LaClare Farms Martone

LaClare Farms Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann
and Martone, her newest creation.

Never one to rest on her laurels – or let’s face it, rest at all – U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann of LaClare Farms returned from her Hawaiian honeymoon last Friday afternoon to host hundreds of visitors at her family’s farmstead creamery grand opening, and that night, attend the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, where she debuted a brand new cheese she’s been working on in secret for more than two years.

It makes me tired to even write that sentence, much less execute everything it entails.

But then again I’m not a young, energetic cheesemaker with a lifetime of award-winning cheeses ahead of me. Katie’s latest creation, enthusiastically enveloped by the artisan cheese community at the fifth annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival this weekend, is called Martone. Cheese lovers in Wisconsin have been anxiously awaiting a cheese like this: a surface-ripened beauty made from a 50/50 blend of cow and goat’s milk, resulting in a mild, buttery flavor and citrus finish. Sitting at about 1-1/2 inches tall and about 3-1/2 inches wide, Martone is my new favorite table cheese.

Katie says she named the cheese for her great-grandfather, Martin Kozlowski, a dairy farmer and the first generation Kozlowski to settle in Wisconsin. But the cheese is really inspired by Martin’s granddaughter, who just happens to be Katie’s mom, Clara. Mama Hedrich, as I like to call her, grew up on the family farm and was the first in her family to attend college. She went on to become one of of the first two women to graduate from UW River-Falls with a degree in agriculture education. She’s spent the past 37 years sharing her passion with thousands of students. In fact, she is the longest tenured ag instructor in the state and is revered by her current students at West DePere High School. It’s not hard to see where Katie gets her drive from.

Hedrich patriarch Larry Hedrich shows off
his new dairy goat freestall barn, which opens
to the outside with paddocks of fresh grass.
These are some seriously happy goats.

Martone is made with pasteurized milk, vegetarian rennet and is ripened 10 days. That means it will likely be between two and three weeks old when you buy it at a retail store and eat it, but you’d better hurry, because it’s only got a 30-day shelf life. After that, this bloomy rind blossom is likely to harden and lose it complex flavorings.

The cow’s milk used for the cheese is sourced from Red Barn Family Farms, a group of American Humane Certified cow dairies near Black Creek, Wisconsin. The goat’s milk comes from the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative Of Wisconsin, founded and managed by Katie’s father, Larry. Today, seven – and soon to be eight – farms, including LaClare Farms, milk between 120 and 600 goats. That milk is sold to cheesemakers, including Carr Valley Cheese, Sartori, and LaClare Farms, where it’s made into award-winning cheeses such as Sartori Extra Aged Goat, LaClare Chandoka and Carr Valley Billy Goat Blue. It’s also bottled into LaClare Farms Bottled Goat milk and crafted into ice cream for LaLoos Goat Milk Ice Cream.

While each of the seven farms belonging to the goat cooperative is a top-notch operation, the 450 dairy goats at LaClare Farms are living the high life in a brand new facility built specifically for them at the still-smells-like-new LaClare Farms farmstead creamery.

Turning off Highway 151 east of Lake Winnebago and driving into the parking lot of the new picturesque goat dairy, creamery and what should be called a visitor center just outside the bustling unincorporated berg of Pipe, Wisconsin, feels like entering the Disneyland of dairy goats. Because 1) yes, it’s that clean, and 2) yes, it’s that fun.

Run by the Hedrich clan – mom and dad Larry & Clara, along with their grown children: Cheesemaker Katie, Business Manager Greg, Store Manager Jessica and part-time Herd Manager Anna — the family has pulled together to create something Wisconsin’s never seen before: an agritourism destination where visitors can see animals in a barn, watch them be milked in a double 24 goat parlor through a huge viewing window, watch cheese being aged through windows in the visitor center, and then purchase an array of cheeses made both at LaClare Farms and from around Wisconsin, as well as ice cream from Kelley Country Creamery near Fond du Lac.

Rock Star Chef Jim McIntosh in the new
LaClare Farms farmstead kitchen outside
Pipe, Wisconsin.

And when they’re done with all that, they can order lunch or dinner made by renowned chef Jim McIntosh (most recently the executive chef at Grand Cafe in Minneapolis). This is a farmstead creamery with a top-ranked chef also cooking with its products. Open to the public seven days a week, the LaClare Farms Cafe has already drawn a grand reputation for its Friday night Fish Fry and hand-cut French fries, which according to this French fry connoisseur, are the best she’s ever eaten. Jim told me he’s already torn his hand-operated potato fry cutter off the wall twice in his anxiousness to get fries into the fryer. “The way I’ve got it bolted to the wall now, the next time it comes off, the wall’s coming with it,” he said in completely seriousness.

While the cafe, retail store and dairy goat milking parlor are up and running at 100 percent, the cheese factory is almost there. Katie estimates she’s about two weeks away from final inspections and finally making cheese in her own facility, after spending more than four years putting thousands of miles on her car, driving to three different area cheese factories to both make and age her cheeses. She’s been sleep-deficit for years, constantly on the road between home and a cheese factory that’s not her own. Married for exactly 18 days, Mrs. Katie Fuhrmann is looking forward to finally establishing a home base. It will be a well-deserved reward for one of the hardest-working cheesemakers in the state.

“It is going to be so awesome to make cheese in my own place,” Katie said during a tour on Monday. “I get goose bumps every time I walk past the cheese vats. We are so close.”

Katie will have two cheese vats at her disposal: a 5,000-pound and 11,000-pound vat, where she will make her champion Evalon cheese, as well as a full range of goat’s milk cheeses including Fondy Jack, Chandoka, Goat Cheddar, Chevre and the new Martone. What’s more, the new LaClare Facility boasts six – yes six – different aging rooms, which can be each set to their own temperature and humidity levels. Katie will have an Evalon room, a washed-rind room for cheeses currently under development, a cheddar room, and others still to be classified. She’ll also be making custom cheese for at least two companies. The goal is for LaClare Farms to become an incubator and affinage facility for new cheeses and cheesemakers who can not yet afford to make and/or age cheese at their own place.

Cleaning the cheese vats at LaClare Farms creamery.

“This has truly been a labor of love for our family,” Larry said on a tour yesterday, clearly in his element talking about the new facility. “We are proud to open one of the most modern dairy processing facilities in the United States producing the highest quality dairy products possible. We are proud to have our family here with us, working side-by-side. That was the dream, and we’re here.”

Chicago’s Standard Market Ups the Ante in Affinage

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

A small specialty Chicago grocer with a chef-driven product selection modeled after European markets is finding itself in the curious position of leading a growing renaissance in the affinage of American artisanal cheese.

Although the focus at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois is on perishables, the cheese case, with its 200-300 cheeses from around the world, is where the action is at. That’s because Cheesemonger David Rogers and staff are dedicated to showcasing the quality of artisan cheeses. And while some shops focus on imports, Rogers says: “American artisan cheeses is where the most interesting things in cheese are happening right now.”

Rogers patterns his Standard Market’s affinage program after Murray’s Cheese in New York. Yet, while Murray’s has built a stellar selection of five different aging caves, each built below street level and dedicated to a different category of cheese, Standard Market is focusing on just one 10 x 11 foot aging room, glass fronted right in the retail area so customers can watch the aging process.

In this micro aging room, Rogers adopts small batches of local Midwest cheeses and puts his own spin on them. And as Standard Market grows as a company, he hopes each store will have its own cave dedicated to aging one particular style of cheese.  

Most recently, Rogers has been aging a batch of Little Darling from Fayette Creamery/Brunkow Cheese in southwestern Wisconsin that he’s pretty proud of. He’s also just released a version of LaClare Farms’ Evalon, and is working with cheesemaker Katie Hedrich on a bandage wrapped cheddar.

“Our goal is always to partner with the cheese maker,” Rogers says. “And while we do hope that what we age shows a unique perspective on their cheese, we also look at it as an opportunity to connect our customers with the cheesemaking process and to have them get as excited about local cheesemakers and creameries as we are.”

In a taste test of three of Rogers’ specially aged cheeses, pictured above – clockwise from right – LaClare Evalon, Fayette Creamery Little Darling, and a semi-hard cheese from Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian, Illinois, the most stellar of the trio was the Standard Market Aged Evalon.

Original Evalon, a perennial favorite of mine, is a goat’s milk cheese, typically aged about six months and is creamy and tangy with a clean finish. Standard Market’s version, however, is 10 months old and is a bit dryer, yet creamy on the tongue. But a magical transformation happens in the finish – where once all one could taste was the tang of goat’s milk, a new pineapple candy flavor has emerged. It’s as if Evalon has become the Pleasant Ridge Reserve of goat’s milk cheeses.

“I’m eager to both age out cheeses that we sell all the time, like the Evalon, to show a side by side comparison to our customers, as well as working with cheesemakers to develop unique cheeses for us,” Rogers says. “It’s nice in that we can continue the conversation about what makes these cheeses special and what sets artisan production apart. And, since the aging room is glass fronted and clearly visible to customers, it helps encourage that conversation.”

Rogers says the aging program has been an interesting journey for him and his mongers, and all feel fortunate to be working directly with cheesemakers to create cheeses unique to Standard Market. And he only sees the program growing.

“Right now we have just one store, but will be expanding to a second location in late 2013 in Naperville,” Rogers says. That location will also have a small cheese aging room, enough to handle around 4,500 pounds of cheese at a time. He plans to set up each store’s cave for a particular style of  cheese. Because the current cave in the Chicago shop is mostly set up for natural rind cheeses – nothing that would require more than 90% humidity – the cave at the next store will likely be set up for soft ripened cheeses.

“We will age and then distribute cheeses to all our stores, grills and restaurants,” says Rogers. (Each store has a grill built in and a freestanding restaurant nearby). “It’s one of those things where I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be able to work with the cheeses I am most passionate about.”

If Rogers’ success with Evalon and Little Darling is any indication of what Standard Market is capable of, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

LaClare Farms to Build New Farmstead Creamery

An artist’s rendering of the new LaClare Farms storefront.

Katie Hedrich, the reigning U.S. Champion Cheesemaker (and 2010 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship winner), announced her family dairy, LaClare Farms, will break ground this week on a new 35,000 sq. ft. farmstead dairy plant in eastern Wisconsin.

The new dairy will be on State Hwy 151, north of the village of Pipe on the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago. The facility includes plans for a state-of-the-art dairy plant, retail store and café, as well as milking parlor with housing for 600 milking goats. The facility will be capable of processing cow, goat and sheep milk. In addition to crafting LaClare Farms products, the facility will serve as a specialty custom dairy processing and aging facility.

“This week is the start of the biggest week of my life,” said Katie. Her parents, Larry and Clara Hedrich – dairy goat farmers and industry leaders for more than 30 years – agree.

“Building this farmstead dairy plant allows us to bring the next generation of Hedrich family members back to the farm,” Katie’s father, Larry said. “Our goal is to be one of the top sustainable agricultural enterprises in the nation, and with the talent our team brings to this operation, we will be.”

The new farmstead dairy plant allows the Hedrich family to expand their current offering of goat’s milk and mixed milk cheeses, including Evalon, Fresh Chevre, Cheddar, Fondy Jack and American Originals crafted by Katie Hedrich, who without her own facility, has been making five-hour round trips to Willow Creek cheese factory several times a week to make Evalon and LaClare cheeses. The Hedrichs’ new farmstead facility will also be capable of aging cheese in special curing rooms, as well as producing cultured products and bottled milk.

Katie’s brother, Greg Hedrich, is the business manager of the new integrated agricultural enterprise. Three additional sisters: Heather, Jessica and Anna, will work part-time for LaClare Farms in human resources, marketing and herd management roles while continuing their off-enterprise jobs. All five siblings hold university degrees in subjects ranging from marketing to human resources to dairy science to education.

“The key is each one of the children is not forced into one role,” Larry says. “They each chose to go to college, worked in the public/private sector for a number of years and now have chosen to bring their skills back to the family enterprise. We are beyond thrilled to have the next generation back on the farm.”  The enterprise also brings the talents of Larry’s cousin, John Jenkins, on board.

An official groundbreaking ceremony is set for Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. at the new facility. The public is invited. The location is: W2994 County Road HH, on the corner of State Hwy 151 and County Road HH in Pipe.

The groundbreaking is just the latest example of Wisconsin’s thriving artisan and farmstead cheesemaking industry. The amount of specialty cheese produced in the state has doubled in the past 10 years, and today accounts for 22 percent of the state’s total cheese production. Ninety of the state’s 126 cheese plants craft at least one type of specialty cheese, up from 77 plants five years ago.

The new LaClare farmstead dairy plant is expected to be up and running by early summer, 2013. In addition to crafting LaClare Farm products, the Hedrichs plan to rent out space to dairy processors to help launch new products and to work with beginning dairy entrepreneurs to develop their new products. The facility will also offer viewing windows into the milking parlor, dairy plant and cheese aging room which will be available to the public.

Congratulations to the Hedrich family – I look forward to following your progress and touring your new facility in 2013!

So Many New Summer Cheeses, So Little Time

Somehow I get the feeling Wisconsin cheesemakers don’t take summer vacation. With all the new cheeses out on the market this season, it’s hard to keep up. Here are few new favorites worth trying before the summer is over:

Mediterranean Fontina, Sartori Cheese
Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski has hit another home run with this new creation, just now launch in national markets. It features the earthy flavors of garlic, thyme and olive oil, even giving off a little heat, courtesy of the Aleppo pepper. This beauty just won second place in its class at the 2011 Wisconsin State Fair Cheese Competition.

Ricotta Salata, BelGioioso Cheese
Known as The Italian Feta, Ricotta Salata starts as a milky ricotta. Salt is added to aide in moisture loss and the cheese is then hand scooped into cheesecloth and pressed into wheels. During the 60-day aging process, its texture becomes dry and crumbly, producing a wheel that is easy to slice, cube, crumble and shave. It’s perfect for topping hot pastas or cold salads. BelGioioso’s Ricotta Salata won a second place at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in March and is just now hitting retail shelves.

Quark, Cedar Grove Cheese
There’s never a dull moment when Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills is around. His latest addition to the Wisconsin cheese scene is German Style Quark, a fresh cheese that’s a cross between cream cheese and cottage cheese. Common in Europe, Quark is just now catching on in the United States. Try mixing fresh herbs for a spread or using it in a cheesecake. I’ve also had it mixed with dark chocolate and strawberries – yum! – courtesy of Cheesemaker Blair Johnson. Available in select Wisconsin specialty cheese stores. Call your cheesemonger and request it!

Evalon with Cumin or Fenugreek, LaClare Farms Specialties
U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich has rolled out two new cheeses. Evalon, a semi-hard goat’s milk cheese, is now available with either a strip of cumin or fenugreek down the middle. Both cheeses are new to the market, but can be found in specialty cheese shops across the state. The fenugreek style just won a Blue Ribbon at the American Cheese Society in Montreal. Congrats, Katie!