Monday, September 27, 2010

Cheese & Sake

Ever paired a Japanese Sake with a Wisconsin Artisan Cheese? Yeah, me neither, but it sure sounds interesting, doesn't it?

Sake, the oldest known spirit in the world, will make its debut this fall at the Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, where it will be paired with four of the state’s finest artisan cheeses in an exclusive tasting seminar.

While the festival’s seminars traditionally focus on Wisconsin cheesemakers, this year, one of the eight sessions will feature Barrie Lynn - The Cheese Impresario and cheese columnist for The Beverly Hills Times. Attendees will taste four different Wisconsin artisan cheeses and four artisanal, brewed sake drinks. Barrie Lynn says attendees should “prepare their palates for a unique ride down ‘The Cheese Highway.’”

Slated for Saturday, Nov. 6, the Wisconsin Artisan Cheese & Sake Pairing Seminar will start at 1:30 p.m. at the Monona Terrace in downtown Madison. Tickets are $40, sold only in advance, and are available online at

Wisconsin artisan cheeses featured at the Artisan Cheese & Sake Pairing Seminar include:

Marieke Fenugreek Gouda, an authentic Dutch Gouda made on a farmstead dairy near Thorp
Aged Brick Spread, crafted by Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa
Hook's 10-Year Cheddar, a cheddar crafted and aged to perfection by Tony & Julie Hook in Mineral Point
Carr Valley Airco, a hickory-smoked cheese made from sheep, goat and cow milk at Carr Valley Cheese

The four artisanal, premium sake drinks will be served cold in stemmed wine glasses. They say that sake is brewed like a beer, yet has legs like a wine and contains no sulfites or tannins. It is gluten free, as well as preservative free, and is often regarded to be the purest alcoholic beverage in the world. Japanese tradition says a person must never pour their own sake. So I'm guessing it will be poured for you at the seminar.

In addition to Saturday seminars, the three-day Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival features Friday dairy tours and cheesemaker dinners, a Saturday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, and a new Sunday Artisan Marketplace. Hosted by Wisconsin Cheese Originals, the festival is becoming a premier destination for cheese enthusiasts and specialty food buyers from across the country, who attend to discover and buy new Wisconsin artisanal cheeses.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Oliver's Reserve

Some stories take longer than others to reach a happy ending. The story of Shepherd's Ridge Creamery is one of those tales.

I first met Jeff & Vicki Simpkins four years ago, when they drove to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture in a snowstorm to discuss blueprints for a farmstead cheese factory they intended to build on their land near St. Croix Falls, Wis. They were both working in the medical field and had plans to retire, live off the land, milk some sheep and make some cheese.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it?

But, life has a way of throwing us curve balls, and through no fault of their own, the Simpkins hit a few snags in their grand plan. Today, however, I am ecstatic to report the Simpkins are milking 66 sheep with plans to expand to 100 next year, Vicky has earned her cheesemaker's license, the farmstead creamery is built and up and running, the cheese aging cave is operational, and Shepherd's Ridge Creamery is making cheese.

And not just any cheese, but an amazing sheep's milk cheese called Oliver's Reserve.

Named after Vicki's grandfather, Oliver Olson, an award-winning Wisconsin cheesemaker who ran his own factory called Poplar Lake for years (her father was also a Wisconsin cheesemaker), Oliver's Reserve is a sheep's milk Asiago, crafted by Vicki in 10-pound wheels and aged for four months.

How did I come to taste this mythical cheese, a cheese four years in the making, you ask? It was handed to me today in an unmarked brown paper sack by a friend who discovered it at the Wisconsin Sheep & Wool Festival in Jefferson over the weekend. A fellow cheese geek, she snagged a slice, put it in a ziploc baggie, put it in her fridge, and surprised me with it today at lunch.

I felt like I had just won the lottery. Even in non-pristine condition, this cheese is amazing. AMAZING. (Keep in mind that by the time I tried it, it had undergone several changes in temperature, a couple episodes of wrapping and re-wrapping and was not in what I would describe as stellar shape. But even through all that, this cheese was buttery, rich, nutty and boasted a fresh, clean finish. Complete keeper.

When I called Vicki tonight to rave about her cheese and encourage her to find a retail outlet (she has a few wheels that will be ready in 30 days), she sounded surprised. I guess after four years of learning to milk sheep, making different test batches of cheese, and tinkering with humidity levels in a self-built aging cave, she's learned not to get her hopes up too high.

But Jeff and Vicki deserve to celebrate. Oliver's Reserve is going to put Shepherd's Ridge Creamery and another Wisconsin farmstead woman cheesemaker on the map. Just you wait and see.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Chesemaker Pin-Up Calendar

I had to chuckle last week when a friend and colleague in Wisconsin agriculture sent me this email: "I just can’t believe this – either you actually KNOW what you are doing or you are always the recipient of an ongoing string of LUCK."

While I like to think I know what I'm doing most of the time, let's face it, I'm almost always lucky. That's what happened last week when my 2011 Portrait of a Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker calendar went on sale three days after Andy Hatch's Pleasant Ridge Reserve was named the best cheese in the country at the American Cheese Society.

One of the best new cheesemakers in Wisconsin, Andy is featured on the cover of the calendar, holding a half wheel of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. The shot was taken back in June when photographer Becca Dilley and I went on the road for a week to take photos of 12 different Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers. I decided on the cover shot in late July, and had the calendars printed in time to go on sale Sept. 1. Little did I know that Andy Hatch would be the best-known cheesemaker in the country by then.

Andy is by far not alone in some exceptional talent featured on what I like to call the first Wisconsin Cheesemaker Pin-Up Calendar. Others featured in iconic photos include:
  • January: Joe Widmer, Widmer's Cheese Cellars, pictured making his famous Brick Cheese
  • February: Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy, looking distinguished in his self-built underground cave
  • March: Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese, pictured with his Dunbarton Blue
  • April: Katie Hedrich, LaClare Farm, holding a baby goat (Katie won the 2010 Wisconsin Cheese Originals beginning cheesemaker scholarship).
  • May: Andy Hatch, Uplands Cheese, looking skyward with his Pleasant Ridge Reserve
  • June: Gerald Heimerl, Saxon Homestead Creamery, posing with his herd of dairy cows on his farm near Cleveland, Wis.
  • July: Diana Murphy, Dreamfarm, hanging out with her dairy goats
  • August: Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, trying not to laugh as her sheep nibble on her butt
  • September: Bruce Workman, Edelweiss Creamery, looking nonchalant with hundreds of his 180-pound wheels of Emmentaler cheese
  • October: Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese, posing in his LaValle cheese plant in his standard flannel plaid shirt
  • November: Myron Olson, Chalet Cheese Cooperative, washing Limburger
  • December: Gianni Toffolon, BelGioioso Cheese, holding a 70-pound wheel of American Grana
The calendar is on sale for $19.95 at, as well as at a handful of select specialty outlets in Wisconsin, including Fromagination in Madison and Larry's Market in Brown Deer. The calendar will also be for sale at the Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, November 5 – 7, at the Monona Terrace in Madison. Tickets for the festival go on sale to the public on Sept. 20.

A portion of all calendar proceeds will go toward Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ annual $2,500 Wisconsin Licensed Cheesemaker Scholarship, available to any state resident intending to pursue a cheesemaker license.

I think blogger Tami Parr, at the Pacific Northwest Cheese Project, says it best: "So enough of those boring chocolate lab puppy calendars, those 'Waterfalls of the West' calendars, those dreary tropical beach scenes. Think bigger for next year....think something you love....think cheese. I'm certain this is what you're going to need to set a new tone going into 2011."