With the kind of year Wisconsin’s farmers have faced (flat milk prices, bottoming of the economy, low or no profits), everyone in the agricultural sector seems to be quite intent on writing off 2009 and looking ahead to 2010.
But in the world of artisan cheese, 2009 was a pretty good year. Many of our state’s cheesemakers took time to experiment and create new American Originals, with at least 10 new cheeses debuting over the past 12 months. So, in true end-of-the-year tradition, here’s my top 5 list of favorite new Wisconsin artisan cheeses that debuted in 2009:
5. Bohemian Blue, Hidden Springs Creamery & Little Boy Blue, Hook’s Cheese. This partnership between the Hook’s and Hidden Springs Creamery has resulted in two outstanding sister sheep milk blues. Crafted by Tony & Julie Hook at their plant in Mineral Point using sheep’s milk from Brenda Jensen’s farm near Westby, after the make, the wheels are split between both parties. Brenda ages her wheels in her farm cave near Westby and sells it a bit younger as “Bohemian Blue.” Tony & Julie age their wheels in their cellars in Mineral Point, age it a bit longer and sell as Little Boy Blue. They are two, very distinctively different cheeses and both amazing in their own ways.
4. Valfino, Roth Kase USA. This washed-rind cheese actually hit the market several years ago, but disappeared for two years to undergo more research & development, so I’m still counting it as a new cheese for 2009. Valfino is a creamy, runny, mild stinky cheese similar to the Italian Tallegio and sports flavor profiles of beefiness, earthiness and a hint of spice and fruit. Made by Roth Kase USA in Monroe, the cheese was originally a mistake, and we all know it’s the mistakes that are the hardest to reproduce. This is one cheese I’m glad is back on the market!
3. Queso Oaxaca, Cesar Cheese. This was the year string cheese made a comeback in Wisconsin. As the only 100 percent hand-pulled Queso Oaxaca (or as we Americans call it: string cheese) made in the state, this has become one of my all time favorite cheeses. Each Tuesday, cheesemaker Cesar Luis and his wife, Heydi, drive 3-4 hours from their home in Random Lake to Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg, spend about 8 hours stretching 15-pound, 50-foot ropes of string cheese in a vat of 100+ degree hot water, and then drive home again. An auto mechanic by day, Cesar may be the best part-time cheesemaker I know. I can’t wait to see what he’s got up his sleeve in 2010.
2. Pastoral Blend, Sartori. This cheese proves that you don’t have to be a tiny artisan cheesemaker to craft an amazing, original cheese. Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski debuted this beauty to rave reviews at the American Cheese Society conference in Austin, Texas this past summer. Pastoral Blend is a hard sheep/cow mixed milk cheese, and perfectly compliments this company’s new line of BellaVitano cheeses. Now in limited release — I just purchased some at Fromagination in Madison – Pastoral is a cheese to keep your eye on. It may just sweep the 2010 award season.
And my most favorite cheese of 2009 is ….
1. Sterling Reserve, Mt Sterling Cooperative Creamery. Dairy goat producer and cooperative member Pat Lund wanted to reflect the original intent of forming their farmer co-op, so she proposed crafting a goat cheese “simple in nature, powerful in presence and complex in flavor.” Turns out that’s a pretty good description of Sterling Reserve. Crafted by cheesemakers Al O’Brien and Bjorn Unseth in 2-pound daisy wheels in tiny Mt Sterling, Wis., this raw milk goat cheddar is aged at the plant for about 30 days, and then shipped to a farmstead cheesemaker in northern Wisconsin, where it’s washed and aged in a true cave environment for another 60 days. The result is a cheese that can hold its own on any cheese board in any restaurant or cheese contest anywhere, any time. No question this is my favorite cheese of 2009!!
Here’s to a long and prosperous New Year full of new American Originals crafted by Wisconsin cheesemakers!