Candied Cheddar at Roelli Cheese


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A bit of the backstory:

Cheddar cheese – Wisconsin’s claim to fame. Nearly half of all cheese plants in America’s Dairyland produce cheddar, whether it’s in huge, 640-pound commodity blocks destined to be cut up and sold in big box grocery stores, or in smaller – but still heavy – 40-pound blocks meant to be aged and sold in specialty shops. Some cheesemakers even craft cheddar in 22-pound waxed daisy wheels, or in smaller, 18-pound wheels wrapped in linen and then covered in lard and aged in a cellar for a year or more. So much cheddar, so many choices.

Wisconsin crafts more than 600 million pounds of cheddar every year in every shape and size. And perhaps nobody has a deeper connection to cheddar than the Roelli family. Their historic cheese plant sits at the corner of Highways 11 and 23, halfway between Darlington and Shullsburg in the southwest corner of the state. In 2006, the 4th generation of the Roellis – that would be Chris – brought the family cheese plant back to life, focusing not on commodity cheddar but on small batch artisan cheese.

His latest creation is what he calls a candied cheddar – a 20-pound wheel of deep red cheddar chock full of crystals and a sweet, lovely finish. I stopped at Roelli Cheese last week to get a glimpse at this new creation and talk cheddar with Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli.

Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli almost always knew he wanted to make cheese. Growing up in a cheesemaking family sealed the deal. But what he always enjoyed was tweaking cheesemaking recipes to make them his own. While his father and grandfather made 40-pound and 60-pound blocks of Wisconsin State Brand cheddar, Chris decided to take a different approach.

“We’re making 20-pound wheels of artisan-style cheddar, meaning it’s cellar-aged as opposed to vacuum-sealed and cold aged,” Chris says. His “toolbox” of starter and adjunct cultures is much broader than what was available to his grandfather, and he says when you combine good milk with a wider spectrum of cultures, you tend to get a wider spectrum of flavor. “Then, when you put that cheese into a cellar-curing environment, you get a very different cheddar. It’s almost an old-style, hand-cheddared cheese with a few different cultures that it gives it a candied note: sweet, earthy and nutty.”

To learn how exactly more American cheesemakers are making what Chris Roelli calls “Candied Cheddar”, we turned to the foremost expert on Wisconsin cheese. Dr. Mark Johnson is a distinguished scientist at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He describes himself as a “trouble-shooter” – helping cheesemakers solve problems and answer questions that seem to stump most everyone else.

Dr. Johnson is exceptionally familiar with the adjunct cultures being used to create American “sweet cheddars.” That’s because he first started researching a new strain of adjunct cultures 40 years ago. He talked a culture house in France to send some to the Center for Dairy Research. The cultures made cheese develop tyrosine crystals faster and gave cheese a sweeter, toasted pineapple note. The first cheese to showcase these cultures was Babcock Hall’s Dutch Kase. Today, it’s being used by several cheesemakers across the country.

So what exactly is a starter culture? Dr. Johnson explains it well:

“A starter culture is a specialized bacteria that is specific for the fermentation of lactose – which is the sugar in milk. It rapidly creates lactic acid. That’s what gives cheese its flavor, but it also makes cheese have a certain body – the more acid you develop, the softer the cheese will become. The acid formed dissolves the calcium in the protein, and that makes the cheese hard and firm. So when you remove calcium, it makes cheese softer, melts it easier, stretch better,” Dr. Johnson says.

So how does a starter culture differ from an adjunct culture? Dr. Johnson says “adjuncts” are strains of bacteria that are added in addition to the starter culture to create special flavors in cheese. They break down the proteins, and that’s where flavor comes. Scientists can even isolate certain bacteria that will make a certain flavor in cheese.


Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.


Roelli Cheese Wins 2016 ACS Best in Show with Little Mountain

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Every once in a great while, good things happen to good people. Such was the case tonight at the 2016 American Cheese Society awards ceremony, as Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, one of the country’s most humble, hardworking and beloved cheesemakers, took home Best in Show for the very first time. Ever. And he did it with a cheese he created to honor his family.

With tears in his eyes and emotion flowing through his voice, the first call after the pomp and circumstance ended onstage was to his father, Cheesemaker Dave Roelli, who first taught Chris how to make cheese as a young boy. Chris is the fourth generation in his family to make cheese at the family plant near Shullsburg, Wisconsin, and just two years ago, he and his cousin purchased the business from their fathers.

“Sit down,” he told his dad over the phone. “I just won the whole ACS show. Yes. Best of Show with Little Mountain. It’s everything we’ve ever worked for.”

Everything he’s ever worked for: indeed, Chris Roelli and his wife, Kristine, have worked long days and nights establishing and rebranding Roelli Cheese after they reopened the once-closed cheese plant ten years ago. Chris found early fame with his American Original, Dunbarton Blue, a natural rinded cheddar streaked with blue veins, and also with Red Rock, another cheddar blue made in blocks with a white mold rind and creamy texture.

Little Mountain is Chris’ newest cheese. It pays homage to his family cheesemaking heritage in Switzerland. Created with the help of John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Little Mountain is an Appenzeller style made in 15-pound wheels and washed with a proprietary blend of bacteria and brine. It’s aged between 8 and 14 months. The winning wheel was aged nine months.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

“This cheese is more special because it takes me back to my family’s roots,” Chris said. “It’s also the cheese I make the least of.” Only 1,200 pounds of Little Mountain currently exist, and Chris now faces the monumental task of trying to fill orders from hundreds of stores around the country, all of which will be clamoring for the Best in Show cheese.

In addition to winning Best in Show, Wisconsin also had a hand in the Third Place Best in Show winner, Jeffs’ Select. The aged gouda is crafted by Jeff Wideman at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, and then aged at the Caves of Faribault by Jeff Jirik in Minnesota. The two men shared the prize.

Rounding out the Best in Show honors was Buff Blue from Bleating Heart Cheese in California, and St. Malachi Reserve from The Farm at Doe Run in Pennsylvania. Both cheeses tied for second place. Tying for third place was Greensward, made by Jasper Hill in Vermont and aged by Murray’s Cheese in New York.

Overall, Wisconsin dominated the competition, held this year in Des Moines, Iowa, winning 104 awards, more than any other state in the nation. Of those awards, 28 were first place ribbons, 32 were second places and 44 were thirds. Overall, California came in second with 55 awards, and Vermont third, with 36 awards.

All Wisconsin companies earning awards at tonight’s competition for their cheeses were:

  • Arena Cheese, Arena: Colby, Smoked Gouda
  • Arthur Schuman Inc: Cello Thick and Smooth Mascarpone, Yellow Door Creamery Harissa Rubbed Fontal 
  • BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay: BelGioioso Fresh Mozzarella 16 oz. Log, BelGioioso Mascarpone, BelGioioso Burrata, BelGioioso Fontina
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain: Sheep Milk Feta, Donatello
  • Cesar’s Cheese, Random Lake: Cheddar Cheese Curds, Hand Stretched String Cheese, Cesar’s String Cheese, Oaxaca String Cheese
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo: Yellow Cheddar Cheese Curds, White Cheddar Cheese Curds, Fresh Mozzarella, Fresh Mozzarella-under 8oz, Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese Curds, Marinated Fresh Mozzarella
  • Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello: Emmental, Brick
  • Emmi Roth USA, Monroe: Pavino, GranQueso Reserve, GranQueso, Roasted Garlic Raclette, Smoked Fontina, Grand Cru Surchoix
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Driftless-cranberry cinnamon, Driftless- Maple, Meadow Melody Grande Reserve, Meadow Melody Reserve
  • Hook’s Cheese Company, Mineral Point: Little Boy Blue, Barneveld Blue, Pepper Jack
  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Brick, Muenster, Odyssey Feta, Odyssey Reduced Fat Feta, Odyssey Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Peppercorn Feta, Odyssey Mediterranean Feta, Odyssey Greek Yogurt French Onion Dip, Odyssey Blueberry Greek Yogurt, Odyssey Greek Yogurt
  • Kraft Heinz: Cracker Barrel – Sharp Cheddar, Cracker Barrel – Extra Sharp Cheddar
  • Lactalis American Group, Belmont: 33 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, 1 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, Feta Crumbles, Reduced Fat Feta, Brie – Herbs, Rondelé Garlic & Herbs Gourmet Spreadable Cheese
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany: Pecora Nocciola, Petit Nuage – Summer Babe, Petit Nuage
  • Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Monroe: Mild Gouda, Aged Gouda, Aged English Hollow, Jack the Reaper, Pepper Jack, Twin Grove Gouda, Smoked Gouda 
  • Marieke Gouda, Thorp: Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Jalapeno, Marieke Gouda Truffle
  • Montchevre-Betin, Inc., Belmont: Fromage Blanc, La Chevriotte, Trivium, Mini Bucheron, Oh-La-La! Fresh Spreadable Goat Cheese, Bandaged Goat aged by Crown Finish Caves
  • Mt. Sterling Cheese Co-op: Smoked Jalapeno Jack, Sterling Reserve
  • Organic Valley, LaFarge: Organic Pasteurized Colby, Organic Salted Butter 
  • Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton: Horseradish Flavor Cold Pack Cheese Food, Hot Habanero Cold Pack Cheese Food
  • Roelli Cheese Company, Shullsburg: Little Mountain 
  • Saputo Specialty Cheese: Black Creek Colby, Stella Aged Asiago, Great Midwest Hatch Pepper Cheddar, Black Creek Pepper Jack, Black Creek Double Smoked Cheddar
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth: Sartori Classic MontAmoré, Sartori Limited Edition Pastorale Blend, Sartori Classic Asiago, Sartori Reserve Chipotle BellaVitano
  • Saxon Cheese, Cleveland: Saxony Alpine Style – 30 Month, Snowfields Butterkase Style – 12 Month, Saxony Alpine Style, Asiago Fresca, Snowfields w/red chillies and mushrooms
  • The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheyboygan: Deer Creek The Stag, Deer Creek The Imperial Buck, Deer Creek The Moon Rabbit
  • V&V Supremo Foods: Queso Oaxaca, Queso Chihuahua with Jalapeno Peppers
  • Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa: Traditional Washed Rind Brick Cold Pack, Washed Rind Brick Cheese, Traditional Colby
  • Zimmerman Cheese, South Wayne: Traditional Smoked Brick, Muenster Cheese

The 2016 ACS Judging & Competition saw 1,843 entries of cheeses and cultured dairy products from 260 companies from 37 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces and Colombia. A total of 374 ribbons were awarded: 104 first place ribbons, 127 second place ribbons, and 143 third place ribbons.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

The 10 Best Wisconsin Cheeses of 2015

It was a good year to live in Wisconsin. Our cheesemakers debuted new cheeses, won boatloads of awards, and did happy dances on stage. And because it’s almost time to say goodbye to 2015, I think we should pay tribute to the great cheeses that continue to put Wisconsin on the map. Here are my 10 favorites.

1. Cupola, Red Barn Family Farms

Exceptional cheese starts with exceptional milk. No one knows this better than the five dairy farmers who make up Red Barn Family Farms, founded by veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan and his spunky wife, Paula, back in the mid 2000s. Every dairy farmer adheres to the Red Barn Rules, resulting in exceptionally happy cows that give give exceptionally good milk. Cupola is the company’s signature cheese (their Heritage Weis 3-Year Cheddar is also one of my all-time favorites). Cupola is a white, hard, alpine style cheese crafted by U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Furhmann for Red Barn Family Farms. This is a limited-availability cheese so if you see it at your favorite specialty cheese counter, buy it immediately.

2.  Marieke Bacon Gouda, Holland’s Family Cheese

U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is known for making a variety of flavored goudas – mustard melange, cumin, foenegreek, insert another 10 flavors here, but she outdid herself this year with her new Bacon Gouda. Made on the Penterman family farm in Thorp, Wisconsin, this farmstead bacon gouda is chock full – and I mean freakin’ chock full – of bacon. As most of you know, I come from a long family line of folks who don’t eat a lot of cheese, and when I presented this cheese to my father on Christmas Eve (keep in mind he was recovering from the stomach flu), he took one bite and then kept eating. The whole thing. Because yeah, it’s that good.

3. Petit Nuage, Landmark Creamery

Newcomer Cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her business partner Anna Thomas Bates put Wisconsin on the map with this French-style button sheep’s milk cheese last year, and followed up this year with a shiny gold medal at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for their Petit Nuage. Available seasonally from February through October, each cheese is just one ounce in weight and less than two inches in diameter – a perfect single portion. I’ve seen the cheese paired with honey, ginger, a variety of preserves, and even black pepper, but seriously, it’s amazing alone and makes a lovely addition to a cheese board.

4.  Queso Oaxaca, Cesar’s Cheese

America’s best string cheese. Period. I could just stop here, but I have to gush a bit more because I find it amazing that cheesemaking duo Cesar and Heydi Luis still hand-stretch every single batch of this delightfully stringy, salty, addictive cheese. I compare this bright white cow’s milk cheese to a bag of potato chips. You can’t eat just one, and before you realize what’s happened, the entire package is gone. Popular with kids and adults alike, this is the one cheese that teenagers always, always expect me to have in my fridge, and when I don’t, inform me I have failed their cheese needs.

5. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese

Just when you think there’s nothing more that can be said about America’s most awarded artisan cheese, Cheesemaker Andy Hatch hits it out of the park with another stellar season of alpine-style greatness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve has been so good for so long, many of us take it for granted. But the current wheels for sale – aged about 15 months – are some of the best cheese I’ve ever tasted. If you haven’t had Pleasant Ridge in a while because you think it’s old news, it deserves another look. Simply put, this cheese never goes out of style.

6. Three-Year Cheddar, Hook’s Cheese

In a year when Tony and Julie Hook made national headlines with their 20-Year Cheddar (and then donated half of the proceeds – $40,000 to the Center for Dairy Research in Madison), their 3-Year Cheddar is still my favorite. When folks ask what cheese best describes Wisconsin, this is the cheese I put in their cart. Solid, sharp cheddar with a construction-orange hue that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map years ago. A true Wisconsin classic.

7. Dunbarton Blue, Roelli Cheese

Dunbarton is one of the few Wisconsin cheeses that can serve dual purposes on a cheese board: both Cheddar and Blue. That’s because this cellar-aged, natural-rinded cheddar sports a few deep veins of blue. It literally tastes like a cloth-bound cheddar until you hit a blue vein, and then the heavenly combination of rustic cheddar and blue mold meet for a new flavor all its own. Remember the commercials from the ’80s for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – where chocolate and peanut butter accidentally meet to make the perfect candy bar? The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board should reenact that commercial for this cheese, because newly minted Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli continues to strike gold with cheddar + blue = Dunbarton Blue.

8. Extra Aged Goat, Sartori

Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson releases this limited-edition cheese twice a year, usually in summer and then in time for the year-end holidays. Hand-crafted in small batches, the 22-pound wheels are aged a minimum of 10-months. If you like Sartori’s BellaVitano Gold, you’ll like this cheese, as it reminds me of the Gold, but without the Gold’s sweet fruity finish, and instead a deeper, tangier bite. Bright white, crumbly yet still sliceable, Sartori’s Extra Aged Goat is a perennial award winner on the world stage and is the perfect goat’s milk cheese to serve your friends who are under the impression they don’t like goat’s milk.

9. Roth’s Private Reserve, Roth Cheese

I swear to God this cheese keeps getting better every year. Made in traditional copper vats and aged in the Roth Cellars in Monroe, Private Reserve is released on flavor, not age. It’s always aged a minimum of six months, but the wheels this year have to be closer to one year. This is literally the best Gruyere cheese you will ever eat that does not have Gruyere in its name.

10. Jeffs’ Select, Maple Leaf Cheese & Caves of Faribault

There’s no easier way to class up a cheese board than with this aged cow’s milk gouda made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, and then aged by Cheesemaker Jeff Jirik at the Caves of Faribault in Minnesota. With its annatto-rubbed pumpkin-colored rind, this striking cheese sports a dark golden hue with deep caramel notes and tyrosene crystals the size of walnuts. Okay, well perhaps I’m exaggerating about that last part, but this cheese is so good that I can’t exaggerate its taste enough. Buy. It. Now.

Cheese Gifts for the Naughty and Nice

It’s holiday season, so you know what that means: cheese gifts and cheese boards galore. And because you’re no doubt the designated cheese geek in your circle of friends, everyone’s expecting a cheese gift box or cheese platter for their next party. If you’re stuck in a cheesy rut, here are some ideas:

The Cheese Gift Box for the Relatives You Don’t Like
Yep, we’ve all got an in-law or an annoying opinionated uncle in our family that we don’t particularly care for, but we know they expect a gift. So this year, give them the gift of cheese. Kill them with kindness with a simple gift box of your favorite medium cheddar, mild blue and young gouda. Tie it up and stick on a bow, and then spend bigger bucks on the folks you like. Which leads me to:

The Cheese Gift Box for Your Favorite Friends
This is where it gets fun. These are the people that you choose to hang out with; the people who ask you the questions they don’t know about cheese and expect you to know the answer. So wow them with the same formula as above, but swap for stellar Wisconsin cheeses: Hook’s 15-Year Cheddar (only available now, during the holidays); Dunbarton Blue from Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg (crafted by newly-minted MASTER Cheesemaker Chris Roelli; and Marieke 6-9 month Gouda, because it a) tastes amazing, b) won the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, so you’ve got the hardware to back you up, and c) it’s made by one of the coolest women on the planet: Marieke Penterman. Slam. Dunk.

The Cheese Platter for the Holiday Work Party
This one’s tricky, because you’re likely feeding a crowd who may know next to nothing about cheese, but as pointed out earlier, expect you to bring the good stuff because you’re the office cheese geek. So go with volume on a budget. Pick up some healthy-sized chunks of Cedar Grove Extra Sharp Cheddar in Plain, Wis.; Edelweiss Butterkase from Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman in Monticello; Widmer’s Brick Cheese Spread and a package of Potter’s Winter Wheat Crackers; and a large log of Blueberry Goat Cheese from Montchevre in Belmont, Wis. You’ll have an attractive, well-rounded cheese platter with plenty of talking points that won’t put you in the poor house.

Finally: The Cheese Gift Box for the Cheese Geek

Let’s face it: this is Wisconsin, so we’ve all got that one friend who is REALLY into cheese. Pamper them with a themed gift box of the hottest style of cheese right now: alpine. Start with the no-brainer of Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville; include a healthy chunk of Grand Cru Surchoix, an extra-aged Gruyere (yes, it’s still a Gruyere, even though they took that word off the label) from Roth Cheese in Monroe, and if you can find it: Cupola from Red Barn Family Farms, a semi-hard cheese with notes of caramel and toasted pineapple. Include a bottle of your favorite Pinot Noir or Beaujolais and you’ll be official friends for life.

Top 10 Wisconsin Artisan Cheeses of 2013

So if you’re like the rest of us cheese geeks, you’re either likely throwing a cheese-themed New Year’s Eve party, or you’ve been invited to a year-end shindig and asked to bring the requisite cheese plate. Looking for a little inspiration? Here are my top 10 cheeses of 2013.

10. Grand Cru Surchoix by the cheesemakers at Emmi Roth USA in Monroe. Aged at least nine months, this American Gruyere often beats its Swiss counterparts at international contests, and there’s good reason: this is an amazingly good cheese. Put it in the center of your board. It deserves the spotlight.

9. Cave Aged Marisa by cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle. What do you get when you combine the cheesemaking prowess of master Sid Cook and the affinage ability of Jennifer Brozak at Bear Valley Affinage? A beauty like no other: this award-winning cheese has only gotten better in the past year, sporting a beautiful natural cave rind and delightfully crystal, crumbly paste. If you haven’t had this cheese in a while, it’s time to try it again.

8. Extra Aged Asiago by cheesemaker Mike Matucheski at Sartori in Antigo. I’ve got to admit, I usually overlook Asiago in favor of Parmesan. But this extra-aged delight stands on its own against any extra-aged parm. Crumbly, crystally and wonderfully nutty, Sartori’s Asiago rivals the Italian original.

7. Ewe Calf to be Kidding by cheesemaker Tony Hook, Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point. What’s believed to be the first blue in the nation using a mixture of cow, goat and sheep’s milk cheese, this creamy, tangy blue beauty is a future best in show winner. It’s got a cute label too: who can resist animals with googly eyes?

6. Marieke Black Mustard Gouda by cheesemaker Marieke Penterman, Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp. This month, the current U.S. Champion Cheesemaker and her family are moving into their new farmstead creamery operation two miles down the road from the original homestead. While this particular gouda is by no means new, it’s an underrated flavor perfect to liven up a cheese board. It’s a cheese with both beauty and brains = win win.

5. Water Buffalo Taleggio by cheesemaker Anna Landmark, Landmark Creamery in Albany. What started out as an experimental cheese ended up being one of the best American Original cheeses released this year by an up-and-comer. Anna crafts her cheeses at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, using seasonal milks. Watch for her water buffalo Taleggio to appear on the market again in spring.

4. Martone by cheesemaker Katie Hedrich, LaClare Farm in Pipe, Wis. Not yet even 30 years old, Hedrich has created another game-changing Wisconsin artisan cheese with her mixed milk Martone, a surface-ripened buttery bloomy made in small discs. This was a big year for Katie: she got married and worked with her family to open their own farmstead creamery. One gets the feeling this cheesemaker will be making this list every year with a different, new cheese.

3. LaVon Goat Brie by cheesemaker Todd Jaskolski, Caprine Supreme in Black Creek. After reeling from from a shoulder injury that limited his ability to make hard cheeses, Jaskolski reinvented himself and created two farmhouse French-style bries, one with goat’s milk and the other with cow’s milk. We like the goat version better – the citrusy tang of the goat’s milk adds a little zing to this classic cheese.

2. Rush Creek Reserve by cheesemaker Andy Hatch, Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville. A perpetual favorite, even though this year marks the fourth year of its existence, this cheese is the perfect beginning or ending to a holiday meal. Cut away the top rind and then spoon into the creamy paste. Spread on a fresh-baked rustic baguette. Pure bliss.

1. Little Mountain by cheesemaker Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. 2013 was definitely Chris’ year – with dual wins for his cheeses at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and American Cheese Society, Chris finally received well-deserved accolades for his stellar cheesemaking ability. Little Mountain is one of the best alpine cheeses on the U.S. market, rivaling the great Swiss Gruyeres.

Happy cheesy New Year!

Check it: 10 Wisconsin Cheeses to Try in 2013

With just 3-1/2 days between us and the descent of the New Year’s Eve Blingy Ball, we bloggers have started writing end-of-the-year top 10 lists and “best of” posts. Between now and Dec. 31, you’re likely to be subjected to such stories as the 10 best cupcake shops in Chicago, the 10 best photos of my cat, and why artichokes were named THE food of 2012.

Not me. I’d rather look forward and see what our innovative Wisconsin cheesemakers are cooking up. That means I’ve set my sights on THE 10 “must-try” Wisconsin cheeses of 2013. Buckle up. Here we go.

Blurry photo courtesy of Jeanne’s iphone,
prior to consuming entire tub at one sitting.

1. Martha’s Pimento Cheese
My, how good humble pie tastes. After mocking Bon Appétit on this very blog almost exactly one year ago for naming pimento cheese as one of the top food trends of 2011, here I am, naming Martha’s Pimento Cheese as my No. 1 cheese to try for 2013. Dammit. I hate it when I’m wrong. But this cheese is so good, and this cheesemaker is so sweet, that I am nearly giddy to point out the error of my ways.

In fact (the following sentence is more effective if you read it using your best southern accent), we can thank the great city of Tyler, Texas for sending us Ms. Martha Davis Kipcak and her recipe for good ol’ Martha’s Pimento Cheese (stop Southern accent here). Showcasing the evolution of decades, even generations of pimento cheese-eating and pimento cheese-making, Martha combines aged Wisconsin Cheddar, diced peppers, mayonnaise (and in her Jalapeno version, jalapeno peppers sourced locally from Hmong farmers at Fondy Farm and youth gardeners of Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee) to make the best cheese-based concoction I’ve ever tried.

Currently sold only in Milwaukee at Larry’s Market, Glorioso’s, Beans & Barley and Clock Shadow Creamery (where Martha, a Regional Governor for Slow Food USA, makes it in small batches), this is my new favorite cheese for 2013. I am on a mission to get every Madison specialty food store to carry it so I can personally spread it on every cracker at every party I host in the New Year. Yes, Fromagination, Metcalfe’s, Barriques and others – that means I’m coming for you. Save yourself from my lobbying by filling out the Retail Request Form at and let me know when you’re carrying Martha’s Pimento Cheese. I’ll be there with my checkbook.

2. The Fawn
A new cheese distributed by Chris Gentine & Company at the Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan is turning heads. The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Henning at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, first got my attention when it took a second in its category at this year’s American Cheese Society competition. Then, last month, it captured a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards in London. While this naturally mellow Cheddar cheese will likely hit the West Coast first, (Chris says they received an order recently from a distributor in California for multiple daisies), it should only be a matter of time before it’s available locally. An excellent example of what I call “sweet Wisconsin Cheddar”, this one is a winner.

3. Petit Frère with Truffles

In another “please kick me now” move, I declined an offer this summer from the fine folks at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese to try their new specialty cheese, Petit Frère with Truffles. Being the corn-fed, meat-and-potatoes-farm-girl that I am, truffles, in general, are not high on my flavor list. (Yes, I know I am aware this is not normal.)

So when the cheese won First Place in the Flavored Cheese Category at the 2012 American Cheese Society in August, I of course changed my mind and wanted to try it right away. The problem then – like many award-winning cheeses – is that the supply was limited. While it’s still hard to find this cheese, it is slowly coming on the market here in Wisconsin, and is worth seeking out. A luxurious, rind-washed semi-soft beauty, it is made in small batches and cave-aged on the Crave farm in Waterloo.

4. La Pinta
Here’s a quick history test for you: what three ships did Christopher Columbus sail with when “discovering” the New World? That’s right, it was the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Meaning “painted” or “spot” or “marked” in Spanish, La Pinta is the new name of a new cheese from Cesar’s Cheese, made at Sassy Cow Creamery in – you guessed it – Columbus, Wis. Cesar and his wife Heydi, chose the name to reflect the spots on the Holstein cows that produce the milk for this Mexican Manchego-style cheese. (In Spain, Manchego is made from sheep’s milk, but in Mexico – Cesar & Heydi’s home country – it is made using cow’s milk). Look for Cesar’s beautiful wheels of La Pinta – marked in style with the traditional zig-zaggy rind – to hit the market in 2013. A preview I tasted this fall knocked me out. And I’m thinking it’s only going to get better.

5. Little Mountain
Those of who you were lucky enough to score tickets to this year’s Meet the Cheesemaker Gala at the Monona Terrace may have stopped by fourth generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli’s table and tasted his newest creation, Little Mountain. An Alpine-style cheese, Little Mountain from Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg is, hands down, one of the best new Wisconsin cheeses that will hit the market in 2013. Firm and nutty, it boasts the pineapple notes of Pleasant Ridge Reserve and the lasting sweet finish of cave-aged Swiss Gruyere. Look for this new American Original in the coming year.

6. Edun

This fall, Red Barn Family Farms introduced Edun, a New Zealand-style raw milk cheddar. The cheese joins an award-winning family of cheddars from owners Ted & Paula Homan. You may recall another Red Barn cheddar – Heritage Weiss – swept its category with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship.

Edun, while still in the cheddar category, has a richer, more buttery taste and is made with raw milk, raw cream and vegetable rennet. It’s crafted in small batches at Willow Creek Creamery in Wisconsin, and is made in blocks using milk from seven family farms, each audited at least annually for treating cows humanely. Known as the “Red Barn Rules,” the system was developed by owner and veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan to make sure farmers know each cow by name, not just by number. Read about each of the Red Barn Family dairy farmers here.

7. PastureLand Greek Style Yogurt
Okay, so it’s not a cheese, but this new pasture-grazed, non-homogenized Greek Style Yogurt is worthy of making any “best of”list for 2013. Look for it come spring, when the dairy farmers of the new Wisconsin-based PastureLand cooperative will start making it again from the milk of pastured cows. Made with whole milk, the yogurt naturally separates into an inch of golden cream on the top of each 24-ounce tub, with luscious and thick yogurt underneath. The top inch is thick enough to hold a spoon – as illustrated to the right.

When you hear the name PastureLand, you may think of the former Minnesota-based dairy farm cooperative, that sadly, went out of business. In good news, earlier this year, the five families of the former Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative in southwest Wisconsin bought the PastureLand brand and are continuing the cooperative’s commitment to producing small-batch products with milk from pastured cows. In fact, the yogurt’s naturally golden color stems from carotene found in grass that cows eat. Look for the Greek Style Yogurt and one or two new cheeses – rumor is one may be named “Peace of Pasture” – to come from PastureLand in 2013.

8. Mystery Sheep Cheese
Willi Lehner, Wisconsin’s well-known Swiss-American cheesemaker and owner of Bleu Mont Dairy, is famous for bringing his experience of authentic Alpine cheesemaking to a collection of Wisconsin original cheeses. Always made in small batches, each cheese reflects the mountain tradition of using raw milk from pastured animals. Following a trip to Switzerland earlier this year, Willi is now experimenting and producing various sheep’s milk cheeses, natural and washed-rind. I tried one at the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala in November and it blew me away. When I asked what the name of it was, Willi didn’t know. He hadn’t yet come up with a name, and if history proves correct, he’ll just keep making new cheeses anyway, so naming them is really not that important. Willi’s cheeses are available in specialty cheese shops in the Midwest and at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison.

9. Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar
When Karen Kelley, co-owner of the hugely successful Kelley Country Creamery, a farmstead ice cream factory near Fond du Lac, emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me the family was making their own Cheddar, I breathed a heavy sigh. Why does every farmstead dairy in this state feel the need to make a boring old Cheddar, I asked myself. And then I tasted it. And now I admit I was wrong. Currently available in both mild and medium – both aged just a matter of weeks or months – Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar is a classic Wisconsin cheddar with a sweet, clean finish and is most worthy to be on this list. Crafted by the current U.S. Champion Cheesemaker, Katie Hedrich, of LaClare Farms, Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar will be available in sharp versions in 2013, as the Kelley family is holding back some wheels for aging. Can’t wait!

10. Duda Gouda
Ten years ago, there were people who had written off super-cheesemaking-couple Tony and Julie Hook as aging cheesemakers who were more interested in retiring than in making new cheeses. Well, I guess the Hooks showed them. Launching more than a dozen new cheeses in the past decade,  Hooks Cheese in Mineral Point has done it again with its Duda Gouda, an aged sheep’s milk Gouda named after Julie’s family nickname. Sweeter and more crumbly than a cow’s milk Gouda, Duda Gouda is different than any other Gouda on the market. It’s worth seeking out.

And there you have it – my top 10 list of Wisconsin cheeses to search for in 2013. Know of other new cheeses coming in the New Year? Leave a comment or drop me a line at Happy new year!

The New Age of American Aging Cellars

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Eight years ago at a Wisconsin cheese industry meeting, a presenter who had studied cheesemaking in Europe used the word “affinage.” No one around the table, including me, knew what the word meant. Today, not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers recognize the term, they’re putting an innovative twist on an Old World tradition by building modern aging cellars and creating American Originals to rival the best cheeses coming out of traditional European aging caves.

The term affinage – the art of ripening cheese – officially entered the modern American lexicon with a crack of the whip via a 2011 story in The New York Times about Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, where five man-made temperature-and-humidity-controlled cheese caves drew the ire of American cheese cop Steven Jenkins, who called “this affinage thing” a “total crock.”

Never one to shy away from the opportunity to be fantastically quoted in a major media outlet, Jenkins argued that American affinage was merely a way to “drastically inflate the cost of cheeses” using “faux-alchemical nonsense.” I disagreed then, and I disagree now. All one has to do is talk to a Wisconsin cheesemaker and taste a cheese that’s been aged in a humidity and temperature-controlled room to realize the art of affinage is exactly that – an art. These days, American cheesemaking doesn’t begin and end in the make room. It continues into the aging room and is responsible for producing some of the most beautiful and delicious cheeses in the world.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

The latest Wisconsin cheesemaker to enter the modern age of affinage is Chris Roelli at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. With the company’s original aging room at capacity, and with  orders stacking up for his cellar-aged Dunbarton Blue, Red Rock, Marigold and new Alpine cheese  Little Mountain, Chris decided to build his own affinage center. Construction crews arrived the second week in August, and by November 1, the first cheeses were moved in. After three years of planning, the cellars will allow Roelli to make two vats of cheese five days a week and easily double production. In essence, all the cheese he makes in a year will fit into his new curing rooms.

Built into bedrock with 10-foot concrete walls, the modern Roelli Aging Cellars are 60-by-45-ft and 90 percent below grade. The cellar is made up of three distinct curing rooms, each designed for Chris’ different masterpieces. The temperature naturally hovers around the ideal temperature of 50 degrees, with help from modern radiator pipes. Chris controls the humidity in each room via adding water on the floor. A magical maintenance room with all kinds of gadgets contains state-of-the art equipment for controlling the temperature in each room. It sends him an email three times a day with each aging room’s temperature and will even send an alarm if the temperature is too high or too low.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

While all that sounds much more hi-tech than a standard 200-year-old French cheese aging cave beneath your average urban cheese shop, Chris, in his humble way, manages to describe his curing rooms in a remarkably American style: “More than 500 loads of dirt and rock later, we’ve got ourselves a nice little aging facility.”

Congratulations to Roelli Cheese on your new American aging cellars. We can’t wait to see what cheeses they produce next.

Ziege Zacke Blue

Two of the fastest rising star cheesemakers – one specializing in goat’s milk cheeses, the other in signature cheddar blues – jointly released a new cheese this week that’s about to shake up the Wisconsin artisan cheese community.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Christened Ziege Zacke Blue (say zeegy zacky) by a group of Chicago chefs that enjoyed it so much, one night they started singing old German folk tunes while eating it, (Ziege means “goat” in German, Zacke means “wave” — thus a “Goat Cheese with a Wave of Blue”) the cheese is patterned after a Dry Jack, is part cow’s milk, part goat’s milk, and is cave-aged.

Wonderfully creamy, with a slight tang at the front and a sweetness on the finish, it boasts some extraordinarily rich earthy and bluesy notes I have never before tasted.

It’s almost as if Cheesemakers Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese and Katie Hedrich of LaClare Farms thought of all the current cool buzzwords in the cheese industry and then created a cheese to encompass them all.

The amazing part? They succeeded.

Ziege Zacke Blue, with its crazy catchy name, is made twice a month at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. Hedrich hauls her family’s goat milk to the plant, and she and Chris spend a day crafting the original cheese by hand. Chris then ages it in his caves, and Katie markets it under the LaClare Farms Specialties label. Well, at least she will, as soon as there’s enough to sell. The cheese is just now aging out to perfection, and with limited quantities to start with, will likely only ever be for sale in select retail stores in Wisconsin.

While I had heard rumors the cheesemaking pair were working on a collaborative cheese, I didn’t know it was actually finished until I stopped by Fromagination yesterday to pick up cheese for my 2012 Wisconsin Artisan Cheese Series. There, sitting in all its glory on top of the cheese counter was a cheese called “Blue Jack,” described as creamy with a subtle blue taste, made by Chris Roelli and Katie Hedrich.

I bought a pound and then sent both cheesemakers an email with a big question mark. In typical humble Wisconsin form, Chris answered: “Katie would be the best to talk about the zz. It was kinda her idea, I just developed it and made it.” Yeah, that’s all, just developed and made it, you know, no biggee.

Luckily, Katie also answered, and elaborated with more detail. She said the combination actually came about at the 2011 Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival in Madison last November. 

“Chris asked me when I was going to start making a goat milk blue. I responded: ‘whenever Chris Roelli wants to’. Needless to say, I took a load of milk down to him on Dec. 9th and we made our first batch. We are now making one to two batches a month and having a blast with it.”

So will everyone who is lucky enough to try it. Welcome, Ziege Zacke Blue to the Wisconsin artisan cheese community. Here’s hoping you never leave.

Wisconsin Cheese & Sommelier-Mixologist Duel

Sommeliers Ruben “Biggest Toad in the Puddle” Mendez
and Aaron “Burr” Johnson

Every once in a while I luck out and happen to be in the right place at the right time. Lucky for me, last night was one of those rare whiles.

After spending an hour on the capital square persuading total strangers to wear cheeseheads and stroll casually behind a staged shot of Wisconsin cheesemakers Chris Roelli, Andy Hatch and Willi Lehner waiting at a bus stop (we were shooting video for the official 2013 American Cheese Society introductory film, but more on that later), I tagged along to an event at L’Etoile where the trio were the guests of honor.

Fortunately, I was already gussied up for the video shoot, which turned out to be a good thing, as little did I know I was walking into a sold-out, 45-person sit-down Wisconsin Cheese and Sommelier-Mixologist Duel in the private back room at one of the best restaurants in America.

Holy crap. These are not typically the kinds of things I attend, as I a) usually drink Diet Coke and b) usually wear flip flops. But thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, I found a seat at the Texas Stagecoach table and listened to directions that seemed to require me tasting six cheeses (no problem), six glasses of wine (could be a problem) and six alcoholic mixed beverages (yes, Houston, we have a definite problem). 

Mixologists Casey “The Kid” Kammel and
Nic “The Quick & The Dead” Waerzeggers

The event was billed as a duel between what paired best with cheese: wine or chemical cocktails. On on the sommelier side, our hosts were Aaron “Burr” Johnson and Ruben “Biggest Toad in the Puddle” Mendez. On the Mixologist side were Carey “The Kid” Kammel and Nic “The Quick & The Dead” Waerzeggers. At my right was cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who seemed as baffled by the event as I was. I looked to my right, where cheesemaker Willi Lehner was sitting, trying to make small talk with guests at the High Noon table, and behind me, where Chris Roelli was seated at the Dusty Tumbleweeds table. We all shrugged our shoulders, as if to say, well, what the hell, and plowed in. 

First up: Uplands 10-month Pleasant Ridge Reserve, paired with what I think was a Pinot Noir (In good news, Lindsay Christians from 77 Square was also at the event, so be sure to read her future musings, as my beverage expertise is pretty much limited to diet soda), and a drink called “Once Upon A Time in Wisconsin”, which consisted of Lillet Blonde, orange juice, lemon juice, simple syrup and Lakefront Wisconsinite beer. (Andy and I decided it tasted like a Mimosa). So far, so good.

Next was Roelli Cheese Marigold, a clothbound, cave-aged, jack-style cheese with the nuttiness of an Alpine cheese. Made from grazed milk, the cheese carries a deep yellow color (hence its name) and is not yet on the market. Look for it closer to the holidays. Marigold was paired with (again, I really have no idea) some white wine, which was very good, and a concoction that tasted somewhere between root beer and bacon. Let’s just say the cheese was the highlight of this particular pairing.

Third was a Bleu Mont “Mystery Cheese,” which was actually a sheep’s milk cheese inspired by Willi’s recent trip to Italy and Switzerland. This is the first time he’s made cheese with sheep milk. At just 60 days told, this raw milk beauty will be even better in another month. It was paired with Gruner Veltliner from Austria and Kita’s Wry Redemption (perhaps a play on Willi’s partner’s name Q’itas), consisting of Redemption Rye, St. Germain, soda water and a lavender dip.

Then it was intermission. Which meant Arthur Ircink (the genius behind the camera at Wisconsin Foodie) and I rushed out to get a shot of my car’s license plate driving away while it was still light out (again this was for the aforementioned ACS video, but more on that later). After “driving away” six or seven times and then backing up into my original parking spot, we hoofed it back to L’Etoile in time for the fourth pairing, which was Uplands 24-month Pleasant Ridge Reserve (an OMG this is so good cheese), paired with a Sangiovese and a drink called “.01 Parts Wine”, which was actually part champagne currant, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Galliano-Tart Cherry pipette and Sauvignon Blanc. Awesome pairing. Hands down, my favorite.

Moving into the home stretch, we had two pairings left. At this point, I have to admit things get a little fuzzy and my notes seem to end. Turns out chemical cocktails are WAY stronger than my usual Diet Coke, so I didn’t even get a picture of the Bleu Mont Reserve Bandaged Cheddar and “Fist Full of Blueberries” drink, or the Roelli Dunbarton Blue and Pintar a Cambechana, which was a mixture of cherry-ginger sauce painted on the inside of a wine glass, mixed with Caonton ginger Cognac, rum, and Mexican Coke. I do remember it was very pretty.

All in all, it was an amazing night, and I had a ton of fun with some of my favorite people, including some intense giggling with Sara Hill, seated on my left, who assured me it was perfectly okay to dip my cheese into a glass of wine to get the full effect of a pairing. I have no idea which pairing actually won and who left with the adorable miniature silver trophies, but it was all in good fun.

As for the American Cheese Society video shoot — well, you’ll have just have to wait until the video’s premier in Raleigh, North Carolina in three weeks, when Sara Hill, Bob Wills and I introduce it at this year’s American Cheese Society, and prepare to welcome 1,000 people to Madison in 2013, when the conference is hosted at Monona Terrace. Until then, I leave you with this parting shot. Who says Wisconsin cheesemakers don’t have a sense of humor?

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

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

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

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

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

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