Friday, February 22, 2013

The Evolution of Wisconsin Cheddar

If the state of Wisconsin were to have one signature identifying symbol, it would likely be a chunk of cheddar. Crafted in blocks, barrels and wheels, and then cut, wrapped and stamped, millions of pounds of construction-orange Wisconsin cheddar are sold every year to American consumers.

Most Wisconsin cheddar gets shipped to the coasts for city folk to enjoy, but thousands of pounds are still bought by Midwest locals at roadside cheese shops and cheese factories, with many a Wisconsin farm family still putting the requisite piece of sliced cheddar on apple pie at Sunday dinner.

In a quest to learn more about how the cheddar industry evolved in Wisconsin, I've been doing a little research. Did you know that cheddar was just about the only cheese produced in the entire United States prior to 1850? By 1880, in a foreshadowing of our future dairy dominance, Wisconsin had taken the lead in producing more cheddar than any other state in the nation. And by 1929, back when there were 2,499 cheese factories and creameries, each supplied by a dozen or so farmers, with each farmer milking about a dozen cows, nearly all of those cheese factories made cheddar.*

That's right, baby. Cheddar was king.

While it continued its dominance in driving the state dairy economic engine, by the late 1950s, however, the state of cheddar had changed. Almost every cheese factory now sold their cheddar to big distribution companies such as Kraft, Borden or Armour, marking the beginning of an era when distributors, not cheesemakers, set the price for their product. To quote Wisconsin cheesemaker Sam Cook in 1957, (you may recognize Sam Cook’s name, as he’s the father of Sid Cook who today owns Carr Valley Cheese): “You took what they gave you. We was lucky to sell what we had.”**

The relationship between big distributors and cheesemakers changed the face of cheddar.  Back in the 1930s and 40s, cheesemakers had taken pride in their cheddar being different or “better” than the cheese factory 4 miles down the road. Those were the days when each factory had its own self-propagating cheese culture and resident molds in its walls and aging planks. Those were the days when cheddar had what you might call “character”.

Now, with the coming of the big distribution companies, cheddar instead became a commodity. The new buzzwords became: “consistency" and "long shelf life" and "mild flavor.” These were the traits that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map and made it such a huge success in national markets. As author Ed Janus puts it: "This was the great achievement of the Age of Cheddar."***

Success is all well and good, but it comes at a price. With Kraft, Borden and Armour demanding consistency, many small factories went out of business, being either unable or unwilling to modernize. Many of the old cheesemakers, born of the craftsmen era, didn’t know scientific cheesemaking. The way they determined when the curd was ready to mill wasn’t to check the ph of the whey; it was to put a hot iron to the curd mass, and when it strung out a certain distance, the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.

By the 1980s, Wisconsin had lost many of its smaller cheese factories in the name of progress. Equipment was sold and doors were shut. Some were turned into machine sheds or homes. Most were left to just fall down. And with the loss of the smaller plants, Wisconsin began to lose the character of its cheddar. The cheddar from one factory now tasted much like the cheddar from the factory down the road. In essence, Wisconsin's cheddar industry traded “character” in exchange for “consistency.”

Remaining cheddar plants got bigger and more efficient. The mass market clamored for lower prices. Now cheesemakers had to make more and more cheese just to continue to make a living. Everything became based on volume. Many a cheesemaker who got out of the business in the 1990s will tell you that by the end, they were making only a profit of one penny per pound of cheese sold. That's not enough to live on, much less to send your kids to college or re-invest in your business.

By 2000, however, a handful of cheesemakers were getting off the commodity cheddar wagon and changing to specialty and artisan production. Cheesemakers such as Sid Cook in LaValle and Tony and Julie Hook in Mineral Point started making small batch cheddar and setting it aside to age. This was cheddar that didn’t get sold to Kraft for a penny on the pound. This was cheddar that the cheesemaker could put his own label on, and set his or her own price.

Now the old time cheesemakers will tell you that aging cheddar isn’t anything new. They all did it, even back in the day. It was just called Cheesemaker’s Cheddar. It was the cheese hidden in the cellar that each cheesemaker’s family ate at night with dinner. They’d sell a block or two on occasion to people who today I suppose we'd call "foodies" who would stop by a cheddar factory and say, “What’s the oldest cheddar you’ve got? Will you sell me some?”**** So even back then, aging cheddar was not a new concept. What was a new concept was selling it to the public at a price the cheesemaker set.

The real key, however, to the renaissance of Wisconsin cheddar, was chefs. Cheesemaker Sid Cook says that by the mid 1990s, chefs started seeking him out. They would buy cheese and take it back to their restaurants, cook with it, and diners loved it. So the chefs would order more. Diners would ask where the cheese came from, and then visit the factory to watch cheese being made, usually - if Sid had anything to do with it - buying some on the way out.

"There's a certain element with cheese that almost is addictive," Sid says. "You can tell when people are sampling. They'll take one. And it will be a little while. Then their hand just goes out. It's just automatic. They can't help it. They don't think about it ... That's how you know it's really good. What we really like to do is get their hand past their hip so they get their wallet out."*****

Today, Wisconsin cheesemakers still make plenty of commodity cheddar, and cheddar is still sold on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the current price is $1.62/pound). But most often, those blocks and barrels are serving as cash flow and are the backbone of a cheesemaking operation. Those same cheesemakers today are selling more specialty cheddar under their own brand, and using the proceeds to develop new artisan cheeses such as American Originals. This turnaround in the process – the cheesemaker setting the price – is what is largely responsible for the current artisan cheese renaissance we're currently experiencing in Wisconsin.

Interested in trying a good aged Wisconsin cheddar? Here are some of my favorites:
  • Four-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.
  • Six-Year Cheddar by Widmer's Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wis.
  • Ten-Year Cheddar by Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point, Wis.
Interested in a good specialty cheddar? Then try:
  • Peppercorn Cheddar, Henning's Cheese, Kiel
  • English Hollow Cheddar, Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe
  • Heritage Weis Old-World Style White Cheddar, Red Barn Family Farms, Appleton
And if you're looking for some amazing bandaged cheddar made by Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, I'd recommend:
  • Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds
  • Kinsley, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg
  • Eagle Cave Reserve, Meister Cheese, Muscoda

*Facts and figures courtesy of Harva Hachten and Terese Allen's book: The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State, 2009.
**Sam Cook quote courtesy of interview in the book Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.
***Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 100.
****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 103.
*****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 104.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

New Research Concludes Pasture Cheeses are "Quantifiably Different"

A final report soon to be published by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture concludes something every cheesemaker and cheese enthusiast has suspected for years: that there are "quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes" between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, especially cheese and butter. 

An upcoming report titled: "Growing the Pasture-Grazed Dairy Sector in Wisconsin," is the conclusion of a four-year research project led by Laura Paine, grazing and organic specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Paine pursued grant funding for the project after research by Dr. Scott Rankin at the University of Wisconsin in 2005 showed pasture-fed cheddar cheese was creamier in texture and more golden in color than the same cheese produced from the milk of confinement-fed cows.

Research started in 2009, as milk was collected from five grass-based dairies in southwest Wisconsin three times during the grazing season for three years. Milk was collected from a confinement farm for comparison, and batches of two to four dairy products, including yogurt, butter and cheese, were made at the University of Wisconsin Food Science Department by Dr. Rankin and his staff.

The products were then compared side-by-side in three ways: analysis of chemical composition, evaluation of consumer preferences, and investigation of cooking qualities. Dr. Rankin also conducted testing to measure differences in chemical composition, including fat, protein, somatic cells, lactose and other compounds. Samples were provided to program partner chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan for evaluation in cooking.

While the research failed to identify a single compound or "smoking gun" to explain the differences the team found between pasture-fed and conventional milk, both the scientists and chefs noted "quantifiable differences" in color, texture and melting points. Dr. Rankin noted that pasture milk has a "grassy note."

"This research proves something cheesemakers have known for years," said Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, a project partner and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery. "We've always entered contests with cheeses made from grass-fed animals, and those cheeses have always won awards. We just didn't tell anyone our secret."

To view more comments from Wills, as well as insight from dairy farmer Bert Paris, cheesemakers Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich, and chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan, view the short video (produced as part of the research project), below.

According to the report, Wills' cheesemaking "secret" can be pinpointed to three attributes special to pasture-fed dairy products. First, they are more golden in color; second, they are creamier in texture; and third, the flavor and aroma are different. Some describe flavors and aromas from pasture-fed products as "more complex" while others note "earthy, grassy" flavors.

However, the different flavors found in pastured milk can sometimes be perceived negatively by consumers, Dr. Rankin notes. In professional sit-down taste tests with consumers, most preferred the taste of conventional fluid milk in a glass, noting the grass-based milk tasted too grassy. On the other hand, almost all preferred the taste, appearance, mouth feel and aroma of unsalted butter and cheese made with pasture milk.

Anecdotal evidence shows similar results. At an October 2010 Grass-Fed Tasting Event, 60 participants tasted side-by-side croissants, cupcakes with butter cream frosting, bread with butter, and fish with sage-garlic browned butter sauce, each made with both conventional and pasture milk. The majority rated the pasture products higher than the conventional ones.

Rather than proclaim pasture-fed milk products to be better, the report focuses on how they are different. Nowhere is that more clear than in the results of a September 10, 2012 cheesemaking day at Clock Shadow Creamery, where research participants were invited to spend a day making two vats of identical cheese: one with pasture-fed milk, and the other with conventional milk.

Crafted on site by Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner, the cheeses were an experimental variety that Lehner had learned how to make just a few months earlier during a trip to Lichtensteig, Switzerland from famous Swiss cheesemaker Willi Schmid. During the visit (in which the Swiss Willi asked the Wisconsin Willi if he was a spy), Lehner learned to make a Tuggerbach Canton, a non-pressed cheese in the Gruyere family of Alpine cheeses.

"We visited Willi's brother's place, his Brown Swiss cows and the pastures," Lehner said. "I got to smell the hay, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then I smelled the milk, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then, when we made the cheese, the same aromas were present. That was really the first time I made a connection between what cows eat and the cheese made from their milk."

While the forages of Brown Swiss Alpine cows are no doubt different from the grasses eaten by southwest Wisconsin dairy cows, five months after making the Wisconsin cheeses at Clock Shadow Creamery, the same "grassy" aroma and flavors are present in the pasture-fed cheese made by Lehner.

In a side-by-side comparison of the Wisconsin cheeses (see photo below), the grass-fed cheese, on the left, is slightly more golden. The aroma is more earthy and fruity, while the conventional cheese on the right, simply smells clean and milky. The flavors are also distinctly different. The pasture-fed cheese is more complex with a lingering finish. The conventional cheese is more of a one-note cheese with a clean finish.

"When you taste the two side by side, there is no doubt a remarkable difference," says dairy farmer Bert Paris, who farms using rotational grazing, and whose milk was used to make the pasture-fed cheese in September. "It validates everything we've been saying for years."

So what are the next steps after the report is published? Paine says she'd like to organize grass-based dairy farmers to facilitate pooling milk, marketing efforts and branding, perhaps even developing a checkoff to generate funds for marketing. She'd also like to work with the industry to create a standard to ensure the integrity of a product marketed as "grass fed" or "pasture fed."

"This project has been four years in the making," Paine says. "The research shows the differences that processors and farmers have been noting for years in pasture milk and dairy products. Now it's just a matter of how we move forward with that knowledge."

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Italy vs Wisconsin Cheeses: Can the New World Compete?

With the growth in quality and quantity of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses in the past decade, I am often asked: "Can Wisconsin cheeses today rival the great European imports?"

Well, yes and no. While there are scores of amazing European cheeses that simply don't have an equal in America, there are perhaps an equal amount of American Original cheeses that don't have a rival in Europe. That's because the traditions that often make classic European cheeses so amazing also limits innovation in crafting new ones.

Here in America, we've got no lack of innovation. With less than 300 years of tradition to our name, we've got no PDO, DOC or AOC cheeses. Virtually anything goes. Some might even argue American cheesemakers have cheesemaking freedom that many European cheesemakers might envy.

But that doesn't mean American, and especially Wisconsin cheesemakers, don't still look to their European counterparts for inspiration. Perhaps no country knows this better than Italy. Wisconsin cheesemakers have been studying Italian cheeses for more than 100 years, trying to duplicate the Italian greats.

Here's a look at three different categories of Italian cheeses and three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are striving to equal, or might I dare say rival, their Italian counterparts.

Round 1: Asiago Fresco 
Agriform of Italy vs Saxon Creamery of Wisconsin

A younger version (aged only 20-40 days) of its more famous big brother, Asiago Fresco is a mild, semi-soft cow's milk cheese, and until about 15 years ago, not readily available for export to the United States.

In Italy, Asiago Fresco is made in the Veneto region, located in the far northwest quadrant of the country. It's named after the village of Asiago, one of seven villages situated on a high plateau in the Italian Alps. The region has a colorful history. The locals, most of whom have German roots, as the region was populated in the 1200's by Bavarians, still speak their own language, a German/Italian mix. Because the area was originally so isolated, the residents of the seven villages banded together in the 1300's to receive protection from three powerful families – the Ezzelini, Scaligeri and Visconti families. The region had its own political and administrative autonomy until Napoleon invaded in 1807. Then the territory came under Austrian rule until it was annexed to Italy through an international accord in 1866.

Today, two traditional Asiago cheeses are made: Asiago Pressato, made with whole milk and pressed, is aged only a matter of days. It is mild and buttery. The second, Asiago d'Allevo, is made from partially skimmed milk and and is sold in three stages of ripeness: mezzano, aged 3 to 8 months; vecchio, aged 9 to 18 months; and stravecchio, aged up to 2 years. All types are found in the U.S. market.

Asiago Fresco, meanwhile, seems to be a newer hybrid. It is made from whole milk, pasteurized, and aged 20-40 days. It much more citrusy in flavor. The most common Italian version found in the U.S. is made by Agri-form, one of the larger producers in the Veneto region, and distributed by Atalanta Foods. It is an excellent table cheese and melts well on a panini.

The Wisconsin version of Asiago Fresco is made by Saxon Creamery of Cleveland. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the Saxon cheeses are made from the milk of pastured cows. Originally owned by the Karl Klessig and Jerry Heimerl families, last year, Wisconsin dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Kenn Buelow invested in the company. Cheeses are now made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, who is rapidly branching out into some different styles, including the little known Asiago Fresco.

Mattes delivers. The Saxon version is equally citrusy and fresh tasting, with no off flavors and a clean finish. The texture is almost the same as the Italian version, and the cheeses are nearly identical. Find Saxon Creamery Asiago Fresco at Glorioso's in Milwaukee.

Round 2: Fontina 
Fontina D’Aosta DOP of Italy vs BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin

Dating back to the Middle Ages, Fontina originated in Italy’s mountainous Val d’Aosta region near the Swiss border. History isn't clear on whether it took its name from the village of Fontinaz or nearby Mont Fontin, but two things are clear: Fontina is a) considered one of the most versatile cheeses in the world, and 2) it has often been copied.

Today, versions of Fontina are made in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and of course, the United States. The Danish and Swedish versions are typically covered in red paraffin wax, made from pasteurized milk, and are mild in taste. The Italian version, however, is made twice a day from the unpasteurized milk of Valdostana cows that graze on Alpine grasses, and is a washed-rind cheese. Aged three months, it is bathed with a mixture of brine and brevibacterium linens, which leaves it with an orangish-brown rind and smelly aroma.

Fontina D'Aosta is an Italian DOP cheese, meaning it is name-protected and may only be made in the Val d'Aosta region. It is elastic and supple, with a rich, sweet, buttery flavor and mushroomy aroma.

The Wisconsin version of Italian Fontina is made by BelGioioso Cheese. Aged more than 60 days, this is a very appealing, semi-soft mild cheese with a silky texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. It does not, however have the Fontina D'Aosta's washed-rind, so is instead much milder in flavor and smell.  Whereas the Italian version has small irregular holes, BelGioioso Fontina is smooth and creamy. That's probably because it is intended for an American market, which, as a rule, does not overly care for stinky cheeses.

BelGioioso is no stranger to Italian cheese. In 1979, a man by the name of Errico Auricchio moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. A hundred years before, his great-grandfather had started an Italian cheese company named Auricchio. Today, it is the largest producer of Provolone in Italy.

But because Errico wanted to do his own thing, he moved to Wisconsin and brought along a couple Master Euoprean cheesemakers with him. He began making authentic Italian cheeses, and today, has built a cheese empire, building seven factories, all in the Fox Valley, each specializing in a different style of Italian cheese, from Burrata to Provolone to Gorgonzola and beyond. Each is made using Wisconsin milk from surrounding farms. BelGioioso does Wisconsin Italian cheeses proud, and their Fontina is no exception. You can find it in most specialty cheese departments.

Round 3: Parmesan
Academia Barilla Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP vs Sartori of Wisconsin

Known as the King of Cheeses, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is a Italian DOP cheese managed by The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a non-profit organization, founded in 1934, and comprised of Parmigiano cheese producers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.

The mammoth cheese, considered by some to be worth its weight in gold, is made in large copper cauldrons and formed into 85-pound drums. Quality is based on five factors that have been maintained throughout centuries to make this cheese one of the most famous in the world.

First and foremost is quality of pastures and quality of milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with  milk from two milkings – evening and morning – with milk from the morning partially skimmed. The milk itself comes from cows raised on selected pastures only in the five approved regions.

Second: artisanal production methods have been unchanged for seven centuries. The Consortium is made up of a group of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers located in a specific zone of production and are subject by law to preserve the centuries old production methods and quality of the product.

Third is the natural aging process, which can last up to three years. By the end, wheels have developed a compact, grainy texture and strong, but not spicy, flavor. Parmigiano falls into the category of hard Italian cheeses generally referred to as grana, based on their granular texture.

Fourth: Complete absence of preservatives, additives or colorings in the milk and cheese. Period.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the strict control of the Consortium. It defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, overseeing how it is used and where it is produced. The Consortium is also responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano I enjoy is produced only in the Reggio Emilia region by Academia Barilla. This particular company uses milk exclusively from small hillside dairies and ages wheels to 18 months. It is brittle and hard, with a pale yellow rind. Inside, the cheese is golden with a crystalline texture and sweet, fruity, tangy flavor, like fresh pineapple. It boasts a salty finish, having been brined for about 30 days before being transferred to an aging room.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin version is Sartori SarVecchio, one of the best Parmesans made in the United States. Aged at least 20 months, it is made from pasteurized milk in 30 pound wheels with a natural rind.

Sartori Cheese’s headquarters are in Plymouth, but the cheese is made in Antigo. Started in 1939 by Paolo Sartori and Louis Rossini, when they founded S&R Cheese Corp in Plymouth, the company changed its name to Sartori Foods in 1996. Today, they employ three master cheesemakers who not only create Old World classics but new American Originals.

Aged, crystalline, nutty, and grate-able, SarVecchio is a worthy rival to Old World Parmigiano-Reggiano, and routinely places first or second in national and international contests. You can find it in most any store where fine cheese is sold.

And there you have it: three Old World favorites vs. New World upstarts. I'd argue with a contest like this, there really are no losers. Only we - the consumers - win.