Saturday, January 29, 2011

Man's Best Friend

Coming from a long line of non-dog lovers (I may be the only farm kid ever to have grown up without a dog), I suppose it's not surprising that I've never really been fond of man's best friend. But that's before I started hanging out with farmstead cheesemakers.

Every farmstead cheesemaker in Wisconsin seems to have a dog. And not one of those small little annoying yippy city dogs, either, but a big dog with quiet eyes that leads life with a purpose. Such as herding sheep or guarding cows. Or licking visitors until they succumb to feeding it cheese.

Oliver, the big white farm dog at Dreamfarm near Cross Plains, is one of those dogs. Ollie is seven years old, is half Labrador Retriever and half Polish Tatra, and loves to eat goat cheese. Dreamfarm owner/cheesemaker Diana Murphy got Ollie from Mary & David Falk at Lovetree Farm near Grantsburg, after the Falks' sheep guard dog, a Polish Tatra, got a little frisky with the neighbor's Yellow Lab. Mary was looking for homes for this unexpected batch of cross-bred pups, and the Murphys happily said yes to one.

As Diana will enthusiastically testify, "Oliver is the best dog ever. He is very friendly (maybe too friendly), but guards the farm at night."

One of Diana's best stories about Oliver is the time he disappeared during a walk (the Murphy's farm borders the Ice Age Trail and on days when Diana is too busy to spend time with him, Oliver will sit on the driveway, wait for someone to pull into the trail head, and as soon as they get out of their car, run over and join strangers on the trail. Many people have gotten to know him and sometimes call him to come along).

On this particular walk, Oliver and Diana were walking around their "country block," which encircles lots of rural area. This time, Oliver disappeared and did not come back.

"I called and called but no Oliver," Diana said. "So I continued home and planned to get in my truck and do a search. Before I got that far, I saw Oliver coming down the road by our farm, moving slow and carrying something. When he got into our yard, I discovered that he was dragging a deer carcass! Great. I then had to leave to do some errands. When I got back, Oliver had dragged the carcass onto our porch, and had deer hair strewn all over. It was a terrible mess. Along with that, the UPS person had just dropped off a package on the porch. He/she must have wondered what kind of place we had."

No doubt the UPS driver had seen worse on his route before, but I would have loved to have been there to witness the scene.

Diana's dog Oliver is not the only super-friendly farmstead cheese dog in Wisconsin. If you're looking for a little affection, Buddy at Holland's Family Farm in Thorp will gladly attack you with kisses. Buddy, a black mix, will be one year old in March. With five kids, a farmstead Gouda cheese plant, and dairy farm to run, cheesemaker/owner Marieke Penterman readily admits she doesn't have much time for training a new dog. But what Buddy lacks in manners, he makes up for with love.

Last week, Marieke's little boy, Dean, was sharing his chair with Buddy in the living room. Buddy kept licking and licking Dean, until the little guy sternly told him: "No, no Buddy. I'm not your supper!" Marieke said she laughed so hard, because Dean was so serious and Buddy is so friendly.

Like the rest of the Pentermans, Buddy also likes the farm's Marieke Foenegreek cheese. At the end of last year, Marieke ran low on inventory and her kids were complaining about not being able to eat their own cheese. So Marieke went to a store that had some for sale, bought a chunk and took it home for the family (you know your cheese is good when you have to buy it back yourself). She cut up some slices on a plate, let daughter Luna take it into the living room for everyone to share, and in just a moment, Buddy snuck up, claimed the cheese for himself, and promptly ate it in one gulp.

"Arghhhhhh ... he ate the whole piece!" Marieke said. "The dog does love his cheese."

Another cheese-loving dog is Augustus Burdock Jensen, the six-month old Airdale pup at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby. Owner/cheesemaker Brenda Jensen says the dog eats everything. This past fall, when the Jensens were having a new sheep parlor built (they are increasing their flock, which means more milk, which means more cheese - whoo-hoo!), Gus would continually pull the same prank on the construction crew. They would open up their can of soda and Gus would steal it -no matter it if it was full or empty. Brenda would find the can in the yard in small shreds. She says Mountain Dew is his favorite.

While Gus may enjoy his soda, there is one thing on the farm that does not enjoy him: the sheep assigned to the pup to guard.

"He mostly gets in the way," says Brenda. "The ladies stomp their feet at him in disgust. He wants to come see the babies and the moms are not so eager to share their newborns with him."

One can only hope the love/hate relationship between the Jensen's dog and his appointed flock will improve over time. While sheep and dogs tend to lack love toward each other, sometimes cows and dogs are no better.

Smudge, the Border Collie at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, was supposed to herd cows, but didn't behave and instead nipped at them. Despite his herding flaws, the Craves cherished him as part of the family. Sadly, he died a summer ago, and they still haven't found a suitable replacement.

"Smudge ate everything - cheese, cereal, meat, even pie," Debbie Crave says. "He also liked to take and hide things in the corn field. In the fall when we chopped corn, we'd find shoes, a tennis racket, toys, you name it."

Hanging out with cheesemaker dogs has softened me a bit toward the canine family. I've come to the conclusion (much to the chagrin of my husband) that after our daughter goes to college, we're going to have to get a dog. I'm going to need something to mother, and I'm betting there's a big dog with quiet eyes out there looking for an empty-nest with a fridge full of good cheese. I think I'll name him Fitz.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Weinlese: New Blue Cheddar

A new Wisconsin original cheese is a perfect example of what happens when you pair exceptional milk with exceptional cheesemaking.

Weinlese, which means “vintage” in German, is a new "Cheddar-Blue" made in 20-pound wheels by Mike Brennenstuhl at Seymour Dairy in Seymour, Wis. It's the result of a partnership between Seymour and Red Barn Family Farms, a group of small, sustainable Wisconsin dairy farms certified by the American Humane Association and founded by veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan and his wife, Paula. Each farm is certified for premium milk quality and animal care, and ships rBGH-free milk to Seymour to craft Weinlese.

“We aimed to create a Wisconsin original cheese with soul,” Brennenstuhl told me before he and his crew hit the road to debut the cheese at the San Francisco Fancy Food Show this week. “This is the kind of cheese that speaks to you.”

Featuring a sweet, very creamy and mellow blue flavor, Weinlese sports a unique appearance with its yellowish golden hue and etched green veins. While Brennenstuhl calls it a "Cheddar Blue," I'd say it's more of a Blue Cheddar, as the blue flavor dominates the palate, while its firm body more resembles a Cheddar.

When I first heard about Weinlese, I was afraid it would compete with my revered Dunbarton Blue, crafted by Chris Roelli at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, which is also marketed as a Cheddar Blue.

However, Dunbarton fans have no reason to worry. While both cheeses are exceptional, they are nothing alike. Dunbarton is first a Cheddar, with a few blue veins, and is cave-aged, resulting in a hard, natural rind, Cheddar flavor, and a blue finish. Roelli Cheese has traditionally made Cheddar, so it makes sense that its Cheddar Blue is more Cheddar than Blue.

Weinlese, meanwhile, is a Blue Cheddar without a rind, that tastes like a blue with a Cheddar finish, and and shipped in cryovac, so it's wetter and a bit sticky. This also makes sense, since Seymour Dairy is a Blue cheese plant - making such award winners as Ader Kase, a German-style blue, and Crocker Hills Organic Blue.

Cheesemakers tend to perfect what they know. Brennenstuhl at Seymour Dairy knows blue, so his cheese more resembles a blue. Roelli at Roelli Cheese knows Cheddar, so his cheese more resembles a Cheddar. Both cheeses are great examples of what can happen when a cheesemaker thinks outside the vat and puts a twist in a classic recipe. The result is two very distinct American Originals.

Weinlese should be available in most specialty cheese stores by May 1, and may be offered in Madison cheese shops as early as February. Brennenstuhl plans to make an extremely small batch this year to see how the cheese fares in the market, before launching nationally, perhaps next year. Look for Weinlese in Fromagination in Madison, before March 1.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cheese Rinds: To Eat or Not to Eat?

Perhaps one of the most-asked questions posed by cheese eaters everywhere is: "Do I eat the rind?" The answer to this question, like all good questions, is, "It depends."

Whether or not you choose to eat the rind on a cheese varies on the type of cheese, the type of rind, and the type of taste buds you possess. No two people, no two cheese types, and quite often, no two rinds, are the same.

For example, my husband eats every rind of every cheese, every time it is offered. Keep in mind this is also the man who eats lemon and lime wedges like they were candy, rind and all. Personally, I'm a bit pickier about which rinds I eat.

Rinds, simply put, are the outside layer that form on a cheese during the cheesemaking and aging process. Most rinds (except for wax, cloth or bark - which I have seen people actually eat, by the way) are naturally edible and will enhance a cheese's overall flavor. Some varieties, such as Brick and Colby, are ripened in plastic film or other protective coating to prevent rind formation. Colby and Cheddar may have a bandage or wax coating which needs to be removed prior to eating. Other cheese, such as Feta, are rindless because they are not allowed to ripen.

Most other types of cheeses will feature a rind. Depending on the type - whether it be bloomy, washed, or natural - I always recommend at least trying a small portion to see what flavor, if any, the rind adds. If the rind subtracts from the overall enjoyment of the cheese, stop immediately and just eat the paste. But if the rind changes the flavor, or improves the experience, go for it. Just remember, the cheese, not the rind, should take the spotlight.

Here are a few types of cheese rinds:

Bloomy Rinds are white and soft, sometimes even fuzzy - think Camembert or Brie. Cheesemakers spray a solution containing edible mold spores (Penicillium candidum, camemberti or glaucum) on the cheese. Humidity in the room where the cheese is ripened encourages this mold to grow, or bloom, and form a rind. The only reason you might not want to eat a bloomy rind is if the rind has separated from the cheese somewhat, has a gritty texture, has bloomed dark-colored mold, or sports an ammoniated flavor.

Washed Rinds are among the most unique and flavorful of artisan cheeses. The product of exacting science, skilled cheesemaking and labor-intensive affinage, these cheeses are bathed regularly during aging with a bacterial solution to promote ripening and flavor development. Big and bold, the category comprises Old World classics such as Gruyere, Limburger and Fontina, as well as Wisconsin originals like Brick, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Benedictine and Canaria - cheeses that marry European techniques and American ingenuity. These are some of the most interesting rinds to try, and if you're my husband, you'll eat them all, every time.

Natural Rinds form with the least amount of intervention. In the temperature and humidity controlled rooms where cheeses are aged, air naturally dries out the outside of cheese. Over time, this forms a crust on the outside of the cheese which becomes its rind. Cheesemakers monitor this process and sometimes rub the rind with oil or other natural ingredients as it forms. The natural rinds of hard cheeses, especially Parmesan, are wonderful for flavoring soups and stocks, but are often too hard to just eat out of hand. Freeze your leftover rinds in resealable bags so you always have one handy.

Perhaps the best advice I've ever received about tasting cheese and eating rinds came from Daphne Zepos, who led a tasting seminar at the 2010 American Cheese Society conference. Daphne says no matter what type of cheese you're tasting, always "dig into the heel" - the portion between the rind and paste, which is any cheese's "most vulnerable spot." That one bite will lead you to discover the true taste of a cheese, and is like "going into the church through the trap door."

Happy cheese (and rind) eating!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

2011 Non-Predictions

For the past two weeks, I've read column after column by dozens of food writers, editors of important magazines and self-proclaimed industry experts, all touting Top 10 lists and predictions of what will be the "it food" of 2011.

The editor of Bon Appetit thinks the next big thing will be "pimento cheese." NASFT says it will be "umami in a paste." Innova Market Insights predicts a "fruit and veggie revival." The Food Channel says "discomfort foods" will be big in 2011. Technomic proclaims that "Korean food will continue its revival" this year.

All of these predictions are fine and dandy if you live in New York or L.A. But I live in rural Wisconsin, smack dab in the middle of a three-hour trek between the food-troplis metros of Chicago and Minneapolis.

Where I come from, pimentos are stuffed in green olives. We have no idea what umami even means, nor would we know how to put it in paste. We put canned corn on top of our mashed potatoes and count it as both a comfort food and as a vegetable. Our mothers place fruit in jell-o and call it a "salad." Most of us have never eaten Korean food in our lives because there is no Korean resident nor restaurant within a 200-mile radius of us. Our idea of an exciting food night out is discovering baby rice popcorn topped with black truffle oil and Sarvecchio cheese at a hip new restaurant in downtown Madison. And then we think we're living high on the hog.

In short, while others may find it easy to predict what will be hot and new in 2011, I find it easier to predict what should not be trendy. And because I write about cheese, I'll keep my pleadings limited to the dairy aisle.

So, in a plea to stop the insanity of Top 10 Lists and What's Hot Columns, here are my Top 3 Non-Predictions for the Wisconsin cheese community for 2011 (and please know that I apologize in advance for anyone I inadvertently offend):

1. Please Stop The Gouda Train. For the love of god, would every cheesemaker in Wisconsin please please please stop adding a flavored Gouda to their line-up of specialty cheeses? For the past year, I've had to endure more gummy, tasteless, horrible Goudas than I care to mention and find a nice way to say they don't suck.

With thousands of innovative cheese recipes out there, why is everyone suddenly choosing to produce a flavored Gouda? How about crafting a bloomy rind, or an original washed rind or mixed milk cheese? I'd kill for an artisan Camembert or Manchego. As far as I'm concerned, there's only one good Gouda being made in Wisconsin, and that's by farmstead cheesemaker Marieke Penterman. Marieke Gouda is the kind of cheese that is so good you have to forcibly make yourself stop eating it before you get sick ... which leads me to Point No. 2.

2. Cheese is Not a Health Food. Every food marketing organization seems intent on convincing me I need to eat and feed my children more cheese to be healthier. Yes, cheese is a wonderful source of protein and calcium, but it's also a major source of saturated fat. An ounce of Cheddar has about 9 grams of fat, 6 grams of which are saturated.

That means that cheese is a food to be enjoyed in moderation, and to be eaten because you like the taste and texture, not because you're trying to lose 20 pounds. There's a reason many food writers should receive hazard pay for being a bit chubby around the middle. It's because we eat A LOT of cheese. Duh.

3. Cheese Curds, Like Apple Pie, Were Made to Eat the Same Day They Were Made. Here's a memo to all the companies out there developing amazing new technology to bag and seal cheese curds, giving them a shelf life comparable to a nuclear-resistant Twinkie: Please Stop the Madness!!!! Cheese curds were made to be eaten on the day they were made, no ifs ands or buts about it.

If you live too far away from a cheese factory to buy curds that were mere milk 8 hours prior to your visit, then you have two choices: 1) move closer to the cheese factory, or 2) don't eat cheese curds. The poor excuse of mild cheddar cheese globules sold in most grocery and convenience stores in bags, tubs and re-sealable pouches could easily inspire Bon Jovi to write a song about giving cheese a bad name. Consumers unite: just say no to day-old curd.

So now that I have those three non-predictions off my chest, let me be one of the first to wish you and yours a new year filled with good cheese, mashed potatoes with corn, and an occasional jell-o salad. Happy 2011!