Monday, April 29, 2013

Thank You Anne Topham, Grande Dame of Goat Cheese

Those of you who braved the last of Wisconsin's never-ending winter last week at the Dane County Farmer's Market may have noticed a familiar face missing. That's because Wisconsin's grande dame of goat cheese, Anne Topham, retired this spring after nearly 30 years of making French-style fresh chèvre and handcrafted aged goat cheeses for the market.

While Anne would never dream of taking credit for starting the Midwest's love affair with chevre, all credit surely does go to her and partner Judy Borree for introducing Wisconsinites to fine French-style goat cheese. The pair started milking goats at their Fantome Farm near Ridgeway in 1982, after Topham took a break from studying for her doctorate in education policy studies at UW-Madison.

At the time, no one else in the region was making goat cheese. So, like any good academic, she went to the library. She read cheesemaking books in French, took the University of Wisconsin cheese technology course, and visited pioneering California cheesemaker Laura Chenel. Then she and Judy started experimenting. A pet pig ate their first mistakes. Later, better cheeses went to the Dane County Farmer's Market, where the pair had to literally give it away in order to get customers to try it, because no one in Wisconsin had ever heard of goat cheese, much less eaten it.

“We cajoled people into trying our cheese at the market. We thought if they tried it, they would buy it, and we were right,” Topham said. She soon began to learn as much from her customers as she had from her books and expert advice.

“Sometimes, a customer might say last week’s batch was too salty so I would measure more carefully the next week. Others would tell us we were making a cheese that you could only find in the mountain farms in Puerto Rico, or that it was similar to the fresh cheese made by the nomadic people in Afghanistan. And here I thought I was only making a gourmet French-style goat cheese!” Topham laughed.

Although many would agree Topham has long since perfected the art of making cheese, she never stopped learning new techniques. She traveled to France in 2003 to study affinage – the art of ripening cheese, went to Italy in 2007 to study the making of Parmigiano Reggiano, and volunteered time in 2010 teaching cheesemakers in Ecuador how to add value to their dairy farms.

Along the way, she learned just as much as she taught, and after every trip, “It made me come back and want to tear up everything I had and start over,” she says. Her 2003 trip to France to study affinage was one of the first study trips by a Wisconsin cheesemaker on the subject.

“Seeing the mechanical caves in France definitely changed my advice to starting farmstead cheese owners," she said. "Building and planning for such spaces and learning ways to perfect ripened cheese really helped take farmstead and artisanal cheesemaking to the next level here in Wisconsin."

Thirty years after having to give away fresh chevre to customers in order for them to try it, it's a bit ironic that Cook's Illustrated dedicated an entire section to "The Best Fresh Goat Cheese" in its May/June 2013 issue. Editors compared nine different chevres from the United States and France, recommending Laura Chenel's Fresh Chevre Log as its overall winner. While Anne's cheese wasn't involved in the study (she makes only enough cheese to sell at the market each week), it's likely Fantome Farm chevre would have placed high on the list.

At age 73, Anne says she doesn't plan to stop milking a few goats or making a little cheese. She's just not going to make it for sale anymore. The next chapter in her life might include some consulting for beginning cheesemakers, something she's done quite often along the way, most of the time for free. With 30 years of cheesemaking knowledge, she's still got a lot to offer. Look for her walking - not working - the farmer's market on Saturdays, still talking and sharing stories with former customers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild

It's spring, so time for me to start a new organization. Shockingly, it's all about cheese.

After talking with dozens of small and artisan Wisconsin cheesemakers looking for opportunities to get together and learn more about their craft, today marks the debut of the Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild. Similar to other state cheese guilds, it's a member-based organization offering networking and educational opportunities for beginning and current artisan and farmstead cheesemakers.

Already at 28 members strong, the guild is intended to be a sister organization to Wisconsin Cheese Originals, a 200-strong membership organization catering to cheese education for consumers. Together, both organizations celebrate Wisconsin artisan and farmstead cheesemakers.

Here's how it works: currently, the guild is open only to beginning or current artisan or farmstead cheesemakers (future associate memberships for retailers may be added - stay tuned). Guild members pay an annual fee of $150 per company. All employees of member companies are invited to attend or participate in all activities. Some activities, such as specific educational workshops or tours, have additional fees to help cover expenses. All events are listed at

In support of the guild, the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute (WSCI) is helping sponsor us for our first two years. All guild members become WSCI members and gain access to WSCI programming and benefits. Current WSCI members who are also artisan or farmstead cheesemakers are encouraged to join the guild to be invited to all events. Only new guild members who are not already WSCI members need pay the $150 guild membership fee.

So, bascially, the guild is an opportunity for smaller cheese companies to gain access to more information about cheese aging, new cheesemaking styles, and to visit other cheesemakers in Wisconsin and abroad to expand their knowledge. I plan to organize at least two educational workshops and two membership meetings per year.

Upcoming events scheduled so far in 2013 include:

June 17: Affinage for Artisan Cheesemakers
The guild welcomes Michael Kalish for a half-day workshop in Madison. Trained by Hervé Mons, Luigi Guffanti, and cheese makers across France, Switzerland, and Italy, Kalish will discuss the art and practice of aging cheese. Attendees will learn the variables that affect affinage, as well as rind development, identifying defects, and developing a wash. As the former operations manager at Artisanal Premium Cheese in New York, Kalish apprenticed three years with European cheesemakers and affineurs, including 10 months managing the “tunnel de la collonge” at Herve Mons Fromager-Affineur in France. Cost for guild members to attend is $45, which includes lunch.

September 17: Know Your Mold
The guild hosts Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, microbiologist at Harvard University, for a half-day workshop. Dr. Wolfe is currently working on several cheese microbiology projects, including the ecology and genomics of staphylococci isolated from cheese rinds, DNA sequencing methods for measuring fungal biodiversity in cheese rinds, and comparative genomics of the fungus Geotrichum candidum. Attendees are encouraged to bring in their cheese rinds so Dr. Wolfe can help identify molds and provide other insights. Cost for guild members to attend is $55, which includes lunch.

In addition, the first Guild Membership meeting is in the works for late May. Artisan cheesemaker and guild member Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, will host a tour of her dairy sheep farm and farmstead cheese operation. Guest speaker Dr. Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, will update cheesemakers with information on the Center’s current cheese research projects, as well as plans for the new Babcock Hall as it relates to artisan cheese making. Attendance is free to guild members, but attendees must register in advance. Stay tuned for more details.

I look forward to hanging out with Wisconsin guild members in the coming months. Remember, if you are thinking about becoming a cheesemaker, or are a current farmstead or artisan cheesemaker, you are welcome to join us. Learn more here.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Next Wisconsin Cheesemaker: Jennifer Digman

A Wisconsin dairy farmer interested in developing artisan goat cheeses in southwest Wisconsin has earned the 2013 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals, a 200-member organization dedicated to celebrating Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

Jennifer Digman, owner of Krayola Sky Dairy in Cuba City, was selected by a committee of industry leaders for the $2,500 annual award. Digman is mid-way through the requirements of earning a cheesemaker’s license, and is working to complete her apprenticeship hours.

As you know, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require cheesemakers to be licensed, an 18-month process that involves attendance at five university courses, 240 hours of apprenticeship under a licensed cheesemaker, and a written exam at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

After using the scholarship money to earn her license, Digman said she has dreams of building an on-farm creamery to craft fresh, hand-dipped chevre, aged mixed milk artisan cheeses, and hand-washed Alpine-style cheese.

“I look forward to working side-by-side with my daughters, teaching them the Old World secrets of shepherding our animals and crafting cheeses,” Digman told me. “Being a female in a male-dominated dairy industry has had its hurdles, but with the help of some amazing mentors, I am blessed to understand the traditions of making great cheese.”

A committee made up of industry leaders selected Digman out of a field of 11 highly-qualified applicants. This marks the fourth year Wisconsin Cheese Originals has offered the $2,500 scholarship to a beginning cheesemaker. Past recipients have coincidentally all been women using sheep or goat's milk to make cheese, a testament to the growing number of women putting Wisconsin on the map as the dairy artisan mecca of the nation.

Congratulations, Jennifer!