Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Shearing Sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery

Welcome to spring in Wisconsin, when thousands of sheep lose their winter coat in favor of a new, naked spring wardrobe. This week, I was lucky enough to "help" - and I do use the term "help" loosely - sheer 450 sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery, a dairy sheep farm near Westby.

Farmstead cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean, are increasing their flock in an attempt to make award-winning sheep's milk cheeses year-round (Brenda's Ocooch Mountain, a six-month aged nutty tomme was recently named to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest's top 16 cheeses, out of 1,702 entries). Typically, their sheep would have been shorn in early March, but because Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it's spring, they held off shearing until warmer weather.

First of all, let me say shearing sheep is serious business. At Hidden Springs Creamery, a three-man contract crew arrived bright and early Monday morning to set up three electric shearing stations in the Jensen's hay shed/sheep loafing barn.

Once the stations were set up, the men did pre-shearing exercises to limber up their backs. After all, shearing a sheep takes between two and five minutes, of which the shearer is bending at the waist the entire time.

Going in, I was a little afraid shearing sheep might be a bit traumatic for both me AND the sheep. I had visions of "ringing pigs" as a kid, holding squirming, squealing piglets while my dad pierced their noses (we pastured our pigs and having a ring in their nose kept them from rooting and escaping under fences. Despite my protests, my dad assured me it was worth 3 seconds of pain for the pig to be able to live its life outside instead of in a crate, and as an adult I now have to agree with him).

Turns out, I worried for nothing. Because once limbered up, the sheep shearers chose a sheep from the pen, herded it onto their wooden board, and very simply and matter-of-factly, turned the sheep onto its back.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sheep are lifted up and turned onto their back, so that all four of their feet are sticking up in the air. I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn't realize they (thankfully) were stupid enough to allow this to happen without so much as squirming or even making noise. In fact, sheep look fairly bored during the entire process. Simply unbelievable. Here's a look at shearing a sheep:

First, the sheep is turned onto its back and the shearer works on the belly. This wool is kept separately, as it's not nearly as valuable as the overall fleece. The picture below is the typical look of a sheep during this process, as it lays there, listless. You have a feeling she's thinking: "I wonder what's for dinner?"

Next, the sheep is rolled onto its side, with its head between the shearer's legs, and then sheared on both sides. The goal is to remove the entire fleece in one piece. David, the lead shearer, averaged just under 2 minutes a sheep. A good shearer prides himself in doing it under four. David is a master.

When finished, the sheep is unhanded and allowed to get up and walk away. Most, like this one, however, continue to just sit there until the shearer scoots it outside. Yes, these are pretty wild animals.

After the sheep is persuaded to actually leave the shearing board, the helpers pick up the fleece.

Then it's off to the super huge sacks, where the helpers stuff the fleece. Like this:

And here it is in action - fleece is heavier than it looks:

Occasionally, sheep shearers change blades or adjust the setting on the shearing device, which looks like this:

And when shearers are done with one sheep, they do another. And another. Until they're done.

So to recap, here's a "before" picture:

And here's an "after" shot:
You almost get the feeling this sheep is posing for the camera, don't you?

Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking I had seen something like this before. And then I remembered: I have a cat who thinks it's a sheep.

Look familiar?
Many thanks to the expert sheep shearing crew and Brenda & Dean Jensen for letting me be part of 2013 sheep shearing at Hidden Springs Creamery!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2013

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Wisconsin Women Cheesemakers Rule US Champion Cheese Contest

In an industry dominated by multi-generational male cheesemakers, a Wisconsin woman has been named the best cheesemaker in the nation for the second time in a row.

All I can say is: whoo hoo!

Last night at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Marieke Mature Gouda, aged 6-9 months, was named the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese. The farmstead beauty is crafted by Marieke Penterman, of Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp, Wis.

The cheese took top honors out of 1,702 entries from 30 states. Out of a possible 100 points, Marieke Gouda scored 98.31in the final round of judging, during which a panel of 38 expert judges from across the nation re-evaluated the top 16 cheeses at an evening gala to determine the overall champion.

Marieke was on hand to accept the award, and for the first time in her life, said on stage she was "speechless." She did recover afterward, doing her signature "happy dance," walking through the crowd and accepting hundreds of well wishes from a crowd that had gathered to taste some of the best cheese in the country and watch the final round of judging.

"Can you believe it?" Marieke told me after the festivities had died down, the media had left, and just a handful of industry oldies were nursing their drinks. "The best in the nation. Wow. I can't wait to tell my dad."

Marieke, the mother of five and wife of Rolf - "the sexiest man" she knows, has only been making cheese on their central Wisconsin dairy farm for six years. Her story, while vastly different (she emingrated from the Netherlands 10 years ago to start a new dairy farm with her family) - somewhat echoes the story of the last contest's winner, then 26-year-old Katie Hedrich, who won U.S. Champion for her goat's milk LaClare Farms Evalon, another farmstead cheese made by a Wisconsin woman. Katie had only been making cheese for a year when she won the award, yet both women were recognized by some of the top experts in the nation for being the best in their craft.

Wisconsin women make up only a tiny percentage of cheesemakers in the state - of about 1,200 licensed makers, less than 60 are women. Yet, they seem to be excelling at their craft, with more entering the industry every year. For example, of the so-far three annual beginning cheesemaker scholarships awarded by Wisconsin Cheese Originals, all have gone to women. The 2013 recipient will be named in April, and based on the applications so far, I'm placing bets it will go to another woman.

It should be noted that two additional top-notch cheeses were also honored at the U.S. Championship Cheese contest, and both are made by men. First runner-up, with a score of 97.89, was Tarentaise, a semi-hard alpine cheese made by Spring Brook Farm/Farms For City Kids Foundation in Reading, Vermont. Second runner-up was Medium Cheddar, made by Team Cracker Barrel Natural Cheese, Agropur Weyauwega for Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois, which scored 97.88.

Wisconsin cheesemakers, as usual, dominated the competition, capturing gold medals in 47 of the total 81 categories judged. Vermont and New York came in second among the states, with six golds apiece. A common complaint I hear about this contest is it favors Wisconsin cheeses because it's sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the 38 expert judges come from around the nation, with the likes of Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods in Austin, Texas; Max McCalman, Dean of Curriculum at the Artisinal Premium Cheese Center in New York; and Craig Gile, Master Cheese Grader, Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Montpelier, Vermont serving on the judging panel.

After all, the United States Championship Cheese Contest is the largest technical evaluation of cheese and butter in the country and is rooted in more than 120 years of history, beginning when the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association held its first cheese contest in 1891. In recent years, the event has flourished, more than doubling in size since 2001. More Wisconsin cheeses are likely entered into the contest, as it's held in our state. This year, it was nice to see one of our own take home the top prize. Congratulations, Marieke, and to all the medalists!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The Science Behind Alpine Cheeses

Photo courtesy of
Following up on a Wisconsin report expected to be published later this month that concludes there are "quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes" between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, an Italian study has taken it one step further, determining there are scientific differences in cheeses made between different high-altitude Alpine grass pastures, resulting in different flavor profiles of well-known Alpine cheeses.

The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry,  confirms that not only does pasture-grazed cheese taste different than cheese made from the milk of non-grazing cows, the cheeses made from cows grazing on two different sides of a mountain can contain enough different chemical compounds to affect the cheese's flavor.

The revelation comes courtesy of Giovanna Contarini, a food chemist at the Centro di Ricerca per le Produzioni Foraggere e Lattiero-Casearie (a dairy and crops research center in Lodi, Italy). Recently, she conducted an experiment in which she took milk from cows living on two sides of a mountain in northern Italy. Both pastures consisted primarily of fescue and bent grass, but each received different amounts of sunshine, and from different directions. One pasture also had bit more yarrow growing in it than the other.

Milk from cows grazing in each pasture was then used to make dozens of wheels of the local cheese specialty: Asiago. When Contarini and her team analyzed the cheeses, they found they differed in the amounts of hydrocarbons and transfatty acids. In addition, both grass-based cheese batches contained more terpenes than cheeses made from the milk of non-grazing cows.

Terpenes are chemical compounds typically found in the milk of mountain-pastured cows and come from flowers growing among the grass. "In the plains cows, you don't find any terpenes," Contarini said in an interview with National Public Radio last month. Scientists aren't sure whether terpenes affect cheese flavor, but they do consider them a marker of mountain cheese.

Contarini confirmed that where cows live changes what they eat - and that difference is detectable in the cheese made from their milk.

"In the mountain areas, the cows are free to pasture," Contarini told NPR. They eat mostly a mix of fresh grasses and other vegetation. Cattle raised at lower elevations in Italy are kept in farms and eat a prepared feed that contains some dried grasses and some fat and vitamins. "Consequently, the rumen digestion is different," she said.

Contarini's research may one day be used to prove whether some traditional cheeses, such as bra d'alpeggio or Formai de Mut dell'Ata Valle Brembana, are indeed made with only the milk of mountain-grass grazing cows. The practice of making summer mountain cheeses is a dying art in northern Italy, Contarini said.

"Young people don't want to stay in the mountain because there are poor opportunities for work," so they often move to the city, she says. If there's no one left in the mountains to raise the cows and make the cheese, she says: "We risk losing an important product."

To taste two authentic European Alpine cheeses and two Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses, sign up now to attend the  May 14 Alpine Style Cheeses: The Taste of Terroir class, led by Jeanne Carpenter at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon. Attendees will learn why cheeses made in the mountain regions of France and Switzerland taste different than cheeses made elsewhere, and compare them to Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses. Visit to sign up now, as all classes sell out in advance.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter