Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cheesemaker for a Day at Roelli Cheese

Ever wonder how heavy a slab of cheddar curd is? Thanks to Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, 15 more people now understand the art, science and muscles required to make a vat of Cheddar.

On Saturday, Chris and his crew at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg were kind enough to host 15 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals for a rare Cheesemaker for a Day event. We spent the morning helping Chris make a vat of Cheddar, and then, after lunch in the upstairs former cheesemaker living quarters, had an amazing tasting of six of Chris' current and brand new cheeses, but we'll get to that in a moment. First, here's what our day looked like:

1. Members arrived just in time to see Chris pour in the annatto to make sure our curds were bright Wisconsin orange.

2. A little more heating, rennet added, more heating, time to set, and it was time to check and cut the curd. We learned Chris likes a "clean cut" -- meaning when he places the knife in the curd mass, it should break quickly and cleanly - no globs allowed.

3. While the curd healed, and then stirred, Chris gave members the backstory of how he became a fourth generation Wisconsin cheesemaker. It all started with his great grandfather, who had made cheese in both France and Switzerland in the early 1900s. He was looking to make a better living for his family making cheese, and had decided to either emigrate to Russia or the United States. When his cousin, who had already arrived in Russia, sent him a letter saying if he was coming to join him, he should bring a gun, Chris' great grandfather chose to sail to the United States instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Finally, it was time to drain the whey from the curd! As we found out, cheesemaking is a lot of hurrying up and waiting. And while you're waiting, you clean. And then clean some more. But since Chris was nice, he didn't make us do the dishes - his helper Mark did all the work. We just got to do the fun stuff.

5. After raking the curd to one end of the vat to allow the whey to drain off, the "cheddaring" process started in earnest. Chris cut the mass in to half, dividing it into two loaves, separated them further, and then started stacking slabs to push the whey out. The slabs were then cut again, and stacked another four or five times. On the fourth time, we all got a turn at "cheddaring". This is the Old World style of making Cheddar cheese and Chris makes it this way every day.

6. Then it was time to mill the curd. Chris uses a milling machine dating back to the 1950s. We stood back and let Chris and Mark handle the milling, as its knives are sharp enough to take a finger with it.

7. Last steps: wash the curd, stir and then salt!

8. It was then time to eat warm, squeaky and fresh curds right out of the vat.

After our curd snack, we helped Chris put curd into bandaged cheddar forms and put them in the press.

Then it was time to clean up, head upstairs for lunch, as the best part was about to be revealed. Chris cut up six cheeses for us, three of which are on the market, one that will hit the market in another month, and another two still under development that will likely be ready in time for the holidays. Is this, or is this not, an amazing table of fine-looking cheeses????

Roelli Cheese fans will recognize the front left square red cheese -- that's Red Rock, a creamy cheddar blue that's taking specialty cheese shops by storm. And in the back, third from right is his Gravity Hill with Sea Salt and next to it, the flagship Dunbarton Blue, both currently on the market. The cheese at far right is a brand new creation hitting the market next month that is a goat/cow mix and partnership with LaClare Farms. The cheese to the far left was our absolute favorite and will be hitting the stores in a few months. It's called Marigold, and this is a cheese to watch my friends. Front right is Chris' new Bandaged Cheddar, which will also be on sale around the holidays. Yum.

Many, many thanks to Chris Roelli and his crew for putting up with an extra 15 people in his make room on a Saturday. We adore you!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2012.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Manure, Milk and Cheese: Crave Brothers Reshaping Wisconsin Dairy

Quick: name the only carbon-negative, family-owned World Dairy Expo farm of the year that's won 100 awards in 10 years for its farmstead cheeses.

I'll give you a hint: the cheesemaker has a dry sense of humor, is quick to give all the credit to his wife, and whom, with his brothers, isn't quite sure where the milking parlor's light switches are located, because no one has ever switched them to "off."

If you guessed the Crave Brothers of Waterloo, Wisconsin, then ding ding ding - you're a winner! Producing two semi-loads of milk, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Crave's 1,200 registered Holsteins produce super-fresh, super-rich milk that's crafted each day into Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

From just-right stringy Farmer's Rope to perfectly-sweet Mascarpone to big-nose Les Freres, the Crave Brothers - specifically cheesemaker/brother George and his wife Debbie - are widely considered to be the folks who paved the way for commercial farmstead cheese factories in the state.

Since 2002, they've added on to their original farmstead cheese factory at least three times (frankly, I've lost count), been featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, hosted 100,000 people over three days at Farm Technology Days, and played host to some of the nation's best known chefs, retailers and food writers. More importantly, they routinely do it all in style, grace, and occasionally - if George has anything to say about it - a little humor.

At a recent presentation on farmstead dairies in Wisconsin, George gave a stellar talk describing the commitment the Crave Brothers have in crafting "designer" cheeses with consistent, high-quality milk. George is quick to point out that his family operation is not seasonal or grass-fed, and his cheeses do not change with the phases of the moon. Instead, the Craves craft consistent, ultra-high-quality cooking and table cheeses that consistently please customers and judges at cheese competitions. In fact, George will say the question he most gets asked is: "What do you add to your cheese to make it taste so fresh?" George's one-word answer? "Milk."

Indeed, the first key to Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheeses is truly the farm's milk. My favorite representation of that stellar milk, (combined with the second key - the art and science of good cheesemaking) is the farm's Petit Frere. The cheese is named for George's "little" brother, Mark, whom at nine years younger, today stands slightly over George at 6 feet, 4 inches (not that George is bitter about it or anything).

Crafted carefully in 8-ounce mini wheels and sold in wooden boxes, Petit Frere is an offshoot of the company's original Les Freres, made in a larger, 2-1/2 pound wheels.

Perfect for taking to a dinner party because of its small size and attractive packaging, Petit Frere is a labor intensive cheese that carries a big taste and robust odor. Before opening, some might assume it's a mini Brie, but in only seconds, its odor quickly gives it away. This is a big-nose, or stinky, washed-rind cheese.

After the make process, George says the cheese is flipped three times over two hours, and then taken to a "warm room" to mature for 20 hours. The next day, it goes into a saltwater brine (nature's original preserver and flavor enhancer), and after two hours is moved into the company's aging rooms, where it is dipped in a mixture of brevibacterium linens for the next two weeks. Ideal at 60 to 80 days old, it is similar to an Alsatian Munster, but I would consider it an American Original.

While I like it on the younger side, many like it older, even up to 120 days. At this point, when the cheese enters a room, you know it's there. Or, as George would describe it: "At four months old, this cheese is natural birth control. You let this baby sit out all day and you're going to be sleeping on the couch."

George particularly enjoys taking Petit Frere to fancy international food shows, and witnessing persnickety French buyers taste Petit Frere, wrinkle their brows, take a step back, look up again at the Crave Brothers banner, and finally ask George where the cheese is really made, as they can't believe an American cheesemaker could make such a thing.

"When I tell a French cheese buyer that Petit Frere is an American cheese, and then go on to say it's made in a little community in Wisconsin called Waterloo, their eyes usually get real big," George says. "Because as you know, the French aren't real fond of Waterloo."

When he's not making cheese, and not making jokes about making cheese, George works with brothers Charles, Tom and Mark on the farm, making sure all aspects of the 2,000 acre operation are running smoothly. In 2008, the family installed an anaerobic digester to break down cow manure in a process that ultimately produces methane gas. The gas is then burned similar to natural gas, thus generating clean, renewable energy for the farm and nearby community.

The digester also brings added benefits. First, it reduces odor. One of the first things a visitor to the farm notices is a complete lack of that familiar "dairy air" - a pleasant surprise. Second, the digester is capable of producing products the Craves can use on the farm (liquid byproducts are used as fertilizer on farm fields and solid byproducts are used as animal bedding). Third, excess dry material has the capability to be sold as organic potting soil.

"People ask me: what do you make more of, milk or cheese?" George says. "The real answer is our number one product is manure. But because farmers are the ultimate recylclers, we recycle that manure into products we and others can use." In fact, enough electricity is produced on the Crave farm to not only power the entire farm and cheese factory, but also another 300 homes.

Building a biodigester on the farm is just one step the Craves are taking to be a carbon-negative company. Another goal? Breeding their award-winning, champion Registered Holsteins to be a bit smaller, similar to Jerseys, thus lowering the farm's overall carbon footprint.

"At the end of the day, we take corn and grain, we put them into a cow, and we get milk from her in return," George says. "Our goal is to do that as efficiently as we can. And we're working on that every day."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

New King of Kings: Louie's Pudding

Built in 1890 by "Butter King" John Newman of Elgin, sold to "King of Kings" cheesemaker Albert Deppler of Green County, and today owned by Anne Lancaster, whose product logo - in a nod to the creamery's past - includes a bright yellow crown perched on the "L" in its label, the century-old Springbrook Creamery on the banks of the Pecatonica River in Argyle has been home to two kings of dairy in its lifetime.

With the rebirth of her family's "Louie's" line of dairy products, owner Anne Lancaster is working hard to become the third king of this Wisconsin creamery. And this time, she's doing it with pudding.

Now home to Louie's Puddings, the creamery is where Anne and her team of four part-time employees make small-batches of baked custard and home-made bread, rice, tapioca and chocolate pudding. Products are marketed regionally in local grocery stores and convenience shops.

Known for its colorful lids featuring a pencil sketch of the creamery behind the regal Louie's label, Louie's puddings are making something of a comeback here in Wisconsin. The business was started by Anne's parents-in-law (the original Louie) in 1984, after the couple retired from farming, and like most "retired" farmers, they promptly started another business.

All of the recipes, except for the Chocolate Pudding, are Old World family recipes. The chocolate is a new creation, and is my favorite. Sweetened with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, it carries a creamy and rich taste, not a sickly sweet flavor one often finds with commodity chocolate puddings.

In addition, Anne and her part-time team also make Baked Custard, plain, with raisins or with rice (yummy), and add raisins to the original Old World Rice recipe, for a fabulous Rice with Raisin home-made pudding. Making only 1,200 pounds of pudding a day, Louie's Puddings is an anomaly in the pudding world. Not only is it small, it uses custom-made equipment to produce that home-kitchen taste.

Each day starts when milk is delivered and pasteurized, and then cooked for 55 minutes at over 200 degrees. Ingredients and flavors are then added, cooking stops, and the mixture is stirred. The batch is poured into a hopper, which dispenses it piping hot into plastic tubs. It is then sealed and wheeled to a cooling room, where later it will be labeled and packaged for delivery, carrying a 45-day shelf life.

Although distribution right now is limited, Anne is working to increase sales. She also dreams about sharing the 3,000 square-foot space with other dairy artisans.

"I'd like for this building to become an artisan dairy incubator, similar to what Bob Wills is doing for the artisan cheese community," Anne says. "I know there's quite a few people who have a good recipe and a unique product, but can't afford a factory of their own. We're looking at adding some equipment and possibly renting out space by the day."

If anyone can make that happen, it's Anne. She and her husband were both raised on family farms in the Argyle and South Wayne area. A banker by trade, she bought the business from her retired in-laws in 2009 and since then, has increased production, shelf-life and flavors.

She has no desire to return to the corporate world and appears to have found her calling, in of all places, an old butter plant built into a hillside along a river that is also home to the community's bomb shelter in southwest Wisconsin (more than 2,000 square feet expands underground and is used for storage).

"I'm going to be making pudding for a long time," Anne says. "It suits me. I'm looking forward to the future, working on new plans and new flavors."

So are we, Anne. And if that future could contain a certain someone's favorite pudding, as in perhaps, ahem, Pistachio, we'd love Louie's Puddings even more. Just sayin'.