Sunday, December 27, 2015

The 10 Best Wisconsin Cheeses of 2015

It was a good year to live in Wisconsin. Our cheesemakers debuted new cheeses, won boatloads of awards, and did happy dances on stage. And because it's almost time to say goodbye to 2015, I think we should pay tribute to the great cheeses that continue to put Wisconsin on the map. Here are my 10 favorites.

1. Cupola, Red Barn Family Farms

Exceptional cheese starts with exceptional milk. No one knows this better than the five dairy farmers who make up Red Barn Family Farms, founded by veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan and his spunky wife, Paula, back in the mid 2000s. Every dairy farmer adheres to the Red Barn Rules, resulting in exceptionally happy cows that give give exceptionally good milk. Cupola is the company's signature cheese (their Heritage Weis 3-Year Cheddar is also one of my all-time favorites). Cupola is a white, hard, alpine style cheese crafted by U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Furhmann for Red Barn Family Farms. This is a limited-availability cheese so if you see it at your favorite specialty cheese counter, buy it immediately.

2.  Marieke Bacon Gouda, Holland's Family Cheese

U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is known for making a variety of flavored goudas - mustard melange, cumin, foenegreek, insert another 10 flavors here, but she outdid herself this year with her new Bacon Gouda. Made on the Penterman family farm in Thorp, Wisconsin, this farmstead bacon gouda is chock full - and I mean freakin' chock full - of bacon. As most of you know, I come from a long family line of folks who don't eat a lot of cheese, and when I presented this cheese to my father on Christmas Eve (keep in mind he was recovering from the stomach flu), he took one bite and then kept eating. The whole thing. Because yeah, it's that good.

3. Petit Nuage, Landmark Creamery

Newcomer Cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her business partner Anna Thomas Bates put Wisconsin on the map with this French-style button sheep's milk cheese last year, and followed up this year with a shiny gold medal at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for their Petit Nuage. Available seasonally from February through October, each cheese is just one ounce in weight and less than two inches in diameter - a perfect single portion. I've seen the cheese paired with honey, ginger, a variety of preserves, and even black pepper, but seriously, it's amazing alone and makes a lovely addition to a cheese board.

4.  Queso Oaxaca, Cesar's Cheese

America's best string cheese. Period. I could just stop here, but I have to gush a bit more because I find it amazing that cheesemaking duo Cesar and Heydi Luis still hand-stretch every single batch of this delightfully stringy, salty, addictive cheese. I compare this bright white cow's milk cheese to a bag of potato chips. You can't eat just one, and before you realize what's happened, the entire package is gone. Popular with kids and adults alike, this is the one cheese that teenagers always, always expect me to have in my fridge, and when I don't, inform me I have failed their cheese needs.

5. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese

Just when you think there's nothing more that can be said about America's most awarded artisan cheese, Cheesemaker Andy Hatch hits it out of the park with another stellar season of alpine-style greatness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve has been so good for so long, many of us take it for granted. But the current wheels for sale - aged about 15 months - are some of the best cheese I've ever tasted. If you haven't had Pleasant Ridge in a while because you think it's old news, it deserves another look. Simply put, this cheese never goes out of style.

6. Three-Year Cheddar, Hook's Cheese

In a year when Tony and Julie Hook made national headlines with their 20-Year Cheddar (and then donated half of the proceeds - $40,000 to the Center for Dairy Research in Madison), their 3-Year Cheddar is still my favorite. When folks ask what cheese best describes Wisconsin, this is the cheese I put in their cart. Solid, sharp cheddar with a construction-orange hue that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map years ago. A true Wisconsin classic.

7. Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese

Dunbarton is one of the few Wisconsin cheeses that can serve dual purposes on a cheese board: both Cheddar and Blue. That's because this cellar-aged, natural-rinded cheddar sports a few deep veins of blue. It literally tastes like a cloth-bound cheddar until you hit a blue vein, and then the heavenly combination of rustic cheddar and blue mold meet for a new flavor all its own. Remember the commercials from the '80s for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - where chocolate and peanut butter accidentally meet to make the perfect candy bar? The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board should reenact that commercial for this cheese, because newly minted Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli continues to strike gold with cheddar + blue = Dunbarton Blue.

8. Extra Aged Goat, Sartori

Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson releases this limited-edition cheese twice a year, usually in summer and then in time for the year-end holidays. Hand-crafted in small batches, the 22-pound wheels are aged a minimum of 10-months. If you like Sartori's BellaVitano Gold, you'll like this cheese, as it reminds me of the Gold, but without the Gold's sweet fruity finish, and instead a deeper, tangier bite. Bright white, crumbly yet still sliceable, Sartori's Extra Aged Goat is a perennial award winner on the world stage and is the perfect goat's milk cheese to serve your friends who are under the impression they don't like goat's milk.

9. Roth's Private Reserve, Roth Cheese

I swear to God this cheese keeps getting better every year. Made in traditional copper vats and aged in the Roth Cellars in Monroe, Private Reserve is released on flavor, not age. It's always aged a minimum of six months, but the wheels this year have to be closer to one year. This is literally the best Gruyere cheese you will ever eat that does not have Gruyere in its name.

10. Jeffs' Select, Maple Leaf Cheese & Caves of Faribault

There's no easier way to class up a cheese board than with this aged cow’s milk gouda made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, and then aged by Cheesemaker Jeff Jirik at the Caves of Faribault in Minnesota. With its annatto-rubbed pumpkin-colored rind, this striking cheese sports a dark golden hue with deep caramel notes and tyrosene crystals the size of walnuts. Okay, well perhaps I'm exaggerating about that last part, but this cheese is so good that I can't exaggerate its taste enough. Buy. It. Now.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Cheese Questions from a Fifth Grader

Sometimes all it takes to slow one down in the midst of a crazy busy, cheese-cutting, cheese-selling, cheese-eating holiday season is a hand-written letter from a fifth grader.

Checking my post office box this morning resulted in a lovely collection of Christmas cards from friends and colleagues, a large pile of cheese equipment catalogs, a newsletter from the local senior center, and a letter from Sumayya, a 10-year-old from Quincy, Massachusetts, zip code 02169.

Guess which piece of mail I opened first.

Dear Ms. Jeanne Carpenter,

My name is Sumayya. I am 10 years old and I am a student in the fifth grade.

I am studying cheese for my topic all year long. I got interested in cheese when I went to Whole Foods in Hingham, Massachusetts and saw all of the delicious, different, and colorful varieties of cheese.

I will use the information you provide in my report. Of course, I will use the information. It came from a cheese expert!

Enclosed is a self-addressed envelope, a tea bag, and five questions. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of tea while - please do - answer my questions.

Thank you for your time. I really, really, really, really really appreciate it. 

Well, Sumayya, not only will I drink your tea and answer your questions here on Cheese Underground, but you can also expect a large envelope full of cheese-related information coming in the mail to you soon. But first, let's answer your questions.

1. What is your favorite type of cheese? Why? (Mine is smoked Swiss because it is sweet as well as tangy).

Excellent opening question, Sumayya. It's always a good move to ask someone their favorite cheese. My favorite type of cheese is washed-rind: sticky & stinky - think Taleggio from Italy, St. Nectaire from France, Grazier's Edge from Minnesota, and Kinsman Ridge from Vermont. I attribute my love of savory, meaty cheese to the fact that I grew up on a beef farm and ate meat & potatoes every day for lunch and dinner (although we referred to these meals as dinner and supper). Washed-rind cheeses remind me my favorite childhood Sunday noontime meal: savory roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I can still picture my mother making gravy on the stove - which incidentally, is the one food I excel at cooking. Gravy makes everything better.

2. What is the most complicated part of making cheese? (I would say drying the cheese is most complicated). 

Another solid question. And Sumayya, you are on to something about drying cheese. Any cheesemaker worth her salt will tell you that making a good cheese is the successful combination of two things: 1) making cheese and 2) aging the cheese (also referred to as affinage). I should point out that I am not a cheesemaker, nor do I ever aspire to be one - there's a reason I have a B.A. in English (it's called little to no math requirements) - and cheesemaking is all about science. If Kenny Rogers would have written a song about cheesemaking instead of gambling, it would have gone something like this:

You've got to know when to check the pH
Know when to drain the whey
Know when to cut the curd
And know when to wait
You never count your cheese forms
While you're stirrin' the cheese curd
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the cheesemakin's done

Also, now that I'm re-thinking this, you probably shouldn't actually watch the Kenny Rogers "The Gambler" video link referenced above - it's full of messages not suitable for a 10-year-old. Moving on.

3. Is smoked cheese better or plain cheese better? Why? (I think smoked cheese because it adds more flavor).

Sumayya, I'm sensing you may like smoked cheese, which is awesome. Smoked cheese is one category of many types of cheese, and it's all a matter of personal preference. In Wisconsin, lots of folks enjoy a good smoked Gouda. Smoked cheeses are particularly popular during the holiday season and during winter, because, I suspect, they are a comfort food. They make us feel good. I don't know if you have long winters in Massachusetts, but here in Wisconsin, winter often starts in November and lasts through mid-April. A good smoked cheese can chase a bad winter day away.

4. Do you know of anyone else I could contact for my project? If so, please give name, address, zip code, and phone number.

Holy cats, I can think of about 20 people who are more qualified to answer these questions than I, so I am going to compile that information and put it in the mail to you. If you wait until January 1 to mail your questions, you are more likely to get a response, as everyone here in Wisconsin is currently obsessed with making, selling, cutting or eating cheese for the holidays.

5. What do you think will be the future of cheese? Will there be more or less as an average per year? Why?

Well, Sumayya, as long as there are 10-year-olds out there like you, I would say the future of cheese is pretty darn bright. Cheese consumption in the United States keeps growing every year. We are seeing an increase in the number of artisan and specialty cheesemakers, resulting in a world where American cheeses now compete on the same stage as the great European cheesemaking nations. Cheese is recognized as a healthy source of protein, perfect for kids to grow up strong and healthy. Plus it's yummy. So cheese is here to stay.

Happy holidays, Sumayya. And watch your mail for a package of cheesy goodies.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Cheese Gifts for the Naughty and Nice

It's holiday season, so you know what that means: cheese gifts and cheese boards galore. And because you're no doubt the designated cheese geek in your circle of friends, everyone's expecting a cheese gift box or cheese platter for their next party. If you're stuck in a cheesy rut, here are some ideas:

The Cheese Gift Box for the Relatives You Don't Like
Yep, we've all got an in-law or an annoying opinionated uncle in our family that we don't particularly care for, but we know they expect a gift. So this year, give them the gift of cheese. Kill them with kindness with a simple gift box of your favorite medium cheddar, mild blue and young gouda. Tie it up and stick on a bow, and then spend bigger bucks on the folks you like. Which leads me to:

The Cheese Gift Box for Your Favorite Friends
This is where it gets fun. These are the people that you choose to hang out with; the people who ask you the questions they don't know about cheese and expect you to know the answer. So wow them with the same formula as above, but swap for stellar Wisconsin cheeses: Hook's 15-Year Cheddar (only available now, during the holidays); Dunbarton Blue from Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg (crafted by newly-minted MASTER Cheesemaker Chris Roelli; and Marieke 6-9 month Gouda, because it a) tastes amazing, b) won the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, so you've got the hardware to back you up, and c) it's made by one of the coolest women on the planet: Marieke Penterman. Slam. Dunk.

The Cheese Platter for the Holiday Work Party
This one's tricky, because you're likely feeding a crowd who may know next to nothing about cheese, but as pointed out earlier, expect you to bring the good stuff because you're the office cheese geek. So go with volume on a budget. Pick up some healthy-sized chunks of Cedar Grove Extra Sharp Cheddar in Plain, Wis.; Edelweiss Butterkase from Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman in Monticello; Widmer's Brick Cheese Spread and a package of Potter's Winter Wheat Crackers; and a large log of Blueberry Goat Cheese from Montchevre in Belmont, Wis. You'll have an attractive, well-rounded cheese platter with plenty of talking points that won't put you in the poor house.

Finally: The Cheese Gift Box for the Cheese Geek

Let's face it: this is Wisconsin, so we've all got that one friend who is REALLY into cheese. Pamper them with a themed gift box of the hottest style of cheese right now: alpine. Start with the no-brainer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville; include a healthy chunk of Grand Cru Surchoix, an extra-aged Gruyere (yes, it's still a Gruyere, even though they took that word off the label) from Roth Cheese in Monroe, and if you can find it: Cupola from Red Barn Family Farms, a semi-hard cheese with notes of caramel and toasted pineapple. Include a bottle of your favorite Pinot Noir or Beaujolais and you'll be official friends for life.