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

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!

Roelli Cheese Wins 2016 ACS Best in Show with Little Mountain

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Every once in a great while, good things happen to good people. Such was the case tonight at the 2016 American Cheese Society awards ceremony, as Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, one of the country’s most humble, hardworking and beloved cheesemakers, took home Best in Show for the very first time. Ever. And he did it with a cheese he created to honor his family.

With tears in his eyes and emotion flowing through his voice, the first call after the pomp and circumstance ended onstage was to his father, Cheesemaker Dave Roelli, who first taught Chris how to make cheese as a young boy. Chris is the fourth generation in his family to make cheese at the family plant near Shullsburg, Wisconsin, and just two years ago, he and his cousin purchased the business from their fathers.

“Sit down,” he told his dad over the phone. “I just won the whole ACS show. Yes. Best of Show with Little Mountain. It’s everything we’ve ever worked for.”

Everything he’s ever worked for: indeed, Chris Roelli and his wife, Kristine, have worked long days and nights establishing and rebranding Roelli Cheese after they reopened the once-closed cheese plant ten years ago. Chris found early fame with his American Original, Dunbarton Blue, a natural rinded cheddar streaked with blue veins, and also with Red Rock, another cheddar blue made in blocks with a white mold rind and creamy texture.

Little Mountain is Chris’ newest cheese. It pays homage to his family cheesemaking heritage in Switzerland. Created with the help of John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Little Mountain is an Appenzeller style made in 15-pound wheels and washed with a proprietary blend of bacteria and brine. It’s aged between 8 and 14 months. The winning wheel was aged nine months.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

“This cheese is more special because it takes me back to my family’s roots,” Chris said. “It’s also the cheese I make the least of.” Only 1,200 pounds of Little Mountain currently exist, and Chris now faces the monumental task of trying to fill orders from hundreds of stores around the country, all of which will be clamoring for the Best in Show cheese.

In addition to winning Best in Show, Wisconsin also had a hand in the Third Place Best in Show winner, Jeffs’ Select. The aged gouda is crafted by Jeff Wideman at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, and then aged at the Caves of Faribault by Jeff Jirik in Minnesota. The two men shared the prize.

Rounding out the Best in Show honors was Buff Blue from Bleating Heart Cheese in California, and St. Malachi Reserve from The Farm at Doe Run in Pennsylvania. Both cheeses tied for second place. Tying for third place was Greensward, made by Jasper Hill in Vermont and aged by Murray’s Cheese in New York.

Overall, Wisconsin dominated the competition, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, winning 104 awards, more than any other state in the nation. Of those awards, 28 were first place ribbons, 32 were second places and 44 were thirds. Overall, California came in second with 55 awards, and Vermont third, with 36 awards.

All Wisconsin companies earning awards at tonight’s competition for their cheeses were:

  • Arena Cheese, Arena: Colby, Smoked Gouda
  • Arthur Schuman Inc: Cello Thick and Smooth Mascarpone, Yellow Door Creamery Harissa Rubbed Fontal 
  • BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay: BelGioioso Fresh Mozzarella 16 oz. Log, BelGioioso Mascarpone, BelGioioso Burrata, BelGioioso Fontina
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain: Sheep Milk Feta, Donatello
  • Cesar’s Cheese, Random Lake: Cheddar Cheese Curds, Hand Stretched String Cheese, Cesar’s String Cheese, Oaxaca String Cheese
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo: Yellow Cheddar Cheese Curds, White Cheddar Cheese Curds, Fresh Mozzarella, Fresh Mozzarella-under 8oz, Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese Curds, Marinated Fresh Mozzarella
  • Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello: Emmental, Brick
  • Emmi Roth USA, Monroe: Pavino, GranQueso Reserve, GranQueso, Roasted Garlic Raclette, Smoked Fontina, Grand Cru Surchoix
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Driftless-cranberry cinnamon, Driftless- Maple, Meadow Melody Grande Reserve, Meadow Melody Reserve
  • Hook’s Cheese Company, Mineral Point: Little Boy Blue, Barneveld Blue, Pepper Jack
  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Brick, Muenster, Odyssey Feta, Odyssey Reduced Fat Feta, Odyssey Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Peppercorn Feta, Odyssey Mediterranean Feta, Odyssey Greek Yogurt French Onion Dip, Odyssey Blueberry Greek Yogurt, Odyssey Greek Yogurt
  • Kraft Heinz: Cracker Barrel – Sharp Cheddar, Cracker Barrel – Extra Sharp Cheddar
  • Lactalis American Group, Belmont: 33 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, 1 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, Feta Crumbles, Reduced Fat Feta, Brie – Herbs, Rondelé Garlic & Herbs Gourmet Spreadable Cheese
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany: Pecora Nocciola, Petit Nuage – Summer Babe, Petit Nuage
  • Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Monroe: Mild Gouda, Aged Gouda, Aged English Hollow, Jack the Reaper, Pepper Jack, Twin Grove Gouda, Smoked Gouda 
  • Marieke Gouda, Thorp: Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Jalapeno, Marieke Gouda Truffle
  • Montchevre-Betin, Inc., Belmont: Fromage Blanc, La Chevriotte, Trivium, Mini Bucheron, Oh-La-La! Fresh Spreadable Goat Cheese, Bandaged Goat aged by Crown Finish Caves
  • Mt. Sterling Cheese Co-op: Smoked Jalapeno Jack, Sterling Reserve
  • Organic Valley, LaFarge: Organic Pasteurized Colby, Organic Salted Butter 
  • Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton: Horseradish Flavor Cold Pack Cheese Food, Hot Habanero Cold Pack Cheese Food
  • Roelli Cheese Company, Shullsburg: Little Mountain 
  • Saputo Specialty Cheese: Black Creek Colby, Stella Aged Asiago, Great Midwest Hatch Pepper Cheddar, Black Creek Pepper Jack, Black Creek Double Smoked Cheddar
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth: Sartori Classic MontAmoré, Sartori Limited Edition Pastorale Blend, Sartori Classic Asiago, Sartori Reserve Chipotle BellaVitano
  • Saxon Cheese, Cleveland: Saxony Alpine Style – 30 Month, Snowfields Butterkase Style – 12 Month, Saxony Alpine Style, Asiago Fresca, Snowfields w/red chillies and mushrooms
  • The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheyboygan: Deer Creek The Stag, Deer Creek The Imperial Buck, Deer Creek The Moon Rabbit
  • V&V Supremo Foods: Queso Oaxaca, Queso Chihuahua with Jalapeno Peppers
  • Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa: Traditional Washed Rind Brick Cold Pack, Washed Rind Brick Cheese, Traditional Colby
  • Zimmerman Cheese, South Wayne: Traditional Smoked Brick, Muenster Cheese

The 2016 ACS Judging & Competition saw 1,843 entries of cheeses and cultured dairy products from 260 companies from 37 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and Colombia. A total of 374 ribbons were awarded: 104 first place ribbons, 127 second place ribbons, and 143 third place ribbons.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Happy Birthday Veronica Pedraza. Your Cheeses Rock.

Today is cheesemaker Veronica Pedraza’s birthday and I think we should celebrate with beauty shots of her fabulous cheeses.

For those of you not in the know, Veronica is the lead cheesemaker at Meadowood Farms in New York. She is also a former monger, spectacular fellow member of the American Cheese Society Education Committee, and is an honorary Wisconsinite, as she attended Beloit College and has been overheard appreciating how just gosh darn nice we are here in the Midwest.

When you find her cheeses at retail, buy them immediately. Each is made lovingly in small batches and is exquisite. Here are three of my favorites:

Ledyard: Veronica was inspired by Robiola and St Marcelin when she created this beauty. A soft-ripened sheep’s milk cheese, it is wrapped in grape leaves soaked in Deep Purple, a wheat beer made with Madison County concord grapes.

Strawbridge: in Wisconsin, we have a dearth of non-stabilized soft-ripened cheeses, so this bloomy-rind sheep’s milk cheese especially speaks to me. When it’s young, it’s easy to eat and agreeable to all, but as it ripens, it develops the bold mushroomy flavors of a real Camembert. Similar to a triple crème, it is decadent and buttery.

Juvindale: this is about as close as you’re going to get to Reblochon without paying the European airfare to eat the original. Made with cow’s milk, the rind is thin and pillowy, with a buttery, tangy paste with just the right amount of barny pungency.

Happy birthday, Veronica! You have a fan club in Wisconsin. Your cheese makes us happy.

Photos by my fabulous husband, Uriah Carpenter.

Dandelion Addiction & Fini Sur La Paille Debut in Madison

There are distinct advantages to living in a state with a high percentage of third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers boasting Swiss and German descent who make some of the best Cheddar, Swiss, Brick, Colby, Havarti, Muenster (and of course, Limburger) in the nation.

There are also distinct disadvantages, however, including the fact that Wisconsin makes very, very few French style cheeses – including bloomy rinds like Brie and Camembert, or small, soft and delicate cheeses with sticky, stinky rinds. Apparently the French liked Quebec and Nova Scotia so much, they never ventured west to America’s Dairyland. Dammit.

But a pair of cheesemakers in northern Wisconsin are on a mission to change Wisconsin’s dearth in soft and stinky cheese. Michael Stanitis, owner of Sassy Nanny Farmstead Cheese, and Fred and Kelly Faye, owners of Happy Hollow Creamery, each make a variety of artisan sheep and goat milk cheeses at Fred’s farmstead cheese plant near Bayfield, Wisconsin. Each has their own farm and their own animals, but share creamery space to make their cheeses.

Happy Hollow Creamery is located about as far north in Wisconsin as possible – just a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior. Fred hand crafts artisan sheep cheeses from the milk of his 70 ewes in extremely small batches, and until last week, his products were only available at at local farmers markets and co-ops in Bayfield, Ashland and Duluth. I say until last week, because that’s when a box of Dandelion Addiction arrived at Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison. Whoo-hoo!

Dandelion Addiction (I love this name) is a sheep’s milk camembert-style cheese made in small rounds and hand-packaged in white breathable paper. If you stop by Metcalfe’s to pick one up, don’t expect a perfectly round, machine-made, hockey puck, stabilized brie in a wooden box. Instead, each round is a slightly different shape, of varying widths, and each carries a lovely and dreamy, French-style bloomy-rind flavor and aroma. This cheese is about as close to a French camembert that you’re going to get while living in Wisconsin.

I first tasted this cheese at the Dairy Sheep Association of North America’s annual conference last year, when I volunteered to coordinate tours for 100 people to Wisconsin artisan and farmstead creameries. Dandelion Addiction was featured at the event’s evening of cheese, which included about 50 different sheep milk cheeses from across the continent. I had no idea it even existed until Sid Cook, master cheesemaker and owner of Carr Valley Cheese, walked a piece over to me and said: “You’ve got to try this.” Let’s just say that when Sid Cook tells you to try a cheese, you shut up and eat it.

The cheese was velvety, creamy and rich, just like I would have expected a sheep’s milk camembert (sheep milk is much higher in butterfat than cow’s milk). I guessed it was from Canada, or perhaps one of Veronica Pedraza’s fabulous creations at Meadowood Farms (more about her cheeses in an upcoming post). But no, it was an honest-to-God Wisconsin sheep milk Camembert and the cheesemaker was standing across the room. I high-tailed to meet Fred Faye, and found out he was making the cheese in extremely small batches, and it was only available at farmer’s markets and a couple retail co-ops in northern Wisconsin. I let him know if he ever had an extra batch or two, to give me a call.

That call came two weeks ago from Michael Stanitis, who it turns out, is ramping up his production of soft and gooey and oh-so-stinky goat’s milk cheeses, and wondered if he could send me a sample of his Fini Sur La Paille cheeses along with a round of Dandelion Addiction. I nearly choked in happiness. The cheeses arrived, we scheduled a Saturday tasting with all the Metcalfe’s cheesemongers, and then we promptly ate all of each of the rounds of cheese, completely ignoring customers in our five-minute state of satiated happiness. Needless to say, I placed an order the same day.

While Happy Hollow Creamery specializes in sheep milk cheeses, Michael Stanitis at Sassy Nanny makes small-batch artisan goat milk cheeses. Until last year, he raised and milked the goats himself, made all the cheese, marketed all the cheese and basically nearly died in exhaustion. In 2015, he wisely decided to let a nearby family take over the care and milking of his 25 does, so he now gets to actually sleep and have a life. As a consequence, he also has time to make more cheese, and that’s why Metcalfe’s also now has his Fini Sur La Paille, which translates to “finish on the straw.”

If this cheese were made in France – and I’m telling you it tastes like it does — it would be aged and “finished” on straw mats on wooden shelves in an underground cave with cobwebs. But this being America, it’s aged in a you-can-eat-off-the-floor-it’s-so-clean sanitary room with washable walls and stainless steel equipment. Because that’s how America makes cheese. But Michael has done the near impossible and made a soft, squishy, French-style stinky cheese with just-right goat citrusy tang that’s begging to be spread on a baguette and eaten for breakfast.

Similar to Dandelion Addiction, do not expect these wheels to be perfectly round and consistent. Each round was made by hand and is wrapped in white breathable paper, which allows the pungency of the cheese to eek through in all of its gloriousness.

Priced at $27.99 per pound, neither of theses cheeses are cheap, but they shouldn’t be. When a cheesemaker has control of a product from start to finish – knows the names of each sheep and goat, what they’ve eaten that day, felt their milk in the palm of their hand, and then spent six weeks making the best cheese that represents that precious milk, the end result is going to cost a little more. I’d encourage folks to give these cheeses a try while they last – and they won’t last long. Production is seasonal, farmer’s markets are ramping up, and who knows how many more boxes I’m going to be able to convince Fred and Michael to send my way at Metcalfe’s. Life is short. Spend it eating good cheese.

New Cheese Geek Classes Announced

After teaching a small group cheese class last week, I discovered how much I enjoy sitting down with a few folks, cutting into some wheels of cheese, and taking a deep dive into a topic. So voila – a new series of what I’m calling “Cheese Geek Classes” have been born. Each class is limited to just eight people. We’ll sit around a table, eat some cheese, study a topic in-depth and probably drink a beer or two. I hope you’ll join me!

Here we go:

July 21 – Cheese Geek Class – The Art and Science of Aging Cheese
6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Firefly Coffeehouse, 114 N Main St, Oregon, WI

Join Jeanne Carpenter, American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional for a small-group study on the art and science of aging cheese. We’ll explore four different types of cheese rinds and taste four of the very best artisan cheeses made in America today. Learn why cheesemakers add ash to surface ripened cheeses, why natural rinds are particularly tricky, and learn the difference between a cheese washed in beer and a cheese washed in whiskey. Tickets: $28 and seats must be reserved in advance. Limited to just 8 attendees. Includes glass of wine, beer or beverage of choice. Register at

August 23 – Cheese Geek Class – Learning the Lexicon of Cheese Flavors
6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Firefly Coffeehouse, 114 N Main St, Oregon, WI

Join Jeanne Carpenter for a small-group study on how best to describe the many flavors you taste in cheese. After this class you’ll stop calling cheddar “sharp” (as Pat Polowsky, Wisconsin author of Cheese Science Toolkit would say: “A knife is sharp. Cheese is not.”) We’ll taste four unique American artisan cheeses and learn how to describe them using cheese descriptors such as brothy, roasted or herbal. Afterward, you’ll be able to impress your wine snob friends with your new cheese lexicon. Tickets: $28 and seats must be reserved in advance. Limited to just 8 attendees. Includes glass of wine, beer or beverage of choice. Register at

September 29 – Cheese Geek Class – Understanding Crystals in Cheese

6:30 – 8:00 p.m. Firefly Coffeehouse, 114 N Main St, Oregon, WI

Join Jeanne Carpenter for a small-group study on how and why cheese crystals – those little flavor bursty bits from heaven – form in cheese. We’ll study two types of crystals: calcium lactate and tryosine, learn why each forms in different types of cheese, and how cheesemakers encourage their growth. Plus, of course, we’ll taste four different cheeses, with – you guessed it – crystal features. Is your mouth watering yet? Tickets: $28 and seats must be reserved in advance. Limited to just 8 attendees. Includes glass of wine, beer or beverage of choice. Register at

Beauty and Brains: Red Barn Cupola Wins Design Award

It’s not often a cheese gets national recognition for its package design. But that’s exactly what happened recently with Red Barn Cupola, a Wisconsin artisan cheese. Boasting both beauty and brains, Cupola is a 2016 American Package Design award winner along with brands like 3M, Target and Whole Foods. Pretty cool, huh?

This year’s American Package Design Competition received 2,000 entries worldwide, placing Red Barn’s winning entry among the best-designed and most innovative packaging in the food and beverage industry.

In case you’re not familiar with Red Barn Family Farms, let me fill you in. The company was founded by Dr. Terry and wife Paula Homan in 2008. It consists of five farms in the Black Creek area, each selected for their ability to meet the “Red Barn Rules.” These rules revolve around rigorous quality, animal health, and operational requirements, linking excellence in what we used to call animal husbandry (but what today folks refer to as humane treatment of cows), to excellence in food quality.

Red Barn farmers are compensated with a pay rate for milk above and beyond the commodity market. This rate helps sustains their lifestyle of small, traditional dairy farming. Each farm must be family-owned and family members must perform the majority of the farm labor. Average herd size is 55 cows. Just like when I was a kid, cows are known and cared for by name and live longer lives than today’s industry standard. Each farm is annually inspected and certified by the American Humane Association.

Milk from Red Barn farms is bottled and sold as fluid milk, or crafted into award-winning cheese at one of three Wisconsin creameries – Springside Cheese in Oconto Falls; Willow Creek Creamery in Berlin, and LaClare Farms in Pipe. Cupola is crafted at LaClare by U.S. Champion cheesemaker Katie Fuhrmann. The cheese is fruity and nutty with hints of caramel and toasted pineapple. In other words, it’s amazing.

Cupola was named after the small structure at the top – or pinnacle – of traditional Wisconsin barns. A pinnacle cheese for Red Barn, Cupola is an American original that combines top-quality milk, a world-class cheesemaker, and a recipe perfected with the help of the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison over a three-year time period.

“Red Barn’s mission is to honor and sustain excellent small family farms in Wisconsin,” says company president Paula Homan. “We worked closely with Scott Mueller of Design Incites to create packaging that would communicate the tradition of excellence that our farms represent and the quality of the products they produce.”

Congrats, Red Barn Family Farms, for dedicating your lives to rewarding dairy farmers for producing quality milk that’s made into stellar cheese.

For the Love of Grilled Cheese

Brooklyn Dairy Queen Kajal Russell, one of 13 Green
County Dairy Queens, is one of the most awesome
young women you’ll ever meet. Plus, she likes cheese.
You go, girl!

What makes thousands of people gather in a park pavilion on a chilly April day in Wisconsin? Cheese, of course. And in this case, hot cheese. Grilled cheese, to be exact. Every year, the Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship comes to Dodgeville with the noble mission of determining who makes the best grilled cheese in America.

Contestants this year came from all over the country, including one guy from California who wore a Wisconsin flag as a superhero cape and brought a van of groupies and a bin of trophies from previous grilled cheese contest wins. He lined up his hardware in front of his frying pan to intimidate the competition, and indeed did win over more groupies amid cheers of “rattlesnake sausage” (yeah, I don’t know what that means, either), but it was one of our own who took Best in Show for the second year in row. So, suck it, Mr. California (and I mean that in the nicest Midwestern way possible).

Best in Show went to Beth Crave, representing Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Beth used a variety of cheeses from different Wisconsin companies in her innovative and tasty grilled cheeses. She entered all four different categories: classic, classic plus one, classic plus extras and dessert. I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for the professional competition this year, and I can tell you her sandwiches were the only ones that routinely earned perfect or near-perfect scores. They were also the only sandwiches that I wrapped up in a napkin to eat the rest later. It’s official: this gal knows her grilled cheese.

In fact, my favorite grilled cheese of the whole day (and it was a six-hour day of judging) was Beth’s “Sunrise Surprise,” featuring Madison Sourdough bread layered with a blend of Saxon Creamery Snowfields and Emmi Roth Butterkase, piled high with smoked turkey, candied bacon, silvered avocado and farm fresh hard boiled eggs. It was grilled to perfection using Nordic Creamery Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. Oh yeah, baby.

Here’s a picture of the sandwich (my apologies for the bite out of it – this is what judging looks like):

And here’s a picture of the whole sandwich. Each sandwich was judged on presentation, taste and style, with a perfect score = 40. Guess how many points I gave this sandwich? You guessed it: 40.

Every year, event coordinator Matt Staver and his amazing team of volunteers improve the event to draw a bigger crowd of both contestants and attendees. This year, there had to be at least 1,000 people in the crowd, and every heat for the amateur categories was close to full. The event was founded five years ago by the late Lorin Toepper, a culinary instructor at Madison College and president of the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corp. Today, many of the volunteer judges for the professional division come from Madison College’s culinary arts program.

One of the best moments of the day was when a sweet lady named Shirley Ritter won the amateur Classic Plus Extras category. Emcee extraordinaire Kyle Cherek (of Wisconsin Foodie fame) had been paging Shirley to no avail. Suddenly, Shirley appeared from the crowd, and when Kyle handed her the first place trophy, she nearly had a stroke and burst into tears. Because that’s what winning a grilled cheese contest can do, folks: move you to tears.

Shirley Ritter accepts the first place trophy from Emcee Kyle Cherek and Molly
Hendrickson, Iowa County Fairest of the Fair.

Keeping the event on a steady beat were the fabulous musicians from Point Five, a Mineral Point band featuring Cheesemaker Andy Hatch on mandolin. Their Americana music was a perfect fit for an event celebrating an iconic American food.

Point Five band from Mineral Point. And yes, that’s Cheesemaker Andy Hatch
from Uplands Cheese smiling at me while playing the mandolin.

For all of her efforts on Saturday, Best in Show winner Beth Crave won a super cool hand-made wooden chest that was actually a beer cooler with built in speakers. Fellow judge and Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli told me he thought it would look great in his garage, but I have a feeling Beth is keeping it.

Here’s a full list of winners from the 2016 Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship. Congratulations to all!

Amateur Classic (any type of bread,  real Wisconsin butter, and only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese. No additional ingredients)

First Place: Ann Thompson, Dodgeville, WI
Second Place: William Koepcke, Verona, WI
Third Place: Matthew LaForest, Los Angeles, CA

Amateur Classic Plus One (a savory – as opposed to sweet – sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese, plus one additional ingredient. The interior ingredients must be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Brenda Plantino, Delavan, WI
Second Place: Roberta Jake, Elgin, IL
Third Place: Robert Pappas, WI

Amateur Classic Plus Extras (a savory – as opposed to sweet – sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese – multiple cheeses accepted – plus unlimited additional ingredients.  However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Shirley Ritter, Highland, WI
Second Place: Matthew LaForest, Los Angeles, CA
Third Place: Ann Thompson, Dodgeville, WI

Amateur Dessert (any kind of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese – multiple cheeses accepted – plus additional ingredients to create an overall sweet – as opposed to savory – flavor that would be best served as a “dessert” grilled cheese sandwich. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Cara Wallner, Menomonee Falls, WI
Second Place: Kimmy Cleary & Morgan Weirich, Fennimore, WI
Third Place: Brenda Plantino, Delavan, WI

Youth Chefs (A special heat for competitors aged 12-17, all prepared a sandwich in the category of their choosing and were accompanied by an adult during the competition)

First Place: Olvera Rocio
Second Place: Joey Curtis
Third Place: Jalene Pierick

Professional Classic (any type of bread, real Wisconsin butter, and only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese. No additional ingredients)

First Place: Zach Washa, Carr Valley Cheese, Highland, WI
Second Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Third Place: Anna Thomas Bates, Landmark, Creamery, Albany WI

Professional Classic Plus One (a savory – as opposed to sweet – sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, only one kind of real Wisconsin cheese, plus one additional ingredient. The interior ingredients must be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Second Place: Thomas Heller, Monks Bar and Grill, Wisconsin Dells, WI
Third Place: Amy Pohle, The Lunch Bus, Platteville, WI

Professional Classic Plus Extras (a savory – as opposed to sweet – sandwich with any type of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese – multiple cheeses accepted – plus unlimited additional ingredients. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Beth Crave, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, WI
Second Place: Alyssa Marie, Dodgeville, WI
Third Place: Joseph Gustafson, Cuba City, WI

Professional Dessert (any kind of bread, a grilling aid that includes butter, margarine, or plain or flavored oils, real Wisconsin cheese – multiple cheeses accepted – plus additional ingredients to create an overall sweet – as opposed to savory – flavor that would be best served as a “dessert” grilled cheese sandwich. However, the interior ingredients must still be at least 60% cheese)

First Place: Alyssa Marie, Dodgeville, WI
Second Place: Joseph Gustafson, Cuba City, WI
Third Place: Zach Washa, Carr Valley Cheese, Highland, WI

Congratulations to all!!

Healthy Cheese, Healthy People: Omega Valley Farmers Launches New Cheese High in Omega 3’s

A small group of Wisconsin dairy farmers is seeking to change the way Americans get more nutritious fatty acids in their diets – a change that could potentially lead to less arthritis for older folks, less depression in children, and improved memory for the rest of us. And they’re doing so by feeding their cows a patented diet that results in special milk made into pretty darned good cheese.

Omega Valley Farmers, headquartered in the thriving central-Wisconsin metropolis of Dorchester (population 872), quietly launched its line of Omega 3 Cheeses three years ago in several Heartland Cooperative convenience stores. Now the group is building momentum and branching out to larger retailers, meaning the cheese is now available near me in Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Milwaukee. Whoo-hoo!

Crafted by Master Cheesemaker Ken Heiman at Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, the Omega 3 Cheeses come in a line of Cheddar and flavored Monterey Jacks, but gouda, muenster, and provolone will be soon be available. The cheese is made from the milk of five family-owned dairy farms in central Wisconsin, four of which milk between 50 and 70 cows, with the fifth milking 500 cows. All are committed to producing rBST-free milk, meaning they do not inject their cows with artificial hormones to increase milk production.

All farms are are audited by a third party annually for humane animal treatment, and each feeds their cows a diet patented by Jerome Donohoe, who retired after spending 32 years with the Medical College of Wisconsin to start his own company conducting research on animal feeding systems. Donohoe’s now-famous feed ration naturally increases the amount of natural Omega 3 fatty acids in cows’ milk through a strategic balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, using only agricultural plant products and no fish meal or animal byproducts.

The result from the patented diet is a cheese that transcends the good-for-you labels of organic, grass-fed and GMO-free and actually delivers more Omega 3’s per ounce than any other cheese on the market. An adequate intake of Omega 3 for an adult is about 1,600 mg per day. One ounce of Omega Valley Cheddar contains 390 mg and an ounce of Omega Valley Jack has 415 mg. Add a few crackers, and all of us could get all the Omega 3s we need every day just by eating 4 oz of Omega Valley cheese.

And, interestingly enough, not only is the milk produced by these special cows turned into cheese that is super healthy, the cows themselves are healthier, too. After just 100 days on a diet with balanced Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids, cows’ hearts and livers measured higher in nutritious fatty acids, translating to longer, healthier lives. One farmer I talked to said his veterinarian bills were half of what they were before he started the feeding program.

Healthy cows, healthy milk and healthy cheese are all great, but as a cheesemonger, what matters most to me is flavor. Does the cheese taste good? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is Omega 3 Cheeses are made at a nationally-recognized factory supervised by one of only 50 Master Cheesemakers in Wisconsin, so of course they are going to be high quality. The cheeses are also less expensive than similar cheeses with trendier labels. For example, a 7-oz square of Horseradish & Chive Jack is $5.99 – not a bad price for a health-filled food.

So the next time you’re watching for what’s new in the cheese department, look for Omega 3 Cheeses. You’ll be supporting a great group of Wisconsin dairy farm families, nutritionists and cheesemakers, as well as five herds of exceptionally happy cows. Win-win-win.

Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

In his book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, California author Gordon Edgar argues Wisconsinites take cheese for granted. With hundreds of cheese factories, thousands of dairy farms, and daily proximity to fresh cheese curds, we are spoiled with an abundance of good cheese.

There’s no doubt he’s right. All one needs to do is listen to someone from Arizona complain about living in a “cheese desert” to make us natives better appreciate living in America’s Dairyland. Of Wisconsin’s 600 types, styles and varieties, no cheese better defines Wisconsin better than Cheddar. After all, of the 129 cheese factories in the state, almost half make Cheddar. That’s 561 million pounds of just one type of cheese every single year.

Not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers produce a boatload of cheddar, they make it in a variety of ways. Some mass-produce florescent orange 640-pound blocks and sell it to storage houses, where it is cured in mammoth wooden boxes from floor to ceiling, and then cut and shrink-wrapped into 8-oz bars and labeled for grocery store shelves as mild and medium Cheddar.

Others, such as Land O’ Lakes in Kiel, Wis., make award-winning Cheddar in 40-pound blocks, sell it to brokers and distributors, who contract the aging of the cheese, and at the right time, sell it to grocery stores under a variety of private companies as sharp cheddar.

And yet others, such as the folks at Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., craft 40-pound blocks of both orange and white Cheddar, age it in below-ground cold rooms for up to 20 years, and proudly sell it under their own name. Other artisans, like Willi Lehner, at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis., craft Cheddar in 12-pound wheels, and then bandage and lard each wheel before aging it a year in an underground cave.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner. Photo by Becca Dilley.

In short, Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size, shape and age imaginable. But the difference in the taste of that Cheddar can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you how Cheddar used to taste different from one factory to the next, in just a 10-mile radius. Today, thanks to modern science and curious minds, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region.

The soils in the Driftless region are ancient – dominated by red clays and thousands of years of prairie grass roots that have decomposed into a thick rich mass, with soil type names such as Fayette and Dubuque. Dr. Jerry Tyler, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in the 1800s, the first European settlers likely had between 20 and 30 years of “free” nitrogen built into the soil, resulting in decades of above-average wheat farming before fertilizer was even available. “It would have taken a pretty awful farmer to fail in those days,” says Tyler.

Compare this to the glaciated, eastern part of the state, which is dominated by flat plains, rolling hills, and a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins in east-central Wisconsin and ends at Niagara Falls. While the soils in the Driftless Region are millions of years old, the state’s eastern soils are only 12,000 years old and filled with till, left behind by debris-rich glacier ice. These soils carry names such as Miami, Dodge and Casco, and the soil’s chemistry is vastly different from the red clays to the west. Different soil chemistry results in different grasses grown in each region. And different grass produces different milk. Because, after all, in time, grass becomes milk. The only thing standing in between is the cow.

Photo courtesy of Bert Paris, PastueLand Cooperative

Bert Paris is a dairy farmer near Belleville, Wis., in the Driftless Region of the state. His cows are pasture grazed, and he spends much time cultivating his pastures so cows have the best grasses to eat, as his milk is made into yogurt, cheese and butter for PastureLand. He is convinced that the quality of grass is directly tied to the quality of milk, and that the quality of grass comes from the quality of the soil, groundwater and climate.

“I plant primarily orchard and brome grass with some red and white clover,” Paris says. “We plant these because they are persistent and manageable in our area. My pastures are old enough that we have native forages and grasses mixed in to create a salad bar of sorts. Cows enjoy this mixture more so than a monoculture of one or two grasses.”

Compare Paris’ pasture to the pastures at Saxon Homestead Farm, on the eastern part of the state near Cleveland, Wis. Brothers Robert and Karl Klessig pasture their herd, and their milk is made into cheese for Saxon Creamery. Like Paris, they plant orchard and brome grass, but also mix in perennial rye grass, timothy, reed canary, meadow fescue, and others.

Cows on pasture at Saxon Homestead Farm. Photo by Becca Dilley.

“Our pastures consist of a very diverse mix of both cool season grasses – both wild and improved, as well as legumes,” Robert says. “Lake Michigan plays a role in our environment. The summertime cool, east winds and morning dew have an impact on the vegetation and cattle.”

The different climates, soils and grasses from each region produce slightly different milk, farmers say, which in turn, cheesemakers argue, creates slightly different cheese. For example, Cheesemaker Tony Hook, who has made cheese in western Wisconsin since 1970, has had the same farmer patrons for 40 years. That means the same farmers – all of whom pasture their cows — have sent him milk for four decades. Grass-fed milk is literally all Tony has ever known.

“I’m a big believer that our sweet soils and limestone water make a difference in the pastures and the quality of the milk we get,” Hook says. In fact, Hook says his favorite months of the year to make cheese are in May and June, when cows are put on fresh grass for the first time, and then again in November, when cows are in the barn, but eating the best hay made from dried grass and legumes of the season.

Compare Hook’s experiences with Chris Gentine, owner of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wis., who hand selects 40-pound blocks made at Land O’ Lakes in Kiel for his Double AA Grade Cheddar program sold under his Deer Creek label.

“I’ve always liked cheddars made in the Kiel region,” Gentine says. “The micro climate of Lake Michigan, combined with the pastures between Port Washington and Kewaunee are something special. The soil is more rocky versus the black earth of southwest Wisconsin. I’m convinced that if you made Deer Creek Cheddar in Green County, it would be a different piece of cheese.”

More science is needed to identify specific flavor components of Cheddar made in eastern and western Wisconsin. For now, consumers have the distinct pleasure of trying to discern that difference for themselves.

If you’re interested in tasting the difference between a variety of cheddars made in Wisconsin, please join me for the first class in a new Spring series I’ll be teaching at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison. My special guest will be Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Bob’s been telling me for years there’s a difference in cheddar across the state. Here’s the class description:

April 19: Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different
Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

We’ll meet in the cafe at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Arrive at 6:45 pm to order your complimentary drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Class is limited to 20 attendees and costs $22. Purchase in advance at:

Wisconsin Cheeses that Wow Right Now

Original artwork by Debra Ziss for the 2016 Roth Cheese Calendar hanging
in my kitchen.

Wisconsin cheese mania reached an all-time high this week, as Emmi Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix captured the top spot at the World Championship Cheese Contest Wednesday night in front of a sold out, wall-to-wall packed home crowd at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

The winning cheese is a washed rind, extra aged Gruyere-style, with bold nutty notes. It’s made in Monroe, the county seat of Green County, commonly known as the defacto cheese capital of America’s Dairyland. With 13 cheese factories, 200 cheesemakers, 31,000 cows and 37,000 people, the area is a dairy paradise of cows, green grass, milk and cheese. So it is only fitting the region now produces the best cheese in the world: Grand Cru Surchoix.

Most every retailer in Madison is now sold out of Surchoix, but fear not, more is promised to arrive next week. Until then, let’s take a look at a few cheeses that are REALLY good right now. The quality of local artisan and farmstead cheeses ebbs and flows with the seasons, but here are a handful that are wowing me today:

1. Tallgrass Reserve, Landmark Creamery, Albany. Cheesemaker Anna Landmark has hit her stride with this cow’s milk original recipe. With its natural white moldy rind, the cheese sports a bandaged cheddar texture, yet creamy with a heckuva tang and cavey finish. The current wheels coming from Landmark Creamery are the best wheels I’ve ever tasted. Buy this cheese right now.

2. Cesar’s Queso Oaxaca, Cesar’s Cheese, Random Lake. Cesar, his wife Heydi, and son, Cesar, Jr. swept the top three slots in the string cheese category at this week’s World Championship Cheese Contest. That means the top three string cheesemakers in the world come from ONE family in Wisconsin. This cheese has always been on my go-to list, but the winning batch – available now in stores – is extra stringy and extra salty, kind of like a big fat and delicious potato chip washed down with a glass of whole milk. Hang on, I’ve got to go eat another stick before I continue …

3. Roelli Haus Select, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg. A newcomer to the retail arena, this bandaged cheddar captured first in its category at this week’s World Championship Cheese Contest, which means Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli can add another award to his shelf: Global Gold Medalist Cheddar Maker. Roelli tastes each batch and releases it based on flavor, not age. That means some wheels might be eight months, and some wheels might be over a year old, but all hit an earthy, crumbly, cheddary note of a good bandaged cheddar. Right now, released batches of this cheese stack up (and I daresay win) against the great bandaged cheddars of the world. Because, yeah, it’s that good.

4. Hook’s Triple Play, Hook’s Cheese, Mineral Point. Made in 40-pound blocks, this tri-milk cheese boasts sheep, goat and cow flavor notes at different points on the tongue. Some batches I’ve tasted have been too young and not very complex, but the blocks out right now are perfect. Firm and tangy, the Hooks say the cheese is a flavor combination of a baby swiss, gouda and havarti. I say it’s a trifecta of amazingness. This is one American Original you don’t want to miss.

5. Farmstead Feta, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby. In Greece, all feta is made with either sheep or goat’s milk, or a combination of the two. It is only in America, with our plethora of black and white dairy cows, that cow’s milk feta is commonplace. That’s why I cue my happy dance when I find Brenda Jensen’s sheep milk feta on store shelves. Extra aged with a pleasant bite, never bitter and perfect salt ratio, this is the feta our Greek friends are worried about in trade talks. Buy it now.

6. Carr Valley Cave Aged Marisa, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle. With more than 60 different cheeses to choose from, Carr Valley can meet just about anyone’s cheese category needs. Spend your calories on this cheese – an extra aged sheep’s milk cheese with beautiful natural rind, aged on wooden boards in a cave environment. Think sweet, earthy and buttery all in one bite: Cave-Aged Marisa.

7. Donatello, Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain. This small-batch cheese just won second in its class at the World Contest, and for good reason. While most people will grab a Manchego for their token sheep milk cheese on an appetizer cheese board, at about nine months old, Donatello blows the average Manchego exported to the U.S. out of the water. Rich, complex and just starting to form tyrosine crystals, Donatello right now is very, very good. If you can find it, buy it.