Rush Creek Reserve: It’s What’s for Dinner

Ahh, Christmas. That magical time of the year when I drown out the sound of my neighbor’s holiday yard light show by cranking Weird Al on the wireless speakers and eating Rush Creek Reserve for dinner. I’m sure I’m not alone – with either Weird Al or Rush Creek –  as cheese lovers everywhere are currently eating the results of a long season of hard work for one Wisconsin company.

That’s because between September and November, the cows in the dairy barn at Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville got more sleep than their owner, Andy Hatch, maker of two of the most famous cheeses in America: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve. In the morning, Andy and company made Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the farmstead cheese that put Wisconsin on the map, and then from late afternoon until long past sunset, they crafted my favorite soft, bark-wrapped cheese: Rush Creek Reserve. I heartily thank Andy and his crew for making cheese 17 hours a day this fall – I am truly consuming the love of their labor.

In case you don’t know the backstory of Uplands Cheese, as co-owner and lead cheesemaker, Andy is the dutiful caretaker of the company, founded in 1994 by Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude. More than 20 years ago, the farming couples joined their herds and transitioned to a seasonal, pasture-based system. Three years ago, Andy and business partner Scott Mericka purchased the operation. Scott oversees 244 acres of grass and is the herdsman for 150 milking cows. Cows eat the farm’s grasses and produce milk that Andy makes into seasonal cheeses.

For a city boy who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Andy is a born farmer who didn’t realize it until arriving at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. While studying anthropology and environmental science, he became engrossed with the science of agriculture, working on area vegetable farms, starting a community garden, and writing a thesis on urban agriculture.

“I found I really liked working on farms,” Andy says. “If I could have figured out a way to start a farm, that’s what I would have done. But unless you grow up on or inherit a farm, it’s virtually impossible to hurdle the capital investment that starting a farm takes.”

With farming still in the back of his mind, Andy returned to Wisconsin to work at the Michael Fields Institute in East Troy. For one year, he assisted famed Dr. Walter Goldstein on a ground-breaking corn breeding program. While the work satisfied Andy’s scientific side, it didn’t get his hands outside and in the soil. He regretfully gave his notice. Instead of accepting his resignation, Dr. Goldstein sent him to live with his mother-in-law in Norway.

“Working with Dr. Goldstein was an incredible experience, but I what I really wanted to do was farm. He knew that. So he sent me to Norway to stay with his recently widowed mother-in-law and help her get the family farm in shape to sell. I really had no idea what was in store for me,” Andy says.

He had traveled to Europe twice before with his parents, both wine enthusiasts, but he had never been to Norway. Immediately, the remoteness of staying with a 70-year-old woman named Unni on a fifth-generation goat dairy with no car, no computer, and no phone in the fjords of west Norway cleared his mind. He spent mornings hand milking 14 goats, never having milked an animal before. “For the first week, the muscles in my forearms were so sore I couldn’t grip a fork at supper,” Andy says.

After morning milking, Andy helped make cheese in a tiny, but surprisingly modern stainless steel vat in a small building 300 yards from the ocean. The routine of milking and making cheese suited him. Andy learned how to make cheese via sight, smell, and touch. He made hard, aged goat’s milk cheeses, which Unni sold to tourists at the ferry landing. After the daily dose of cheesemaking, Andy spent the afternoon in a hut stirring the day’s whey in a pot over a fire to make geitost. By evening, it was time to milk the goats again, eat a simple supper, and collapse into bed on a mattress stuffed with straw.

He stayed three months, long enough to help Unni settle affairs to sell the farm and make him a pair of socks from the hair of the farm dog, a Norwegian reindeer-herding pup named Knatchean. “It took me a month to learn how to say the dog’s name,” Andy says. He still has the socks.

From Norway, instead of going home, Andy headed to southern Europe. He had caught the cheesemaking bug. He roamed two years, making mountain cheeses in Austria, sheep cheeses in Tuscany, and goat cheeses in Ireland. He stayed a season or two in each location, earning his keep during the day with his cheesemaking labor, and earning a few coins at night by playing mandolin and fiddle in local taverns. For two years, he couldn’t decide which path to take: musician or cheesemaker. And then came a call from home.

“My mother called with the news that my dad was very ill, so I got on the first plane home and spent the summer with him in the hospital,” Andy says. That fall, his parents spent time recuperating at the family cottage in Door County. Andy followed and met Caitlin, an artist who became his wife. He took an agricultural short course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, milked cows on area dairies, and apprenticed with cheesemakers to earn his Wisconsin cheesemakers license. He accepted a cheesemaking job at Uplands in 2007, married Caitlin in 2009, and, with her, copurchased Uplands Cheese three years ago, moving into a house on the Uplands farm. It’s where they are now raising their two children.

“Cheesemaking is the vehicle that allows me to stay on the farm,” Andy says. “It also satisfies my creative impulses, which is one of the reasons I spend so much time working on Rush Creek Reserve.”

Inspired by his experience of making Mont d’Or in the Jura region of France, Rush Creek Reserve is a serious, all-consuming labor of love. Andy cuts and stirs large curd by hand to protect its soft and delicate nature, and hand ladles curd into forms. It is then flipped, and drains overnight. The next morning, wheels are brined and handwrapped by spruce bark that’s been boiled and soaked in yeast and molds. As a raw milk cheese, Rush Creek is aged 60 days and then immediately shipped to retailers. It’s the type of cheese that, when eaten, is designed to be warmed with the top removed, and enjoyed with a spoon or bit of bread.

In Madison, Rush Creek Reserve is available right now at several outlets, although obviously I’m a bit partial to Metcalfe’s Markets. I even put bows on every wheel we sell at our Hilldale store.

As Andy and Caitlin look to the future, I’m sure they wonder if either of their children will want to be cheesemakers. In any case, Andy is planning on teaching them to play the violin and mandolin, his second great love to cheesemaking. His band, Point Five—a local group of musicians playing traditional, acoustic Americana music—plays numerous gigs in the region. “We’ve got enough instruments in this house that the kids will be able to play whatever they want to,” Caitlin says. “And if they’re lucky,” Andy adds, “I’ll even sing along.”

Wisconsin Farmers Introduce Moxie Munch: A Powerful Whey to Snack

From my early days of walking astride my father on the family farm, to writing about Wisconsin agriculture for The Country Today, to acting as a dairy industry spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, I’ve often thought: if you want to figure something out, ask a farmer. 

Farmers have a knack of seeing problems as opportunities. Almost every farmer I’ve ever known loves a good challenge. Maybe it’s because they take more time to think than the average person – whether it’s driving tractor, feeding cows, or taking care of the land – a farmer is almost always thinking about the next step, the next hour, the next day, the next week. I am convinced that growing up on a farm led to my great (or, if you ask my family, super annoying) ability to multi-multi-task.

So today, I have a story to tell about farmers. This small group of folks – some of whom are still farming, grew up farming, or wish they were farming – are mostly former colleagues, and at this time, wish to remain in the background. So I’m not going to name a lot of names here, but this group has spent many, many years viewing a problem as an opportunity, and then setting out to solve the challenge. (I’ve even had a few cups of coffee with them, talking, thinking, and then thinking and drinking coffee some more. Mostly I just drank coffee – they did all the thinking).

These farmers thought there must be alternative ways to get to people to consume the good things in milk without necessarily drinking more milk. They knew people need protein, calcium and other vitamins milk offers. So over time, these farmers, with help from good resources in the Midwest, started coming up with ideas of milk-based products. They mixed up experimental recipes in their farm shops – yes, in their farm shops – in their kitchens, and eventually, in a professional laboratory.

And now, after eight long years of thinking and solving, they have come up with an actual product. They call it Moxie Munch: A Powerful Whey to Snack (yes, notice the play on words with whey – referring to whey protein). A crunchy chip, Moxie Munch is loaded with 21 grams of protein per serving, is low fat, and gluten free.

Available in Madison stores and online, Moxie Munch features a picture of a Holstein cow flexing her muscles on the packaging. (Disclaimer: I was apparently not included in the coffee-drinking session when the packaging was decided).  

One member of the Moxie Munch team – my friend, Lowell – who worked with me at the state Department of Agriculture after retiring as head chef at Betsy’s Kitchen (a community restaurant that served Barneveld until it was torn down in 2001 to allow for a new highway interchange), said, in typical low-key, Midwestern farmer fashion: “Well, we don’t know if people will like it. We’re not very good at selling it. But we know it is good for people.”

Yep, despite their deep thinking skills, no one ever said farmers were public relations gurus. So, in an effort to help this great group of farmers, I’d highly recommend you try their new Wisconsin Moxie Munch: available in two flavors – Honey BBQ and Apple Pie. Thank you to them and to all farmers who think about and see things in their own unique way and come up with ideas and solutions that benefit us all. 

The Year of the Beagle

Bagel the Wonder Beagle

The Chinese may still be arguing over whether it is the Year of the Goat or the Year of the Sheep, but at my house, there is no doubt: 2015 is the Year of the Beagle.

About a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter adopted a 9-year-old Beagle from an animal rescue. Gunner, as he was known then, was turned over to the shelter by his original owner, who had raised him from a puppy. A three-page hand-written letter came with the dog, detailing favorite foods, toys, likes, dislikes and a complete medical history. However, the last question was the most telling. It asked: “Reason for giving up animal.” The answer simply said: “Wife.”

So Gunner came to live with our daughter and was renamed Bagel the Wonder Beagle. The name was in honor of a former exchange student we had hosted from Thailand, who often confused the words bagel and beagle, as in: “I’d like a beagle for breakfast.” My daughter decided then and there that if she ever got a dog, it would be a Beagle and his name would be Bagel. I added the Wonder Beagle.

Fast forward to two months ago, when our daughter and Bagel the Wonder Beagle came home to live with us. The 18-year-old discovered the real world was expensive and begrudgingly came home to roost. Of course, the dog came along, too. We were rather less than thrilled. After all, we are cat people. We have always had cats and currently are parents to three: Louie, Sammy and Sylvester. With Bagel and Lionel Richie, our daughter’s rescue cat, we were now home to four cats and a dog. Yes, we are actually outnumbered by pets, none of whom of course get along. Our house is literally a five-ring circus.

Soon after she moved back home, it became apparent that with our daughter’s work schedule, Bagel was not getting outside often enough. After a few days of coming home to find pee puddles and poop piles in my living room, I begrudgingly took over the dog walking schedule to save my house from ruin. Let me clear, I was not happy about this. I am a cat person.

At first, I thought walking Bagel might give me some exercise. As a cheesemonger, I am on my feet 8 hours a day, but let’s face it, that isn’t really exercise. It’s standing, squatting, bending, reaching and lifting. I figured that walking a dog would be a nice change of pace.

Turns out that walking a Beagle doesn’t really involve much walking. It’s mostly starting, stopping, and standing while your Beagle sniffs the trail of a squirrel that crossed the lawn eight months ago. Walking a Beagle is a lot like watching paint dry. You stand in the same spot for a long time, walk five steps, then stand in that spot for a long time. And then you repeat that for as long as you are willing to “walk” the Beagle.

After about a week of becoming frustrated with the non-walking of walking the dog, I started to notice stuff. Like, the next door neighbors have a fire pit in their backyard. The neighbors two houses down have a banner that says “Congratulations Zach” hanging in their living room. I’ve lived down the street from these folks for 12 years and I don’t know who Zach is. The neighbors across the street have three boys – this I knew because I’ve seen them waiting for the bus – but they also have a dog named Buddy who is a cross between a Beagle and something else (they can’t remember). I didn’t even know they had a dog.

Walking down the street further, I learned the house five houses away has a waterfall in their backyard. I know this because I can hear it when Bagel is sniffing their garden hose for a solid three minutes and I have nothing to do but stand there and listen. I learned there are a lot of trees on our street. We’ve got ash, maple, oak, poplar, a whole bunch of blossoming bushes and an entire family of pines just in a one-block radius. I know this because I’ve stood and studied them in depth while Bagel has sniffed a dandelion for four minutes.

Walking Bagel around our block takes a solid 35 minutes. The first half block is a breeze – usually, Bagel almost runs until you turn right. He’s not thrilled about that first turn, but he does it without putting up a fuss. The second right turn is more of a struggle. He wants to go straight, left, up, down, anywhere but right, because he knows that is one more turn closer to home. But eventually he turns, and is pretty happy along the way. Between the second and third turn, I’ve gotten to know neighbors who live one street away from me that I never knew existed. I know the names of their dogs, the names of their kids, and how often they weed their lawn.

The third right turn is when we start to hit a roadblock. Bagel does not like the third turn. By the fourth and final turn toward home, we have a serious slowdown. Walking the half block back to the house literally takes as much time as the entire walk before the final turn. Bagel has been known to actually lay down in protest in the lawn at the fourth turn. In good news, the neighbor that lives on that corner is also my plumber, so we often talk shop while Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays with his head on the ground,  his big sad puppy eyes looking up as if to say: “Just one more time around the block?”

Just another day in paradise.

Once we get home, Bagel is always back to his happy self, ready to eat, drink and nap. He particularly enjoys laying next to my husband on the couch. Sylvester our cat usually perches on his lap, and Bagel the Wonder Beagle lays on the side. I’m usually in charge of separating the other fighting cats.

Having Bagel in our house, even for what will likely be for a short time, has given me a new appreciation of dogs. I can understand why people enjoy coming home to an animal who is actually happy to see them, rather than three cats who meow in protest that no one has been home to feed them for eight hours.

Walking Bagel has also given me new insights into a neighborhood in which I’ve lived 12 years. When you’re walking a Beagle, people stop what they’re doing to say hello. When you’re walking a Beagle, people cross the street to pet your dog and chat. When you’re walking a Beagle, you notice things you’re normally too busy to see. During the course of the past two months, I’ve met more people in my neighborhood than I have in the past 12 years. Turns out Bagel the Wonder Beagle was just what I needed.

The Quest to Become a Certified Cheese Professional

Many thanks to Cheesemaker Cesar Luis for taking this
photo of me when I first started working at
Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale.

Eighteen months after making the decision to try and become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, I am on my way to Sacramento, California to take the official exam with 250 other cheesy pro hopefuls.

As many of you know, deciding to sit for the test has dramatically changed the course of my cheese geek career. In January 2013, I was rolling full steam ahead with my own public relations company when I persuaded the nice folks at Metcalfe’s Market in Madison to hire me part-time so I could garner retail experience and the hours I needed to qualify to take the exam.

Today, while I’m still running Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild (albeit a bit poorly – I promise members I’ll be back at 100 percent after this test is over), I’ve retired my PR company of one and am working full-time at the Metcalfe’s flagship Hilldale location, managing the Specialty Cheese Department, rockin’ and rollin’ cheese sales with an awesome staff of three-full time cheese geeks. I get the amazing opportunity to cut and eat cheese for a living.

However, whenever I tell customers I’ve spent the past year studying animal breeds, FDA regulations, HACCP plans and the science of cheesemaking in order to sit for the ACS CCP (catchy acronym, right?), I almost always get the universal response of: “What are you going to do once you’re certified?”

Well, first of all, getting certified is no sure thing. There is a substantial chance I will not pass this beast of a test. It’s a three-hour exam covering everything from the ph of cow’s milk before adding rennet, to the lactation schedule of goats, to the steps of receiving cheese in a retail setting, to knowing the FDA food code like the back of my hand.

It will be a three-hour written test during which I will be escorted to the bathroom by a personal exam proctor. I have been instructed to show up with a photo ID, my computer loaded with the test software, and nothing more. I get the feeling if I try to sneak in some deodorant, I might be escorted away by agents.

But on the off chance that I do actually pass this monster, here’s what I’ll do with my certification: I’ll keep working at Metcalfe’s Hilldale and know that I’m on the way to becoming a better cheese geek. Why does anyone become certified in their field? To know they are on the way to being the best they can be at whatever they do.

So at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 29, if Cheese Underground readers would like to cross their fingers for me, I’d be grateful. I’ll find out in mid-September whether I pass, but the folks already certified tell me that I’ll know myself once it’s over. Either you know the stuff, or you don’t, and I sure hope I do.

New King of Kings: Louie’s Pudding

Built in 1890 by “Butter King” John Newman of Elgin, sold to “King of Kings” cheesemaker Albert Deppler of Green County, and today owned by Anne Lancaster, whose product logo – in a nod to the creamery’s past – includes a bright yellow crown perched on the “L” in its label, the century-old Springbrook Creamery on the banks of the Pecatonica River in Argyle has been home to two kings of dairy in its lifetime.

With the rebirth of her family’s “Louie’s” line of dairy products, owner Anne Lancaster is working hard to become the third king of this Wisconsin creamery. And this time, she’s doing it with pudding.

Now home to Louie’s Puddings, the creamery is where Anne and her team of four part-time employees make small-batches of baked custard and home-made bread, rice, tapioca and chocolate pudding. Products are marketed regionally in local grocery stores and convenience shops.

Known for its colorful lids featuring a pencil sketch of the creamery behind the regal Louie’s label, Louie’s puddings are making something of a comeback here in Wisconsin. The business was started by Anne’s parents-in-law (the original Louie) in 1984, after the couple retired from farming, and like most “retired” farmers, they promptly started another business.

All of the recipes, except for the Chocolate Pudding, are Old World family recipes. The chocolate is a new creation, and is my favorite. Sweetened with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, it carries a creamy and rich taste, not a sickly sweet flavor one often finds with commodity chocolate puddings.

In addition, Anne and her part-time team also make Baked Custard, plain, with raisins or with rice (yummy), and add raisins to the original Old World Rice recipe, for a fabulous Rice with Raisin home-made pudding. Making only 1,200 pounds of pudding a day, Louie’s Puddings is an anomaly in the pudding world. Not only is it small, it uses custom-made equipment to produce that home-kitchen taste.

Each day starts when milk is delivered and pasteurized, and then cooked for 55 minutes at over 200 degrees. Ingredients and flavors are then added, cooking stops, and the mixture is stirred. The batch is poured into a hopper, which dispenses it piping hot into plastic tubs. It is then sealed and wheeled to a cooling room, where later it will be labeled and packaged for delivery, carrying a 45-day shelf life.

Although distribution right now is limited, Anne is working to increase sales. She also dreams about sharing the 3,000 square-foot space with other dairy artisans.

“I’d like for this building to become an artisan dairy incubator, similar to what Bob Wills is doing for the artisan cheese community,” Anne says. “I know there’s quite a few people who have a good recipe and a unique product, but can’t afford a factory of their own. We’re looking at adding some equipment and possibly renting out space by the day.”

If anyone can make that happen, it’s Anne. She and her husband were both raised on family farms in the Argyle and South Wayne area. A banker by trade, she bought the business from her retired in-laws in 2009 and since then, has increased production, shelf-life and flavors.

She has no desire to return to the corporate world and appears to have found her calling, in of all places, an old butter plant built into a hillside along a river that is also home to the community’s bomb shelter in southwest Wisconsin (more than 2,000 square feet expands underground and is used for storage).

“I’m going to be making pudding for a long time,” Anne says. “It suits me. I’m looking forward to the future, working on new plans and new flavors.”

So are we, Anne. And if that future could contain a certain someone’s favorite pudding, as in perhaps, ahem, Pistachio, we’d love Louie’s Puddings even more. Just sayin’.

Widmer’s Brick & Colby: Wisconsin Originals

Brick and Colby: perhaps two of the most underrated cheeses in America. Some folks call them boring. Others simply write them off as commodities. After all, Colby is really just Mild Cheddar, right? And blocks of Cheddar sell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, along with cattle, corn and cotton. So why should these cheeses even be considered interesting, much less blog-worthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three reasons: 1) Joe Widmer,  2) Joe Widmer, and 3) Joe Widmer.

Every once in a while, I teach a class on what I call “Wisconsin Classics.” Attendance is usually down because people note what cheeses we’ll be eating, proceed to yawn, and then wait to sign up for the next month’s class on American Originals. But the truth of the matter is that both Brick and Colby are indeed American Originals, as both were invented in Wisconsin in the 1800s.

Today, there’s no one in Wisconsin making better Brick and Colby than Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa. To the skeptics who call Brick and Colby “bland,” I challenge you to taste Joe Widmer’s Mild Brick and Authentic Colby and not call these cheeses anything but artisan and full-flavored.

Fifty years ago, you might have known more than a dozen Joe Widmer-types, all crafting authentic stirred-curd Colby in little cheese plants across Wisconsin. That’s because until the 1970s, by law, Colby was required to have an open texture, meaning the curds could not be tightly pressed. This allowed a more milky, dairy flavor to develop, and depending on the cultures used and cheesemaker who crafted it, a flavor all its own.

That all changed in the 1970s, when lobbying from the state’s ginormous Cheddar makers resulted in Wisconsin statutes being changed to allow Colby to have “a closed body,” the same as Mild Cheddar. That allowed big cheese plants to make more Mild Cheddar and label it as both Mild Cheddar and Colby, thereby accessing two market shares with the same cheese. Two years ago, I did some research on this very topic and wrote a post called The Colby Conundrum, which resulted in a flurry of anonymous hate mail from what I suspect are some of the state’s biggest Cheddar makers, and which explains why today, many people unfortunately still consider Colby to just be Mild Cheddar.

The USDA doesn’t even take Colby seriously. It lumps it with Monterey Jack in the “Other American Types” cheese category when reporting annual production. Luckily, the folks at the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service do appreciate it a bit more. Their stats show Colby cheese production exceeded 100 million pounds for a number of years in the 1970s, and even approached 200 million pounds in the mid 1980s.

Joe Widmer is good at putting that number in perspective. During Colby’s peak years, Joe says it accounted for almost 20 percent of the state’s total production of American–type cheeses, and for more than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production. That’s pretty significant.

Colby production has been on the decline since the mid ’80s, both in terms of total production and in terms of its importance in Wisconsin’s cheese production picture. In 2000, Wisconsin produced 86.4 million pounds of Colby, or less then half the level of the mid ’80s. And today, at least according to my research, there are only three cheesemakers left making authentic stirred-curd, non-pressed Colby: Joe Widmer at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa; Tony Hook in Mineral Point; and Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Most others are simply making a stirred-curd Mild Cheddar with a closed texture and labeling it as Colby. You can tell the difference pretty easily – the next time you buy Colby in a store, check to see if it has pin-prick holes in the body. If it does, it’s authentic. If not, it’s likely Mild Cheddar being labeled as Colby.

Brick cheese, like Colby, is another Wisconsin Original. It was created in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss immigrant who was running his own Wisconsin cheese factory by the time he was 14 years old. Much like Jossi, Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager, and Brick is one of his specialties.

Widmer crafts about 360,000 pounds of Brick cheese a year, using the same open vats in the 12,000 square-foot facility that his grandfather bought in 1922. And he still uses the same well-worn bricks his grandfather used to press the whey from the cheese. In fact, he’s credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country to continue to use real bricks as part of the make procedure of his Brick cheese.

After pressing, Joe removes the bricks and places the cheeses in a brine solution to take on salt. He also makes a German-Style Brick, a washed-rind “stinky cheese” soaked in a solution to take on bacterial cultures. This cheese is cured in a “warm room” – about 70 degrees – where the bacteria works its magic and is then “smear ripened” with a top-secret Widmer mixture of brine and whey.

“Most people don’t even know what real Brick is,” says Joe. This alone drives his mission to craft the real deal and share with cheese lovers everywhere – and he does mean everywhere, including his very own dinner table. “A Wisconsin cheesemaker can spend a lifetime perfecting his craft,” Joe says,  “much of it spent resisting the urge to eat all the cheese.”

New Year’s Eve Party Cheese Trays: Then and Now

THEN: My parents’ card club poses at the farmhouse for a photo on New Year’s Eve in front of my mother’s groovy macrame lamp and owl wall hanging in our orange-curtained, fake-wood-paneled, velvet flowered-covered-sofa living room. While I’m pretty sure this picture was taken circa 1986, the ’70s lived on until the house was torn down a few years ago.
When I was a kid, serving a “cheese tray” at the annual New Year’s Eve card club party at our farmhouse in southwest Wisconsin usually meant one of two things:

1. An hour before the party started, my mother unboxed the no-expiration-date-listed, mail-ordered Wisconsin Cheeseman holiday cheese ball, stuck a Santa-handled cheese spreader into it, and told me to put it on the table. Voila! Instant centerpiece.

2. Dad reached past the Velveeta on the second shelf of the fridge for the “good cheese” – a Colby longhorn – and sliced it for me. Then I cut the big circles into shapes of stars, bells and angels, while Mom arranged them on a holiday platter. The best part? Getting to eat the “scraps” the cookie cutters left behind when I thought no one was looking.

Thirty years and more than two dozen Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers later, those days seem far behind me. While I must admit I enjoy a good party cheese ball and slab of Colby as much as the next Wisconsinite card club Euchre player, the good news is that cheesemakers are crafting more original and artisanal cheeses all the time. That means WAY more options for bringing out the “good cheese”, and way more options for assembling a New Year’s Eve card club party cheese tray.

Option 1: The Wisconsin Cheddar Flight
This is perhaps one of the easiest cheese trays to assemble, as all you you need is four differently-aged Cheddars, a package of artisan crackers (such as Potter’s Crackers), and a fruit chutney of your choosing. When serving any cheese tray, I like to include a wedge of the cheese in its original form, along with strips or slices of cut cheese (never cubes), so guests can get an idea of how the cheese originally looked, and then taste it at the same time.

If you’re not too busy making Brandy Old Fashioneds, then try and guide your guests into eating the cheeses in order of least aged to most aged. This lets your palate adjust and appreciate the differences in taste and complexity as the cheese ages. Here’s a sample Cheddar Flight course, arranged in order, from left to right:

  • Two-Year Cheddar from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa
  • Six-Year Cheddar from Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle
  • 10-Year Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point
  • 12- or 15-Year Cheddar from Hook’s (depending on availability)

Even though this is Wisconsin and our natural inclination is to eat every piece of cheese with at least one cracker, see if you can persuade your guests to first try each Cheddar separately, on its own, so they have the opportunity to appreciate the cheese and just the cheese. After the first taste, encourage guests to mix up the tasting with a bit of cracker or chutney, to see how each cheese differs with pairings. If serving wine, consider a Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Sauvignon. A wheat beer also pairs well with a flight of Cheddars. And of course, a Brandy Old Fashioned goes well with just about anything.

Option 2: The Wisconsin Farmstead Cheese Tray
Fifteen years ago, arranging this cheese tray would have been impossible, as only a handful of farmstead cheesemakers existed in Wisconsin. Today – lucky for us – more than 20 call America’s Dairyland home. The key to making a Farmstead Cheese Tray meaningful for your guests is knowing the story behind each cheese. You’ll want to know the cheesemaker’s name, the type of milk used, and the location of the creamery. All of this information can be found by asking the folks at your local cheese shop, or by doing a quick Google search. Again, make sure you leave a wedge of each cheese intact on your cheese tray, along with strips or slices for tasting, as farmstead cheeses are often the most eye-appealing cheeses on the market.

A sample Wisconsin farmstead cheese tray might include:

  • Evalon, from LaClare Farms in Chilton (goat’s milk)
  • Marieke Young Gouda, from Holland’s Family Farm in Thorp (cow’s milk)
  • Ocooch Mountain, from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby (sheep’s milk)
  • Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra Aged, from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville (cow’s milk)

These four cheeses present an excellent cross section of some of the best cheeses made in America, and lucky for us, they’re all crafted by farmstead cheesemakers in Wisconsin. Serve this cheese course with a sliced baguette, honey and fruit – perhaps a few red grapes or strawberries – and let guests mix and match cheese and companions as they wish. I’d recommend serving this course with a crisp white wine, such as a Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, or Riesling. A sparkling wine, such as a Moscato d’Asti, (my favorite) is also fun.

Option 3: The Wisconsin Adventure Cheese Tray
Sometimes the best cheese courses are the ones that represent different categories – such as a soft, semi-hard, hard, and blue. This type of course can be the most difficult to assemble, as multiple pairings may be necessary. To make it as easy as possible, consider this combination, which involves four cheeses, one type of cracker, a bit of honey and pear:

  • Driftless, from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby (sheep’s milk)
  • Gran Canaria, from Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle (sheep, goat & cow’s milk)
  • Mona, from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative and made at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain (cow & sheep’s milk)
  • Buttermilk Blue, from Emmi Roth USA in Monroe (cow’s milk)

Start with the Driftless, as this fresh, soft and fluffy sheep’s milk cheese is a natural starter for a cheese course. Pre-spread on a Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker for guests, as they may be unfamiliar as to how to go about eating a fresh cheese. Then move on to the Gran Canaria. This olive oil-cured specialty is fruity, nutty, intense, sweet and pungent all at the same time. It should go well with a bit of pear. Next, try the Mona. This mixed milk cheese is made from cow and sheep milk and is mild and pleasant, and provides a nice balance between the soft and blue cheeses on this tray. End with Buttermilk Blue. Serve with a drizzle of honey, Hazelnut Graham Potter’s Cracker and slice of pear. This sweet blue is a nice ending to an adventurous cheese tray.

No matter which cheeses you choose, a cheese tray is the perfect addition to a party, as it not only provides amazing tasting cheese, but is a great conversation piece. Mix and match your favorites, and encourage your guests to do the same. It’s hard to go wrong with cheese, especially on New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year!

NOW: A 2012 Wisconsin artisan cheese tray, made possible by dozens of amazing cheesemakers who today call Wisconsin home. Five cheeses, a baguette, a few nuts, Potter’s Crackers and chutney. Throw in a card game and voila – instant party.