Wisconsin Cheeses that Wow Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Tree: Grand Cru Surchoix

Celebrating an addition to the Emmi Roth Cheese factory
in Monroe back in 2006. Gosh, I wish I could yodel.

Five weeks ago, on what essentially became my first day of becoming the full-time specialty cheese buyer for Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison, 10 full wheels of Grand Cru Surchoix suddenly showed up on a refrigerated truck. Booked as a pre-order by my predecessor, the 18-pound wheels of American Gruyere (although we can’t call it that because of European Union rules for naming cheeses), landed on my counter with a thud.

Mind you they each arrived beautifully wrapped in individual boxes, complete with a healthy supply of repack labels (the epitome of happiness for cheese retailers). The wheels were even shiny – someone at Emmi Roth USA in Monroe, Wisconsin, had gone through the trouble of making them all pretty like little shiny red apples in a produce display.

But still, 180 pounds of cheese. In one full swoop. It was enough to make me want to fire up the bat signal in retail cheese distress.

For those of you not in the know, Grand Cru Surchoix is one of Wisconsin cheese’s claims to fame. Emmi Roth describes it as a washed-rind Alpine-style cheese, but in reality, this baby rivals the big-wheel Swiss Gruyeres. Using copper vats, imported from Switzerland, and aged on wooden boards for at least nine months, only a few wheels of the company’s signature Grand Cru® (note the registered trademark) meet the stringent requirements of the company’s professional cheese tasters to even ever become Surchoix. The cheese is stinky, meaty, rich and deep. It’s a 10-note cheese and deserves to be the centerpiece of your cheeseboard.

Surchoix also carries significant award credentials, starting with winning the American Cheese Society Best in Show award back in 1999. It repeated at ACS in 2012 as a Best in Show runner-up, and it routinely not only places, but beats its Swiss competitiors in international competitions. Peeps, this cheese has got legs.

So overall, I’ve got to admit that if 10 wheels of a cheese that you never ordered were to show up on your doorstep, the best you could hope for would for it to be Grand Cru Surchoix. And the second best thing you can hope for is for your friends Kirsten and Kathy – the company’s marketing gurus – to come to your store after their own long day of work and personally sample and sell it for you (thanks, ladies!).

Turns out I worried for nothing. Five weeks after stacking them in my cheese cooler, the 10 wheels are gone. After sampling and talking it up during the month of December, customers scooped it up one piece at a time. Yesterday, we cut up the last two wheels and watched it rapidly go out the door, along with more than 1,000 other pieces of cheese that I’m sure were destined for gifts and cheese boards. I actually had to order more to fill a special we’re running on it for New Year’s Eve.

So as I sit on my sofa on Christmas Day, it’s kind of cool to think about all the people opening boxes today filled with pieces of Grand Cru Surchoix. Merry Christmas, folks. And may the power of good Wisconsin cheese be with you in 2014.