Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka

Cave Aged Chandoka sign created by Cheesemonger
Natalee, who should also be a professional artist.

Oh yeah, baby. I’m doing my happy dance.

My colleagues at Metcalfe’s Markets in Wisconsin often mock me for two things, both of which occur when I get really excited about cheese: my dorky happy dance that looks like a 1970s disco move gone wrong, accompanied by a loud: “Oh yeah, baby.”

I can’t help it. Both occur without warning, and both often occur on Wednesdays or Thursdays, when loads of cheeses from far away and not-so-far-away factories, farms and warehouses arrive at our stores in Madison and Wauwatosa and I am there to open boxes to reveal glorious wheels of cheese we’ve been waiting on for weeks, and sometimes months.

Two weeks ago, on my way to the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest to teach beer and cheese pairings every 30 minutes, I stopped quickly at Metcalfe’s Hilldale to load up on supplies and sample cheeses. I did a double take at a pile of shiny black and silver repack labels sitting on the counter that said “Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka.” My heart may have actually stopped.

“Do. Not. Tell. Me. That. This. Cheese. Came. In. And. No. One. Told. Me.” I enunciated to my cheesemonger colleague, Dean, who began to look at me in what can only be described as sheer terror. He promptly sprinted to the walk-in cooler and came out holding a half wheel of Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka. This is the cheese that won Runner-Up Best in Show at the 2015 American Cheese Society competition, and of which only 20 wheels are available every few months.

Dean holding a half wheel of the elusive
Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka. Oh
yeah, baby.

Cue the happy dance and “Oh yeah, baby.” Even though we were still awaiting a PLU number from pricing to sell the cheese, my glorious co-workers had cut the wheel open to see its amazingness first-hand. After making Dean hold it for a quick iPhone shot (see right), I was about to hurry out to the aforementioned Beer & Cheese Fest, when Dean asked if I wanted to see a whole wheel. I stopped in my tracks. Turns out that Standard Market had sent us two wheels. Two. Whole. 22-Pound. Fricking. Wheels. Cue another happy dance, and you guessed it, “Oh yeah, baby.”

So why am I getting so excited about this cheese? Well, you’ll recall that this cheese is one of the first really-successful examples of what can happen when one cheese has two makers. Americans are finally embracing the European model of separating cheese making from cheese aging, while celebrating both the cheesemaker and the affineur.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka is a mixed milk cheese crafted with goat and cow’s milk by Katie Fuhrmann and her team on LaClare Farm, and cellar-aged by David Rogers and his team at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois. Last summer, it was named the second best cheese in America at a competition widely regarded as the Oscars of the artisan cheese industry. The Cave Aged Chandoka tied Roth’s Private Reserve from Emmi Roth in Monroe (another cue the happy dance cheese) for runner-up honors, while Best in Show went to Celtic Blue Reserve from Ontario, Canada.

At the time of its winning, only four wheels – yes, just four wheels – of the winning batch existed in the cellars at Standard Market, with 20 wheels scheduled to be available around Christmas. Until now, the cheese has been available in very limited retail in the Chicago market at Standard Market, Eataly and Mariano’s. The night that the cheese won at ACS, I basically trapped David Rogers in a corner (in a nice way, of course) and made him promise to get Metcalfe’s on the list for a wheel on the next round of aging. Being the awesome guy he is, he not only kept his word, but sent us two wheels.

That means that anyone living within walking, driving or running distance of Madison can now eat one of the best cheeses in the world. If you’re into bandage-wrapped, earthy, crumbly and melt-on-your-tongue goodness, please visit us at Metcalfe’s Hilldale at the corner of Midvale and University Ave. Because when these two wheels are gone, they’re gone, and I’m not about to push my luck of trapping David Rogers in a corner again to budge in line for awesome cheese.

Well, maybe I will. Grin. Because there’s no better feeling than getting so excited about cheese than spontaneously breaking into dance and being willing to embrace your inner dorkiness amongst friends and strangers. Because yeah, this cheese is that good. Prepare for a happy dance of your own.

Cheese Questions from a Fifth Grader

Sometimes all it takes to slow one down in the midst of a crazy busy, cheese-cutting, cheese-selling, cheese-eating holiday season is a hand-written letter from a fifth grader.

Checking my post office box this morning resulted in a lovely collection of Christmas cards from friends and colleagues, a large pile of cheese equipment catalogs, a newsletter from the local senior center, and a letter from Sumayya, a 10-year-old from Quincy, Massachusetts, zip code 02169.

Guess which piece of mail I opened first.

Dear Ms. Jeanne Carpenter,

My name is Sumayya. I am 10 years old and I am a student in the fifth grade.

I am studying cheese for my topic all year long. I got interested in cheese when I went to Whole Foods in Hingham, Massachusetts and saw all of the delicious, different, and colorful varieties of cheese.

I will use the information you provide in my report. Of course, I will use the information. It came from a cheese expert!

Enclosed is a self-addressed envelope, a tea bag, and five questions. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of tea while – please do – answer my questions.

Thank you for your time. I really, really, really, really really appreciate it. 

Well, Sumayya, not only will I drink your tea and answer your questions here on Cheese Underground, but you can also expect a large envelope full of cheese-related information coming in the mail to you soon. But first, let’s answer your questions.

1. What is your favorite type of cheese? Why? (Mine is smoked Swiss because it is sweet as well as tangy).

Excellent opening question, Sumayya. It’s always a good move to ask someone their favorite cheese. My favorite type of cheese is washed-rind: sticky & stinky – think Taleggio from Italy, St. Nectaire from France, Grazier’s Edge from Minnesota, and Kinsman Ridge from Vermont. I attribute my love of savory, meaty cheese to the fact that I grew up on a beef farm and ate meat & potatoes every day for lunch and dinner (although we referred to these meals as dinner and supper). Washed-rind cheeses remind me my favorite childhood Sunday noontime meal: savory roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy. I can still picture my mother making gravy on the stove – which incidentally, is the one food I excel at cooking. Gravy makes everything better.

2. What is the most complicated part of making cheese? (I would say drying the cheese is most complicated). 

Another solid question. And Sumayya, you are on to something about drying cheese. Any cheesemaker worth her salt will tell you that making a good cheese is the successful combination of two things: 1) making cheese and 2) aging the cheese (also referred to as affinage). I should point out that I am not a cheesemaker, nor do I ever aspire to be one – there’s a reason I have a B.A. in English (it’s called little to no math requirements) – and cheesemaking is all about science. If Kenny Rogers would have written a song about cheesemaking instead of gambling, it would have gone something like this:

You’ve got to know when to check the pH
Know when to drain the whey
Know when to cut the curd
And know when to wait
You never count your cheese forms
While you’re stirrin’ the cheese curd
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the cheesemakin’s done

Also, now that I’m re-thinking this, you probably shouldn’t actually watch the Kenny Rogers “The Gambler” video link referenced above – it’s full of messages not suitable for a 10-year-old. Moving on.

3. Is smoked cheese better or plain cheese better? Why? (I think smoked cheese because it adds more flavor).

Sumayya, I’m sensing you may like smoked cheese, which is awesome. Smoked cheese is one category of many types of cheese, and it’s all a matter of personal preference. In Wisconsin, lots of folks enjoy a good smoked Gouda. Smoked cheeses are particularly popular during the holiday season and during winter, because, I suspect, they are a comfort food. They make us feel good. I don’t know if you have long winters in Massachusetts, but here in Wisconsin, winter often starts in November and lasts through mid-April. A good smoked cheese can chase a bad winter day away.

4. Do you know of anyone else I could contact for my project? If so, please give name, address, zip code, and phone number.

Holy cats, I can think of about 20 people who are more qualified to answer these questions than I, so I am going to compile that information and put it in the mail to you. If you wait until January 1 to mail your questions, you are more likely to get a response, as everyone here in Wisconsin is currently obsessed with making, selling, cutting or eating cheese for the holidays.

5. What do you think will be the future of cheese? Will there be more or less as an average per year? Why?

Well, Sumayya, as long as there are 10-year-olds out there like you, I would say the future of cheese is pretty darn bright. Cheese consumption in the United States keeps growing every year. We are seeing an increase in the number of artisan and specialty cheesemakers, resulting in a world where American cheeses now compete on the same stage as the great European cheesemaking nations. Cheese is recognized as a healthy source of protein, perfect for kids to grow up strong and healthy. Plus it’s yummy. So cheese is here to stay.

Happy holidays, Sumayya. And watch your mail for a package of cheesy goodies.

Minnesota Artisan Cheesemakers Up Their Game

Grazier’s Edge, a mild, buttery, stinky cheese
washed in 11 Wells Rye Whiskey.

While Wisconsin has enjoyed a near-monopoly on the sheer number of artisan cheesemakers in the Midwest for the past decade, our sneaky neighbors to the West have steadily and stealthily upped their game in the artisan cheese department.

First, Steven and Jodi Ohlsen Read of Shepherd’s Way Farms near Nerstrand, Minn., launched a Kickstarter campaign last year that was 100 percent funded, and which will allow the couple to dramatically expand their flock and make even more of their fabulous sheep milk cheeses including Big Woods Blue, Friesago and Shepherd’s Hope. (View some stunning photography of Shepherd’s Way by Becca Dilley here).

Then, Keith Adams and Craig Hagerman at Alemar Cheese Company simply stomped all over the bloomy rind category with their amazing Bent River Camembert and Blue Earth Brie – two American beauties that rival even the French greats.

And now, two upstarts are taking the spotlight with brand new cheeses that debuted this summer at The American Cheese Society. Both cheeses are now available at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison, mostly because I hounded these fine Minnesotans until they shipped me cheese so I could share it with all of you. Thank you, unfailing Midwestern politeness!

First up: my new favorite cheese – and I don’t say this lightly – is Grazier’s Edge from the fine folks at The Lone Grazer in Minneapolis. Grazier’s Edge is comparable – do I daresay better? – than the original raw milk St. Nectaire I tasted in 2011 in the Auvergne region of France and aged on straw mats in the underground caves of Jean d’Alos Fromagerie.

Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson – born and raised in Wadena, Minn. – started making cheese seven years ago at Faribault Dairy Company. It was there he had the opportunity to work with grassfed milk, which inspired him to start his own business and specialize in pasture-based cheeses.

The Lone Grazer is a unique cheesemaking model, with milk coming from two local dairy farms – Sunrise Meadows Dairy near Cokato, Minn., milking 25 Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorn cows, and Stengaard Farm, near Sebeka, Minn (who on earth names these towns?), milking Swedish Reds, Milking Shorthorns and Red and White Holsteins.

Hansom Cab, rich and grassy, washed with 2 GINGERS Irish
Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea

Grass-fed milk is shipped to northeast Minneapolis, where inside the Food Building – an urban food production hub home to The Lone Grazer Creamery & Red Table Meat Company – Nilsson crafts two cheeses: Grazier’s Edge, and Hansom Cab. I haven’t even mentioned Hansom Cab yet, which if it weren’t sitting next to Grazier’s Edge, would be a righteous cheese and is very much worthy of its own merit. While Grazier’s Edge is a large-format cheese washed in 11 Wells Rye Whiskey, Hansom Cab is a small wheel washed with 2 GINGERS Irish Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. The result is a savory rind protecting a milky, meaty paste.

Nilssen, a tall, lean, quiet guy with a steady and slow Minnesotan accent, makes the cheese while his sales director, Seamus Folliard (SHAY-MUS FOAL-EE-ARD) – say that three times fast –  sells it in a high-energy, you-have-to-taste-this-cheese style that makes you just want to give him a hug. If he’s not truly Irish (and I forgot to ask), then Seamus sports one heckuva Irish accent. After drinking a beer with them at the ACS opening reception, I decided the pair could go into stand-up comedy if the whole cheese thing doesn’t work out. 

Alise and Lucas Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery.

So, while Rueben and Seamus have the urban artisan cheese market tied up, their neighbors to the north, Lucas and Alise Sjostrom, are making some amazing new cheeses at their farmstead Redhead Creamery near Brooten, Minn. Both have ties to Wisconsin, as Alise, the cheesemaker, worked at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wis., and Lucas wrote for Hoard’s Dairyman in Fort Atkinson.

However, both being Minnesota natives, they returned to their roots two years ago and are now making a few cheeses: fresh cheese curds, of course – which they market as “ridiculously good,” and Lucky Linda, a bandage-wrapped cheddar-style cheese that’s also available in a natural rind.

But it’s their latest cheese – Little Lucy – that I predict will truly put this pair on the map. Hand-crafted in 6 oz miniature top hats, this Brie is oozy and creamy at six weeks. With grassy and asparagus notes, this little cheese that could is just what we Midwesterners have been waiting for. Production is really just getting going, with 90 percent of it is sold at farmer’s markets, but the Sjostroms have made a case or two available each month to Metcalfe’s-Hilldale in Madison. This is the kind of cheese that if you see sitting on the shelf, you’re going to want to buy two, because they do not last long. I took three Little Lucys to a cheese class last week, and could have sold a round to every person in attendance. Because yes, it’s that good.

So while the lone grazers and redheads are rapidly upping the game in the artisan cheese community, both are so new to the industry that I sense their best cheeses – I know, it will be hard to top the current offerings – are likely still to come. Who knows what amazing cheese awaits us Wisconsin neighbors? I’m glad I live nearby.

Thousands Descend Upon Festival of Cheese in Providence

With more than 1,400 cheeses to try at last night’s Festival of Cheese – the annual culmination of the American Cheese Society conference and competition – cheese lovers from around the world descended upon dozens of tables filled with cheeses sorted by category: flavored, fresh, farmstead, smoked, washed-rind, blues, international style, American originals, Italian-style, soft-ripened, cheddar and more, all in a quest to taste every cheese possible.

Some succeeded. Many failed. The rest of us are still in a cheese coma.

For me, one of the best parts of the annual Festival of Cheese is volunteering to prep the event. As usual, my husband and I were in charge of the cheddar table. Our mission: sort, cut, prep and tray 119 cheddar cheeses of every shape, color, variety and size, onto only seven tables. With one of the best volunteer crews ever assembled, we did it in just over six hours.

Here’s a look at the process:

8 AM: Uriah and I pose for a selfie to remember how energetic we looked before shepherding hundreds of cheeses from cooler truck to speed rack to cutting tables to plating:

9 AM: three of my awesome volunteers starting to cut and plate cheddar. I always encourage my team to get creative in cutting and traying the cheeses, because after all, how often are we encouraged to play with our food?

10 AM: beginning to sort where the cheeses will land:

NOON: Here’s a portion of our table, about halfway through the process. Time for lunch:

2:30 PM: We are almost done – just have to fluff up the tables with crackers, flowers and fruit. Time to take a team photo:

4 PM: And, it’s showtime. Here’s a glimpse of just a portion of our magnificent cheddar tables, with my hand-carved “cheddar mountains”. Gosh, playing with cheese is fun:

Of course, the main perk of attending the Festival of Cheese is getting to try all the winning cheeses, including the Best of Show winners. Here they are, in all their glory:

It’s also fun people-watching – here’s a shot of U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Cecylia Szewczyk taking a photo of one of her many award-winning cheeses before the crowds arrive. The girl just keeps racking up the cheese awards:

Every year, I try to find the most unusual cheese at the event, and this year was no exception. This creative cheesemaker decided to insert a lemon into the middle of his cheese. Not surprisingly, the cheese was lemony in flavor:

If you missed this year’s Festival of Cheese, fear not! The event will be repeated again next year, this time in Des Moines, Iowa. I look forward to seeing you there in 2016!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Cecylia Szewczyk: U.S. Champion Cheesemaker

In a matter of minutes one night last March, the identity of Cecylia Szewczyk was forever changed. Known as one of the leading food biotechnologists in Poland, and before that, one of the fastest potato peelers on the shores of the Baltic Sea (more about that later), this brainy blonde in heels with an infectious laugh became known overnight as the best cheesemaker in America.

After leaving a global cheese culture company, and spending months finding just the right place in the American cheesemaking industry, Cecylia – the lead cheesemaker of a Guggisberg Cheese team in Ohio – won the 2015 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest for a big wheel Swiss that was only three months old. Judges deemed it to be one of the best cheeses they had tasted. Ever.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Cecylia says today, four months after winning the most coveted cheese crown in America. “When I got the call, I just started shrieking. It was unbelievable.”

Unbeknownst to Cecylia, her reaction was broadcast to a crowd of several hundred people at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest evening gala. After the winner was announced, her cheesemaker friend, Kari Skibbie at Holland’s Family Farm, put Cecylia on speaker phone next to the event microphone and in front of a hushed crowd.

“While we were talking, Kari said she was going to put me on speaker, but she forgot to mention that speaker was close to the microphone and everybody in the room, including the judges were listening!” Cecylia said. “I was convinced I was speaking to a bunch of friends, so some very inappropriate words were used in this speech of mine. Thankfully, everybody was laughing with me at the end.”

Not only were people laughing and celebrating with her, but many an eye teared up that night. I remember having to dig in my purse to find a tissue after Kari said good night and hung up the phone with Cecylia. And many people around me did the same. For those of us who have known Cecylia for years, and witnessed the struggles she’s gone through, it was very much like watching Cinderella become a fairy tale princess with a crown of cheese.

That’s because Cecylia was born into Nowinka, a village of 16 people in northern Poland on the Baltic Sea, where everyone ate herring and potatoes. Her parents both worked poorly-paid factory jobs and no one had very much money, but Cecylia’s family was lucky to have nearby fields of vegetables and fruits that Cecylia, her sister, brother and mother had to weed.

“We used to laugh that our hoe was our best childhood friend,” Cecylia says. “I remember envying other children, that after school they could just come back home and study. We had to weed, and if we didn’t have to weed, we were peeling potatoes – buckets and buckets of potatoes.”

Cecylia is still quite possibly the fastest potato peeler in the world. “Last weekend we went camping with some friends and I promised one kid, Skyler, fries. I took a bucket of potatoes, peeled them, cut them by hand and made fries. All of our American friends were looking at me like I was crazy, but when they tasted my fries they said these were the best fries they ever had. It’s funny how I thought what was my worst nightmare growing up now gives me so much pleasure.”

The budding master o’ potato peeling left her tiny village with a strong ambition to do well in school. In college, she studied chemical engineering for two years before switching to Food Technology and Human Nutrition with a major in Food Biotechnology at University of Warmia and Mazury in Poland. She also studied at the Technological Educational Institutions of Athens, Greece, culminating with two degrees: Engineer of Science (Technical Bachelor) and Master of Science.

“When I was graduating from my Master studies, Tetra Pak company nominated me and two other students to the best student of that year,  and during the official graduation ceremony I was introduced to  the sales director from CSK Food Enrichment responsible for Polish, Southern and Eastern European markets. He was looking for a Technologist to hire and he interviewed me right there. So I started working for an international ingredient supplier and got to travel to many amazing countries, visit many interesting companies from really big ones to farmstead operations producing artisanal cheeses and participate in all kinds of technological trials,” Cecylia said.

“Somehow along the way and among all other dairy products, natural cheese became my definite favorite for couple of reasons,” she says. “First of all, I think natural cheese is the most challenging from all dairy products as it requires deep understanding of milk, chemical, physical and biological processes occurring during its making. Second, I think there is something very noble about cheese making. To make a unique piece of cheese that is appreciated is like creating a piece of art that you can serve on a plate next to a grape and a glass of wine for somebody’s ultimate pleasure. I think it’s a beautiful product.”

Before joining Guggisberg Cheese just a little over one year ago, Cecylia had the chance to work with a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, including: Marieke Penterman at Holland’s Family Farm, Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, Terry Lensmire and Dan Stearns at Agropur, Rod Kregel and Fernando Vaquero at Swiss Valley Farms, Roger Larson from Maple Leaf, Gregg Palubicki and Terry Schultz at Saputo, Marc Druart at Emmi Roth, Myron Olson at Chalet Cheese, and Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Cheese, who also makes big wheel Swiss.

“Bruce really is the Workman. He wakes up every night at 1 am to make cheese and what is worse – he made me do it too!” Cecylia joked.

Along the way, she’s made many good friends, especially Brian Riesterer from Brisan Ingredients, whom Cecylia says is the “most inspiring cheese researcher” she’s ever met. It might also help that Brian traveled with his family to attend Cecylia’s wedding in Poland and brought 40 pounds of peanut butter and maple syrup that was served at the reception.

But she credits Richard Guggisberg for helping her find her place in the American cheesemaking world. For more than a year, she’s participated in a joint project between Guggisberg Cheese and Chalon Megard, a French production equipment supplier. “For Chalon Megard, it’s their very first equipment installation in U.S., and there is a lot of adjustments that have to be done towards American standards, as well as Guggisberg’s technology. I’m a connective link that helps point out the critical adjustments and improve communication between the two,” Cecylia says.

Giant cheese!

“Richard Guggisberg is probably one of the best managers, business minds and cheesemakers I’ve ever met in one person,” Cecylia adds. “Sometimes I tend to take too much on, and in the beginning, would end up overwhelmed and stressed. And then he would come to me and say: ‘Cecylia, it is supposed to be about fun, remember?’ And he is right, because it should be about fun.”

So what’s in the future for this newly-crowned champion cheesemaker? These days, Cecylia is experimenting with making all sorts of different cheeses, as she has full access to equipment that makes big wheels of cheese. She’s working on a variety of categories, but is keeping secret the specific types of cheese she’s perfecting.

“Let’s just say you’re always going to know which cheese is mine on the table,” Cecylia laughs. “It’s always going to be the biggest one.”

The Beginning of the End of Raw Milk Cheese in Wisconsin?

Wheels of Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, once made
exclusively from raw milk, are now pasteurized
because Cheesemaker Willi Lehner can’t find a cheese
plant that will today allow raw milk through its doors.

I have been exceptionally lucky to have been in the right place at the right time most of my life. But no luckier than in 2003, when I took a job at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and got drafted into a small team that would go on to help artisan cheesemakers launch a dairy renaissance in America’s Dairyland.

Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch dozens and dozens of artisan cheesemakers start-up and craft what have become national and international award-winning cheeses, and many of those cheeses have been made from raw milk.

That’s why it’s particularly painful for me to put the last part of that sentence in past tense: “have been made from raw milk.” Because whether the American consumer is aware of it or not, many Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses that were only a year ago made from raw milk, are now pasteurized.

Last week, I got lucky again – this time I was in the right place at the right time to escort a leading French scientist to visit Wisconsin cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses. Christine de Sainte Marie is a senior research fellow at the French Institute National Institute for Agricultural Research. Her current research is on the political economics of reconnecting farming, food and the environment. Instead of slow food or fast food, she is studying people who are “farming in the middle” e.g. farmers using sustainable farming methods or cheesemakers making artisan cheese, but who are not certified organic. And she came to Wisconsin to study raw milk cheese.

So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at Bleu Mont Dairy for our pre-arranged tour with one of Wisconsin’s original raw milk cheesemakers, Willi Lehner – once described by the New York Times as an “off the grid rock star” – only to find out he hasn’t made a raw milk cheese in months. Why? With no creamery of his own, he relies on renting space at other Wisconsin cheese factories to make his award-winning creations. And now, because of increased scrutiny and inspection protocols from federal inspectors, none of those factories will allow raw milk cheese out their doors.

“I feel there is an underlying fear in the whole cheese industry, that drains away the passion of our craft. And one of the results will be less and less real raw-milk cheese,” Willi said.

Brenda Jensen, cheesemaker and owner at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, agrees. Brenda makes more than a half dozen different cheeses, all made from pasteurized milk. She makes one cheese from raw milk: Ocooch Mountain, an alpine-style beauty that many have compared to a sheep milk’s salute to Gruyere.

Last week, this 50-time ACS award winner for farmstead sheep milk cheeses had a FDA inspector come to her door and ask for 20 wheels of ONLY her raw milk cheeses for testing. The inspector wanted the chain of ingredients, where they came from, all lots associated from them and a make sheet with all info. None of those requests are out of line, so Brenda spent several hours reviewing what was needed. But she kept thinking: “Why just the raw milk cheese?”

“Instead of the intimidation, I would rather have the inspectors help train me on what issues they are seeing with raw milk cheeses, and how better to safeguard against having these become a problem,” Brenda said. She is now considering stopping raw milk cheese production.

Bruce Workman, at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, decided last year that making raw milk cheese was no longer worth the risk or the headache of increased FDA scrutiny. His Edelweiss Emmentaler, traditionally made with raw milk, is now pasteurized.

Meanwhile, some cheesemakers, such as Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese, remain committed to making raw milk cheese. With no pasteurizer in the plant, Andy crafts the thrice-awarded ACS Best in Show Pleasant Ridge Reserve on a seasonal schedule, making cheese only when cows are grazing on fresh pasture.

On our visit to his farm last week, Andy told Christine he plans on making his raw-milk Rush Creek Reserve this year (last year, he suspended production, because of uncertainty in forthcoming FDA regulations). But he admits, his passion for making cheese is now coated by anxiety.

“What’s different now is that the decision-making behind creating a new cheese is laced with an apprehension over unclear and changing regulations,” Andy said. “Whereas before my first instinct was always towards developing something unique and expressive, now I instinctively worry first about making an acceptable product, and then second about making it delicious.”

Despite uncertainty over FDA’s potential changes with regulating raw milk cheeses, Andy hopes cheesemakers will stay the course. In an update to ACS members today, it was noted that the FDA is embracing an approach in regulating raw milk cheese that will “involve continuing outreach to stakeholders and expanding the conversation” – especially about the aging process for soft-ripened cheeses – before making any decisions on next steps in changing the 60-day rule for raw milk cheese in the United States.

“We, as cheesemakers can’t allow those concerns to trump our efforts to make expressive, distinctive cheese. If we’re given a chance to prove with testing that our cheeses are safe, than those goals need not be mutually exclusive,” Andy said.

Colby Makes A Comeback with The Robin

In 2009, Jon Topp of Chesterfield, Missouri, sent me an email and attached a spreadsheet listing dozens of Colby cheeses he had ordered from Midwestern cheesemakers during the past several years, in a quest to find the Colby of his youth. Growing up in the 1960s in central Iowa near a small country store that carried the “absolute best Colby cheese,” Jon remembered eating Colby in longhorns, wrapped in cloth and wax.

He said he could remember the taste like it was yesterday: mild, deliciously nutty, firm and laced with small holes. Most importantly, like much of the Colby made today, it was NOT mild cheddar. It was dry, not rubbery, gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.

In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp could no longer find it. Since then, I, too have been on a quest to find true, original Colbys (and found them at Hook’s Cheese and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars). This week, fellow cheese peeps, I found another one.

Introducing Deer Creek The Robin, named for Wisconsin’s state bird, this Colby is a partnership between Henning’s Cheese in Kiel and Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan. Turns out Chris, too, has been on a quest to find true Colby, so he worked with the Colby masters at Henning’s to create a young cheese with a firm, open and curdy body. It is not made in longhorns (good luck finding many cheesemakers who want to hand-punch curd into a longhorn form anymore), but it is made in12-pound tall wheels, bandaged with linen and dipped in wax.

The result could very well be the end of Jon Topp’s journey: a true Colby of years gone by, with a fresh, dairy flavor, buttery, yet curdy texture with nutty notes and nice salty finish.

If you’re wondering why this is such a big deal (I know what you’re thinking – I can buy Colby in any supermarket store in America), let me give you a brief background on this iconic cheese. Colby was invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County’s first cheese factory three years before.

The Code of Federal Regulations – as specified in Sec. 133.118, describes the requirements for making Colby cheese. The key difference between cheddar and traditional Colby is that during the make process, the curd mass is cut, stirred, and heated with continued stirring, to separate the whey and curd. Then, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water, with continued stirring, which is different from cheddar (no added water/rinse with cheddar). The Colby curd is then completely drained, salted, stirred, further drained, and pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.

Back in 2010, after Jon Tropp initially emailed me, I contacted cheese industry guru John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, and he told me this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, John said, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.

All this was grand until 1998, when the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture changed the state standard of identity for Colby cheese — here is a link to the original document with the original wording – you’ll have to scroll down to 81.50(2) and note the the hand-written notation with the change in statute — and amended ATCP 81.50(2) by adding this little gem of a sentence:

“Wisconsin certified premium grade AA colby and monterey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body.”

This annotation, especially the portion I’ve highlighted in red, led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings were no longer required of Colby, many processors today simply (and I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but it is the truth) make a cheese that resembles mild cheddar but label it as Colby.

But it’s not just the change in state statutes that doomed Colby in Wisconsin. Jaeggi notes technology improvements have also changed Colby. “I think cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese,” Jaeggi says. Another change is the curd wash, he says. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse (no hold) after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60. Old time Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet – at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press. The reason this changed was larger plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.

Lastly, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day. Traditional Colby was made in the longhorn shape and pressed in 13 pound horns. They were then waxed for sale. Other plants made Colby in 40 pound blocks.

Which gets me back to Deer Creek The Robin. This Colby is a true anomaly – it is crafted in a 12-pound wheel, but has the taste, flavor and texture of longhorn Colby cheeses of years gone by. I got a chance to taste the cheese this week when Gentine shipped me a wheel at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison. We cut open the wheel, and then stood in awe, as we smelled the old-time milkiness of true Colby and could literally count the openings in the curd like stars in the sky.

Deer Creek The Robin is just now making its debut in national markets, and I am excited that Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale is one of the first stores to carry it. We have it proudly displayed on our Deer Creek shelf, sandwiched between Deer Creek The Stag and Deer Creek The Fawn, two Grade AA Cheddars Gentine has also created with the help of Henning’s Cheese.

So, Mr. Topp – wherever you may be – while you may never find the Colby you grew up with (Jaeggi says most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers, each factory had their own unique flavor profile, and sadly, most, if not all, of those factories are now closed) — you may want to try Deer Creek The Robin. It may very well be a close second to the the Colby of your childhood.

Marieke Penterman: One Rockin’ Mama Cheesemaker

There is no doubt that U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is absolutely a good cheesemaker. She’s got the credentials, awards and aging room full of cheese to prove it. And there’s no doubt the girl can dance – anyone who’s ever witnessed her moves when winning an award can attest to her prowess on a stage. But above all, and perhaps not as well known, is the fact that Marieke Penterman is an amazing mom and wife. All it takes is a visit to her family’s new retail store, cheese plant, dairy barn and milking parlor off Highway 29 in Thorp to confirm that Marieke is indeed a master at balancing work and family.

Walking up to the brand new Holland’s Family Cheese agri-tourism facility – where visitors can see every step of cheesemaking from farm to fork – is seeing every dream of a first-generation immigrant family come true. After winning the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, Marieke, her husband, Rolf, and their five children, aged 11 to 5, put their plans of building a visitor-friendly dairy facility in high gear.

Today, from 7 am to 7 pm, visitors start in the Holland’s Family dairy barn, where they can watch 435 cows milked three times a day. Two sets of viewing windows – downstairs and upstairs – make for great viewing perspectives of how the Pentermans’ herd of Holsteins, Red Holsteins, Brown Swiss and crossbred cows are milked in a modern parlor. School groups can visit with teachers for just $2 per child, and  gather in an upstairs educational room to hear the details of milking cows, followed by cheese tasting. Self-guided tours for the public are free, and guided tours may be booked in advance for a fee.

From the dairy barn, visitors walk just a few yards past a giant fiberglass Holstein cow to enter the retail store and cheese plant, which features large viewing windows of both the cheesemaking room and the aging rooms. A cozy fireplace with comfortable couches invites guests to get a cup of complimentary coffee, buy a wedge of cheese, and enjoy it right on site. An ice cream counter filled with Kelley’s Country Creamery is perfect for kids, and shelves of authentic Dutch foods and goodies are available for purchase. Marieke also believes in supporting her fellow Wisconsin cheesemakers, so a huge cooler filled with Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheeses round out the shopping experience.

But it’s not until one sees the parts of the facility not open to the public that one begins to learn what a a devoted mother Marieke is to her five kids: twin girls Luna & Joyce, age 11; Dean, 8; Fenne, 7; and Finn, 5. After school, the kids march up to the offices of the cheese plant to do their homework, where each has a self-decorated workstation with their initial on it, and where, three days a week, a high school student helps them with homework.

Marieke says she also helps them with schoolwork when she can, but like most parents – including me – by the time your kids are in middle school, math problems and grammar exercises are beyond us. With her office right across the hallway – marked by a bright orange door (each of the employees got to pick the colors of their doors and office walls), Marieke can both make sales calls while watching her kids out the door.

Unlike the original Penterman farmstead just a few miles away – where the farm house was across the yard from the dairy barn and cheese factory, the Pentermans purposely built their new house away from the farm – close enough to see it, but not close enough to walk there. “I liked being right on the farm before, but now, with a store open 7 am to 7 pm, we are here a lot. And I want my kids to know that when we’re home, it means we’re home. That’s for the family.”

The Penterman kids also remember where they came from. Marieke and Rolf speak both Dutch and English to their children (on a visit this weekend, each child was asked in Dutch to introduce themselves, and each did so with incredible cuteness), and Marieke proudly displays pictures of both her and Rolf’s family on the upstairs walls above the retail area. This area is available to the public to rent out for parties – “Our first party was a bachelorette party, and we didn’t even have it done yet,” says Marieke. Especially poignant photos include this one of Marieke’s grandmother and father, who as a small boy, is watching his mother milk the family cow:

And then there’s this one, taken many years later, which show Marieke as a little girl, holding the lead rope of one of her father’s Holsteins.

It’s hard to believe that not yet 10 years ago, Marieke started her cheesemaking journey with just one helper in the cheese room. Today, the Holland’s Family crew is made up of 20 women and 4 men, a strong and growing team, including Natalie, the sister of one of the original cheesemakers Marieke hired when she first started. That’s Natalie pictured at left below, with Marieke in the middle.

When she’s not in the cheese room or her office, or attempting to help the kids with homework, Marieke still finds time to be in the barn. She knows many of the cows by name, and even talked a local veterinarian into setting the broken leg of a recently-born calf. The vet, of course, wrote “Gouda Luck”, and all the kids signed it.

But it turns out Marieke isn’t the only devoted parent with a sense of fun – on a visit to Holland’s Family Cheese this weekend, we watched as Marieke’s husband, Rolf put air in the giant “Kangaroo Pad” right outside the front door of the retail store. The pad is open to all visitors – no matter their age – to jump on and have a little fun.

On this day, the first kids to break it in for the season were the Penterman brood. Twins Luna and Joyce jumped with abandon, while Dean chased his sisters, Fenne took frequent breaks to eat Laffy Taffy gathered at that morning’s Thorp Easter Egg Hunt, and little Finn tried valiantly not to slide off the edge when his brothers and sisters jumped near him.

And to top it all off – Rolf joined in on the fun, jumping from end to end right along with the kids, stepping off at the end, out of breath, to give Marieke a hug and to encourage her to give it a try. She smiled and joked she was happy to watch him and the kids. Because as a champion cheesemaker, mother and wife, she needed to hurry back inside the store to wait on a customer who was eagerly waiting to buy a wedge of cheese with her name on it.

2015 Willy Street Co-op Cheese Challenge: Cast Your Vote!

Never mind that the U.S. Cheese Championships are happening today in Milwaukee, or that UW-Madison’s own Big 10 basketball player of the year Frank Kaminsky is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or that spring has sprung in Wisconsin, the real news today revolves around the “Cheese Taste Testing Challenge” dreamt up by the geniuses at Willy Street Co-op in Madison.
Behold the ultimate Wisconsin specialty cheese bracket:
Inspired by the NCAA basketball tournament, the 2015 Co-op Cheese Challenge sets 32 Wisconsin cheeses against one another to determine the state’s big cheese. In even more exciting news, several cheeses will be sampled at both Co-op locations from 9 am to 1 pm on:
  • Today, March 19 through Sunday March 22 – Round 1
  • Thursday, March 26 and Friday, March 27 – Squeaky 16
  • Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 – Edible 8
  • Thursday, April 2 and Friday, April 3  – Fromage Final 4
  • Saturday April 4 and Sunday, April 5 – Cheese Championship
Throughout the Cheese Challenge we cheese geeks can vote via Facebook on which cheeses we like best to see who advances to the next round. You can also vote in-store at both Willy St. locations.
May the best cheese win!

On Location: In Pennsylvania Studying Cheese & Eating Whoopie Pies

Well, it’s official, I love Pennsylvania. Not only does this fabulous state host one of the best cheesemaker conferences I’ve ever attended, it also makes a whoopie pie that will literally be the best thing you’ve ever eaten in three bites.

Maybe I’m still riding the sugary high of this hand-made bad boy from the Rotelle family at September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA:

or perhaps it’s the cheese induced coma I’ve been in the past two days, but I’m telling you, the little burg of New Holland, Pennsylvania – birthplace of New Holland Equipment, home to my favorite hay rake growing up on the family farm (yes, I already emailed my dad a picture of the big downtown headquarters sign) – is one happening artisan cheese mecca. This is what I discovered, thanks to the fine folks who invited me to speak at the 2015 Cheese Makers’ Resource Conference, sponsored by the uber-organized Agri-Service LLC team.

More than 170 cheesemakers and dairy folk from around the country coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut, descended on New Holland this week to attend the annual conference, featuring in-depth educational sessions on Cheddar cheesemaking, sheep & goat cheeses, regulatory challenges, cultured dairy products, creamery start-ups, and panel discussions on breaking into markets with new products.

My job was to lead two different tasting and sensory sessions on salt, sour and bitter notes in cheese (there’s nothing I’d rather do than talk cheese!), but by far, the highlight of the conference for me were three back-to-back sessions with veteran artisan cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon, who talked a rapt room through the art and science of making goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Taking notes as fast as humanly possible, I learned a whole lot of new information on how goat and sheep milk is different for cheesemaking, and how milk composition of these species varies greatly depending on the animals’ lactation calendar. As we all know, a female animal must give birth in order to start giving milk (lactating). The average length of lactating for sheep is 220-240 days, and for goats, 305 days, before the ladies “dry up” in time to give birth again a few months later.

Milk produced during the length of a ewe or doe’s (or cow’s for that matter) milking season varies greatly in composition. For example, the ratio of protein to fat in the last 30 to 60 days of a sheep or goat’s milking cycle is greatly decreased. In other words, the percentage of milkfat is higher, and the percentage of protein in that milk is much lower. Cheese yield goes up, but the quality of that cheese may go down, and be much higher in moisture.

That’s why it can be hard to make a good quality hard, aged cheese from late lactation milk in all species, Dixon says. The key is to make different types of cheese depending on the type of milk produced during the lactation cycle. European cheesemakers had this figured out hundreds of years ago in the Alps. They knew that after giving birth in the spring, the height of the cow’s lacation cycle was in the summer, when the cows would be on Alpine pastures, producing milk rich in both fat and protein and perfect for making huge, round Alpine cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyere. In winter time – at the end of the cows’ milking calendar – cheesemakers invented tommes, smaller cheeses that didn’t need to age as long, and were often considered inferior in quality to the big wheel cheeses of summer.

Since we don’t live in the Alps, a modern American solution as to what to do with late lactation sheep’s milk, Dixon says, is to blend it with cow’s or goat’s milk to still get a solid quality ratio of fat to protein, and to have enough milk to make a vat of cheese (animals will start drying up at the end of the lactation schedule, resulting in less and less milk in the waning days of the season). Dixon’s general rule of thumb? Any cow’s mixed milk cheese must contain at least 20 percent of goat or sheep milk to obtain any flavor profile of the sheep or goat.

In addition, goat and cow’s milk may also be blended with sheep’s milk to make softer cheeses, or, late lactation sheep milk may be frozen and mixed with the next year’s milk to make a fresh batch of cheese.

“The key is: don’t make the same cheese thinking you have the same milk every day,” Dixon says. “Different milk equals different cheeses depending on the time of the year.”

While this year’s conference focused on cheddar and goat and sheep cheeses, next year’s conference will focus on soft-ripened cheeses, with keynote speaker Gianaclis Caldwell already booked for the February 9-10 event, said Dale Martin, president of Agri-Service. I’d highly recommend attending the conference, and then making a short road trip to September Farm Cheese to not only eat their line-up flavored cheddars and jacks, but to also consume the best Whoopie Pie of your life. Best. Day. Ever.

September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA, home to the best Whoopie
Pie ever. Yes, ever.