On Location: Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy

Before traveling this week to northern Italy, I was already a big fan of Beppino Occelli butter, made in Italy and available in American in select specialty stores. But I never realized the extent to which the company has transformed an alpine community once in decline into a real “cheese village,” aging rare Langa and Cuneo mountain cheeses using traditional Old World methods I assumed were long lost.

After driving two hours from the Village of Bra up a series of mountains through tinier villages full of people who looked at our bus like we were from outer space, our group arrived at Beppino Occelli in the hamlet of Valcasotto. In 1976, Mr. Occelli began restoring the community’s buildings into cheese aging facilities, and today, the community is home to a world-class underground affinage facility, restored flour mill, retail shop and restaurant.

Felice Costardt, a young affineur, was generous enough to give us an hour-long tour of the extensive aging cellars, which are truly underground rock cellars that look exactly like the cobwebbed hand-hewn rock rooms below the farm house in which I grew up. Humidity in the cellars is controlled by gravity-fed, pure spring water transported through a series of wooden troughs (pictured below), while each room is temperature controlled via more modern air in-and out-take methods.

Felice is in his 20s and is one of five full-time affineurs at Beppino Occelli. He came to the trade of aging cheeses by accident, after being hired as a chef by Mr. Occelli. After gaining more than 100 pounds while working in the kitchen, he begged for a different job, and began to work in the aging cellars, caring for the cheeses and learning from the previous “cheese master.” Today, it is nearly impossible to believe the young man once weighed 300 pounds. “This job suits me much better,” he said.

The first cheese we learned about was Cusie, a Beppino Occelli original, which takes its name from the local dialect and means “that which there is” or as Felice put it: “What’s in the cheese?” It  refers to the fact that Cusie is made with whatever milk is available, and can be a blend of cow and sheep’s milk or cow and goat’s milk. After production, it is aged 45 days in barrels filled with grape skins and then placed on wooden shelving for 2 months to age.

When young, it is turned two to three times per week and is then moved to a second cellar with a different humidity level, where it is aged another two to four months. Here, it forms unique molds on the rind, ranging from brown to white to orange. It is flipped once per week. It is then transferred to a third cellar for six months or more, with a lower humidity level. At each stage of the aging, different types of wooden shelves are used, ranging from apple to pear to cherry wood. Felice mentioned he never uses chestnut wood, because the wood is rich in tannins and would stain the cheese with dark spots. At a final age of 18 to 24 months, before being sent to market, Cusie is vacuum cleaned and stamped.

Several more cheeses are aged in the maze of underground aging rooms, but my favorite was entering the Castelmagno di Alpeggio DOP cheese aging room, which contained a large manger of dried hay – yes, dried hay in a cheese aging room. The cheese is unique in both its production method – the curds are crushed, broken twice, and then pressed into molds – and also in its aging practice, in which it attains its characteristic flavor of aromatic mountain herbs from absorbing the aroma of actual dried mountain herbs in the aging cellar.

As if this weren’t impressive enough, Felice explained that in ancient times, the rock-walled room in which we were standing was the basement of an inn, and housed the animals of its guests. So the manger does not seem out of place to the folks aging cheese there, but it certainly seemed out of place to Americans used to sanitary rooms with stainless steel floor drains.

Following the cellar tour, we were treated to an amazing lunch and cheese tasting at Beppino Occelli of the following cheeses:

  • Tuma dla Paja: this soft and creamy mixed milk cheese sports a white, wrinkled crust with an aroma of hazelnuts. In Italian legend, at the end of the harvest in the farmhouses of the Langa, it was customary to place a fresh ‘tuma’ to mature under straw, or “paja” in the Piedmontese dialect. You can occasionally find this cheese in the United States, as it was named the best cheese at the 1997 Fancy Food Show in New York.
  • Toma del Monte Regale: made from raw cow’s milk, this soft cheese has tiny holes in the paste and is milky and buttery. Think Taleggio without the stink. Yum.
  • Valcasotto Il Formaggio Del Re: in the past, Valcasotto farmers would offer their cheeses to the royal castle in exchange for the use of the meadows. Tradition says the square-shape of this cheese came about because it perfectly fit into the saddle of mules for transport to the king’s palace, and its intense (read: stinky) scent reminded the king of the sun and the fragrant grass of the pastures.
  • Ocelli in foglie di Castagna: produced from goat or sheep and cow’s milk in quantities that vary according to the availability of the season, this cheese is left to age for about a year and a half. The wheels are then wrapped in chestnut leaves which imbue them with a strong flavor. Interestingly enough, some wheels used to be wrapped in tobacco leaves, until the company was forced to put health warnings on the cheese label about the risk of using tobacco. Thanks for nothing, label nazis.
  • Escarun: the rarest of all cheeses invented by Beppino Ocelli, its name means “little herd.” Made from the milk of sheep and cows grazing the highest pasutres of the Alps of Cuneo, the cheese sports a thin, dimpled rind and finely grained, crumbly texture. Each Escarun wheel is branded and numbered, almost as a unique piece of art. This is the largest piece of cheese pictured in the foreground, next to the spinach, below.

Of course, no tasting at Beppino Occelli would be complete without butter! And I’m pretty sure we ate our weight in the gold stuff.

Thank you to all the wonderful folks at Beppino Occelli for a truly remarkable experience. I will be searching out your cheeses from now on in the United States!

Next up: Making & Tasting Tallegio on the mountain top of Vedeseto, Italy

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    On Location: Quattro Portoni Caseificio Water Buffalo Dairy in Italy

    Alert readers are expecting today’s blog to be on Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy, and I do promise that will be coming. But it’s not every day that I visit a water buffalo farm, and I can’t wait to share my excitement. So here we go!

    It had been three years since I last visited and wrote about Dubi Ayalon’s water buffalo farm near Plain, Wisconsin, but the memory of a giant snorting bull with a ring in his nose trotting menacingly toward me was front of mind when we pulled into the Quattro Portoni Caseificio water buffalo dairy yesterday near Cologno al Serio, Italy.

    Visiting a working water buffalo dairy was high on my list of to-dos when I began planning this year’s Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ cheese and wine tour of northern Italy. While almost all Mozzarella di Bufala is made in southern Italy as part of the Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP, there are a couple of buffalo dairies in northern Italy. We visited the farm of the Gritti family, who in 2000, decided get off the commodity milk train, sold their herd of Friesian cows that they had milked since 1982, switched to water buffalo, and added value to their farm by building a farmstead creamery.

    Brothers Bruno and Alfio Gritti, along with their wives, Elena and Marina, and their beautiful daughters – two in graduate school to become doctors, and the third to be a lawyer – today make their own cheese and yogurt from water buffalo milk and operate an on-farm retail store. Bruno is the cheesemaker and Alfio is the herdsman, but the whole family is involved either through marketing, sales or just doing chores. The entire family was on hand to enthusiastically give us a spectacular tour of their family farm, followed by a tasting of nearly a dozen cheeses they make on site.

    First of all, let me just say that water buffalo are not necessarily attractive creatures. They naturally look a little mean, and because they have lightening-quick reflexes, their sudden movements can make you think are going to trample and eat you. This of course is not the case, not only because they are herbivores, but also because the genetics of breeding calm, gentle water buffalo has been underway in Italy for hundreds of years.

    The Gritti family has 900 water buffalo and milk the cows, which live in large freestall barns, twice a day in a double-15 parlor. Each cow gives, on average, about 7 liters, or almost two gallons of milk a day. This is incredibly low compared to Holstein cows, who think nothing of pumping out six to nine gallons a day. Water buffalo, however, live and give milk longer than the average U.S. dairy cow, with the Gritti’s buffalo averaging 10 to 12 lactations (they just sold a cow last week that was a whopping 21 years of age). Cows must get pregnant to give milk, and in the dairy industry, we measure a cow’s life span by how often they get pregnant. So that means the average water buffalo on the Gritti farm gives birth to 10 to 12 calves over the course of 10 to 12 years (their gestation period is 10 months). This is far longer than the average U.S. Holstein cow who lives to perhaps see four lactations in her productive lifetime.

    We were lucky to see an hour-old newborn calf while at the farm. It stood for the first time while we were watching, and as we were cheering, promptly teetered on its new-found legs and fell down. We left it to bond with its mother and aunts (the buffalo are left to give birth in small groups of cows to calm them) and walked to the calf pens, where calves are kept until they are about one week old and are bottle-fed with buckets. After one week, they move to another pen, and learn how to eat corn and grain on their own. That takes about another 3 weeks. They are then moved in groups to larger pens, and gradually moved to successive pens as they age. The males are sold at 14 months for meat, and desirable females are kept as heifers to breed and give birth when they are two years old. The Gritti family uses both bulls and artificial insemination to impregnate the cows.

    Anyone who has been on a dairy farm knows there are two main outputs to cows: milk and manure. In this case, the manure is hauled to a local, cooperative manure digestor, where the methane is converted into electricity. Meanwhile, the milk is pumped via an underground pipeline to the cheese plant and creamery across the road. There, all of the farm’s milk – 500,000 liters, or more than 1 million pounds a years – is transformed into an array of award-winning buffalo milk cheeses and yogurt.

    Bruno explained to us that he did not necessarily grow up wanting to become a cheesemaker, but he is the kind of man who likes a challenge, and isn’t afraid to try something new. After the family decided to move forward with water buffalo, he went back to school and took a short course in Lombardy in cheesemaking. He then partnered with a cheese technician from Piedmont for six months, working on cheese recipes and to perfect the cheesemaking process.

    Then he hired two young men who had just graduated from university in Milan with degrees in dairy science and trained them to be his full-time cheesemakers. In Italy, teenagers can go to a special high school to learn practical cheesemaking skills, but Bruno was not interested in hiring someone with experience.

    “I was looking for someone with a virgin mind when it came to making cheese,” Bruno said. “We were doing something completely different here, and I wanted someone who could think differently.” The plan worked, as the two men are still on board as full-time cheesemakers, and the farm now has an employee roster of 12 people.

    Because the farm is located outside the official Government Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP region, the Grittis make only enough fresh mozzarella to sell locally. What they really focus on is creating aged cheeses from buffalo milk that are traditionally made with cow’s milk. Their most famous cheese is Blu di Bufala, which won the Best Italian Cheese award at the 2012 World Cheese Awards. A blue-veined cheese with square shape and a dry and wrinkly crust, it is mild and creamy, showcasing the natural sweetness of water buffalo milk.

    Another well-known cheese is Quadrello, a soft cheese, made according to the local Bergamo region’s traditional recipe for washed-rind cheese. The paste is straw-yellow in color, with small holes, elastic and soft especially near the crust. The Grittis also makes Crescenza, Ricotta, Caciocavvalo, Scamorza and a wide variety of what we usually think to be cow’s milk cheeses using water buffalo milk. Aging takes place in modern, above-ground, temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms.

    All but one cheese, Granbu, a semi-hard cheese made in a tall wheel that is similar in texture and flavor to the Swiss Sbrinz, are made using pasteurized milk. Sixty percent of the cheese production is exported, primarily to Germany, France and Singapore. About 25 percent is exported to the United States, where it is distributed exclusively through Forever Cheese in New York. Many of Quattro Portoni Caseificio cheeses are available in Whole Foods stores in Chicago.

    Many thanks to the entire Gritti family for their amazing hospitality, tour and tasting! And tomorrow – I promise – a look inside the underground Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves.
    All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    On Location: Bra Cheese Fair in Piedmont, Italy

    Known across the world as simply “Cheese,” the Bra Cheese Festival in Piedmont, Italy is one of the biggest cheese affairs in the world. Organized by Slow Food and held for five days every two years in mid-September, the event draws more than 150,000 turophiles who turn the village of Bra into a pedestrian-only celebration of all things food. And since I first learned about the event in 2005, it’s been on my bucket list to attend.

    This year was my lucky year, as I organized my biannual international cheese tour for members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals around the Bra Festival date. Our group of 20 arrived on Saturday to a day of perfect weather and split up into mini-groups, each accompanied by our own translators and graduates of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We set off with an agenda to taste rare cheeses, drink local beer, enjoy local wine, and basically eat for the next seven hours straight.

    Now, while the event’s overall aim is to promote regional Italian cheesemakers and local cheeses that are either in danger of extinction or exploitation via industrial commercialization, there are cheeses featured from around the world that you’ll never have the opportunity eat unless they are handed to you on the tip of a knife by a cheesemaker at Bra.

    First up was a cheese called Macagn, a whole raw cow’s milk made in the mountains of the Piedmont region. Cheesemaker Gino Garbaccio gave us a tasting of the cheese made at three different elevations, at two different ages. At just one week old, this cheese has more flavor than many cheeses I’ve tasted at six months, and at three months, it felt, looked and tasted mature.

    The neat thing about Macagn is that it is made at every milking. My handy dandy “2013 Slow Food edition of Italian Cheeses” says this probably came about because of the need to take advantage of the milk’s natural temperature. Straw-yellow in color, the cheese contains scattered eyes and turns golden as it ages.

    The other thing about Macagn is that each of the nine cheesemakers who make it use different make procedures and milk from animals on a variety of pastures at different elevations. We learned the Slow Food Presidium is working with these cheesemakers to draft production regulations to establish a uniformity and to give this summer mountain cheese a distinctive personality of its own. Perhaps the next time I visit “Cheese,” Macagn will be even better!

    Just down the street, we encountered our next rarity, Montebore, a Piedmont-based cow and sheep’s mixed milk cheese shaped like a wedding cake. The cheese has a long history, dating back to 300 A.D. It was made continually until 1982, when the last cheesemaker decided to stop production. Thanks to the Slow Food Presidium, the unique cheese made a comeback in 1999, when two cheesemakers learned the secret of making the ancient cheese from Carolina Bracco, the last of the Montebore cheesemakers.

    Montebore is made with 75 percent cow’s milk and 25 percent sheep’s milk. The curd is cut with a wooden curd knife and placed in molds called “ferslin”, and then turned and salted. Three cheeses of decreasing diameter are removed from the molds, and allowed to stand for four to five hours. They are then washed with warm, slightly salted water and left to mature, one atop the other, for a period ranging from seven days to two months.

    At one month old, the cheese tasted fresh and spongy. Yum. We also tasted it at 2 months old (mushroomy), 3 months old (clean and complex) and at 5 months old, which was beyond its prime. The rind had darkened to a soft grey color and smelled extremely of ammonia. If you ever get a chance to eat this cheese, I’d recommend the 3-month age.

    Next up was the rare Morlacco di Vacca Burlina, made in the Italian provinces of Treviso, Belluno and Vicenza. The cheese is crafted from the milk of Burlina cows, a highly endangered breed (there are only 270 left in the world) that have the unfortunate characteristic of not giving much milk. Farmers breeding the cows are currently working with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to encourage more farmers to use the cows and save the breed.

    Morlacco is a soft, uncooked, low-fat cheese made from milk from the evening milking, skimmed by allowing the cream to rise to the top, to which whole milk from the following morning’s milking is added. The cheesemaking technique has remained the same over the centuries. The milk is heated to 38-42 degrees Celsius  and coagulated with liquid calf’s rennet. The curd is cut up into walnut-sized lumps, left to stand for a short while, and then transferred to wicker baskets. The whey is allowed to drain. The cheeses are then salted and carefully turned over several times a day for 12 days. They are ready to eat at about 2 weeks, but can mature up to 5 months. We tried a cheese at both 2 weeks and 3 months, and both were outstanding. If I could get this cheese in the United States, I’d eat it every day.

    While we tasted dozens of cheeses throughout the day, the last, but not least cheese I’d like to mention is San Ste, named for the patron saint of Liguaria, Saint Steven. While the cheese was made for centuries, it went extinct sometime in the 20th Century. Caseificio Val D’Aveto dairy revived the traditional cheese, making it with milk from Bruno Alpina and Cabannina cows that graze in the local pastures in the province of Genoa.

    To make the cheese, raw milk is heated to 35 degrees Celsius and inoculated with powdered calf’s rennet. It is then left to coagulate for 35 minutes. Next, the mass is cut into rice-sized curd, collected in a cloth and place on a board, where it is kneaded. Coarse salt is added and the mixture is transferred to forms, which are then pressed to drain off the whey. Next, the rounds are removed and soaked in brine for two days to harden the find. Finally, San Ste is moved to a damp, cool cellar and aged for at least 60 days, where it is regularly turned and oiled.

    Cheesemaker Silvio Cella was extremely kind to us, and led us through a tasting of  San Ste at 2 months, 4 months and 8 months. At each stage, the cheese just got better. The 2 month-cheese was more yellow in color than the 8-month cheese, as it had been made in the summer when the cows were on pasture, and the 8-month cheese was made during the winter when the cows were eating hay. However, the butterfat from each of the ages stuck heartily to my tongue. Yum.

    Cella was also kind enough to give us a sample of his company’s raw-milk yogurt, as well as an aged ricotta-type cheese named Prescinseua that is made from cream instead of whey. I had never had anything like it, but it is well-known in Genoa. It’s made by allowing cow’s milk to sour, and once coagulated, filtered through a cloth. The cheese is traditionally eaten by sprinkling with sugar and served at the table. It is also used in the kitchen, especially for Easter cakes.

    Over the course of 7 hours, I learned about and tasted more than a dozen cheeses I never knew existed. Thank you to Slow Food and the village of Bra for hosting such an amazing event. I hope to visit you again someday.

    Next up: visiting the Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves in Valcasotto, Italy.

    All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    On Location: Luigi Guffanti Formaggi per Tradizione in Italy

    I’m not going to lie: when third generation affineur Carlo Fiori Guffanti led us through a glass door, down a series of steps, and into the underground aging cellars of the renowned Luigi Guffanti affineur house of hanging provolone, pecorino, parmigiano reggiano and rounds of cheeses I had only ever seen in books, I started to cry. Even in a room full of 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on the first day of a 10-day Grand Cheese Tour of Northern Italy, I could not contain the emotion of being in a room where so much history, care and passion of this simple, but oh-so-complex thing we call cheese, has taken place over the course of 150 years.

    It could be that we arrived after 36 hours of traveling via delayed planes, bus and automobile, or that my luggage was “untraceable” via British Airways, or that I was facing the fact I’d be wearing the same clothes I left home in for days, but the emotion that cheese can elicit always surprises me. And Carlo Fiori Guffanti, our tour guide for a 2-hour visit to one of the most famous aging houses of Europe summed it up best: “Cheese is easy, but not simple.”

    An exceptionally kind, small man with bright eyes, fluent in Italian, French and German, but halting English, Carlo Fiori knows cheese. His grandfather, Luigi Guffanti, began to season Gorgonzola in 1876 in an abandoned silver mine in Valganna, in the Varese province of the Lombardy region of northern Italy. With the mine’s consistent year-round temperature and humidity, those first Guffanti cheeses matured so well that Luigi quickly cornered the markets. His sons, Carlo and Mario, at the beginning of the 1900′s, exported as far as Argentina and California, where people of the Piedmont and Lombardy had emigrated.

    Today, Carlo Fiori Guffanti is the elder of two upcoming Guffanti generations set to take over an operation aging 180 types of cheese. And if he teaches them half of what he taught us over the course of two hours, the Guffanti house of cheese will endure forever.

    Here’s how our tour started: with the stomach of a goat, aged five years, cut into tiny pieces for us to eat. It turns out that goat stomach tastes a lot like goat cheese, except stronger. Carlo’s point: cheese starts with basic ingredients: milk, enzymes taken from the stomach of an animal, cultures and salt.

    “Cheese was not invented, it was discovered. It is the result of men who discovered that instead of eating animals for protein, they could have them eat green grass in the summer, hay in the winter, and then use their milk to make a new kind of protein: cheese,” Carlo told us. “Cheese is the only way man has found to preserve milk, and it has changed the world.”

    At that moment, he brought out a board of nearly a dozen Robiola cheese rounds, one of Guffanti’s more famous cheeses. They ranged in age from just right to really scary, but Carlo’s point was that they were all still edible. “Cheese never dies. It just changes,” he said. I made the mistake of referring to him as an amazing “affineur,” and he quickly corrected me that there is no word in Italian for a man who ages cheese for a living. “Affineur” is French. The closest words are “stagionatura”, which means seasoning, or “affinate”, which means refined, or improved. I guess perhaps Carlo is an “affinater” which is a word I pretty much just made up.

    After leading us through a series of caves, or cheese aging rooms containing some of the most beautiful cheeses I’ve ever seen, including: Pecorino Foglie, a pressed sheep’s milk cheese from Tuscany, wrapped in walnut leaves and rubbed daily with olive oil; Piacentinu Ennese DOP, a  sheep’s milk cheese from Sicilia infused with saffron and black peppercorns, and Quartirolo Lombardo DOP, a rectangular cheese similar to Tallegio, but made with milk from the end of summer, Carlo led us down a hallway lined with Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padana, and a wooden shelf of wheels marked with names and dates. These cheeses had all been made in honor of the birth of his nephews, and will be eaten on a special occasion in the boys’ lives. “This is our tradition,” Carlo said.

    After the tour, it was time to go upstairs. “I have shown you the cheeses. Now they will speak for themselves,” Carlo told us. And they did. The Guffanti staff had set up an impressive spread of more than a dozen Guffanti aged cheeses, including a one-year aged Gorgonzla Piccante, the cheese that first put Luigi Guffanti on the map.

    After we were nearly done, Carlo brought out two more cheeses: my favorite, Robiolo, and a special treat: 2-year Comte, cut from a series of wheels we had drooled over in the aging rooms.

    Then it was time to say goodbye. Many cheek kisses and thank you’s later, I talked Carlo into signing the brim of the Luigi Guffanti hat I had bought in the cheese shop. “Wear it the next time you come to see me,” he said with a smile. Will do.

    Next up: Bra Cheese Fair and checking off another item on Jeanne’s bucket list.

    All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

    Tickets Now on Sale to Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival

    The party has officially started! Tickets to the Fifth Annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival went on sale to the public bright and early this morning, offering attendees the chance to meet more than 40 artisan cheesemakers through two days of tours, seminars, dinners, and the popular Meet the Cheesemaker Gala at Monona Terrace.

    Hosted by Wisconsin Cheese Originals, the theme of the Nov. 1-2 festival is “The Arrival of American Artisan Cheese.” Cheesemakers and national speakers from across the country are helping us celebrate our fifth year, and as usual, about 1,000 people are expected to trek to Madison for the event. Tickets are available online at www.wicheesefest.com.

    Here’s what we’ve got planned for this year:

    On Friday morning, Nov. 1, three all-day tours kick off the event and motor to nine different cheese factories and dairy farms, giving attendees a backstage pass to Wisconsin’s growing dairy artisan community and food culture.

    Then on Friday night, the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala moves into the ballroom at Monona Terrace and is ticketed in two time slots, from 6 to 8 p.m., and 8 to 10 p.m. Each session is limited to 300 attendees, allowing everyone to personally meet and greet cheesemakers in a relaxed and enjoyable setting. Attendees should come ready to taste and then purchase their favorite cheeses at the expanded Metcalfe’s Marketplace inside the Gala. More than 40 cheesemakers and food artisans from four states will sample 200 different cheeses and foods.

    On Saturday, the festival switches into educational mode with an all-day seminar track, kicking off with a 10:30 a.m. keynote by national cheese expert Laura Werlin. Following lunch with a cheese and chocolate pairing in the Grand Terrace, attendees will enjoy an afternoon seminar and tasting session of Wisconsin original cheeses vs. European traditional cheeses. Attendees may also choose from two different afternoon sessions pairing cheese with craft beer and fine brandy.

    On Saturday night, the festival concludes with the festival’s signature cheesemaker dinners at three different Madison restaurants, where each chef prepares an exclusive three-course dinner featuring Wisconsin cheese. Attendees join the featured cheesemaker in a private room set for 30.

    For the first time ever, we’ll even have t-shirts for sale, featuring the super awesome logo that Leah Caplan and the folks at Cricket Design Works created for me.

    I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to all sponsors of the Fifth Annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival, who without your support, this festival would not continue. Please take a moment to thank the following companies when you see them out and about:

    • Marquee sponsor: Emmi Roth USA
    • Platinum sponsor: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
    • Gold sponsors: Sartori Foods and World Import Distributors
    • Silver sponsors: BelGioioso Cheese, Klondike Cheese and Organic Valley
    • Bronze sponsors: Arla Foods, Carr Valley Cheese, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Dairy Connection Inc., Fromagination, Roelli Cheese, Saputo Specialty Cheese, Sugar Brook Farms and Uplands Cheese 
    • Supporting sponsors: Hook’s Cheese Company and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars

    See you all in November!

    The Next Wisconsin Cheesemaker: Jennifer Digman

    A Wisconsin dairy farmer interested in developing artisan goat cheeses in southwest Wisconsin has earned the 2013 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals, a 200-member organization dedicated to celebrating Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

    Jennifer Digman, owner of Krayola Sky Dairy in Cuba City, was selected by a committee of industry leaders for the $2,500 annual award. Digman is mid-way through the requirements of earning a cheesemaker’s license, and is working to complete her apprenticeship hours.

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

    After using the scholarship money to earn her license, Digman said she has dreams of building an on-farm creamery to craft fresh, hand-dipped chevre, aged mixed milk artisan cheeses, and hand-washed Alpine-style cheese.

    “I look forward to working side-by-side with my daughters, teaching them the Old World secrets of shepherding our animals and crafting cheeses,” Digman told me. “Being a female in a male-dominated dairy industry has had its hurdles, but with the help of some amazing mentors, I am blessed to understand the traditions of making great cheese.”

    A committee made up of industry leaders selected Digman out of a field of 11 highly-qualified applicants. This marks the fourth year Wisconsin Cheese Originals has offered the $2,500 scholarship to a beginning cheesemaker. Past recipients have coincidentally all been women using sheep or goat’s milk to make cheese, a testament to the growing number of women putting Wisconsin on the map as the dairy artisan mecca of the nation.

    Congratulations, Jennifer!

    Winter Cheese Class Series at Glorioso’s in Milwaukee

    Exciting news, Milwaukee cheese geeks! In January, February and March, I’ll be partnering with Glorioso‘s, Milwaukee’s premier family-owned Italian specialty food store, and offering an exclusive Winter Cheese Class Series. Here’s the scoop:

    Dates: Thursdays, January 31, February 21 and March 14

    Time: 6:00 – 7:00 p.m.

    Class Location:  Glorioso’s, 1011 East Brady St., Milwaukee, Wis.

    Cost: $25 per person, purchase online at www.wicheeseclass.com – seats must be purchased and reserved in advance.

    Thursday, January 31: Italian vs. Wisconsin Cheeses
    Old World Italian favorites vs. New World upstarts: attendees will judge whether Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers are holding their own, or may we daresay winning, the race in crafting world-class Italian-style cheeses. Attendees will taste six cheeses, three Italian and three American, hear the stories of each, with the opportunity to purchase each at evening’s end.

    Thursday, February 21: I Love Cheddar – The Grand Tour of Wisconsin Aged Cheddars
    A new era of Wisconsin Cheddar has emerged in the past decade, with more cheesemakers moving to artisan aged and bandaged Cheddars. We’ll taste four Wisconsin Cheddars, aged from one to 12 years, as well as a reserve Bandaged Cheddar, made in the Old World English style.

    Thursday, March 14: Four American Originals Invented by Wisconsin Cheesemakers
    Wisconsin is home to many of the most innovative cheesemakers in America. We’ll taste four original cheeses dreamt up by cheesemakers either through sheer genius or, more often, by mistake. Hear the stories of what it takes to create an award-winning American Original.

    See you there!

    A Tour of Artisan Cheeses in the Driftless Region

    This past week, I did what anyone who needs an excuse to go see some of her favorite cheesemakers would do: I organized a two-day artisan cheesemaker and craft beer tour of the Driftless Region. Fifteen members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals came along for a backstage pass to some of America’s finest food artisans.

    First stop: Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville. Cheesemaker Andy Hatch, son August and wife Caitlin were amazing hosts, showing off one of America’s most famous farmstead cheese plants, home to Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

    We tasted three ages of Pleasant Ridge Reserve – 5 months, 11 months and 15 months.

    We also got a sneak peak at baby Rush Creek Reserves, which will hit the market in about a month. This washed-rind cheese, wrapped in spruce bark, is aging nicely in the aging rooms. I can’t wait to taste that yummy gooiness of a cheese — it’s been too long since I had my Rush Creek fix.

    After waving goodbye to Andy, Caitlin and Baby August, we were off to Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point. Owners Tony and Julie Hook are always the most gracious of hosts, and Tony was in an especially good mood, just having made his very first batch of goat milk blue the day before. He says he’ll know in six months whether his new goat blue (yet to be named) is a success, but with Tony’s track record, I’m pretty sure it’ll be a winner.

    One of my favorite places to visit is Hooks’ cold storage, packed floor to ceiling with Cheddar just waiting to be eaten. I saw some 17-year Cheddar in there — fingers crossed it hits the market in the next year or two!

    After a local lunch of pasty, corn casserole and pecan pie at the Brewery Creek cafe in Mineral Point, we were off to Potosi Brewery for a museum tour and beer tasting (because nothing goes better with cheese than beer, right?). The always amazing Sara Hill of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board put together a full Potosi beer and Wisconsin cheese course together for us. My favorite pairing of the day: Potosi Cave Ale and Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Thank you, Sara!

    After a four-course local-foods dinner and overnight at the Old Oak Inn Bed & Breakfast in Soldiers Grove, we were off bright and early to Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby. Owners Dean and Brenda Jensen took us on a wagon ride to get up and close and personal with their sheep, and trek through a little of Amish country. Aren’t we a good looking group? Check out this 20-second video of the Driftless Region.

    Brenda gave us the full tour of her farmstead cheese factory, milking parlor, barns, farm bed and breakfast, and treated us to a tasting of the many award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses she makes by hand.

    We were then treated to an on-farm lunch catered by Rooted Spoon in Viroqua. Owner Dani Lind made us some Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain cheese cornbread & jalapeno honey butter, local greens salad with roasted beets, cucumbers, Hidden Springs Driftless cheese, sausage, pepitas, & fresh mint vinaigrette, fresh local fruit and some tasty purple basil & aronia berry lemonade. What a treat to eat a meal right from the area from which the ingredients were sourced.

    Our last stop of the trip was Nordic Creamery, where we were greeted by owner Sarah Bekkum and given a VIP tour of the farmstead butter, cheese and ice cream plant. After a butter and cheese tasting, we ended our day with an ice cream cone made right at Nordic Creamery.

    Thanks to everyone who joined me on the tour, and special thanks to our hosts and hostesses who showed off the Driftless Region with pride. I have no doubt we will be returning, and returning very soon!

    All photos by Uriah Carpenter. Copyright 2012.

    Next Up on the Bucket List: Cheeses of Northern Italy

    It started with a bucket list: visit France before I turned 40 and taste a raw milk Camembert. After checking that baby off my list last fall, when I took 20 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals on a 10-day cheese tour to France, I’ve decided to check off another bucket list item: meet a shepherd and taste his cheese at the Bra Cheese Fair in Italy.

    That’s why I’m excited to announce I’ll be taking 20 people on The Grand Cheese & Wine Tour of Northern Italy, September 20 – 29, 2013. Whoo-hoo!

    What will we do? Well, we will eat cheese obviously. But we’ll also do much more. In summary, we’ll visit six cheese makers, three wineries, dine in a castle, stay in luxury hotels and spend an entire day walking the famous Bra Cheese Fair, one of the largest and most prestigious cheese festivals in the world. In short, we’ll spend 10-days eating and drinking our way through the Piemonte and Lombardia Regions in Northern Italy.

    A quick snapshot:

    Day 1: After flying into Milan, we’ll travel to Arona to visit Guffanti Cheese, named by the Wall Street Journal in 2010 as one of the Top Ten Cheese Shops in the world. We’ll spend the late afternoon shopping in this quaint village, enjoy a group welcome dinner at a local restaurant, and then stay overnight in an 18th Century-inspired Villa.

    Days 2-4: We’ll visit Ceretto Wine Estate, Barolo Castle, and Beppino Occelli, a butter and cheese producer and affineur. Most importantly, we’ll take a full day walking the Bra Cheese Fair, featuring the finest cheeses from Italy, Europe and the Americas. The Festival commands the entire historical center of Bra. On the “Street of the Shepherds”, we’ll meet small cheesemakers who tend to their flocks of sheep and goats and produce a limited quantity of extraordinary cheeses that rarely make it out of their home region. Tasting booths, seminars discussing the preservation of traditional methods, The House of Goat Cheeses, with more than 100 different goat cheese products from all over the world, are just some of the events open to tour attendees. Overnight in the Piemonte region.

    Days 5-7: These days are dedicated to exploring, visiting and tasting some of Italy’s finest cheeses. We’ll enjoy private tours and tastings with Gorgonzola, Tallegio, Buffalo Mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheesemakers, along with a visit and tour at a balsamic vinegar producer. Overnight in the Lombardia region.

    Days 8-10: It’s time to enjoy the final days in Milan, with a cooking class, private art tour with viewing of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous The Last Supper painting in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, time to explore and shop in the city, capped with a farewell dinner.

    And now for the game show deal. All this and more can be yours for the low low price of $3,895 per person. This price includes all hotel accommodations, most meals, and transportation via private motorcoach while in-country. However, airfare is additional. View a detailed brochure by clicking here.

    Once you’ve checked out the full brochure, I know you’ll want to join me. That’s why I’ve made it super easy to click here to reserve your spot by November 15, 2012 with a $1,450 deposit. I look forward to traveling with you to Italy next September!

    Tours! Tours! Tours! Tours!

    I’m not sure what you do when you get bored, but when I’m tired of sitting at my desk writing about cheesemakers, I organize a tour to go see them. Then I take 20 people along with me. Sound like fun? Here’s 4 upcoming tours in 2012 in which I’d love for you to join me!

    Tickets on Sale Now
    Sept. 21 – 22: The Driftless Region Artisan Cheese & Craft Beer Tour

    If you’ve ever wanted a backstage pass to Wisconsin’s artisan cheese plants and craft breweries, this exclusive two-day tour is the bee’s knees. Get an inside look as to why the cheese and beer produced in the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin is routinely judged as some of the best in the world. Limited to just 20 people, this overnight adventure includes custom tours and tastings at:

    Plus, we’ll indulge in a fabulous local-foods dinner and overnight bed and breakfast stay at The Roth House and Old Oak Inn in Soldiers Grove. Tour price includes all meals, tours, tastings, accommodations and transportation via air-conditioned motorcoach. Reserve your spot by July 15.Price: $345 per person, based on double occupancy. $395 for single travelers. View a detailed itinerary by clicking here. Save your seat by clicking here.

    Tickets to go on sale in September

    Nov. 9:  Driftless Cheeses of Wisconsin

    It’s been called the Napa Valley of the Midwest, and for good reason. With its own micro-climate of plentiful rainfall, sweet soils and limestone-filtered water, the unglaciated corner of Southwest Wisconsin is dairy paradise. 

    Start out the day with a tour at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, where you’ll meet Cheesemaker Andy Hatch and tour the farmstead creamery crafting the best-known cheese in America: Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Then motor to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and meet Bob Wills, Wisconsin’s chief incubator of up-and-coming cheesemakers. You’ll tour this historic cheese factory as well as the facility’s “Living Machine,” a working ecosystem using natural microbes and a collection of hydroponic plants to biologically treat cheese wastewater back into clean water that is discharged into nearby Honey Creek. 

    After lunch and time for shopping at the charming General Store in downtown Spring Green, you’ll cruise to Dreamfarm in Cross Plains to meet Cheesemaker Diana Murphy, ooh and ahh over her super cute herd of milking goats and pastured chickens, and taste her farmstead goat’s milk cheeses. Scenic views of rolling hills and winding rivers from the expansive windows of a luxury bus included for free.

    This customized, small-group tour is part of the Fourth Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival (come for the whole weekend) and will depart Madison at 7:45 a.m. and return to Madison by 5 p.m. Limited to 20 people, with time for personal conversations with cheesemakers at a casual and enjoyable pace. Price: $115 per person. Includes transportation via an executive air-conditioned motor coach, specially-arranged lunches, custom tours, and cheese tastings at each stop. Tickets go on sale in September.

    Nov. 9: Green County Cheese & Beer Experience

    Saddle up for a day of eating cheese and drinking beer, folks. You’ll motor in a luxury bus to fabulous Green County, home to more than a dozen cheese plants in a 585-square mile area. First up: a tour and tasting with Cheesemaker Myron Olson at Chalet Cheese Cooperative, home to World Champion Baby Swiss and the only cheese factory in North America still making Limburger, the king of stinky cheese. 

    You’ll have a chance to cleanse your palate at the next stop: Minhas Brewery in downtown Monroe, where dairy maids will lead a 1-hour tour and tasting of some of the finest craft beers made in Wisconsin. Lunch is up the street at Baumgartner’s, one of Wisconsin’s best-loved and historic taverns. If you’re lucky, the bartenders might even flip a dollar bill on the ceilings while you’re there! 

    Round out the afternoon at Emmi Roth USA in Monroe with a tour of the company’s impressive Gruyere aging rooms, and an exclusive cheese tasting in their elegant Culinary Center. Word to the wise: bring a pillow, as you’ll most likely be napping on a full stomach all the way home.

    This customized, small-group tour is part of the Fourth Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival (come for the whole weekend) and will depart Madison at 7:45 a.m. and return to Madison by 5 p.m. Limited to 20 people, with time for personal conversations with cheesemakers at a casual and enjoyable pace. Price: $115 per person. Includes transportation via an executive air-conditioned motor coach, specially-arranged lunches, custom tours, and cheese tastings at each stop. Tickets go on sale in September.

    Nov. 9: Wisconsin Farmstead Dairy Backstage Pass

    More than 20 farmstead dairies have sprouted in Wisconsin in the last 10 years, and this tour gives you a backstage pass to two of the best. You’ll start your day with Cheesemaker George Crave at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, with a tour of the cheese factory, followed by a farm tour and opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with farm cows and calves. Afterward, enjoy an elegant cheese tasting and lunch in the Craves’ new on-farm Culinary Center, where you’ll taste the Crave cheeses in exciting new dishes. 

    Next, motor in your luxury bus to Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus for a dairy plant tour of milk bottling and ice cream making with owner James Baerwolf. After ordering your choice of ice cream cone, milkshake or sundae, you’ll tour the Baerwolf dairy farms, where each brother milks a herd of organic and conventional cows. 

    End the day with a private cheese tasting at Fromagination in Madison, where you’ll have a chance to taste a half dozen of the best farmstead cheeses from Wisconsin. We promise you won’t go home hungry.

    This customized, small-group tour is part of the Fourth Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival (come for the whole weekend) and will depart Madison at 7:45 a.m. and return to Madison by 5 p.m. Limited to 20 people, with time for personal conversations with cheesemakers at a casual and enjoyable pace. Price: $115 per person. Includes transportation via an executive air-conditioned motor coach, specially-arranged lunches, custom tours, and cheese tastings at each stop. Tickets go on sale in September.

    To stay updated on all tours, tastings, dinners and events regarding Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, visit www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com — membership is only $35 per family or company! I’d love to see you at my next cheesy event.