid and cut the mass - a process Andy and Maria have down to a science. The vat was cut into 72 squares - one square for each cheese form. Andy showed us the proper method for placing the curd squares into each form, using a metaphor that I really can't repeat here (it was quite effective however), and then we wrapped the cheese cloth around each block, put on the lids, and placed the forms on the press.

Afterward, Andy said it was time to clean and graciously let Maggie & I off the hook, so we could go outside and take a much-needed breather. As if we hadn't already taken up enough of Andy's time, he then offered us a tour of the farm.

Mike & Carol Gingrich own the operation as a partnership with Dan & Jean Patenaude. They farm 300 acres, all of which are split into rotational grazing paddocks for their 150 dairy cows. The herd is a unique blend of nine different breeds, resulting in a regular rainbow of bovines. Quiet, friendly and healthy, the Uplands cows are happy cows, producing milk that results in happy cheese.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve is definitely a happy cheese, and it's about to get a sibling - but more on that later this week.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Seymour Dairy

New stats released this week by the USDA reveal specialty cheese production is up 9 percent in Wisconsin, with 92 of the 126 cheese plants in the state now making at least one type of specialty cheese.

One company contributing to this significant growth is Seymour Dairy, a new blue cheese plant and the brainchild of Mike Brennenstuhl, champion cheesemaker. Only five years old, Seymour Dairy has already won several awards, including a Gold Medal at the 2009 World Cheese Awards in Gran Canaria for its Crocker Hills Organic Blue.

The Crocker Hills Blue - made from pasture-grazed milk - is just one in an impressive line-up of signature blue cheeses Mike developed in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. My favorite is his Ader Kase Reserve, a blue cheese crafted in the tradition of German blues, then taken to a new height through a meticulous and intensive aging process.

Although the company itself may be relatively young (it's housed in the old Beatrice ConAgra plant just on the outskirts of Seymour, Wis.), its three cheesemakers - Mike Brennenstuhl, Ron Laabs and Rob Richter - have more than 100 years of combined experience in making cheese.

During a tour last week for members of the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, Quality Systems Manager Ron Roethlisberger - an aspiring cheesemaker himself - shared that last year, Seymour Dairy crafted 4.5 million pounds of blue cheese and is on track to produce 6 million pounds this year. All milk comes from small family farms within 40 miles of Seymour, and the plant makes cheese 7 days a week.

Making blue cheese is an intensive process. Ron walked us through the process, from the four, open-air stainless steel cheese vats, where cheesemakers cut the curd by hand, to the brine tanks where the cheeses soak up their luscious salty flavor, to the piercing machine, which can poke holes in 20 wheels a minute, to the flipping tables, where workers flip 7-pound wheels of blue cheese like they've been doing it their whole lives. The plant employs 42 people, which is pretty significant in this town of 3,474 people. It's also growing rapidly - Ron said they had added six employees just in the past 30 days, due to increased customer demand for their award-winning cheeses.

In addition to all of Seymour Dairy's cheese made on site, all but the crumbles packaging is also done at the Seymour plant, including the cut, wrapping and packaging of the company's signature triangle-packed 4-ounce wedges. Seymour Dairy blue cheeses sport snappy labels, each color-coded for the style in which it's made, including:

Green Crest: this Italian style Gorgonzola features a green mold culture imported directly from Italy, giving it an authentic taste. It has a creamy texture and crisp flavor profile.

Blue Crest: this modern interpretation of a classic Danish Blue features a creamy mouth feel and complex flavor profile. This cheese is most often found in crumbles.

Ader Kase: this award-winning blue is crafted in the tradition of fine German cheesemakers. It sports a red label. The Ader Kase Reserve (my favorite) has a black label and is aged at least 6 months. It's the kind of cheese you take the time to seek out, but then again, with Seymour cheeses, it's hard to go wrong.

In good news, it sounds like Seymour's line-up of blue cheeses is set to soon expand, as Mike is working on a new blue cheese unlike anything his plant is making now. He hopes to have it on the market by Christmas. Can't wait!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Weber Dairy

Ever passed through a farmstead dairy drive thru to pick up your week's supply of fresh milk, plus an ice cream cone for the ride home?

Located just 3/4 of a mile outside Marshfield, Wisconsin at 9706 County Road H, Weber Dairy features a retail farmstead store built next to a set of silos with a wooden wagon and fiberglass cow statue sitting outside. It is the stereotypical, picturesque Wisconsin dairy farm, complete with red barns and green tractors, with a state-of-the-art milk bottling facility and very efficient farmstead dairy store, featuring a drive-thru window.

I pulled in on a Saturday afternoon, attempted to find a place to park on the gravel driveway between the line-up of cars going through the drive-thru, and another set of cars belonging
to customers who were inside shopping. The gal working the counter was amazingly keeping up with the traffic flow -- selling bags of milk as fast as humanly possible out the drive-thru window, and making ice cream sundaes and cones for the customers standing inside.

A little background: Weber Dairy started in 1904 when Peter and Elizabeth Weber purchased the farm. It was later purchased by their son, John, who then sold it to his son, John, one of five children that delivered raw milk and cream door-to-door until he purchased in in 1951. In 1955, Weber's Farm Store was established as a retail outlet, and customers brought their own milk containers until 1959, when the law changed and Weber's began bottling milk in glass bottles. Shortly after, a drive-thru window was started for faster service, and ever since, about 90 percent of the store's business has occurred through that window.

In 1973, the glass bottles were converted to plastic bags. Today, they're available in 1/2 gallon pouches, bundled together so you can buy a gallon of milk at a time. The family produces, processes and retails their milk from their herd of 260 Holstein cattle, all in the same location, and even sells cheese from its sister cheese plant, Nasonville Dairy, a result of an addition to the business in 1995, when Ken, Kelvin and Kim Heiman purchased the enterprise. Ken's wife, Joellen (Weber) Heiman, manages the store.

The business is renowned in the Marshfield area, with just about everyone you talk to buying their milk at the farm, most cruising through the drive-thru window six days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. After ordering a "small" ice cream cone that was the size of my arm from my wrist to my elbow, I drove into Marshfield to visit a new retail wine & cheese shop owned by Chuck McCauley. I had heard about the shop - called Market on Sixth - from a friend who gave it rave reviews, so wanted to stop by and check it out.

I had expected a little hole in the wall with a few bottles of wine and a dozen cheeses, so you can imagine my surprise when I walked in and was greeted with a vast expanse of hundreds of wines from around the world and an impressive cut-to-order cheese counter featuring 50 of the best Wisconsin artisan cheeses being made today.

Liz, the manager, must have taken notice of my dropped jaw, because she immediately came over and asked if I was new to the store. She gave me a great little tour, explaining with enthusiasm the different wine and cheese selections, and gave me a flyer with upcoming events. All I can say is - wow - what an awesome shop. If you live anywhere near the Marshfield area, it's a must-see.

Market on Sixth is featuring Saturday wine tastings on May 15, June 19, July 17 and August 21 and hosting a few classes, open by registration only. I'd recommend the "Midsummer Wine & Cheese Festival" on August 7. Call 715-387-2000 for more info.