What Happens When a Master Cheesemaker Retires?


Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski and master-cheesemaker-in-training Erin Radtke on Cheese Underground Radio:

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A bit of the backstory:

What happens when a master cheesemaker responsible for creating some of the most awarded Wisconsin original cheeses starts thinking about retiring? Well, he finds and mentors a replacement. I’m talking about Sartori’s Master Cheesemaker (and current U.S. Champion) Mike Matucheski, who in a state full of third and fourth generation cheesemakers – the vast majority of whom are men – is mentoring a 34-year old woman to replace him.

Five years ago, when I first visited the Sartori plant in Antigo, Wisconsin, Mike told me he was beginning to plan his retirement, and that he was adamant a woman should replace him. At the time, I was surprised. The Wisconsin dairy industry is dominated by men – most cheesemakers, milk haulers, veterinarians, farm workers and even cheesemongers – are men.  

I wondered if he would be successful in his quest. So earlier this summer, I visited the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo again to get the scoop on whether Mike had found a new wizard behind the Sartori cheese curtain to replace him.

Mike first started working at what is now the Sartori cheese plant in Antigo 24 years ago, making Parmesan, Asiago and Romano for the company that then owned the cheese factory: Kraft Cheese. Two months after he started, Kraft decided to close the plant. Governor Tommy Thompson intervened, the state provided some seed money to do a feasibility study, and the employees ended up buying the plant and reopening as Antigo Cheese.

Fast forward to 2006, when Sartori Cheese purchased the plant. That launched a successful period of innovation for Mike and his team, including introducing a full line of flavored BellaVitano cheeses, including BellaVitano Black Pepper, which won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in March.

But nobody, not even Mike Matucheski, can make cheese forever. He’s planning to retire in three years, and in preparation, recently handpicked his successor. She’s a 34-year-old woman named Erin Radtke. She’s already got several years of cheesemaking experience to her name, and is looking forward to starting her master cheesemaking training in a few years.

Erin grew up in the Antigo area and started working at Antigo Cheese in 2004. She had worked with Mike off and on over the years, and of course knew who he was, but it wasn’t until she was promoted to the cheese making room where she knew she had found her calling. “I was always striving to make things better,” she says. That caught Mike’s attention. Soon, Erin started taking cheesemaking courses at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, Wisconsin and kept working hard.

Since then, she’s taken every course at CDR and will be eligible to start the Master Cheesemaker program in four years. She plans to become certified in Parmesan and mixed milk cheese.

By then of course, Mike will be retired. And Erin will be one of literally a handful of women master cheesemakers in the state. I asked her what that might mean to her.

“I feel like it is important. Just working in the milk and cheese industry in general is not easy for women. If you go to any dairy plant, I can guarantee you’re at ratio of three to one or two to one of men to women. Becoming a cheesemaker, and someday a master cheesemaker as a woman, will be a real accomplishment. It’s telling other women: you can do it, too.”


Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.


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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.

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!

Italy vs Wisconsin Cheeses: Can the New World Compete?

With the growth in quality and quantity of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses in the past decade, I am often asked: “Can Wisconsin cheeses today rival the great European imports?”

Well, yes and no. While there are scores of amazing European cheeses that simply don’t have an equal in America, there are perhaps an equal amount of American Original cheeses that don’t have a rival in Europe. That’s because the traditions that often make classic European cheeses so amazing also limits innovation in crafting new ones.

Here in America, we’ve got no lack of innovation. With less than 300 years of tradition to our name, we’ve got no PDO, DOC or AOC cheeses. Virtually anything goes. Some might even argue American cheesemakers have cheesemaking freedom that many European cheesemakers might envy.

But that doesn’t mean American, and especially Wisconsin cheesemakers, don’t still look to their European counterparts for inspiration. Perhaps no country knows this better than Italy. Wisconsin cheesemakers have been studying Italian cheeses for more than 100 years, trying to duplicate the Italian greats.

Here’s a look at three different categories of Italian cheeses and three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are striving to equal, or might I dare say rival, their Italian counterparts.

Round 1: Asiago Fresco 
Agriform of Italy vs Saxon Creamery of Wisconsin

A younger version (aged only 20-40 days) of its more famous big brother, Asiago Fresco is a mild, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, and until about 15 years ago, not readily available for export to the United States.

In Italy, Asiago Fresco is made in the Veneto region, located in the far northwest quadrant of the country. It’s named after the village of Asiago, one of seven villages situated on a high plateau in the Italian Alps. The region has a colorful history. The locals, most of whom have German roots, as the region was populated in the 1200’s by Bavarians, still speak their own language, a German/Italian mix. Because the area was originally so isolated, the residents of the seven villages banded together in the 1300’s to receive protection from three powerful families – the Ezzelini, Scaligeri and Visconti families. The region had its own political and administrative autonomy until Napoleon invaded in 1807. Then the territory came under Austrian rule until it was annexed to Italy through an international accord in 1866.

Today, two traditional Asiago cheeses are made: Asiago Pressato, made with whole milk and pressed, is aged only a matter of days. It is mild and buttery. The second, Asiago d’Allevo, is made from partially skimmed milk and and is sold in three stages of ripeness: mezzano, aged 3 to 8 months; vecchio, aged 9 to 18 months; and stravecchio, aged up to 2 years. All types are found in the U.S. market.

Asiago Fresco, meanwhile, seems to be a newer hybrid. It is made from whole milk, pasteurized, and aged 20-40 days. It much more citrusy in flavor. The most common Italian version found in the U.S. is made by Agri-form, one of the larger producers in the Veneto region, and distributed by Atalanta Foods. It is an excellent table cheese and melts well on a panini.

The Wisconsin version of Asiago Fresco is made by Saxon Creamery of Cleveland. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the Saxon cheeses are made from the milk of pastured cows. Originally owned by the Karl Klessig and Jerry Heimerl families, last year, Wisconsin dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Kenn Buelow invested in the company. Cheeses are now made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, who is rapidly branching out into some different styles, including the little known Asiago Fresco.

Mattes delivers. The Saxon version is equally citrusy and fresh tasting, with no off flavors and a clean finish. The texture is almost the same as the Italian version, and the cheeses are nearly identical. Find Saxon Creamery Asiago Fresco at Glorioso’s in Milwaukee.

Round 2: Fontina 
Fontina D’Aosta DOP of Italy vs BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin

Dating back to the Middle Ages, Fontina originated in Italy’s mountainous Val d’Aosta region near the Swiss border. History isn’t clear on whether it took its name from the village of Fontinaz or nearby Mont Fontin, but two things are clear: Fontina is a) considered one of the most versatile cheeses in the world, and 2) it has often been copied.

Today, versions of Fontina are made in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and of course, the United States. The Danish and Swedish versions are typically covered in red paraffin wax, made from pasteurized milk, and are mild in taste. The Italian version, however, is made twice a day from the unpasteurized milk of Valdostana cows that graze on Alpine grasses, and is a washed-rind cheese. Aged three months, it is bathed with a mixture of brine and brevibacterium linens, which leaves it with an orangish-brown rind and smelly aroma.

Fontina D’Aosta is an Italian DOP cheese, meaning it is name-protected and may only be made in the Val d’Aosta region. It is elastic and supple, with a rich, sweet, buttery flavor and mushroomy aroma.

The Wisconsin version of Italian Fontina is made by BelGioioso Cheese. Aged more than 60 days, this is a very appealing, semi-soft mild cheese with a silky texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. It does not, however have the Fontina D’Aosta’s washed-rind, so is instead much milder in flavor and smell.  Whereas the Italian version has small irregular holes, BelGioioso Fontina is smooth and creamy. That’s probably because it is intended for an American market, which, as a rule, does not overly care for stinky cheeses.

BelGioioso is no stranger to Italian cheese. In 1979, a man by the name of Errico Auricchio moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. A hundred years before, his great-grandfather had started an Italian cheese company named Auricchio. Today, it is the largest producer of Provolone in Italy.

But because Errico wanted to do his own thing, he moved to Wisconsin and brought along a couple Master Euoprean cheesemakers with him. He began making authentic Italian cheeses, and today, has built a cheese empire, building seven factories, all in the Fox Valley, each specializing in a different style of Italian cheese, from Burrata to Provolone to Gorgonzola and beyond. Each is made using Wisconsin milk from surrounding farms. BelGioioso does Wisconsin Italian cheeses proud, and their Fontina is no exception. You can find it in most specialty cheese departments.

Round 3: Parmesan
Academia Barilla Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP vs Sartori of Wisconsin

Known as the King of Cheeses, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is a Italian DOP cheese managed by The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a non-profit organization, founded in 1934, and comprised of Parmigiano cheese producers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.

The mammoth cheese, considered by some to be worth its weight in gold, is made in large copper cauldrons and formed into 85-pound drums. Quality is based on five factors that have been maintained throughout centuries to make this cheese one of the most famous in the world.

First and foremost is quality of pastures and quality of milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with  milk from two milkings – evening and morning – with milk from the morning partially skimmed. The milk itself comes from cows raised on selected pastures only in the five approved regions.

Second: artisanal production methods have been unchanged for seven centuries. The Consortium is made up of a group of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers located in a specific zone of production and are subject by law to preserve the centuries old production methods and quality of the product.

Third is the natural aging process, which can last up to three years. By the end, wheels have developed a compact, grainy texture and strong, but not spicy, flavor. Parmigiano falls into the category of hard Italian cheeses generally referred to as grana, based on their granular texture.

Fourth: Complete absence of preservatives, additives or colorings in the milk and cheese. Period.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the strict control of the Consortium. It defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, overseeing how it is used and where it is produced. The Consortium is also responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano I enjoy is produced only in the Reggio Emilia region by Academia Barilla. This particular company uses milk exclusively from small hillside dairies and ages wheels to 18 months. It is brittle and hard, with a pale yellow rind. Inside, the cheese is golden with a crystalline texture and sweet, fruity, tangy flavor, like fresh pineapple. It boasts a salty finish, having been brined for about 30 days before being transferred to an aging room.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin version is Sartori SarVecchio, one of the best Parmesans made in the United States. Aged at least 20 months, it is made from pasteurized milk in 30 pound wheels with a natural rind.

Sartori Cheese’s headquarters are in Plymouth, but the cheese is made in Antigo. Started in 1939 by Paolo Sartori and Louis Rossini, when they founded S&R Cheese Corp in Plymouth, the company changed its name to Sartori Foods in 1996. Today, they employ three master cheesemakers who not only create Old World classics but new American Originals.

Aged, crystalline, nutty, and grate-able, SarVecchio is a worthy rival to Old World Parmigiano-Reggiano, and routinely places first or second in national and international contests. You can find it in most any store where fine cheese is sold.

And there you have it: three Old World favorites vs. New World upstarts. I’d argue with a contest like this, there really are no losers. Only we – the consumers – win.

Whiskey & Cheese Geeks

Whisky is not my thing. At least I never thought so until last night. It turns out whisky, when presented with a first-rate storyteller in the form of Craig Johnstone from Bruichladdich, is actually pretty good. And it can be an excellent pairing with artisan cheese.

A few months ago, the fine folks who run the annual Madison Ruby Conference asked me if I’d partner with a whisky geek from Scotland to lead a two-hour cheese/whisky pairing session for 150 of their trade show attendees. I thought it sounded like fun, so when Craig emailed me the three whiskies he had chosen, I did like any good writer who hates whisky does – I googled each, and then blind-paired a cheese based on his tasting notes. I figured — it’s whisky — how complicated can it be?

For the whisky drinkers out there, you know exactly how complicated it can be, and after two hours of whisky infotainment by Craig, I now have a much better understanding. Hell, I might even buy a bottle or two. Here are the pairings we came up with (all miraculously very good) and a little about each:

1. The Botanist, a small batch, artisanal Islay gin
Okay, so Craig pulled a surprise on me with this one, and I didn’t have a cheese lined up to pair with it. But after tasting this aromatic gin (made with 22 wild, native island botanicals, including juniper), I’d pair Marieke Honey Clover Gouda with it. This gin is a relatively new offering from Bruichladdich, and the first batch they made filled 250,000 bottles (a little confidence is a good thing).

2. Laddie 10 paired with Sartori BellaVitano Gold
The first whisky of the evening proved to be my favorite, perhaps, as I was to learn later, it was the least-peatiest (is that a word?) of the Bruichladdich whiskies. This 10-year-old spirit was the first whiskey the company made in its renovated Victorian distillery on the far west of the Atlantic Coast of Islay. It is malted from only Scottish barley, slow-fermented and cask-filled at 70 percent. Its mellow oak sweetness paired well with the fruity BellaVitano Gold, highlighting the lighter, sugary notes of the drink.

3. Port Charlotte PC7 with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona
We learned this whisky has been sold out in Scotland for years, and that Craig had found a stash and bought it at Riley’s Liquor to take back home with him. While this heavily peated whisky was not my favorite, I found a few drops of water helped cut the smoke so the taste of the barley and craftsmanship shined through. Bruichladdich is excellent at telling the story of its product, with profiles of everyone from the barley farmer to the crofters, to the export clerk included with every bottle. This whisky paired beautifully – the best pairing of the night – with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona, a goat’s milk cheese rubbed with sugar and infused with vanilla beans. Yum.

4.  Octomore 3/152 PPM with Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Branded as an iron fist in a velvet glove, this super-peated whisky about did me in. It was, however, the favorite of the whisky connoisseurs in the room. The company owner says it’s “like getting hit by a 20-foot wave that has crashed over the peat bogs of Islay.” I believe him. The Pleasant Ridge only brought out more smokiness, so while the true whisky lovers in the room loved it, in good news, the rest of us were too drunk by this time to care, and just gravitated toward more cheese. As usual, it’s hard to wrong with one of the best artisan cheeses being made in the United States.

Many thanks to Craig and all of the Ruby goers for an entertaining and educational evening. If I can swing it, I’ll be bringing Craig and his Bruichladdich artisan whiskies to a future Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival. He’s just too entertaining not to share with my fellow cheese geeks.

Cognac BellaVitano

This just in: Sartori will release a limited quantity (read: you’re never going to taste it) of its new Cognac BellaVitano for the 2011 holiday season.

The latest take on its home-run BellaVitano cheese, an American Original boasting a creamy, fruity taste, the Cognac BellaVitano is pure marketing genius.

The cheese itself is extra aged – that means at least 18 months – and after the aging process, is submerged in a premium Cognac. It is removed only when Sartori Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski deems it to be just right (read: after he samples it several times – how do I get this gig?).

The end result? Sartori says it will be a: smoky, nutty, oaky flavorful cheese with hints of vanilla and caramel. Note, I’m getting this from the company’s press release – I’m holding out little hope to actually find this puppy in a store, as only 20 wheels are going on sale, and a limited supply of 4 oz wedges have either already sold out, or are not yet available for sale on the company’s website. The price? $75 a pound. Uff da.

Can’t find the cheese in a store near you? No worries, you’ll be able to buy it on eBay. Sartori is putting the first two 20-pound wheels on the auction site, starting today. Each will be signed by Master Cheesemakers, and all proceeds will be donated to local food banks.

CEO Jim Sartori, in a very classy statement, says: “This is a challenging time of year for some members of our community. We will be donating 100 percent of the proceeds to the food banks to help out families in need. The Cognac wheels at auction are wheels #1 andf #2, and we are only selling 20 wheels this entire holiday season. We expect the autciton to be very successful.”

The auction for wheel #1 begins today, with wheel #2 going up for sale on Nov. 26. Each auction will last 10 days. Go wild, kids, and if you’re the lucky winner, feel free to send me a wedge.

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!

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!