Dairy Sheep Symposium Comes Back to Wisconsin

If you’re currently milking sheep, have ever thought about milking sheep, or just curious about why people milk sheep, then you should plan on attending the 21st Annual Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA) Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 5-7.

This year marks the first year in six years that the symposium has been held in Wisconsin, considered by many to be the dairy sheep mecca of North America. Hundreds of folks will descend on Madison for the event, which also includes a pre-symposium sheep milk cheese-making course at the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison.

Twelve presentations by 16 animal scientists, dairy sheep producers, veterinarians, and sheep milk cheese makers and marketers will be held at the Pyle Center. A sampling of topics and presenters include:

  • Impacts on Non-GMO Labeling on Artisan Cheese Production, by Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer, Whole Foods Market
  • Special Considerations for Small Ruminants, by Dr. Doug Reinemann, UW-Madison
  • Perspectives on Surviving and Growing in Dairy Sheep Production, by Bill Halligan, Bushnell, Nebraska; Dean and Brenda Jensen, Westby, Wisconsin; and Dave Galton, Locke, New York
  • A New Producer and Their New Cheesemaker – Challenges in Getting Started, by Sam and Abe Enloe, Enloe Brothers Farms, Rewey, Wisconsin, and Anna Landmark, Landmark Creamery, Albany, Wisconsin
  • Markets and Marketing of Sheep Milk Cheeses, Jeanne Carpenter, Specialty Cheese Buyer, Metcalfe’s Markets, Madison, Wisconsin (yep that’s me).

In addition, attendees are invited to an all-day tour on Saturday, Nov. 7 (also led by me -whoo-hoo!) to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, and to Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby, where participants will visit a modern dairy sheep farm and artisan cheese plant operated by Dean and Brenda Jensen. We’ll also enjoy a farm-to-table-lunch at The Rooted Spoon in Viroqua.

Be sure to click here for a complete program with registration information. I hope to see you there!

On Location: Making Alp Cheese in Switzerland

Andreas Michel with the wooden milking stool his
father made for him.

It’s early September, and Andreas Michel – who goes by “Dres,” as do most Swiss men named Andreas, is using the wooden stool his father made for him as a boy to milk his herd of 11 Simmental cows on the Eigeralp in Switzerland. Dres doesn’t speak English, so he doesn’t understand my question of how many generations his family has spent summers with the cows on this Alp, but when he shows me a wooden stool, with his name carved in the seat, and says his father made it for him, I suspect he comes from a long line of Swiss dairyman.

I’ve been on a mission since first discovering Alp Cheese 10 years ago to see the tradition in which it is made. I was almost too late. Very few alpine cheesemaking chalets still exist – just six on the Eigeralp above Grindewald. This is a country where hundreds of chalets existed years ago. And quite frankly, the only reason this particular chalet is still in existence is because Dres, a herdsman first, and cheesemaker second, found an executive from SAP – the world’s largest inter-enterprise software company – whose life dream was to become an Alpine cheesemaker.

Michael Utecht is 50 but looks 10 years younger. He attributes whey baths to his youthful look. He grew up in a village on the Swiss-German border, and like a lot of city kids, had romantic notions about caring for cows and making cheese. But like most city kids, he went to college instead. Three years ago he was a career communications executive for software giant SAP. Then, remembering his childhood dreams, he took a six-month leave to learn how to make cheese in the Alps. Today, he makes cheese every summer for Dres’ family and lives in Paris the rest of the year, freelancing as a communications coach. “I am fascinated by big cities, but I love to come back to the countryside,” he says.

It’s easy to see why. We arrive at 8 am on the Eigeralp, after a harrowing bus ride up hairpin corners and a dozen switchbacks on a one-lane road that the locals use for sledding in the winter. It’s early, and the morning fog is lingering in the air, and the hills are suprisingly quiet – no cowbells in the mist. That’s because all the cows are still in the alpine milking barns. Just five minutes after we arrive, a dozen cows start to slowly emerge from a wooden barn, having just been milked. Their clouds of breath – it is about 35 degrees F – fill up the valley as they emerge to stare at us, I suppose wondering what this group of 20 people is doing on their mountain. Soon, another dozen cows emerge from a nearby barn, then another dozen from another. In total, there are seven barns on this alp, each milked and owned by a separate farmer, but all released onto the same alp to graze during the day.

Of these seven farms, only three make cheese. The rest contract with the remaining cheesemakers to use their milk. Dres and Michael use only the milk from Dres’ herd – 11 beautiful Simmental ladies with bells as big as melons hanging from their necks. In the morning, it takes Michael and Dres at least an hour to round up their cows for milking. They find them by the bells.

“Our cows all have names. They are part of the family,” Michael explains. “Dres know each of his cows at a distance – by how she holds her head, or how she moves. If it’s too foggy to see, he listens for their bells – every cow on this alp has a different pitch bell – and we set off in the direction of his cows’ bells.”

Two days ago, Michael and Dres moved the herd to the middle pastures – we are at 6,000 feet. The cows and men spent the early summer in the high pastures – at nearly 7,000 feet, and when the grass from this altitude is spent, they will move to the lower alpine pastures at at 5,200 feet. There is a cheesemaking chalet with attached barn at each level, and the cheese aging hut is built at the middle level.

The barn, with attached cheesemaking room.

Michael is explaining all of this to us, when Dres yells at him through the window of the barn, letting him know the morning’s milk has been added to the previous evening’s milk, and it’s time for him to get to work making cheese. We follow. What we find is a traditional alpine cheesemaking hut, with a cauldron over an open fire, and milk beginning to heat. At 86 degrees F, Michael adds the starter cultures, and a bit later, the rennet. Thirty-five mintues later, Dres “rolls over” the curd, and Michael scoops a bit heavy cream with chunks of early curd into a wooden bowl, for all us to try a bit of Schluck (shl-oahk). We use the same wooden spoons Dres and his siblings used when they were younger.

Eating Schluck – heavy cream with a few lumpy curds – the morning tradition.

The cheesemaking chalet dates to 1897, but parts have been renewed every few years. The roof was last replaced 15 years ago, and the small living quarters – with stove and table – were remodeled two years ago. Meanwhile, the cheese house (where the cheese is aged) dates back to the 1600s – no one knows for sure, because the two numbers after 16 that are carved by the door have rubbed away.

Today, we will make only two wheels of cheese, instead of three, and Dres is not happy about it. He had to keep the cows in the barn last night because it was unseasonably cold, and they have not given as much milk this morning as they would have if they had been released to the alp overnight. So the work is less, but the reward also less. It’s time to stir the curd for 45 minutes, and when Dres gets out a small, electric metal stirrer, I pipe up that there are two cheesemakers in the room, and perhaps they wouldn’t mind stirring the curd for 45 minutes. So the modern agitater is put away, and the traditional stirring paddle is washed and sanitized in a tub of steaming hot water near the door.

Dres hands the tool to fourth-generation American cheesemaker Chris Roelli, of Roelli Cheese, and Chris begins to stir the mass of curds and whey, I suspect much like his great grandfather did 100 years before him in Switzerland. A few minutes later, cheesemaker Brenda Jensen takes a turn. The rest of us file out to eat breakfast at two picnic tables outside the hut. While we’re huddling for warmth and eating homemade bread, jams and yogurt, Dres is cutting the perfect size pieces of wood to put in the fire to slowly increase the temperature to 123 degrees F. Chris and Brenda constantly stir the curd for 45 minutes.

American fourth-generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli
stirring curd, much the same way as I suspect his great-
grandfather did 100 years ago in Switzerland.
Wisconsin cheesemaker Brenda Jensen, of Hidden Springs Creamery,
takes a turn at stirring the curd.
While I was eating breakfast, Chris Roelli snapped this picutre for me of
Michael cutting wood next to the cheesemaking cauldron to keep the fire
going slowly, raising the temperature of the cheese mass to 123 degrees.
Everything about alpine cheesemaking is a learned art.
Eating breakfast on the alp – fresh bread, homemade jam, yogurt, and of
course, Alp Cheese made by Dres Michel and Michael Utecht.

Then it’s time to scoop the curd out of the cauldron with a cheese cloth. Dres is an expert, and scoops out the first batch of curd, putting two corners of the cloth in his mouth, and the other around a metal bar. He bends down into the hot mass and slowly scoops up a bag of curd, wraps up the top, to let some of the whey drain out, and then takes the piping hot mass to a form on the counter. He repeats the process a second time.

There are just a few curds left in the cauldron, so Michael asks Chris Roelli to scoop them out. This is the second time in his life Chris has done this method – the first was last year at the old Imobersteg factory at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe. That time, he went too fast and the curds rolled out of the cloth. This time, on the Swiss Alps, he does it perfectly. ‘This is the best day ever. Ever,” he says.

After the cheeses are put in the forms, Dres uses the stone press to keep releasing the whey.

Using a press weighted by stones to expel the whey.

 About an hour beforehand, while we were all busy watching Chris stir curd, Dres had taken yesterday’s cheese out of the press and trimmed the edges.

Dres trims yesterday’s wheels.

Now that we are done making cheese, Michael carries yesterday’s wheels to the cheese house, where another helper puts them into a small brine tank for 24 hours, and then proceeds to wash and turn 74 days of wheels from that season. It will take him between two and three hours to hand wash each wheel with a brine solution, flip and then put back on the wooden boards.

Michael carries yesterday’s wheels into the cheese house
for brining and aging.

While we are busy organizing a group photo in front of the cheese house, Michael is back at the cheesemaking hut, persuading Dres to play a bit of accordion and yodel for us. Dres comes down the hill with his instrument, and plays a lovely Swiss song for us, but says no to yodeling. We insist. The man then stands up and sings the most beautiful song you’ve ever heard, in perfect pitch, against a backdrop of cowbells ringing around him. His favorite cow approaches from behind us and begins to beller, recognizing her owner’s voice. It is the perfect ending to a perfect morning.

Shearing Sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery

Welcome to spring in Wisconsin, when thousands of sheep lose their winter coat in favor of a new, naked spring wardrobe. This week, I was lucky enough to “help” – and I do use the term “help” loosely – sheer 450 sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery, a dairy sheep farm near Westby.

Farmstead cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean, are increasing their flock in an attempt to make award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses year-round (Brenda’s Ocooch Mountain, a six-month aged nutty tomme was recently named to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest’s top 16 cheeses, out of 1,702 entries). Typically, their sheep would have been shorn in early March, but because Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it’s spring, they held off shearing until warmer weather.

First of all, let me say shearing sheep is serious business. At Hidden Springs Creamery, a three-man contract crew arrived bright and early Monday morning to set up three electric shearing stations in the Jensen’s hay shed/sheep loafing barn.

Once the stations were set up, the men did pre-shearing exercises to limber up their backs. After all, shearing a sheep takes between two and five minutes, of which the shearer is bending at the waist the entire time.

Going in, I was a little afraid shearing sheep might be a bit traumatic for both me AND the sheep. I had visions of “ringing pigs” as a kid, holding squirming, squealing piglets while my dad pierced their noses (we pastured our pigs and having a ring in their nose kept them from rooting and escaping under fences. Despite my protests, my dad assured me it was worth 3 seconds of pain for the pig to be able to live its life outside instead of in a crate, and as an adult I now have to agree with him).

Turns out, I worried for nothing. Because once limbered up, the sheep shearers chose a sheep from the pen, herded it onto their wooden board, and very simply and matter-of-factly, turned the sheep onto its back.

Yes, you read that correctly. Sheep are lifted up and turned onto their back, so that all four of their feet are sticking up in the air. I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn’t realize they (thankfully) were stupid enough to allow this to happen without so much as squirming or even making noise. In fact, sheep look fairly bored during the entire process. Simply unbelievable. Here’s a look at shearing a sheep:

First, the sheep is turned onto its back and the shearer works on the belly. This wool is kept separately, as it’s not nearly as valuable as the overall fleece. The picture below is the typical look of a sheep during this process, as it lays there, listless. You have a feeling she’s thinking: “I wonder what’s for dinner?”

Next, the sheep is rolled onto its side, with its head between the shearer’s legs, and then sheared on both sides. The goal is to remove the entire fleece in one piece. David, the lead shearer, averaged just under 2 minutes a sheep. A good shearer prides himself in doing it under four. David is a master.

When finished, the sheep is unhanded and allowed to get up and walk away. Most, like this one, however, continue to just sit there until the shearer scoots it outside. Yes, these are pretty wild animals.

After the sheep is persuaded to actually leave the shearing board, the helpers pick up the fleece.

Then it’s off to the super huge sacks, where the helpers stuff the fleece. Like this:

And here it is in action – fleece is heavier than it looks:

Occasionally, sheep shearers change blades or adjust the setting on the shearing device, which looks like this:

And when shearers are done with one sheep, they do another. And another. Until they’re done.

So to recap, here’s a “before” picture:

And here’s an “after” shot:

You almost get the feeling this sheep is posing for the camera, don’t you?

Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking I had seen something like this before. And then I remembered: I have a cat who thinks it’s a sheep.

Look familiar?

Many thanks to the expert sheep shearing crew and Brenda & Dean Jensen for letting me be part of 2013 sheep shearing at Hidden Springs Creamery!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2013

Three Wisconsin Cheeses You Won’t Want to Recall from Office

With the recall elections finally behind us, it’s time to get back to what we Wisconsinites do best: eat cheese. Here are three Wisconsin cheeses sure to help you recover from recall fever.

Red, White & Blue
Three Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses to Celebrate This Summer

1. Red Rock, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, Wis.
This cheese is the Miss America of Wisconsin artisan cheeses – it’s got it all – brains and beauty. Heck, we bet it would even look good in an evening gown. Hand-crafted by Cheesemaker Chris Roelli at Roelli Cheese Haus in Shullsburg, Red Rock is the must-have cheese of 2012. Made with a double-dose of annatto giving it that deep red color, Red Rock is a creamy Cheddar with blue veins. Dubbed the little brother of Chris’ other signature cheese, Dunbarton Blue, Red Rock is perfect on a sandwich or as the stand-alone star on a cheese plate. roellicheese.com

2. Snow White Goat Cheddar, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.
Crowned as Best in Show by the American Cheese Society in 2008, this creamy white goat cheese crafted by Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley is cave-aged for six months to achieve a deep, complex flavor. We hear the folks at Disney occasionally complain about Carr Valley’s use of their character’s name, but that’s just silly. We’d advise they partner with Carr Valley instead, and have Snow White start eating goat cheddar in every Disney classic. Win-win! carrvalleycheese.com

3. Bohemian Blue, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wis.
This cheese is the tale of what happens when two cheesemakers get together over a cup of coffee and ask: What if? A few years ago, Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery, and Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese, teamed up to save America from a potential cheese embargo. The result: Bohemian Blue, designed to compete with Roquefort, lest America and France ever decide to add that threatened 300% tariff on Roquefort, the world’s most famous French-made sheep’s milk blue. Bohemian Blue, a cave-aged, rindless blue made from sheep’s milk from Hidden Springs, and crafted by Hook’s Creamery, is an ode to Jensen’s Bohemian grandparents. Dry and crumbly, compared to drippy and wet Roqueforts, Bohemian Blue sports a sweet, slightly sour finish. Tres bien! hiddenspringscreamery.com

Birthday Sheep

Turning 40 years old isn’t so bad when you’re surrounded by your favorite people, especially when those favorite people happen to live on a sheep dairy and it’s lambing season.

Last Wednesday was my big 4-0, so the hubby and I trekked to Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby to hang out with Dean and Brenda Jensen and their 350 sheep for the day. Brenda had hinted last fall my birthday would conveniently fall during prime lambing season, and really, who doesn’t want to spend their 40th birthday in a barn surrounded by newborn bleating lambs? Hello, dream trip!

We arrived late afternoon, just in time for transporting the 11 lambs born that morning to an Amish neighbor’s farm, as Brenda had run out of clean stalls (this occasionally happens when you have 275 moms giving birth to an average of twins in a 30-day period). Another 75 ewes will lamb in May, giving Brenda a longer milking season, and thus more milk to make cheese later into the season.

How do you transport newborn lambs, you ask? You pick them up from their stalls, carry them to the farm pick-up, carefully place them in tubs in the cab, and carry the extras on your lap. It’s amazing how warm, snuggly and quiet a newborn lamb is – I think the one I was holding in my lap for the 3-mile ride may have actually fallen asleep after it pooped on me.

After returning to the farm, it was time for milking. Greg and Dave are the Jensens’ evening milkers, and they’re pretty good at what they do. Here’s a look at milking sheep:

The Jensens are currently milking about 150 ewes, which takes just a little over an hour in their new double 10 Swedish parlor, a huge improvement over their home-made milking station they used the first five years they were on the farm.

After milking, we took a tour of the lambing facilities. The lambs start their lives in the nursery, born in straw pens, and then are moved to bigger pens as they age. On March 28, most of them will be sold at market – just in time for Easter dinner – and the Jensen farm will be a much quieter place.

The ewes still waiting to give birth, meanwhile, are so fat and fluffy that they look like caricature sheep – you know, the ones that came with your Little People Play Farm set? They’re all wool, with short stick legs, kind of like this:

The Jensens’ farm is absolutely breathtaking. Situated in the heart of Amish country, it’s all hills, fences and pastures. Their morning milker is an amish neighbor, hence the buggy in the photo.

After morning milking, the evening’s and morning’s milk are combined, gravity fed into a stainless stell tank on wheels, and driven about 40 feet to the farm’s creamery, where it is again gravity-fed into the farm’s cheese plant, where Brenda makes cheese about four days a week. Here’s a glimpse at the milk transportation process:

We didn’t stick around to make cheese with Brenda in the morning – I’ve made cheese with her a couple of times before, once with my daughter, so we said goodbye to the Jensens and rolled down the driveway, although not without saying goodbye to the barn cats and Augustus Burdock Jensen, the farm dog.

Many, many thanks to Brenda and Dean for your hospitality, laughter and kindness in helping me celebrate the big 4-0! It couldn’t have been any better.

Photos by Uriah Carpenter, copyright 2012.

Marijuana Cheese? Um, No.

Back in September, Cheese Underground partnered with cheesemaker Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby, Wisconsin to develop a new flavor of her Driftless cheese.

Deliciously simple, consisting of just sheep’s milk, culture, rennet and salt, Driftless is a light, creamy and spreadable fresh cheese that routinely sweeps (for the last four years running) the Fresh Sheep’s Milk Cheese class at the American Cheese Society competition. Available in an ever-evolving blend of flavors, including perennial favorites Basil & Olive Oil, Tomato & Garlic, and Honey & Lavender, as well as seasonal flavors such as Pumpkin, Maple, and Cranberry & Cinnamon, Brenda was looking to develop a new flavor and turned to you, my alert blog readers, for suggestions.

Dozens of ideas from across the country poured in, ranging from morel to bacon to merlot and cocoa. But perhaps my favorite suggestion was from David, no last name or address given, who suggested Brenda make a Driftless with marijuana and call it “Cheese Exotica”.

One gets the feeling that David lives in California, as he suggested that in the Golden State, one must only show a document to freely buy cannabis-infused edible products “which greatly help those who prefer GI ingestion. There are recipes for canna pesto, etc, and cheeses are so varied (blue vs. bland –I very much enjoy strong dessert cheeses that take over your brain) that folks can be creative.  I trust but have not done the research that Wisconsin has humane cannabinoid laws. And, yes, while the market is limited to those who consume the flavorant (perhaps 10% of the population), there are other cheeses favored for artisanal (snob) value.  Imagine the overlap of cheese snobs who distinguish canna cheeses. Just saying. Never seen this. Love cheese. Folks from Wisconsin seem reasonable. Carry on.”

Sadly, David, the reasonable folks in Wisconsin have no such favorable medical marijuana laws, so Brenda had to choose her top eight favorites that did NOT include weed.

Brenda even created prototypes of her top eight non-pot favorites, which were sampled during the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala during November’s Third Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, and let folks vote for their favorite.

The winner? Allison Smith from Helotes, Texas, who suggested the completely legal flavor combination of Horseradish, Garlic & Onion. As the winner, Allison received a tub of the new Driftless flavor, made special by Brenda, as well as a complimentary one-year membership to Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Congratulations, Allison, and thanks to everyone who sent in their suggestions for legal and non-legal cheese flavors.