The clever title comes from Kirstin’s blog, where she writes about cheese and classes she teaches in the San Francisco Bay area.
Wisconsin Cheese first brought the two of us together a few years ago on a junket to visit some of the best cheese makers in the state. And thus I was delighted to see so many Wisconsin cheeses celebrated on these pages.
Kirstin focuses on cultural and historical influences of American cheese making. The result is a fascinating read.
And on to the tasting…
We enjoyed some cheeses I wrote about in Farmers’ Markets of the Heartland, both amazing cheeses crafted by people who know what they’re doing and have the awards to prove it. The first was Hidden Springs Creamery’s Meadow Melody from Westby, a combination of cow and sheeps milk cheese. I remember owner/cheese maker Brenda Jensen telling me about feeling so proud to win an award at the county fair, because Vernon County - in the Driftless region in the southwest portion of the state - has so many great cheeses that the competition is quite strong.
We moved on to the heart-swooning Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodgeville, a cheese I had to ration when it was first introduced because I could eat a half pound in one sitting. And it’s a terrific indulgence for mac-and-cheese.
And then the Roelli Dunbarton Blue from Shullsburg. I don’t recall meeting a blue cheese I didn’t like, but this cheddar-blue hybrid was exceptional.
Then Kirstin introduced us to the Holland’s Family Cheese’s Marieke Gouda from Thorp, a grand champion of the U.S. Cheese Championship. Cheese maker Marieke Penterman first trained and apprenticed in Wisconsin, then went off to Holang to study traditional methods there.
We finished with Chalet Cheese Co-op’s Limburger from Monroe. If you’ve tasted limburger, you know it’s not for the faint of heart, and is best enjoyed with a little accompaniment, like crusty bread, and perhaps a smidge of Rare Bird cherry lime preserves. It was delicious with a late harvest wine from Austria.
Rachel Driver Speckan, beverage director at City Winery, paired some delicious wines to accompany the cheeses, no easy feat when you consider the complexities of flavors. Both she and Kirstin dished up great information as they guided us through the tasting.
And for your own cheese course
Consider a few things when designing your cheese course at home:
Three cheese should be sufficient to transition from the main meal to dessert, or replace dessert if you like. Offer a progression of mild to bold flavors.
Splurge on special artisan cheeses to treat your guests. Small portions - even two bites per cheese - can communicate the singular nature of the experience. No need for giant portions here.
Take advantage of expertise of your local cheese store. Many cheese mongers are trained to help you find interesting flavor combinations.
And if you’d like to go on your own cheese adventure, the Wisconsin Cheese folks offer a great map. Because there’s no better food to offer your guests than one that comes with a story.
What better time to share with you a peek at what’s coming up from the fabulous dairy folk behind Wisconsin Cheese? I was invited to a tasting of writers and cheesemongers, and it was old home week. I ran into specialty cheese experts Lisa from Pastoral and Dave and Sam from the Standard Market, as well as blogger friends Kathy from Stresscake, Rob from The Local Beet and Gemma the Pro Bono Baker.
And we feasted
I’d say my highlight was reconnecting with Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese. I met him on a Wisconsin cheese tour a few years ago and was smitten with his collegial approach to his community of cheese makers. Whereas cheese makers from regions in other countries view the guys up the road as competition, Bob brings cheese makers together by opening his facility to folks getting started. Rock star cheese makers like Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company and Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy got their start there.
And now Bob has ventured to the city, opening the Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee as that city’s only urban cheese making facility. We tasted quark, a delicious spreadable that Bob describes as a cross between cream cheese and sour cream. it’s there in the picture with small batch tart cherry preserves from Quince & Apple. We predict great things ahead from Bob and his team, and I’m sure the beer makers must be delighted to have a local companion for their brews.
We also met the lovely Katie Hedrich from LaClare Farms, delicious introducing goat/cow blends.
And we tasted amazing butter from Nordic Creamery, where Al Bekkum tells us that his butter now outsells cheese.
The evening was a delight, with cheeses from smooth and fresh to aged and bold, created by a dozen cheese makers from across the rolling hills of Wisconsin. I’m sure you’ll join me in salivating until these great foods hit the stores and farmers markets.
On most days my favorite cheese word is Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Yes, that’s more than one word. But not long ago, seredipity reached out to my tastebuds and gave me a new word for my cheese vocabulary.
I hate to admit it, but I find farmers markets overwhelming. Yes, I wrote a book about farmers markets and visited about a hundred on my research road trip. So you’d think I’d have some sort of formula to see everything, even have some sort of radar to catch the gem to me swoon. But all too often sensory overload would kick in and I’d have to step away.
I was always happy with my food finds. It’s just that I hate to miss out on anything. With all these years going to the Green City Market, I’ve been missing out. Brunkow Cheese has been selling there for years, grilling up little cheese morsels to feed the sampling crowd, and I’d always find myself meandering over to Capriole or Prairie Fruits Farm, or basically anyone else who had goat cheese.
Of course you know from my gushing posts that I love cow cheese, too, particularly cheese from Wisconsin, which has almost three million cows and knows how to make extraordinary cheese. Here’s Jeanne Carpenter’s report on Cheese Underground about how the folks behind Brunkow made the transition from what they call “standard cheeses” to the ones that make the eyes tilt heaven-ward.
Avondale Truckle is a cloth-wrapped cheddar from Fayette Creamery, the artisan cheese arm of Brunkow. It hails from near Mineral Point, a lovely part of the world not too far from my friends Shirley and Earl, the ones who brought the Uplands Cheese Company’s Rush Creek Reserve for Christmas lunch. Yes, good good friends.
I was helping Lauro, my agricultural economist husband, with a cheese project, and it was on this happy assignment that I learned about a truckle. It’s a 22-pound cylinder of cheddar made in the English style. In the case of this Avondale Truckle, it was wrapped in cloth and aged 18 months.
The best part about my Saturday morning tour is the generosity of cheese maker Joe Burns. Fayette Creamery was the last place we visited, and my cash was pretty depleted. Joe must have seen me sorting through his gorgeous wedges, searching for a smaller one to avoid a trip to the cash machine. He took a wedge, handed it to me and said “on the house.” Three more favorite words.
Be assured that I would still gush if I had paid full price, and will definitely be back for more.
First, it feels a little sacrilegious to make homey, cozy mac ‘n’ cheese with one of the most awarded cheeses of a generation. But I was happy to take one for the team, believe me. Stay tuned.
I feel ever so virtuous because I tested my recipe — with culinary diligence and vigor — and still came out with a little wedge perfect for sharing with you, at least in spirit.
About Pleasant Ridge Reserve
When Mike Gingrich set out to make a cheese in the French beaufort style, along with his wife Carol and their partners Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, he knew the key was the milk. They’d created a closed herd with nine breeds of cows known for making flavorful milk, and grazed those cows on the rolling hills of the Uplands region of Wisconsin. The milk used in Pleasant Ridge is straight from the pasture. Until recently, whenever pasture declined and froze over, the milk would go to other cheese makers. (What they do with it now is even more exciting. More about that in a minute.)
My special fondness for Pleasant Ridge stems from our early acquaintance, kind of the way you have a long-lasting affection for your best friend in kindergarten. I first met the Gingriches and the Patenaudes ten years ago when they made the trek to Chicago for Green City’s winter market when the cheese was hot off the press. It was a mere $14 a pound then, well below the $25 or so it commands now. I’d allow myself only a half-pound ration, knowing it would be eaten later that day, whether or not I had help.
the good news…
And now, joy of joys, Pleasant Ridge has a younger sister, Rush Creek Reserve, created with the newest cheese maker with the company, Andy Hatch. It’s a seasonal cheese made with the autumn milk, when the grasses are dying back and the cows are fed hay. It’s a gorgeous soft cheese, aged only 60 days and sold in a 12-ounce wheel rimmed with spruce bark. The presentation is delightful - you slice off the top rind to reveal the creamy cheese in its own little container. And scoop away. Bread, crackers and potatoes make a great base, but spoon to mouth is so tempting.
My friends Shirley and Earl brought us some for Christmas. They are Dodgeville residents and we had a giggle about how all the folks who have a food crush on Andy Hatch, who is bright eyed and unassuming and would probably blush at all the flutter. We dug in right away and sadly I only have the label to show you. But you can find shots of how to serve it in the New York Times and over at Driftless Appetite, written by fellow cheese lovers Leslie and Keith. It’ll be a big hit at your New Year’s gathering.
I mentioned that I toured Wisconsin cheese territory not too long ago. At dinner one night I met Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery, one effervescent individual who has more than 300 sheep guarded by donkeys (!), and two working draft horses Chief and Beauty. Brenda has created a great gig for herself, and she also makes delicious cheese.
Her Driftless is a spreadable fresh cheese perfect for morning toast, or just about anything really, and she’s embellished it with gorgeous flavors like pumpkin and maple syrup. Her big newsflash is that her Meadow Melody, a 50-50 sheep-cow blend will be available soon. I, for one, am counting the minutes.
I admit I’m a little partial to Brenda’s Bohemian Blue, a bold cheese where a little goes a long way. Although it’s impossible to pick a favorite, and I had a full cooler to prove it.
In my book, cheese is delicious straight up. But sometimes a little experimentation can be fun. I made an improv lunch with fresh cheese tortellini from Buitoni (and Barilla makes a good dried version) tossed with good olive oil, Bohemian Blue and pears. The flecks are red Hawaiian sea salt.
You heard right. Pears and blue cheese are a great combination, and the pears brighten up this casual lunch and set off the bold taste of the blue. The bonus is that prep time is about four minutes once the water comes to a boil.
Last week I thought I was embarking on a fact finding mission, a listening tour. A better-than-average business trip for sure. But afterward it felt like the best kind of summer camp. One filled with field trip after field trip (literally) and time on the bus with the most fun people. The kind of camp that leaves one with warm memories and the wish that it could go on and on.
The cheesemakers behind all this deliciousness are good friends and neighbors who encourage each other’s businesses. They are also one opinionated bunch, who seem to agree on very little. For instance:
“Raw milk still comes with risks” v. “Raw milk is the way to go. Here, have a sip.”
“We mix flavors into almost all our cheeses” v. “Nothing should interfere with the flavor of the cheese.”
“Our cows yield more milk than the industry standard” v. “Maximizing yield is not a good idea.”
“We make more than 70 cheeses” v. “we make one cheese.”
French president Charles DeGaulle once said ”how can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”
I can see where DeGaulle was coming from.
Despite all the difference of opinion, there was not one cheese I didn’t like. Many were swoon worthy. Granted, this might be the most-awarded collection of cheese makers ever assembled, and thus the bar is pretty high. Sid Cook, Carr Valley’s master cheese maker, has won more awards than any cheese maker in the world (yes, the world), and Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society three times. No other cheese has won more than once.
All in all, it’s the artisan nature that sets these cheeses apart from the slices and shreds we find in the grocery store. Regardless of differing philosophies, these cheese makers consider themselves friends and colleagues. Nice company indeed.
So stay tuned for more, including some recipes I’m cooking up using the stash I brought home.
Think about subscribing to my newsletter, or my feed. Or tweet with me! Photos compliments of Janine MacLachlan, www.RusticKitchen.com. All rights reserved.