2017: The Year of the Egg Yolk and American Artisan Cheese

It’s starting: national food trend experts have labeled 2017 as “the year of the egg yolk.” African flavors, Spanish flavors and a Middle Eastern spice mix called baharat are all supposed to be hot, while almost everyone is excited about sorghum grain bowls for breakfast and foods grilled on a plancha.

I don’t even know what the hell a plancha is*.

What I can tell you is that 2017, similar to the last 10 years, will be the year of American artisan cheese. That’s because American cheesemakers continue to up their game in quality and innovation. And in Wisconsin, we’ve got a whole new generation of cheesemakers coming up who are pushing block cheddar and shredded mozzarella to the side and stocking specialty cheese counters with American Originals such as Le Rouge, Vat 17 and Wischago.

So do what you want with egg yolks this year, but seek these cheeses out, too:

1. Le Rouge — this alpine-style cheese from Red Barn Family Farms is made by Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig. It’s reminiscent of a table Alp cheese you might eat at in a farmer’s kitchen in Switzerland, and is made from the milk of six Wisconsin dairy farmers who all follow the Red Barn Rules.

2. Vat 17 — this sweet cheddar-style cheese from Deer Creek has been on the market for two or three years, but never gets the credit it deserves. The story goes that Deer Creek owner Chris Gentine worked with Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning for years to develop an exact flavor profile of a cheese he was seeking, and the 17th vat of cheese they made finally fit the bill. Creamy yet crumbly, and chock full of calcium-lactate crystals, this cheese puts your average block cheddar to shame.

3. Wischago — Until about six months ago, Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery marketed this cheese as Manchego, but then a rather threatening letter from the Spanish Manchego Consortium persuaded her to change the name to Wischago. No matter. This aged sheep milk’s cheese is better than any imported Spanish Manchego you’ll find in an American grocery store.

*I googled plancha and according to Steven Raichlen’s Barbecue! Bible, a plancha is “a sort of griddle—a thick, flat slab of cast iron you place on your grill for searing small or delicate foods.” You can get a plancha insert for your gas grill for about $35, or you can purchase a Vulcan V1P18-NAT V Series Natural Gas 18″ Modular Heavy-Duty Plancha Range, 17,500 BTU for $3,538.75 here. I’m likely to do neither.

Rush Creek Reserve: It’s What’s for Dinner

Ahh, Christmas. That magical time of the year when I drown out the sound of my neighbor’s holiday yard light show by cranking Weird Al on the wireless speakers and eating Rush Creek Reserve for dinner. I’m sure I’m not alone – with either Weird Al or Rush Creek –  as cheese lovers everywhere are currently eating the results of a long season of hard work for one Wisconsin company.

That’s because between September and November, the cows in the dairy barn at Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville got more sleep than their owner, Andy Hatch, maker of two of the most famous cheeses in America: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve. In the morning, Andy and company made Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the farmstead cheese that put Wisconsin on the map, and then from late afternoon until long past sunset, they crafted my favorite soft, bark-wrapped cheese: Rush Creek Reserve. I heartily thank Andy and his crew for making cheese 17 hours a day this fall – I am truly consuming the love of their labor.


In case you don’t know the backstory of Uplands Cheese, as co-owner and lead cheesemaker, Andy is the dutiful caretaker of the company, founded in 1994 by Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude. More than 20 years ago, the farming couples joined their herds and transitioned to a seasonal, pasture-based system. Three years ago, Andy and business partner Scott Mericka purchased the operation. Scott oversees 244 acres of grass and is the herdsman for 150 milking cows. Cows eat the farm’s grasses and produce milk that Andy makes into seasonal cheeses.

For a city boy who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Andy is a born farmer who didn’t realize it until arriving at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. While studying anthropology and environmental science, he became engrossed with the science of agriculture, working on area vegetable farms, starting a community garden, and writing a thesis on urban agriculture.

“I found I really liked working on farms,” Andy says. “If I could have figured out a way to start a farm, that’s what I would have done. But unless you grow up on or inherit a farm, it’s virtually impossible to hurdle the capital investment that starting a farm takes.”

With farming still in the back of his mind, Andy returned to Wisconsin to work at the Michael Fields Institute in East Troy. For one year, he assisted famed Dr. Walter Goldstein on a ground-breaking corn breeding program. While the work satisfied Andy’s scientific side, it didn’t get his hands outside and in the soil. He regretfully gave his notice. Instead of accepting his resignation, Dr. Goldstein sent him to live with his mother-in-law in Norway.

“Working with Dr. Goldstein was an incredible experience, but I what I really wanted to do was farm. He knew that. So he sent me to Norway to stay with his recently widowed mother-in-law and help her get the family farm in shape to sell. I really had no idea what was in store for me,” Andy says.

He had traveled to Europe twice before with his parents, both wine enthusiasts, but he had never been to Norway. Immediately, the remoteness of staying with a 70-year-old woman named Unni on a fifth-generation goat dairy with no car, no computer, and no phone in the fjords of west Norway cleared his mind. He spent mornings hand milking 14 goats, never having milked an animal before. “For the first week, the muscles in my forearms were so sore I couldn’t grip a fork at supper,” Andy says.

After morning milking, Andy helped make cheese in a tiny, but surprisingly modern stainless steel vat in a small building 300 yards from the ocean. The routine of milking and making cheese suited him. Andy learned how to make cheese via sight, smell, and touch. He made hard, aged goat’s milk cheeses, which Unni sold to tourists at the ferry landing. After the daily dose of cheesemaking, Andy spent the afternoon in a hut stirring the day’s whey in a pot over a fire to make geitost. By evening, it was time to milk the goats again, eat a simple supper, and collapse into bed on a mattress stuffed with straw.

He stayed three months, long enough to help Unni settle affairs to sell the farm and make him a pair of socks from the hair of the farm dog, a Norwegian reindeer-herding pup named Knatchean. “It took me a month to learn how to say the dog’s name,” Andy says. He still has the socks.

From Norway, instead of going home, Andy headed to southern Europe. He had caught the cheesemaking bug. He roamed two years, making mountain cheeses in Austria, sheep cheeses in Tuscany, and goat cheeses in Ireland. He stayed a season or two in each location, earning his keep during the day with his cheesemaking labor, and earning a few coins at night by playing mandolin and fiddle in local taverns. For two years, he couldn’t decide which path to take: musician or cheesemaker. And then came a call from home.

“My mother called with the news that my dad was very ill, so I got on the first plane home and spent the summer with him in the hospital,” Andy says. That fall, his parents spent time recuperating at the family cottage in Door County. Andy followed and met Caitlin, an artist who became his wife. He took an agricultural short course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, milked cows on area dairies, and apprenticed with cheesemakers to earn his Wisconsin cheesemakers license. He accepted a cheesemaking job at Uplands in 2007, married Caitlin in 2009, and, with her, copurchased Uplands Cheese three years ago, moving into a house on the Uplands farm. It’s where they are now raising their two children.

“Cheesemaking is the vehicle that allows me to stay on the farm,” Andy says. “It also satisfies my creative impulses, which is one of the reasons I spend so much time working on Rush Creek Reserve.”

Inspired by his experience of making Mont d’Or in the Jura region of France, Rush Creek Reserve is a serious, all-consuming labor of love. Andy cuts and stirs large curd by hand to protect its soft and delicate nature, and hand ladles curd into forms. It is then flipped, and drains overnight. The next morning, wheels are brined and handwrapped by spruce bark that’s been boiled and soaked in yeast and molds. As a raw milk cheese, Rush Creek is aged 60 days and then immediately shipped to retailers. It’s the type of cheese that, when eaten, is designed to be warmed with the top removed, and enjoyed with a spoon or bit of bread.

In Madison, Rush Creek Reserve is available right now at several outlets, although obviously I’m a bit partial to Metcalfe’s Markets. I even put bows on every wheel we sell at our Hilldale store.

As Andy and Caitlin look to the future, I’m sure they wonder if either of their children will want to be cheesemakers. In any case, Andy is planning on teaching them to play the violin and mandolin, his second great love to cheesemaking. His band, Point Five—a local group of musicians playing traditional, acoustic Americana music—plays numerous gigs in the region. “We’ve got enough instruments in this house that the kids will be able to play whatever they want to,” Caitlin says. “And if they’re lucky,” Andy adds, “I’ll even sing along.”

Uplands Cheese Named Amercan Artisan of 2016

The accolades for Wisconsin artisan cheeses just keep rolling in this year. First, Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix from Monroe won the World Championship Cheese Contest in March. Then Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg won the American Cheese Society’s Best in Show in July with Little Mountain. And this week, Martha Stewart named Uplands Cheese one of her 10 American Makers of 2016. Talk about the magical trifecta of cheesy goodness.

The cheesemaking crew at Uplands Cheese with Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch picked up the award last week in New York, shaking hands and talking shop with movers and shakers from around the world. Each year for the past five years, Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living magazine have selected 10 artisans for their entrepreneurial passion and contributions to their communities in the fields of food, style, design, and technology.

“I’d like to thank Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living for not only valuing the quality of our cheese, but also for recognizing that our success can serve as an example to other family farms looking to add value to their milk. I spent years as a cheesemaking apprentice in Europe, and there’s nowhere I’d rather make cheese than in southern Wisconsin. We have everything we need right here to make world-class cheese,” Andy said.

As you all know, Uplands is best-known for Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an alpine-style cheese made in the spring, summer and fall months when cows are out on fresh pasture. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is the most-awarded cheese in American history and the only cheese to have won both the American Cheese Society’s and U.S. Cheese Championship’s Best of Show.

Cheesemaker Andy Hatch

Of course, this time of year, Hatch and the rock star cheesemaking team are finishing up making Rush Creek Reserve, a soft-ripened cheese wrapped in spruce bark that has developed a cult following since its 2010 debut. The cheese, only available mid-November through January, sells out almost immediately after its release. Beginning November 14, Rush Creek Reserve will be available online direct from Uplands Cheese or at specialty cheese retailers nationwide.

Side note: I’m driving to Uplands on Nov. 14 and picking up the first 30 cases we’ll be selling at Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Milwaukee. I feel like it’s the perfect way to break in my new car, because really, which is better, a new car scent, or the aroma of washed rind cheese?

Congratulations to the full list of 2016 Martha Stewart American Made Honorees:

•    21c Museum Hotels – Louisville, KY
•    Eagle Street Rooftop Farm – Brooklyn, NY
•    Girls Who Code – New York City
•    Harry’s Berries – Oxnard, CA
•    Loki Fish Company – Seattle, WA
•    M&S Schmalberg – New York City
•    NYCitySlab – Yonkers, New York
•    Stony Creek Colors – Nashville, TN
•    Sweetgreen – Washington, DC
•    Uplands Cheese – Dodgeville, WI

And special congrats to Andy and his team at Uplands Cheese. Thank you for making exceptional cheese, and more importantly, thank you for being good people. Wisconsin adores you.

Studying a Wisconsin Icon: the Cheese Curd

There are few things that define Wisconsin better than fresh, squeaky cheese curds. And while I’m a firm believer that everyone should just visit or move to Wisconsin to enjoy curds while they’re fresh, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison knows that’s not possible. That’s why CDR staff are studying cheese curds in order to find a way to extend the squeak.

In a paper published today, authors Dr. Mark Johnson and Pat Polowsky explain why fresh curds squeak: when eating a fresh curd, our teeth compress the curd’s protein network, making it resist and then rebound as our teeth pass through it. The rebound is what generates vibrations and causes the squeak.

Alas, fresh curds only squeak a day or two, as time breaks down the cheese’s calcium phosphate, and curds lose their ability to resist and rebound. But that’s where Mark and Pat come in: through trial and error, they’ve discovered new ways to prolong the squeak of fresh curd (hint: it involves your freezer). To read the results of their study, visit the Dairy Pipeline, pages 4-5. Then try and replicate at home – warning – this may require the consumption of a large amount of cheese curds. Darn.

Willow Creek Creamery Debuts Red Willow

Red Willow cheese by
Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig

Growing up over Union Star cheese factory near Fremont, Wisconsin, Jon Metzig started helping out in the family cheese plant at seven years old. During his senior year of high school, he missed a week of classes to take a cheese making course at the University of Wisconsin, went on to take the state cheesemaker license test, passed, and became one of the youngest licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin.

But he honestly never thought he’d be a career cheesemaker.

“I was more interested in agriculture – the dairy farm side,” Jon says. “But in the spring semester of my freshman year at UW-River Falls, I took Food Science 101 and learned there was a lot more to cheesemaking than bagging curds. The microbiology and chemistry of it all intrigued me.”

Fast forward to today, and 32-year-old Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig is one of the state’s emerging artisan cheese makers. He just debuted Red Willow, a stinky washed-rind, small-format wheel made in the style of a Trappist Cheese. Made in 1/2-pound to 3/4-pound rounds, Red Willow is aged 20-25 days and washed in salt and brevibacterium linens to give it a lovely pinkish red color (and its signature odor), mixed with a Scottish Ale from Fox River Brewing Company in Appleton, which gives it a yeasty finish. The cheese is pleasantly savory and meaty, but not overly strong. I’d call it a gateway stinky cheese – the kind that wins people over who might think washed rind cheeses aren’t for them.

The cheese gets its name from its red color, plus the fact Jon is making it at the family’s second cheese factory, Willow Creek Creamery, near Berlin, Wisconsin. This is the second washed-rind cheese to Jon’s name – the first being St. Jeanne, named after his grandmother. That cheese is firmer, made in larger, six-pound wheels, and not washed in beer.

“I’ve been making both cheeses off and on for two or three years, and finally decided the key to consistency was making it in a smaller format,” Jon said. “It also helped that cheesemaker Bill Anderson made cheese at Willow Creek for awhile, and I was able to bounce ideas off him.” Jon says he also asked cheesemakers Chris Roelli and Andy Hatch for advice on aging, and both were open and helpful with getting him started.

Over the years, Jon has gained experience in making several different types of cheese. He still spends about half his time at the Union Star plant, making small-batch Cheddar, Colby, Muenster, String Cheese, Monterey Jack and Feta. After graduating college with a degree in Agriculture Business, he worked almost three years as a mozzarella cheesemaker at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese near Waterloo, Wisconsin. He also spent six weeks making Gubbeen with Tom and Giana Ferguson near West Cork, Ireland. While overseas, he also toured several cheese factories in Europe.

Today, Jon is a certified master cheesemaker in Cheddar and Colby, while his father, Dave, is a certified master cheesemaker in Cheddar. The pair are just two of 59 active master cheesemakers in Wisconsin. The father and son are currently in the midst of a succession plan, with Dave retiring in five years, although Jon expects him to still come in every day. “I don’t know if he will ever fully retire,” Jon says with a smile.

Red Willow Cheese by Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig

Montchevre in Belmont Goes Non-GMO

Because baby goats are cute.

You’d think with my hometown of Belmont, Wisconsin being only an hour away, I’d get back home more often. However, the closest I usually get is Mineral Point, where we meet my parents most Sunday nights at the Midway Tavern for homemade pizza and five games of Euchre (we have a running score of who wins each game – women vs. men – written in pencil on the bottom of the Green Bay Packers poster on the wall).

But last week, with an invitation from fourth generation French cheesemaker Jean Rossard to visit the ever-expanding Montchevre goat cheese factory in Belmont, I made the trip to my hometown. With a population of 986 people, this thriving metropolis has gained exactly 160 people since I left home in 1994, and I’m pretty sure they all work at Montchevre.

That’s because Montchevre employs 250 people. In a small town, that’s a big deal. And when you combine that number with another 200+ working at the Lactalis President Brie factory just down the street, French-style cheese has eclipsed Belmont’s one-time claim to fame of being the state’s first capital. Heck, even the village’s homes are powered by methane gas from Montchevre’s anaerobic digester – the first digester installed at a goat cheese factory in America.

Touring a cheese factory these days is complicated. With increased regulations and sanitary requirements from the Food Safety Modernization Act, most won’t let you in at all. But Jean got me suited up in a full-body jumpsuit, booties to cover my shoes, a full head hairnet with openings for my eyes and mouth, and a long white jacket. I looked like I was ready to go cook a meal on the moon. And no, I’m not posting a picture. Let’s just say the outfit was not slimming.

As one of the largest goat cheese factories in America, Montchevre makes an astounding number of different types of goat cheese, all in the same facility, and it does it very well. Jean and Arnaud Solandt founded Montchevre in 1989 in Preston, Wisconsin. In 1995, they moved operations to Belmont and took over the old Besnier America factory on the southeast side of town. When the pair started, the Belmont factory was a rather outdated 30,000 sq. ft, historic cheese factory. Today it is a 110,000 sq. ft. modernized wonder and takes up nearly an entire city block.

The “Welcome Cheese Geek” cheese platter full of Montchevre cheeses,
including from left: 10 flavors of chevre, mini brie and goat cheddar.

In the beginning, Montchevre produced three different cheeses; Le Cabrie, Chèvre in Blue and Chevriotte—all of which are still in production today. Since then, Rossard and Solandt have added more than 50 different cheeses to their family, including a full line of non-GMO fresh chevre logs in a variety of flavors ranging from cranberrry/cinnamon to tomato basil to garlic and herb.

Montchevre is the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chevre, and Jean acknowledges it took his team nearly a year to make it happen. All feed for animals certified non-GMO must be sourced from non-GMO seeds, which sounds A LOT easier than it really is. Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seeds, provide seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy-based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. (Eighty percent of a goat’s diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seeds).

A few varieties of the new non-GMO Montchevre goat
cheese 4-ounce logs.

All of Montchevre’s non-GMO milk is currently produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and that’s a responsibility Jean Rossard does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with goat dairy farmers to troubleshoot problems and solve challenges.

The current pay price for goat’s milk in Wisconsin is about $38/cwt (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for cheese. In comparison, the current pay price for Class III cow’s milk (milk processed into cheese) is $16.34/cwt. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goat’s milk.

Goat dairy farmers Elaine and Dennis Schaaf graciously pose with a cheese
geek who peppered them with questions for a good hour.

Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. “Physically, there’s no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat,” Dennis says. “A cow steps on your foot, you’re going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off.”

The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat milking parlor, and just this summer, built a new open-air free stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside.

“Goats don’t like sun and they don’t like water. That means if it’s raining, they stay inside. If the sun’s out, they stay inside. About the only time you’ll see them in the pasture is at night when it’s not raining.”

The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day, and are breeding 350 goats this fall in anticipation of expanding next year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese year-round. The Schaafs’ herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds of goats.

In a young industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to up-and-coming dairy goat farmers. They say three farmers in their area have switched from milking cows to milking goats just this year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second generation goat dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Milk is picked up about every three days from the goat dairy farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese 363 days a year around the clock. The demand for goat cheese is ever increasing in a nation where eating goat cheese is a relatively new phenomenon. “We’re already planning another expansion,” Jean says. “Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and we’re well on our way to meeting that goal.”

My favorite picture from my day spent with the talented Montchevre crew, pictured from left: Cheesemaker and co-founder Jean Rossard, Milk Supply Manager Cody Taft, Packaging Manager Jeff Amenda and Quality Control Manager Craig Howell. Jean bought us lunch at downtown Belmont’s McCarville’s My Turn Pub, which coincidentally, used to be called the Heins Pool Hall (my maiden name is Heins) and where I a) grew up playing cards with my dad after chores were done and b) hosted my wedding reception with my husband, Uriah. Sometimes life comes full circle.

Modern Day Thelma & Louise: Landmark Creamery Lands in Green County Cheese Days Tent

Anna Thomas Bates (in blue) and Anna Landmark take a selfie with their
first winning ribbon at the 2016 American Cheese Society Competition. The
duo went on to win three awards for their cheeses at the prestigious event.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Watch out, world. For just the second time in the 100-year history of Green County Cheese Days, a woman cheesemaker will sample and sell her cheese inside the event’s iconic cheese tent on the downtown Monroe historic city square.

With more than a dozen cheese factories in Green County, the massive cheese tent at Cheese Days has been dominated by male cheesemakers for years. Only Julie Hook, co-owner of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point in Iowa County, has been able to break the glass vat in the past 20 years and sell cheese inside the Green County tent. And no wonder: America’s Dairyland is full of third and fourth generation cheesemakers, as fathers traditionally pass down their craft to sons.

But starting Friday, Wisconsin cheesemaker Anna Landmark and business partner Anna Thomas Bates will set up a table to sample and sell a half dozen of their different artisan cow, sheep and goat cheeses they make at area cheese factories during off-hours. The pair do not have their own plant, and instead rent space at Thuli Family Creamery in Darlington to make their cheese.

Perhaps the first selfie EVER. Taken by Thelma & Louise, one of my all-time favorite movies.
(It doesn’t hurt that a college boyfriend once told me I looked like Geena Davis. Sigh. If only).

“All the cheesemakers have been so welcoming to us, and we’re very honored to be invited to participate in the cheese tent,” Anna Landmark says. “We’re planning on introducing lots of folks to artisan sheep and goat cheeses.”

The Annas, as they are affectionately known in the industry, have been making cheese since 2013. They purchase sheep milk from a partner dairy in Rewey, cow milk from a grazier near Belleville, and goat milk from a neighboring farm. They are perhaps best known for their award-winning Petit Nuage, a fresh sheep’s milk button cheese, and Anabasque, a natural rinded, hard sheep’s milk cheese that rivals the Franco-Basque cheese on which it is based.

Some of the cheeses Landmark Creamery will be sampling and selling this weekend at Green County Cheese Days include:

The Annas at a Milwaukee dinner last year celebrating
a successful year of making artisan cheese.

  • Samwell, an earthy, cave-aged sheep cheddar, as well as a non cave-aged version
  • Anabasque, inspired by Ossau Iraty from the Basque region of France
  • Pecora Nocciola (a cave-aged version), perfect for grating or shredding on pasta
  • Pipit, a smooth and creamy sheep cheese, made for melting or slicing for sandwiches
  • Petit Nuage, a fresh, French-style soft sheep milk cheese, made weekly
  • A new raw milk Spanish goat cheese, cave aged, and yet to be named (they’re looking for ideas)
  • Chèvre: the original fresh goat cheese, with versions flavored with savory spice, thyme, black pepper, lemon peel, sumac and chili flake
  • A goat version of their ACS award winner Summer Babe, flavored with orange peel, lavender and honey.

Cheese Tent hours at Green County Cheese Days start on Friday, Sept. 16 from 9 am to 8 pm,  continue Saturday from 9 am to 8 pm and conclude on Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm. You’ll find Uriah and me helping out the Annas at their table Saturday morning. (Please stop by and say hi!)

Cheese Days itself runs from Friday through Sunday this weekend and includes a myriad of events all three days, including a main stage and several side stages featuring yodeling, alphorns, polka bands and Swiss heritage music. There’s also a cow milking contest, numerous food stands, and deep-fried cheese curds that are completely worth waiting in line for an hour or more.

On Saturday from noon to 4 pm, don’t miss the cheesemaking demonstration right on the square, where veteran cheesemakers craft a 200-pound wheel of Swiss the old fashioned way in a giant copper kettle. Green County cheesemakers take turns at the microphone, and the public is invited to help stir the curd with an old fashioned “Swiss harp.” After the cheese is hooped, Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers Gary Grossen and Jeff Wideman plug a block of cheese and demonstrate the grading and judging process using the criteria of the U.S. and World Championship Cheese Competitions.

Then on Sunday, come for the grand poobah of all parades, starting at 12:30 pm, and led by a procession of Brown Swiss cows and their Green County dairy farm family owners in full Swiss traditional clothing. The two-hour parade features 11 different divisions of bands, floats, dairy queens, horse-pulled wagons, trucks full of past and present cheesemakers, as well as the Limburger Queen, Stephanie Klett (whose day job is the Wisconsin Secretary of Tourism). Everyone should experience the Green County Cheese Days parade at least once in their lifetimes.

More importantly, come for a weekend of good cheese made by award-winning cheesemakers, and be sure to take a wedge or two home with you!

Uriah and I helped cut and wrapped 546 pieces of Landmark Creamery’s Samwell, a cave-aged sheep milk cheddar,  for Green County Cheese Days. Make sure you buy a wedge at the cheese tent in Monroe this weekend!
Photo by Jeanne Carpenter

Small-Batch Bandaged Cheddars of the Midwest

The long hot month of August can be a slow time in the world of specialty cheese retail, so we cheesemongers spend extra time thinking of clever ways to encourage customers to keep buying cheese. That’s why one day last week, the cheese counter at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale turned into an impromptu Battle of the Bandaged Cheddars, after a customer asked to try several to see which she liked best.

In an exquisite stroke of good timing, cheesemaker Willi Lehner had just that morning arrived with two wheels of his Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. The wheels were placed in the walk-in next to two new truckles of the elusive Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. And, because all good things come in threes, one of our favorite distributors the day before had delivered two long-awaited Flory’s Truckles from the same batch that in July won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition.

The stars had aligned, creating a trifecta of Midwestern bandaged cheddar goodness. We started stripping wheels of their larded linen and cutting wedges to taste and sell.

From left: Flory’s Truckle, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Avondale Truckle.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

 A quick break for a public service announcement on bandaged cheddars: while it is undisputed that cheddar was born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, the origin of bandaged cheddar is a bit murkier. Read this column from Culture Magazine for the scoop. In any case, all cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. After starter culture is added to the milk, and rennet separates curds from whey, the curd is cut and the whey drained off. The mass of curds left behind are then cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed into forms. After the cheese has set, wheels are coated in lard and wrapped in cotton cloth. Each cheesemaker generally has a signature way of wrapping his or her cheddar. Wheels are then placed in a cool, humidity-controlled aging room for six months to two years, depending on the desired flavor profile. By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a mottled, aromatic rind in its place once the cloth is removed. Bandaged cheddar has a drier, crumblier texture than a waxed or plastic-wrapped cheddar. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a more complex flavor profile of caramel, fruity and earthy notes, which trend toward grassy and earthy flavors closer to the rind.

In England, a handful of cheesemakers still make traditional, clothbound cheddar. You can read about three of them in these posts from my 2014 cheddar journey to Somerset County: Montgomery’s Cheddar, Quicke’s Cheddar, Westcombe Cheddar. In the U.S., some of the most awarded and well-known cheeses are bandaged cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound in Vermont and Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar in California.

But I digress. Back to our Battle of Bandaged Cheddars at the Metcalfe’s specialty cheese counter.

The undisputed winner (according to the customer, whom we all know is always right): Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner gets a lot of good press, all of it deserved, and is considered by many to be a living legend when it comes to making artisan cheese. With no cheese factory of his own, he makes cheese at four different factories, and then ages it in an underground cheese cave he built on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, in 2007. In 2013, his Bandaged Cheddar took runner-up Best in Show at the American Cheese Society competition. The rind is delightfully musty and cave-y, and once cracked open, emits aromas of earth and pineapple. The cool thing about most bandaged cheddars is they taste nothing like how their rind smells – a good bandaged cheddar is nutty, with hints of fruit on the finish, with calcium lactate crystals dotting the paste. Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar is one of the best. The wheel we tasted was about 18 months old and perfect.

Tied for first runner up: Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. The Avondale Truckle is absolutely a beautiful cheese. Fayette Creamery (also known as Brunkow Cheese) is owned by Karl and Mary Geissbuhler near Darlington, Wisconsin. In 2007, the pair, along with cheesemaker and marketer Joe Burns, worked with a world-renowned consultant to create the recipe and a special mold for this elegant, extra tall, drum-shaped cheese. The cloth-wrapped cheddar is aged in Brunkow’s hand-dug cellar for 6 to 18 months and is made from milk sourced from Lafayette County dairy farms. Round and buttery in its youth, Avondale Truckle develops a full, layered flavor and wild, earthy aromas as it matures. The bandage had been removed on the truckles we received, so it was hard to get a gauge of the cheese’s age, but I would guess it’s on the younger side, because fruity and floral notes shine through. Most Avondale Truckles are sold in the Chicago market, so we are super lucky to get a taste of this elusive cheese in Madison.

Tied for first runner up: Flory’s Truckle. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: “what the hell is a truckle and why don’t I have one?” In old English, a truckle means cylinder shape. Flory’s version is shorter than Fayette Creamery’s truckle, and is produced on a dairy farm near Jamesport, Missouri by Tim and Jennifer Flory. The couple has ten children and 30 Jersey cows. After aging 60 days on the farm, Flory’s truckles move to Milton Creamery in Iowa, where they spend the next 10 months being turned three times a week. Similar to Bleu Mont’s Bandaged Cheddar, this cheese is exceptionally creamy and fruity with just-the-right-amount of earthy notes creeping in from the rind. This is another cheese that’s hard to find, so to have it on the shelf next to Avondale and Bleu Mont is a cheesemonger’s dream come true.

Cesar’s Bandaged Cheddar
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Of course, no post on small-batch bandaged cheddars would be complete without mentioning Cesar’s new Bandaged Cheddar. You may be familiar with Cesar Luis’ World Champion hand-stretched Queso Oaxaca that he and wife Heydi cut into sticks for us Americans to eat as string cheese. The Wisconsin pair of licensed cheesemakers recently branched out to harder cheeses, including bandaged cheddar. Cesar’s creamy cheddar lacks the fruity and floral notes one might expect of a bandaged wheel, but replaces them with brothy, herbal and earthy notes, highlighting the aroma of the rind. We sampled it one day last week for a few hours at Metcalfe’s and promptly sold half of the 25-pound wheel. Only a few wheels of this unicorn cheese exist, but Cesar says he will be making more. Stay tuned.

Mike & Carol Gingrich Awarded ACS Lifetime Achievement Award

Mike Gingrich and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

In March, Uplands Cheese co-owner and lead cheesemaker Andy Hatch asked Ari Weinzweig and me if we might write letters of support asking the American Cheese Society to consider awarding Mike and Carol Gingrich the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

I asked Andy if he could send me the nominating document he had submitted, as I wanted my letter of support to fill in any gaps and convince the ACS that the founders and creators of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, were indeed so very worthy of the award. After all, past recipients include some serious cheese icons, including Ig Vella, Dan Carter, Kathleen Shannon Finn, Daphne Zepos, Ari Wienzweig, Cathy Strange, Ricki Carroll, John Greeley and Steve Jenkins. No one deserves to be in that list more than Wisconsin artisan cheese pioneers Mike and Carol Gingrich.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

As I watched Andy present, and then Mike accept, the ACS Lifetime Achievement Award award on behalf of Carol and himself last week at the annual ACS conference in Des Moines, I remembered why Andy’s original nomination papers had brought me to tears. Nowhere in the history of a master and apprentice relationship has a former apprentice (now a rock star cheesemaker in demand at every cheese event in the country) given so much credit to the two people who took a chance on their successor. And never before has the master given most of the credit to the industry and the people who surround him. You all might call it “Wisconsin nice.” I call it being humble and kind.

When Mike & Carol Gingrich asked for my help in spreading the gospel of Wisconsin artisan cheese, I said yes. When Mike & Carol asked me to join a committee or help with an event, I said yes. And I said yes because I respected the time, sweat and money they had given to the industry. Mike & Carol Gingrich will never, in a million years, take credit for anything. But they have changed everything.

A standing ovation for Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

An excerpt from Andy’s nomination papers, repeated for the audience at the award presentation:

“Mike and Carol were pioneers in the renaissance of grass-based dairy and farmstead cheesemaking, who had the vision to revitalize old-world traditions in modern ways. Their vision began in the early 1980s, when, together with neighboring dairy farmer and eventual Uplands Cheese co-owners, Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, they were among the first dairy farmers in the country to utilize electric fencing as a way to intensively manage rotational grazing patterns.

“By the late 1990s, when Mike and Dan had combined their herds and purchased a 300-acre grazing farm on Pleasant Ridge, they were producing wonderfully distinctive grass-fed milk and began looking for a way to take advantage of that flavor. After a serendipitous meeting with Ari Weinzweig at the 1998 ACS Conference, Mike became convinced of his milk’s potential for alpine-style cheese. Although his idea came in a period when small Wisconsin cheesemakers were contracting, consolidating or just plain quitting, Mike drew up a business plan for a raw-milk, farmstead cheese named Pleasant Ridge Reserve. As with rotational grazing, he saw an opportunity to take advantage of old traditions in new uncommon ways.

Andy continued: “When I bought the farm from Mike in 2014, he gave me a copy of that original business plan. Incredibly, he had done exactly what he had planned in 1998. His was not an easy path to envision back then, and it certainly wasn’t easy to navigate. Mike’s initial vision of a raw, grass-fed, farmstead cheese struck many as misguided and doomed to fail. When it was proven successful, his refusal to compromise those principles in the name of expansion seemed out of character for an American cheese business. But Mike has the rare combination of a mind sharply attuned to business (he earned an MBA from Harvard before milking cows) and a heart that gravitates to simplicity and authenticity. As he guided Uplands Cheese through growth, awards and recognition, he never wavered from his founding principles, and as he became an impressively profitable cheesemaker, he still provided an opportunity for me, his apprentice, to share in the success and eventually take the reins.

Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

“Despite his obvious accomplishments, Mike never took undue credit for the success of his cheese, and he recognized that his company was riding a wave propelled by many people” from the scientists at the Center for Dairy Research who helped him develop the recipe, to Bob Wills, who opened up his cheese plant to allow Mike and Carol make the first batches of Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Andy concluded: “People in our industry regard Mike not only as a successful cheesemaker, but also as someone who plowed ground that became fertile for the rest of us. It’s rare in any industry to find such a celebrated producer with his humility and altruism. While our larger food culture at times seems to revolve around its own narcissistic gravity, the ACS does well to honor a career based on core values of education, networking and sustainability. Mike and Carol Gingrich have embodied those values since they began milking cows in 1980. This is our chance to honor what they have achieved and given to all of us.”

Congratulations to Mike and Carol Gingrich, and thank you for putting Wisconsin artisan cheese on the map.

New Fall Cheese Class Series Announced

Hey Cheese Peeps! In an effort to alleviate the hate mail I’ve been getting because all of my Wisconsin Cheese Originals classes are sold out through the end of the year, I just added four new tasting and talking classes. Whoo-hoo!

Here are the details:

You get to hang out with me, Jeanne Carpenter, American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, on a Sunday evening and taste and learn about at least four different cheeses each time. You may purchase classes separately for $25 each, or purchase the entire four-class series for $90.

We meet at the lovely Firefly Coffeehouse, 114 North Main Street in downtown Oregon, Wisconsin, located just a quick 10 minutes south of Madison. Classes start at 6:00 pm. Each is limited to 20 attendees. Classes include a complimentary glass of wine, beer or beverage of your choice.  

This is important: These classes sell out fast, so reserve your seat in advance at www.cheesetickets.com

September 25
Cheese 101: Taste the Eight Categories of Cheese

Start out with an introduction to the eight different types of cheese – fresh, semi-soft, soft ripened, surface-ripened, semi-hard, aged, washed rind, and blue. Learn and taste your way through your very own cheese board of eight artisan cheeses, then take the board home and impress your friends with your new-found knowledge.

October 23
American Farmstead Cheeses

Perhaps some of the most eye-appealing and palate-pleasing cheeses are those hand-crafted on the same farm as where the animals – cows, sheep or goats – are milked.  Learn the stories and taste four of the best farmstead cheeses made in America today.

November 20
The Best of American Original Cheeses

The United States is home to some of the most innovative cheesemakers in the world. We’ll taste four original cheeses dreamt up by cheesemakers either through sheer genius or, more often, by mistake. Hear the stories of what it takes to create an award-winning American Original.

December 4
Cheese & Chocolate Pairings

Give yourself an early holiday gift with tickets to this festive tasting of four American artisan cheeses paired with four different chocolates from local chocolatiers. Learn tips and tricks of pairing sweet with savory, and get ideas for holiday gifts for your friends and family!