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.”

CheeseTopia: Bringing Artisan Cheese to the Heart of the City

It’s official: you can book April 12, 2015 on your calendars for the First Annual CheeseTopia, a new one-day cheese festival I’ll be planning each year for the next three years. Year one will be at the Pritzlaff Building, a renovated warehouse in the Historic Third Ward of downtown Milwaukee, Year two will be in Chicago, and Year 3 in Minneapolis.

After retiring the annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival in 2013, I still wanted to do an event to highlight our amazing artisan cheesemakers, but I knew I wanted it to be something different.

CheeseTopia aims to bring the best of Midwest artisan and farmstead cheese to the heart of the city by offering up to 700 attendees the opportunity to sample and purchase cheese from more than 50 cheesemakers from the Great Lakes Region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. The festival will be open from Noon to 4 p.m. on a Sunday and offer a fun open marketplace atmosphere with cheese samples and a cash bar.

I’ll also be asking several favors from long-time cheese industry friends to help me build two large edible displays of cheese to compliment the hundreds of cheese samples available from cheesemakers. While many artisans will sell their products, farmer’s market style, those who don’t will have an opportunity to have them available for purchase from Larry’s Market, which will set up a beautiful table of cheeses for sale at the event. Thank you Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson!

In addition, several breakout seminars will take place in separate meeting spaces inside the Pritzlaff Building, which was constructed in 1875 and just recently renovated. More than 20,000 square feet of floor space will be filled with cheesemaker tables surrounded by carved wooden beams, industrial age columns, Victorian era arched windows and gritty cream city brick. This is a building you truly need to step inside and appreciate.

Tickets will likely cost $25 and will go on sale after the first of the year. As always, faithful members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals will have first chance to purchase entry and sign up for seminars, which I expect may sell out before the event is opened to the public.

Thank you in advance for supporting our artisan and farmstead cheesemakers and I look forward to seeing you all in April in Milwaukee!

Wisconsin Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship Now Available

Want to be a Wisconsin licensed cheesemaker?

Wisconsin Cheese Originals announced this week applications for its 2013 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship are available. The $2,500 award will help one aspiring cheesemaker earn his or her Wisconsin cheesemaking license and make new artisan, farmstead or specialty cheeses.

As you know, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require cheesemakers to be licensed, a lengthy process that can take as long as 18 months, requires the attendance at five cheesemaking courses, and 240 hours of apprenticeship with an existing licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker.

Applications for the 2013 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship are available for download at www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com. Applications are due March 15. The recipient will be chosen by a review committee and notified by April 1.

This is the fourth year Wisconsin Cheese Originals has offered the $2,500 scholarship. Past recipients include:

2012: Anna Landmark owns and runs a small-scale sustainable farm with her husband and children in Albany, Wis. After using the scholarship money to earn her cheesemaker’s license, Landmark plans to craft both fresh and aged sheep’s milk cheeses, including thistle-rennet cheeses, which will require her to develop her own rennet from thistle flowers. This type of cheese is currently only available via import from Portugal and Spain.

2011: Rose Boero, a dairy goat breeder in Custer, Wis., successfully obtained her cheesemaker’s license after receiving the scholarship in 2011. Today, she makes a variety of goat’s milk cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese and teaches classes in her home for amateur cheesemakers. She is developing plans to build her own cheese plant at her dairy goat farm, where she and her husband have raised Toggenburg dairy goats for 25 years.

2010: Katie Hedrich, a goat’s milk cheesemaker, obtained her license in 2010 after receiving the very first Wisconsin Cheese Originals Scholarship. At the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest, she took Best in Show for her goat’s milk cheese, LaClare Farms Evalon, and was named the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheesemaker, the youngest licensed cheesemaker to ever earn the title.  She and her family are currently building a farmstead cheese plant on their farm near Pipe, Wis.

For more information about the scholarship, email me at Jeanne@wordartisanllc.com .

Growing Cheesemakers

My family has the darnedest time figuring out what exactly it is I do for a living.

I grew up in a small town, moved away after college, and don’t get home very often. So on the rare occasions I go back for weddings or funerals, I often stand to the side and amusingly watch my father, a retired farmer, get asked by former neighbors and old friends what his two daughters grew up to be.

My sister has it easy. “Well the oldest one’s a lawyer,” Dad will say with a big grin. And then he’ll go on to talk about how she owns her own law firm in Milwaukee and how she helps people who’ve been discriminated against at their jobs. He might even describe her latest case, or talk about a big company she just sued. My sister is a very good attorney.

“Oh, isn’t that nice,” the little grayed hair ladies will say, bobbing their heads and clucking approvingly. And then, inevitably, the question will come: “And what about your youngest – what does she do?”

And that’s when the eyebrows furrow, the eyes squint, and the look of confusion starts.

A slow inhale. A slower exhale.

“Well …. she used to be a newspaper reporter. She was a real good reporter,” he’ll say. “She won lots of awards.” Pause. Longer Pause. “But now she works with cheese. I think she writes about cheese. I know she does some real nice events in Madison.” And then he’ll frantically search around the room to find me smiling at him, wave me over, and have me explain what exactly it is that I do.

But therein lies the problem. Hell, even I have a hard time explaining what it is I do for a living.

I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. I’m also an event organizer. I like to write about cheese. I like to talk about cheese. I like to organize events around cheese. And, of course, I eat a lot of cheese.

Mostly, though, I like to make stuff happen and then stand in a corner and watch it unfold.

That’s what happened today when I wrote a little press release about a young woman who’s just starting out in the cheese world. I don’t think she even has any idea of what’s in store for her. But I can see it. Her name is Anna Landmark. Today, she’s a policy research director for a Wisconsin non-profit organization, who with her husband, owns and runs a small-scale sustainable farm in Albany, Wis.

Five years from now, she’ll be an award-winning cheesemaker crafting original sheep’s milk cheeses and clearing a broader path for Wisconsin artisan cheese. She’s the kind of gal who’s going to put her own mark on the dairy industry, and she’s going to do it in style.

You see, Anna was selected from a wide field of applicants for a $2,500 scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization I started in 2009 to help consumers connect with Wisconsin cheesemakers. She is mid-way through the courses required for the cheesemakers license and is working to secure an apprenticeship this fall.

As you know, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that requires its cheesemakers to be licensed, an 18-month process that involves attendance at five university courses, 240 hours of apprenticeship under a licensed cheesemaker, and a written exam at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

While big and even medium-sized cheese companies can afford to put beginning cheesemakers through the licensing process, smaller, artisan companies, and especially those just starting out, can find the process daunting and sometimes, insurmountable. That’s why I started the scholarship in 2010 – to create a platform for beginning cheesemakers whom I am confident will go on to do great things if they can just get past the hurdle of getting their license. Past scholarship recipients include Katie Hedrich, a goat cheesemaker in Chilton, Wis., who went on to be the first and youngest woman goat’s milk cheesemaker to be named a U.S. Champion; and Rose Boero, a goat and cow’s milk cheesemaker in Custer, Wis., who will complete her cheesemaker’s license this spring.

While all of this year’s scholarship applicants were more than well-qualified, Anna’s application stood out because it told a story. And perhaps because I myself am a storyteller, her story spoke to me.

Anna’s story begins at her grandparents’ dairy farm in Mount Horeb, Wis., where a big block of Swiss cheese was brought out every morning for breakfast and then left on the table under a glass dome until after supper. Her story continues through the terrible milk prices of the 1980s, when she watched her grandfather become discouraged, eventually retire, and then discourage his grandchildren from ever getting into farming. Her story blossoms with the discovery that she loves to cook, and how that love led to making cheese in her kitchen (her first batch of mozzarella was so terrible she didn’t attempt to make cheese again for two years). And it ends with the story of buying a small property outside Albany in 2009 with her husband, where a new story is now starting: one of buying a gentle, stubborn, noisy Milking Shorthorn named Freckles who produced so much milk that Anna started making cheese just to use it all up. Then came along two Alpine dairy goats, and she made goat’s milk cheeses. Then heritage breed sheep, and finally sheep’s milk cheeses, where she found her true passion: to become a sheep’s milk cheesemaker.

After she uses the scholarship money to earn her cheesemaker’s license, Anna plans to craft fresh sheep’s milk cheeses, and differentiate them from her cheesemaking idol Brenda Jensen’s cheeses, by draining the curd for a longer period of time and perhaps rolling the cheese in herbs and distributing it in various shapes. She’s also going to make aged sheep’s milk cheeses, including thistle-rennet cheeses, which will require her to develop her own rennet from thistle flowers. This type of cheese is currently only available via import from Portugal and Spain.

“Wisconsin has such a robust cheese industry and I live in the heart of it,” Landmark said in her scholarship application. “However, the majority of sheep milk cheeses consumed in the United States is still imported. I would like to grow this emerging industry and help provide a stable market for sheep dairies in my region.”

I have no doubt she’ll accomplish all that and much more. Anna will be a cheesemaker, and she’ll be a good one. She says her grandfather is now enjoying watching her entry/return into the dairy and cheese world, but is still skeptical anyone on a small scale can really make a living doing it.

Good cheesemakers can make a living doing it. And Anna will be good cheesemaker. I’m looking forward to watching her grow and discover all the things of which she’s capable, all of the things I see in her when she talks about making cheese.

So perhaps that’s one way I can explain to folks what it is that I do: I help grow cheesemakers. But then again, that’s not going to be an easy career for my father to explain to the neighbors either. So I guess I’ll stick with being a writer who has a sister who is a good attorney. That’s good enough for me.

Behind the Curtain at the World Championship Cheese Contest

The World Championship Cheese Contest came and went in Madison this week. With it, hundreds of industry volunteers, cheesemakers and international judges unloaded, unboxed, unwrapped, inspected, labeled, opened, sniffed, tasted, spat out, rewrapped, reboxed, and reloaded 2,504 cheeses one by one, wheel by wheel, wedge by wedge, all in a quest to find the best.

Mission accomplished. While the Dutch and Swiss again took top honors (the World Champion was Vermeer, a lowfat Dutch Gouda made by FrieslandCampina – yes, that’s right, the frickin’ Dutch beat us with a lowfat Gouda), Wisconsin cheesemakers did well overall, earning gold medals in 30 of the 82 classes.

Held over the course of three days at the Monona Terrace, the World Championship Cheese Contest is one of the best cheese events held in Wisconsin. That’s because it’s expertly executed by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which has been running the contest since 1957.

Once held in obscurity in a butter cooler in Green Bay, the contest now takes center stage at a sprawling convention center in the state capital. Today, the WCMA, led by executive director John Umhoefer, calls on more than 200 volunteers to help run the three-day contest. Many – perhaps even most of the volunteers – are Wisconsin cheesemakers who happily carve three days out of their own cheesemaking schedule to schlep around cheese made by others from around the world.

From Monday morning through Wednesday mid-day, two distinct bodies of cheese people fill the voluminous Exhibition Hall at Monona Terrace. One group wears white caps and white jackets, and stands in front of the red velvet curtains. These are the judges. From Argentina to Australia, 20 international cheese experts wind their way to Madison to spend three days inspecting, sniffing, tasting and spitting out everything from Gruyere to Gorgonzola (they spit out each cheese so as to not have hundreds of samples mulling around in their tummies – I’m not sure all the Pepto Bismol in the world could cure that kind of stomach ache).

The second group wears blue hats and white coats, and mostly works behind the red velvet curtains. This is the “B Team”, as they are affectionately called, and these are the folks – all Wisconsin cheesemakers and industry volunteers – who unbox and unpack each and every piece of cheese for the judges to inspect, and then repack and rebox to put back on pallets to be zipped back to the cooler by another set of volunteers who have moving pallets down to a science.

While both of these teams are busy working, a separate team in a separate room, mostly filled with computers, printers and cans of caffeine, tally the judges’ scores. This team – led by the amazing Jane Cisler at WCMA – is the invisible hub of the contest, always working, often running, to get scores entered as soon as possible and up and live on the contest website. Without Jane and her team of volunteers, the contest simply would not happen. They are truly the wizards behind the curtain.

By Wednesday afternoon, judges have whittled down the 2,504 cheeses to just 82. These are the Gold Medal cheeses – the top cheeses in each of the classes. This year, the contest mixed things up a bit, and had the judges pare the top 82 down to a “Sweet 16”, which were then judged in front of a sold-out live audience at an evening gala in the Monona Terrace ballroom. More than 400 super foodies showed up to mingle with cheese industry folk and taste 50 cheeses from around the world, all the while watching the final round of gold-medal judging.

At about 8:20 p.m., the crowd was rewarded for its patience with the naming of the Second Runner-Up (an Appenzeller from Switzerland), the First Runner-Up (a washed-rind Winzer Kase from Switzerland) and finally, the World Champion – the aforementioned lowfat Gouda.

As hundreds cheered for the Dutch judge as he hefted his native country’s wheel of cheese above his shoulders (the actual cheesemaker won’t accept his medal until an April banquet in Milwaukee), the wizards both in front of and behind the curtains – the volunteers, the B Teamers, and the rest of the judging crew – all took a moment to stand and smile, satisfied with another year of finding the big cheese. Well done, crew. See you in 2014.

Meet Your Favorite Wisconsin Cheesemaker: Tickets Now on Sale

Alert readers of The Cheese Underground might know that for fun, every year I run a little event called the Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival.

In exciting news, tickets to this annual shindig, set for Nov. 4-5 at the Monona Terrace in downtown Madison, are now on sale to the public. While almost all of the dinners, tours and seminars have already sold out to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, those of you looking to attend the festival’s signature event: the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, are in luck, as many tickets are still available. That’s because, in an effort to reduce the number of hate emails I receive from hostile would-be-ticket-buyers after the event annually sells out 6 weeks in advance, I’m ticketing it a bit differently this year and offering two different time slots, from 6 to 8 p.m., and 8 to 10 p.m. Each session will be limited to 250 attendees, allowing everyone to personally meet and greet cheesemakers in a relaxed and enjoyable setting.

For those of you who’ve never attended the event, the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala is one of the only opportunities in the nation to personally meet nearly every Wisconsin artisan, farmstead or specialty cheesemakers and taste more than 150 of their cheeses.

Also new this year (another attempt to limit hate email), cheese will be offered for sale at the event. Now you can taste and then purchase your favorite cheeses, all in the same venue! The fabulous Metcalfe’s Market will set up shop in a room adjacent to the Gala, offering many of the night’s cheeses and accompanying foods, including Potter’s artisan Crackers and Quince and Apple small-batch preserves.

Here’s a run down of all the companies, cheesemakers and cheeses that will be in attendance at this year’s Meet the Cheesemaker Gala:

  • BelGioioso Cheese – meet Gaetano Auricchio and taste Auribella, Crescenza-Stracchino, Crumbly Gorgonzola, Provolino, Ricotta Salata & Peperoncino
  • Bleu Mont Dairy – meet Cheesemaker Willi Lehner and taste Bandaged Cheddar & Alpine Renegade
  • Burnett Dairy Cooperative – meet Cheesemaker Bruce Willis and taste Alpha’s Morning Sun, Alpha’s Morning Sun with Rosemary, Hot Pepper String, Smoked Provolone & Aged Provolone
  • Capri Cheesery – meet Cheesemaker Felix Thalhammer and taste St. Felix, St. Pauline, Wash Bear, Smoky Bear, Fromag Blanc, Celestan, Hybrid Cheddar and Feta
  • Carr Valley Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Sid Cook and taste Snow White Goat Cheddar, Billy Blue, Mobay, Cave Aged Mellage, Cave Aged Marisa, Black Sheep Truffle, Bessie’s Blend & Apple Smoked Cheddar
  • Cedar Grove Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Bob Wills and taste Quark, Natural Rind Sheep Cheese & Sharp Cheddar
  • Cesar’s Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Cesar Luis and taste Queso Oaxaca, Quesadilla & Chipotle Quesadilla
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese – meet Cheesemaker George Crave and taste Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella & Petit Frere
  • Dreamfarm – meet Cheesemaker Diana Kalscheur Murphy and taste Fresh Chevre, Feta, Rosebud & Arthur
  • Edelweiss Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Bruce Workman and taste Grass Fed Gouda, Grass Fed Emmentaler & Havarti
  • Emmi Roth USA – meet Cheesemaker Mike Green and taste Grand Cru Gruyere, GranQueso, Buttermilk Blue & Ostenborg Havarti
  • Harmony Specialty Dairy – meet owners Ralph & Sharon Bredl and taste Cheshire Rosemary, Abergele, Mushroom & Chive Abergele, Nut Brown Ale Caerphilly, Sage & Garlic Cheshire & Double Glouster
  • Hidden Springs Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and taste Driftless, Ocooch Mountain, Meadow Melody and Bad Axe
  • Holland’s Family Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman and taste Marieke Gouda Plain, Marieke Gouda Smoked, Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Foenegreek & Marieke Gouda Pesto Basil
  • Hook’s Cheese – meet Cheesemakers Tony & Julie Hook and taste 10-Year Cheddar, 7-Year Cheddar, 5-Year Cheddar, Original Blue, Blue Paradise, Tilston Point, Gorgonzola & Little Boy Blue
  • Koepke Family Farms – meet Owners John & Kim Koepke and taste La Belle
  • Klondike Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Adam Buholzer and taste Odyssey Traditional Feta, Mediterranean Feta, Fat Free Feta and Peppercorn Feta
  • LaClare Farms Specialties – meet Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich and taste Evalon, Evalon with Fenugreek & Evalon with Cumin
  • Lactalis USA – meet Cheesemaker Lenny Bass and taste Brie & Feta
  • Meister Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Vicki Thingvold and taste Eagle Cave Reserve Bandaged Cheddar & Wild Morel & Leek Jack
  • Montchevre – meet Cheesemaker Jean Rossard and taste Fresh Goat Cheese, Cabrie, Bucheron, Chevre Fleurie, Chevre in Blue & Feta
  • Mt. Sterling Co-op Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Bjorn Unseth and taste Sterling Reserve & Sharp Raw Milk Goat Cheddar
  • Organic Valley – meet Cheesemaker Phil Van Tatenhove and taste Pepper Jack, Raw Mild Cheddar, Blue Cheese & Pasture Butter
  • Otter Creek Organic Farm – meet Bartlett Durand and taste Seasonal Raw Milk Cheddars & Pesto Cheddar
  • Red Barn Family Farms – meet Cheesemaker Wayne Hintz and Owner Terry Homan and taste Heritage Weis Reserve, Heritage Weis, Heritage White Cheddar Reserve, Heritage White Cheddar & Weinlese Cheddar Blue
  • Roelli Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Chris Roelli and taste Dunbarton Blue
  • Salemville Cheese Cooperative/DCI Cheese – Taste Amish Blue, Amish Gorgonzola & Amish Smokehaus Blue
  • Sartori – meet Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski and taste SarVecchio, Bellavitano Gold, Espresso BellaVitano, Raspberry BellaVitano, Salsa Asiago, Rosemary Asiago, Extra Aged Fontina & Mediterranean Fontina
  • Sassy Cow Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Kara Kasten-Olson and taste Cheese Curds
  • Saxon Homestead Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Jerry Heimerl and taste Big Ed’s, Saxony, Pastures & Green Fields
  • Seymour Dairy – meet Cheesemaker Rob Richter and taste Weinlese, Ader Kase, Crocker Hills Organic Blue, Blue Crest & Ader Kase Reserve
  • Shepherd’s Ridge Creamery – meet Cheesemaker Vicky Simpkins and taste Oliver’s Reserve, Poplar Lake & Dresser Junction
  • Uplands Cheese – meet Cheesemaker Andy Hatch and taste Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve & Rush Creek Reserve
  • Widmer’s Cheese Cellars – meet Cheesemaker Joe Widmer and taste Aged Brick, Mild Brick, Authentic Colby, 6-Year Cheddar and Brick Spread

Of course, the Friday evening Meet the Cheesemaker Gala is just one of a wide array of events taking place during the annual festival. Other events include: creamery and dairy farm tours, private cheesemaker dinners, and tasting and educational seminars. All events require advance tickets and will sell out.

A HUGE thank you to all sponsors of the Third Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival, including: Gold-Level sponsors Klondike Cheese, World Import Distributors, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board; Silver-Level sponsors BelGioioso Cheese, Dairy Business Innovation Center, Emmi Roth USA, Fromagination, Organic Valley, Uplands Cheese; Bronze-Level sponsors American Cheese Society, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Edible Madison, Fromartharie, and Meister Cheese, and Supporting Sponsors Hook’s Cheese, Hy-Vee Madison and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars.

Meet the Cheesemaker in Montreal

Thousands of people trek to the American Cheese Society conference every year to attend the Festival of Cheese, by far the most popular event of the annual shindig. And while I definitely look forward to trying not to get sick by eating 1,600 cheeses, my favorite ACS event instead happened tonight in a much smaller room, attended by far fewer people.

It’s a little thing called Meet the Cheesemaker.

I don’t know why, but I find something absolutely magical in walking around a room, eating cheese from dozens of different companies, and getting to shake hands and talk shop with the man or woman who makes each cheese. Every year, I especially try to seek out new and upcoming cheeses, and this year did not disappoint. A few discoveries of the evening:

Mountina, Vintage Cheese Company, Montana

This washed rind cheese is made by cheesemaker brothers Dwayne and Darryl Heap, both of whom attended tonight’s Meet the Cheesemaker. The pair market their cheese as “an Alpine cheese from the mountains of … Montana.”

The pair have been been making thier Mountina cheese since 2009, but just released a new version called Mocha Mountina, which is washed with coffee and cocoa beans. Surprisingly, the coffee compliments  the natural nutty flavor of the cheese.

The Heaps’ father, a cheesemaker by trade, came up with the coffee and cocoa bean wash recipe before passing last year. Larry Brog, of the famed Swiss cheesemaking family of Star Valley, Wyoming, helped the Heaps perfect the recipe and method. And to tie it all together, Larry’s uncle, Paul, a Swiss immigrant and cheesemaker, trained Dwayne and Darryl’s grandfather to make cheese. It’s a long and winding story, but the cheese is totally worth it.

Shepherd’s Basket, Valley Shepherd Cheese, New Jersey
Eran and Debra Wajswol host between 20,000 and 30,000 tourists at their farm every year. Built as a family destination, agri-tourism site, Valley Shepherd Cheese is making some pretty good cheeses from the milk of their 600 sheep, 30 goats and 20 cows. My favorite is Shepherd’s Basket, a Manchego-style, raw sheep’s milk cheese made in a five-pound wheel with basket-like weave rind.

I’d love to show you a picture of this beauty, but when I asked my hubby to get a shot of it, he instead took a close-up of a cotton-ball sheep with googly eyes sitting on the Valley Shepherd Cheese table. Sigh. So you’ll just have to take my word for it – this cheese is a keeper.

Le Sein d’Helene, La Moutonniere, Quebec, Canada

This cheese was quite popular with the fellows at the Meet the Cheesemaker event, as it is shaped like and named for a woman’s breast. Cheesemaker Lucille Giraux said she created the cheese to represent the mountains of where she lives, and then thought of the name afterward, in honor of her village, Ste. Helene-de Chester in Quebec.

Made from a mixture of sheep and Jersey cow milk, Le Sein d’Helene has a natural rind and is aged between two and four months. It’s sweet and buttery, which makes it the perfect table cheese. If only I could get this in the United States. Sigh.

Espresso Bellavitano, Sartori, Plymouth, Wisconsin
Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski has done it again. The wizard behind Sartori’s line of fruity BellaVitano cheeses, the company’s newest offering is Espresso BellaVitano, rubbed with oil and espresso beans and then cured between two and six months, allowing the espresso flavor to work its way through the rind and into the heart of the cheese.

While in Montreal this week, I learned something new about BellaVitano. The cheese was actually inspired by a cheesemaking trip to Italy, where the Sartori cheesemakers tasted Piave, an intense, full-bodied cheese, reminiscent of Parmigiano Reggiano. The team returned to Wisconsin with a mission to make their own style of the same cheese, and voila … BellaVitano was born. In the process, they created an American Original beloved by many.

Thanks to all the cheesemakers to attended tonight’s event – it was awesome to meet each and every one of you!