Saturday, February 26, 2011

Record Week in Wisconsin

Here in Wisconsin, we set a plethora of records this past week.

Highest number of protesters on the Capital Square since the days of Vietnam? Check.

Longest continuous Assembly session ever recorded to debate a bill (61 hours)? Check. 

Record number of times Wisconsin was mentioned in the national news in a one-week period, for something other than cheese or the Green Bay Packers? Check.

Today, as more than 100,000 protesters prepare to descend on the capital for the biggest rally yet this week, my inbox is filling with messages from people saying they will boycott Wisconsin cheese if our governor's "budget repair" bill passes, because it effectively strips most public workers of collective bargaining rights. 

Yeah, I get the anger. I was a state employee for four years while working as a spokesperson at the Wisconsin Department of Ag, so I can relate with the unionized workers who have repeatedly negotiated away pay raises for health insurance and deferred earnings. I'm also a taxpayer and a mother who will likely see my local school's budget get slashed under this governor. So, yeah, I'm right there with you. But am I going to boycott Wisconsin cheese if this bill passes? 

Hell, no. Here's why. 

A boycott of Wisconsin dairy products will only serve to hurt our hard working dairy farmers, cheesemakers, milk haulers, and all of the people who serve our industry, including veterinarians, animal nutritionists and feed suppliers. Wisconsin is home to nearly one quarter of the nation's dairy farms. These are family-owned operations. In communities across the state, dairy farms and the local businesses they support provide nearly 150,000 jobs and generate $26.5 billion to help grow our economy.

Our dairy farmers and cheesemakers work just as hard, or harder, than anyone I know, and they're doing their best to put Wisconsin in the news for positive reasons. Here are three headlines issued this week that you probably didn't see, as they were overshadowed by events at the capital:

Record Milk Production: On Feb. 23, the USDA announced Wisconsin set a new milk production record in 2010. Our 1.26 million cows produced 26 billion pounds of milk - the highest number EVER recorded. Per cow production averaged 20,630 pounds, a whopping 551 pounds more than last year. 

Record Cheese Contest Entries: On Feb. 24, the United States Championship Cheese Contest, held at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, announced a record-setting number of entries in its 2011 competition, with 1,602 contest entries. Cheesemakers and buttermakers from 30 states will compete in the largest dairy product competition in U.S. history. Between March 8-10, more than 25 national judges will examine, sniff and taste more than 30,000 pounds of cheese and butter, with the national champion named on March 10. 

Record Reinvestments by Dairy Farmers: On Feb. 22, a financial incentive slated to expire next year was instead extended to 2017 by the Wisconsin Legislature, allowing farmers to use a tax credit to claim up to 10 percent of the costs of modernizing or expanding their operations. The credit applies only to the purchase of new buildings or equipment used to manage a dairy operation and does not include animals. The credits have created reinvestments of $500 million from farmers back into their operations.

Instead of fighting each other, let's work together to ensure more of these types of headlines. Let's grow our  dairy industry by supporting Wisconsin dairy farmers, supporting Wisconsin cheesemakers, and supporting Wisconsin agriculture. And by all means, please continue to eat Wisconsin cheese, no matter the national headlines. It's good, and good for our state's economy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Want to be a Cheesemaker?

Want to make artisan cheese in Wisconsin? Here's your chance.

For the second year in a row, Wisconsin Cheese Originals is offering a $2,500 scholarship to help one aspiring cheesemaker earn his or her Wisconsin Cheesemaker's License and make farmstead, artisan or specialty cheeses.

Applicants must be a Wisconsin resident and be willing to undergo the rigorous pursuit that obtaining a Wisconsin Cheesemaker License requires. (The process can easily take 18 months or more, requires the attendance at five university courses, as well as 240 hours of apprenticeship with an existing Wisconsin cheesemaker).

Whew. Makes me tired just thinking about it.

The scholarship money may be used for course tuition fees, room & board, or associated costs with obtaining a Wisconsin Cheesemaker License. The application is due to Wisconsin Cheese Originals before 5 p.m. on March 7, with the recipient chosen by a review committee and notified by April 1. More information and scholarship applications may be downloaded here.

Last year's Wisconsin Cheese Originals scholarship recipient, Katie Hedrich (pictured above), is currently working with her family to produce farmstead goat cheeses. Read about her family's journey and the difference the scholarship made in her life in this recent Wisconsin State Farmer article.

Katie is also one of 12 different Wisconsin cheesemakers pictured on sets of note cards also offered by Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Featuring photography by Becca Dilley, boxed note card gift sets are available in sets of 6, with matching envelopes and a gold tie. Themes include:

  •  Farmstead Cheesemakers - featuring the likes of Andy Hatch (Uplands Cheese), Jerry Heimerl (Saxon Homestead Creamery) & Brenda Jensen (Hidden Springs Creamery) 
  • Rise of the Woman Cheesemaker - includes Katie Hedrich (Scholarship winner) Diana Murphy (Dreamfarm) & Brenda Jensen 
  • Master Cheesemakers - featuring Joe Widmer (Widmer's Cheese Cellars), Bruce Workman (Edelweiss Creamery) & Sid Cook (Carr Valley Cheese).
  • Cave-Aging Masters - includes Willi Lehner (Bleu Mont Dairy), Chris Roelli (Roelli Cheese) & Gianni Toffolon (BelGioioso Cheese)
  • On-the Farm with Cows, Sheep & Baby Goats - picturing Jerry Heimerl (with the cows at Saxon Homestead Farm), Katie Hedrich (with a baby goat at her family's LaClare Farm) & Brenda Jensen (taking care of her ladies (ewes) at Hidden Springs Creamery).
  • Kings of Stinky Cheese - includes Myron Olson (with his Limburger at Chalet Cheese), Joe Widmer (with his Brick) & Willi Lehner (creator of the one and only Earth Schmear)

Notecards include written cheesemaker profiles on the back and are blank inside. Each set of six cards & envelopes sells for $5.95. Check them out here. Makes a great gift! (along with a box of Wisconsin cheese, of course).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Frugality Fatigue

Tired of cutting coupons and pinching pennies? It's time to kick this recession to the curb and treat yourself at your favorite cut-to-order cheese shop. Buying just one-quarter pound of a good artisan cheese and snacking on it all week can put anyone in a better mood.  Here are five Wisconsin artisan cheeses worth the splurge.

1. Marieke Aged Gouda: this cow's milk farmstead Gouda is aged between 1-2 years on wooden planks at Holland's Family Farm in Thorp, Wis. It's so good, Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman has a hard time keeping it in stock. So when you do find it, buy it. No matter the price. Because one bite of that nutty, crystalized, sweet caramel delight is going to be worth whatever you paid. 

2. Hidden Springs Creamery's Farmstead Feta: if you've only ever had the pleasure of eating cow's milk Feta, than Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen's sheep's milk Feta is going to rock your world. If you're lucky, you'll find it in bulk at cut-to-order shops, others carry it pre-packaged in small tubs. No matter the size, prepare thyself for sticker shock and buy it anyway. Lighter and less-salty than cow's milk Feta, it is completely void of calories. Well, at least you'll keep telling yourself this when you can't stop eating it.

3. Hook's 15-Year Cheddar: at between $50 - $60 a pound, this is easily the most expensive Wisconsin cheese on the market today. Remember, however, you only need a quarter pound to appreciate this aged cheddar's nutty, savory crystals. Buy a chunk and share it with friends. Nothing warms up a long winter evening faster than good cheese and good company.

4. Dunbarton Blue by Roelli Cheese: this Wisconsin Original has put cheesemaker Chris Roelli on the map in a hurry, with good reason. An earthy flavored Cheddar with just a hint of blue mold bloom, Dunbarton Blue is open-air cured on wooden shelves, producing a rich and unique flavor. Rumor has it that Chris may be breaking ground on a new, underground cave this spring, allowing for expanded production and aging of this blue beauty. Bring it on!

5. Cesar's Queso Oaxaca: never thought you'd find a string cheese worth $12 a pound? Think again. This hand-stretched mozzarella is made weekly in micro batches by cheesemaker Cesar Luis at Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus. Sold in bundles of between 6-12 sticks, Cesar's Queso Oaxaca is squeaky fresh and super stringy. It's the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. I'm even eating some while writing this, because it's yummy and multi-task friendly.Worth every penny, and then some.

Still searching for a good cut-to-order cheese shop near you? See my list of favorites here on my blog - scroll down and look to the right under "Favorite Cheese Shops."

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Bacteria Farmers

At a conference last week discussing how to differentiate Wisconsin cheese through "taste of place" (the U.S. version of French "terroir"), I heard quite possibly the best description that could ever be given to a cheesemaker.

Bacteria farmer.

The title rolled off the tongue of Ivan Larcher, a French cheesemaker and consultant, who via Skype from France, provided a 45-minute talk encouraging raw milk cheesemakers interested in crafting cheeses that reflect the flavors of their farms to also start cultivating their own starter cultures.

"Every farm is a unique microbial ecosystem, evolving with seasons and agricultural activity," Larcher says. "If you pasteurize the milk, you destroy the bacteria and then you have to work harder to recover the flavor. So I encourage you to think of yourself as a bacteria farmer - concentrate on farming your bacteria just as much as farming your land."

In Wisconsin, the majority of cheesemakers purchase starter cultures from commercial "culture houses" - think of it as a mail-order catalog where if you want to make Cheddar, you buy a starter culture for Cheddar, or if you want to make Swiss, you buy a starter culture for Swiss. But in Europe, many cheesemakers have cultivated their own starter cultures, using bacteria from their own land, and have then passed these starter cultures down through generations of cheesemakers (similar to the starter cultures used to make sourdough bread).

Larcher's talk was just one of several fascinating points of the half-day conference, which encouraged Wisconsin cheesemakers to start thinking about how they might start to market their cheese as "taste of place" - particularly those in the Driftless region (encompassing the non-glaciated one-third of southern and western Wisconsin that is home to rolling hills, limestone-filtered water and sweet soils).

The conference highlight was hearing from Gigi Cazaux, who has been working with Wisconsin raw milk cheesemakers for the past year. Her Master Degree's thesis on the subject of whether Wisconsin raw milk cheese may constitute its own brand of "terroir", is due to be completed by the end of the month.

Gigi gave some tantalizing sneak peaks into what her research will reveal. For example, she surveyed 22 cheesemakers in Wisconsin who produce raw milk cheeses and learned that 16 of them live in the Driftless region. Of those 16 cheesemakers, 15 use milk directly from farms that rotationally-graze their cows, which means the majority of raw milk cheese being made in the state is also grass-based. And, of those 15 cheesemakers, 14 have all the stages of production in their immediate area, including the milk source, creamery, and aging cellar.

Having so many cheesemakers in one distinct region of Wisconsin, all using grass-based milk, may provide an avenue for these cheese companies to consider marketing their product as a "taste of place" product, similar to an AOC-accredited cheese from France, Cazaux says.

"Cheese in Wisconsin is an iconic and cultural object, an authentic element of the state heritage that brings people together, Cazaux said. "You have the heritage - more than 160 years of cheesemaking in the state - as well as the marketing capacity to make it happen. I think this is potentially a very exciting project for the cheesemakers of Wisconsin."

Of course no cheese conference is complete without actually eating cheese, and the day ended on a high note with a tasting led by Tori Miller, Executive Chef and co-owner of L'Etoile and Graze Restaurant in Madison. Of the eight cheeses we tried, four of them - Dunbarton Blue, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Alpine Renegade and Uplands' Pleasant Ridge Reserve - were all semi-hard cheeses made in the Driftless region, and each had a distinctly, yet similar pineapple-y, nutty taste with a complex finish. Those similarities were not lost on cheesemaker Chris Roelli, who sat next to me.

"Ivan is telling us something we have known for a long time," said Roelli, a fourth-generation Wisconsin cheesemaker from Shullsburg, "and it has started to gain traction in this business." Microbes from the air, water and soil all play a role, he says, in the flavor a cheese develops.

"I am a firm believer that what is in the air, the water and the earth in your particular area greatly influences the flavor of cheese. The minerals in the earth are in the grass that's eaten by the cow, and we take her milk and make it into cheese, and that taste progresses from the ground to the consumer," Chris said.

Sounds to me like Chris Roelli is well on his way to becoming a bacteria farmer. It will be interesting to see if he and other raw-milk cheesemakers begin to associate their product with the Driftless region of Wisconsin.