Thursday, July 29, 2010

Cheese & Beer

There's nothing like feeding a crowd 10 beer, cheese and chocolate samples to really get people in a good mood.

On Saturday, Mark Knoebl, of Sand Creek Brewing Company, and I teamed up for the second year in a row to lead a Beer, Cheese & Chocolate pairing at the Kickapoo Country Fair, an annual shindig at the Organic Valley headquarters in LaFarge. About 10,000 people interested in local and sustainable agriculture gather every year to hear a myriad of speakers, shop a mini tent city, listen to soulful music and eat amazing local foods.

This year's keynote speakers were Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University, renown for her ability to work with animals and who has changed the entire landscape of livestock handling and welfare. She spoke at 11 a.m. to a full-house tent. Sunday's keynote speaker was Michael Perry -- one of my very favorite authors -- you absolutely must read his new book, "Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting".

But when crowds weren't busy listening to famous authors and amazing music acts like Corey Hart and Miles Nielsen, they were hanging out in the Kitchen Tent, eating cheese, drinking beer, and pretending to listen to Mark and me talk about the story of each beer and cheese.

I'll be brutally honest here and tell you that Kitchen Tent Organizer Bjorn Bergman and Mark Knoebl pretty much do all the work for this yearly session. Bjorn organizes the volunteers, does all the set-up, and Mark determines all the pairings, orders the beers, goes around and picks up the cheeses, and selects the chocolate and crackers.

I basically just show up, cut some cheese, drink some beer, and talk for a few minutes about each cheese. It's a pretty good gig. This year, I didn't even have to cut the Limburger - I somehow managed to outsource that job to Missy at Organic Valley. She cut 10 bricks of the stinky cheese by herself. Outside in a tent. In July. In 85-degree weather. This woman deserves a medal.

Sand Creek is making some exceptional beers, and Mark really does a nice job of pairing them expertly with Wisconsin cheeses. Here are a few of my favorites:

Sand Creek's One Planet Ale, paired with Organic Valley Muenster Cheese. One Planet Ale is a multi-grain beer made with Wisconsin-grown barley, wheat, oats and rye. Locally produced honey is added to enhance the flavor profile. It's a smooth beer that appeals to just about everyone, and pairs really well with any mild cheese, especially Organic Valley's Muenster, which has just the right salt content.

Sand Creek's English Special Ale, paired with Carr Valley Applewood Smoked Cheddar. This ale boasts a roasty, toasty flavor, and is red-brown in color. It's handcrafted from select roasted barleys. The smoky notes really pick up the smoky notes of Carr Valley's Applewood Smoked Cheddar, one of those cheeses that I consider to be a gateway drug of specialty cheeses. You take one bite and you can't stop eating.

Sand Creek's Oscar's Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, paired with Limburger. I've never had a beer with chocolate and oatmeal in the name before, but this one was really good. A 2000 World Beer Cup Gold Medal winner, the smoothness of this beer nicely complimented the full-flavored Limburger. I had to reassure the crowd that Limburger's bark is worse than its bite, and most people took the plunge and tried this pairing. It also helped it was the last pairing of the day, right before the Raisin Cookie Dough Truffle, and it always helps to bribe people with chocolate.

Thanks to the folks at Organic Valley and Mark (that's him pictured at right) at Sand Creek Brewing Company for another fun year of beer & cheese tasting. Hope to see you all next year!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Rod Nilsestuen

Bad news has a way of traveling quickly, so when I heard the news last night that Agriculture Secretary Rod Nilsestuen had died in a tragic drowning accident, I was absolutely devastated. This was a man for whom I worked, for whom I had fought for, and whom I would have followed to the end of the earth. And for those of you who know me, you know I'm not much of a follower.

Rod Nilsestuen was a leader, a mentor and a friend. But most of all, he let me call him "dude."

I worked for Rod at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture from 2003-2007. Those were the years when we were fighting to keep dairy farms in business, twisting arms to get agricultural organizations to work together, and convincing cheesemakers that the days of profitable commodity cheesemaking were all but over and specialty cheese production was the future.

My job was a communications specialist and spokesperson for the dairy industry, and I would often travel with Rod, writing talking points, prepping for events and arranging media interviews. I have a bad habit of calling people "dude" and Rod was no exception. I never meant it as a sign of insubordination, but rather as a term of affection, which was fine, except the one time I slipped and called him "dude" in public.

We were at the media launch of the first "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin" campaign at the first Buy Local Conference, and had set up a swanky event with a spread of local foods. All the big wigs were there, doing their usual dog and pony show of taking credit for stuff they had nothing to do with.

Unlike the big wigs who were spewing three-second soundbites to get their name in the paper, Rod was working the room, quietly talking one-on-one with local movers and shakers to ask for their support behind the local food movement. I was busy trying to get Rod media interviews, which is somewhat difficult when your boss doesn't want the limelight, but instead wants to get stuff done.

I had tag-teamed with a couple legislative aides, who were busily getting their legislators in front of one camera after another. I tried to get a television news station to interview Rod as well, but the reporter told me they were out of time and had to leave. Arghh. Rod was busy talking with a local leader, so I just leaned over his shoulder and said: "Not having much luck getting you an interview, dude, but I'm trying."

I'll never forget what happened next. I turned around and there was a legislator, who had overheard what I said to Rod. She proceeded to give me the biggest tongue lashing of my life (and this is really saying something for a former farm girl who got regular butt-chewings by a father who for some reason could not understand why his daughter could not disc end rows without wiping out a fence). The legislator ended her speech by informing me that if I worked for her, I would no longer have a job. I remember her walking away quickly, hearing the click-click-click of her high heels.

I was absolutely mortified and sick to my stomach. I stammered an apology to her back and turned around to apologize to Rod, but he was gone, having moved on.

That was a long afternoon. I was terrified that I had embarrassed the agency for which I worked, and had disrespected the most respected man in the building. At the end of the day, I stopped at Rod's office. He was busy at his computer, as usual, with his back toward the door. I mumbled some sort of apology, afraid of what he was going to say. And this is what happened:

Rod swiveled around in his chair, flashed me a smile, and said "Don't worry about it. Keep on doing what you're doing, kiddo. We've got bigger fish to fry." And that was it. End of story.

After that, I tried not to call him "dude" as much around the office, but because I am who I am, naturally slipped up once in awhile. In public, however, I always addressed him as "Secretary." And when I did, he would give me a smirk and and his eyes would twinkle. I can imagine he was thinking: don't worry so much, kiddo, we've got bigger fish to fry.

I can imagine that's probably what Rod is thinking right now. Never one to seek out the spotlight, he would probably wince at the many glowing eulogies that will be written - each and every one of them very much deserved and heartfelt. Rod had a way of making everyone who worked for him feel like they were part of the team, fighting the good fight. So, now, that's what we all need to do. Keep on keeping on, dude. Remember Rod with a smile and do all the good you can, in all the ways you can. We've got more fish to fry.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Making Cheese with Cesar Luis

It's not often one gets the chance to see hand-stretched mozzarella being made, so when Cesar Luis called me last week and asked me if I was interested in helping him make string cheese, I cleared my calendar, threw my boots in the car, and told my daughter we were going to make cheese.

Whoo-hoo! Road trip!

We arrived at Sassy Cow Creamery, a a farmstead dairy between Columbus and Sun Prairie, about 10:30 a.m., just in time to suit up and help Cesar cut the curd of his vat of fresh mozzarella cheese. We used stainless steel knives that Cesar made himself, a sign of things to come during the day.

You see, Cesar and his lovely wife, Heydi (who at five feet tall, and no more than 100 pounds, can seriously kick my ass when it comes to lifting cheese), recently purchased and installed a 2,500 gallon cheese vat at Sassy Cow. A couple days a week, they make fresh cheese curds for Sassy Cow to sell. The rest of the time, they make authentic Hispanic cheeses.

And when I say they make cheese, I mean they actually make it -- by hand. They cut the curd by hand with their own stainless steel knives, they mill the curd by hand (as in cutting up big slabs of curd with cutting knife on cutting boards), pile the curd in tubs by hand to cool, stretch it by hand into 15-pound, 50-foot ropes of mozzarella cheese (one batch at a time), and then cut and package each batch by hand to sell.

In short, they do a lot of work that involves a lot of bending, huffing, puffing and lifting cheese in a room that's hot enough to make sweat drip off the end of your nose. And they seem to really, really enjoy it.

Cesar's been making cheese since he was seven years old, when he learned the art from his grandmother in Mexico. Today, he makes the same cheese in very much the same way, only he does it with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment and electricity.

One thing that hasn't changed is the stretching of the mozzarella. Once the curd is milled and put into tubs, Cesar fills up the cheese vat with about 4 inches of hot water that is 180 degrees F. He dons three pairs of gloves, and then proceeds to put his hands into this water, hand-rolling, molding, forming, and finally stretching mozzarella cheese into long ropes.

Let me just say that this process is a) very hot and b) a helluva lot harder than it looks. I watched Cesar do the first batch with what I thought was little effort, and then got up the courage to don my three pairs of gloves and tackle the next batch.

What happened next is pretty aptly pictured to the right: me trying to lift a really heavy rope of cheese, stretch it at the same time, and watching Cesar try very hard not to laugh.

This is why I write about cheese, not make it. And if nothing else, I serve as comic relief to cheesemakers. It's all good.

While Avery and I only spent about six hours making cheese with Cesar & Heydi, they spent a total of 12 hours making 250 pounds of hand-stretched mozzarella. We left around 4:30 p.m., and walked out of the make room to a standing-only sized crowd of people waiting to buy their string cheese.

Word had gotten out that Cesar & Heydi were at Sassy Cow that day, and p
eople were going to wait as long as it took to buy their cheese, because yes, it really is that good.

That afternoon, we ate hand-stretched mozzarella that we had helped make, and it tasted even better than usual. Food has a way of meaning more when you know where it comes from, and when you know the sweat and soul the maker puts into it, it's pretty special. So the next time you see a package of string cheese with the label, Cesar Cheese, snatch it up. It may cost a little more, but it's worth its weight in gold.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cheese Shopping

One Saturday a month, the kind souls at Fromagination, a cut-to-order cheese shop in Madison, Wis., let me come in for a few hours and play cheesemonger. I get to interact with customers, talk about Wisconsin artisan cheeses, and even fumble my way around cutting and wrapping cheese. Great fun.

That being said, let me just say there's nothing like being on the opposite side of the cheese counter to make me realize in a very short time how incredibly annoying I must be as a customer.

Therefore, in an effort to be a better cheese shopper, might I suggest a few tips:

1. Actually read the signs in the cheese case. Most cut-to-order cheese shops spend a lot of time on their cheese signs, listing the type of milk, the cheesemaker's name, where it's made, and the style of cheese. While a good cheesemonger will always be happy to answer your questions, you can save yourself a lot of time by just reading what's on the card.

2. A cheese shop is not a buffet. If you're going to make a cheesemonger go through all the work of pulling, unwrapping and cutting a sample from a dozen different cheeses, please be courteous enough to buy at least one wedge of cheese. It's really disheartening to spend 45 minutes with one customer only to hear them say as they walk out the door with a full stomach, "Well, thanks for the samples. See you next time." Arghh.

3. Have a little patience. So you've decided to stop by your local cheese shop to purchase a dozen 1/4 pounds of different cheeses for all of your friends back home, and you need to catch a plane in 30 minutes. Umm, yeah. A cut-to-order cheese shop is probably not your best bet. It takes time to pull, cut, weigh, and individually wrap each cheese for a customer. So have a little patience. As a friend of mine says: "You can have two of these three: speed, service or price." Pick which two you want.

4. Just because you had this one cheese this one time in this one place doesn't mean I know which cheese you want. I'm always amazed at the people who try and describe a certain cheese they had while vacationing in the Alps or in the Caribbean, or on a cruise to the Mediterranean, but can't remember the style, what it looked like, or the name of the cheese. Sigh. Chances are unless the cheesemonger was on the trip with you, if you can't remember the name of the cheese, neither will the cheesemonger. Before you come in the shop, try and do a little research on what type or style the cheese was - chances are very good that the cheesemonger can recommend something similar that you'll like just as well.

5. This is not your boyfriend's fridge. Do not, I repeat, do not open the cheese cases and serve yourself in a cut-to-order shop. In front-display cases, cheeses are arranged in the most pleasing display possible, and are designed to be accessed from the back of the case. A cheesemonger doesn't want to pick up the eight wheels of cheese that just rolled on the floor because you decided to just help yourself by opening the front of the case. Just ask for help. That's what we're here for.

6. Refrigerate your cheese when you get home. It's absolutely amazing to me how many people ask if the cheese they just bought needs to be refrigerated. The answer is always YES. Cheese is a living thing. Don't let it grow an extra limb while sitting in the backseat of your car for three days. Put it in the fridge when you get home and it will last a whole lot longer. Remember that the cheese you see sitting out on the counter at a cheese shop is put back into a cooler every night.

So that's my short list of how to be a better cheese shopper. I'll be printing it out and taking with me the next time I'm buying cheese instead of selling it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Buttermaker License Update

Alrighty, now that I've reclaimed my blog from a comment-crazy person suffering from the Dunning–Kruger effect (sorry folks - had to turn off comments on my blog for awhile), it's time to update you on the Wisconsin Buttermaker License situation.

Yesterday, the Department of Agriculture Board made a significant first step in updating the old rules we have in this state by authorizing public hearings on a new draft rule to revise current training and requirements for licensed buttermakers.

Under current law, anyone applying for a buttermaker’s license must pass an exam and match at least one other qualification, including: 1) working under a licensed buttermaker for at least 24 months, 2) working under a licensed buttermaker for 18 months and have completed a training course approved by the agriculture department, or 3) possess a four-year degree in food science, and have worked under a licensed buttermaker at least 12 months.

Whew, makes me exhausted just writing all that, much less doing it.

Not surprisingly, because of current law - which by the way has seen very little change since 1929 - we're down to 46 licensed buttermakers in Wisconsin (compared to more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers).

With a growing national market for butter, and especially artisan, hand-churned butters, Wisconsin is very much at risk of losing its leadership in the dairy industry unless the old rules are changed.

So yesterday, the Dept of Ag Board approved scheduling a public hearing that will change the above arcane process to a more reasonable one. It includes:

Anyone aspiring to obtain a buttermakers's license must pass an exam and complete the following: 1) apprentice under a current buttermaker for 120 hours, 2) complete the new buttermaker course - to be offered by the Center for Dairy Research on Sept 14-16 in Madison, 3) complete additional day courses regarding production of safe dairy foods, HACCP process control, principles of milk pasteurization and dairy sanitation.

Also - in exciting news - the new draft rule allows any current licensed cheesemaker to obtain a buttermaker's license by taking the Center for Dairy Research butter course, and working 40 hours under a current licensed buttermaker. This will certainly help boost the number of buttermakers rather quickly in the state, allowing more choices for aspiring buttermakers to apprentice under.

Next steps: the Dept of Ag will hold a public hearing (place and time to be determined), and following public comment, will prepare a final draft rule for the Ag Board's consideration. If approved, the rule will go to the Legislature for review by committee. If the Legislature takes no action to stop the rule, the Ag Secretary will sign the rule into effect. The goal is to adopt the rule in early 2011. Whoo-hoo!