Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp on Sale Oct. 3

20170627-IMG_7178If you’ve ever dreamed of meeting the person who makes your favorite Wisconsin artisan cheese, then I have great news. Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day cheese festival I’m hosting in Madison next month, go on sale Tuesday, October 3 at 8 a.m. Set your alarm now.

What is Wisconsin Cheese Camp, you ask? Well, it’s a series of events over the course of two days during the weekend of November 4-5, all located at The Edgewater in Madison. Each event is designed to help you get to know your favorite artisan cheesemaker better while eating the cheeses you like best. Basically, it’s a big cheese  party, and I’d love for you to attend.

The weekend kicks off bright and early Saturday morning with two all-day bus tours, each visiting three different dairy and cheese plants, where you’ll tour the factory, talk shop with the owner, and taste their favorite cheeses. Each tour includes lunch, transportation in a big comfortable coach bus, and all tastings. With increasing food safety regulations, most cheese plants no longer offer tours, so this is your chance to see things up close and personal.

A huge thank you to Carr Valley Cheese, who stepped up to sponsor Wisconsin Cheese Camp. In fact, aged Cheddars crafted by Carr Valley’s Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, as well as a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner at The Edgewater. Plus, author Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the dinner’s keynote speaker, and all dinner attendees will receive a complimentary copy of his book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

On Sunday, a 90-minute Tasting Seminar on “Taste of Place” will be presented by Uplands Cheesemaker Andy Hatch and Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and Francis is a cheese and wine writer and educator in the United Kingdom. All seminar attendees will receive a complimentary hard-cover copy of the Percivals’ new book, which is earning rave reviews, including this one in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, no cheese camp would be complete without the chance to meet all of your favorite cheesemakers in one room, so that’s why Sunday afternoon marks a Meet the Cheesemaker Gala. You’ll get to meet 30 Wisconsin cheesemakers, taste 150 cheeses, drink free beer and wine (drinks are included in the ticket price) and nosh on yummy appetizers from The Edgewater. Check out the list of cheesemaker rock stars appearing here. 

A big thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. Thanks to their generosity, all attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Plus, VIP attendees will even get a bag stuffed with Carr Valley cheese (VIP attendees also get in one hour early to Meet the Cheesemaker).

For ticket prices and a listing of all cheesemakers involved, please visit my website, Wisconsin Cheese Camp. I’d love to see you in Madison during the first weekend of November!

On Location: Cheese Caves in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Listen to a podcast with Queseria Main owner Javier Diaz, translated by Sandra Benzal, and hear more about the caves of Cabrales on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

High up in the Picos de Europa mountains in the autonomous community of Asturias, lies the tiny parish of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain. The nearest school or grocery store is 45 minutes away, and the number of sheep and cows grazing on alpine pastures vastly exceeds the hamlet’s human population.

There is a saying in the municipality of Cabrales that the higher the village, the better the cheese. And in Sotres de Cabrales, elevation 3,368 feet, there is a feeling that indeed, some of the best blue cheese in the world is made here. That’s because every two days for 10 months of the year, the husband and wife team of Jessica Lopez and Javier Diaz craft Cabrales, a blue cheese made that must be made from unpasteurized cow’s milk or blended in the traditional manner with goat and/or sheep milk.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Although Cabrales is a blue cheese, no blue mold spores are added to the milk during its production, and wheels are not pierced to allow the introduction of oxygen to facilitate any blooming of blue mold in man-made openings. Instead, during its production, cheese wheels are loosely pressed, and the cheesemaker relies on hundreds of years of blue mold built up in ancient limestone caves to naturally inoculate the wheels from the outside in to create one of the strongest, deepest blues in the world.

At Queseria Main in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, every four days, Jessica, Javier, his father-in-law and brother-in-law transport the wheels of cow/goat milk blended Cabrales that Jessica makes to three different natural limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountains. One cave is fairly close, and wheels may be transported to within 200 feet of the cave opening via motor vehicle. Another cave is further away and accessible only by foot, which means each person packs between four and six wheels in special backpacks and then hikes to the cave opening to place the wheels on wooden boards deep inside. A third cave is too far away to carry cheese on foot, so wheels are placed in packs on horseback, and horses are led to the cave opening, where the cheeses will age for four to 10 months underground on wooden shelves. In each cave, after new cheeses are placed on wooden shelves, existing wheels are washed and flipped, and wheels ready for sale are transported back to the factory in Sotres de Cabrales.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

All of the milk used in the production of Cabrales must come exclusively from animals in the region of Asturias, Spain. Cabrales is a PDO cheese (Protected Designation of Origin), and before gaining this protected status in 1981, was traditionally wrapped in leaves from the Sycamore Maple. Today, modern regulations require it to be sold in a dark-green-colored aluminum foil with the stamp of the PDO Queso de Cabrales.

Javier and Jessica have been making cheese for 10 years, and learned the craft from her parents, who own another Cabrales creamery nearby. The parents also allowed them to start aging their cheeses in caves where they had rights to do so. In Cabrales, all of the natural caves have been claimed, and the only way a new producer can gain access to aging space is by inheriting a cave, or taking over a cave when another cheesemaker ceases production.

In addition to the cave granted to them by her parents, over the years, Javier and Jessica have gained access to two additional caves that were not being used (and with good reason – they are only accessible via horse or on foot), but the couple is young and eager to forge their way in the world, and works extremely hard in their Cabrales production.

In fact, they were extremely gracious this week and allowed my group of 20 Wisconsin Cheese Originals tour members to enter their nearest cave, a 15-minute hike down the mountainside. When we arrived, Javier hooked up a generator to provide light. He then unlocked a steel door inserted into a natural rock wall, and we descended down 40 steps into a natural limestone cave filled with wooden shelves of Cabrales cheese.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Javier and Jessica are young, and at 10 years into cheesemaking, are successfully and slowly building their business to allow more people like us to view their cheesemaking and aging caves. After we hiked back up the mountain (and I tried not to die from being out of breath), the couple hosted us at picnic tables outside their creamery and filled us with tastings of their 4-month and 10-month wheels of Cabrales. paired with bread, fruits and quince paste.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

The only sound beside the chatter of 19 Americans and one Australian was the faint clammering of bells from nearby sheep, a few caws from a Magpie looking for a wedge of bread, and the chugging of a cement truck climbing the steep and narrow road to the village, where we noticed a new house was being built. Like many small, rural communities in America, the rural villages of Spain are empty of young people. But in the tiny village of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, it was amazing to see a young couple continuing the ancient tradition of making one of the oldest blue cheeses in the world. “It is hard work, but it is honest work,” Javier told us. “And we are proud to do it.”


This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Caves of Faribault, makers of cave aged blue cheeses in Faribault, Minnesota. Try their Amablu, the first blue cheese made and marketed in the United States, or St. Pete’s Select, a signature premium American blue cheese. Caves of Faribault cheeses are the only cheeses in America aged in natural, underground sandstone caves. Learn more at

caves of faribault logo

On Location: Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Every two years, I pick a place in the world where I’d love to meet cheesemakers, taste their cheeses and learn their culture. And then I talk 19 people into going with me. This year, my Wisconsin Cheese Originals international trip is to the Basque Country of France and Spain, and our first visit was to a farmstead producer of Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque of France.

Ossau-Iraty is a Protected Designation of Origin cheese (PDO), which means it may only be produced in a precisely defined geographical area in southwest France from the milk of three breeds of sheep: Manech Tête noire (Black Face Manech), Manech Tête Rousse (Red Face Manech) and Basco-Béarnaise.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Jean-Francois Tambourin and his son, Michel, greeted us at their farm in Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, where they milk 300 sheep from December to July. When we visited, the sheep were just beginning to be rounded up from the mountains, where they had spent the summer after drying up from milking. The ewes will give birth again in November, the lambs will be pulled from the mothers and sold in time for Christmas dinner, and the ewes will give milk until mid-summer.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

All of the milk from the Tambourins’ sheep is made into an annual production of 10 tonnes, or about 22,000 pounds of Ossau-Iraty, using a 200-gallon vat. The Tambourin family, which also consists of Jean-Francois’ wife, Noel, and their second son, Guillaume, milk Red Face Manech sheep, a breed that has adapted to the high altitude and temperature changes of the Pyrenees mountains. They also keep a few Blonde d’Aquitaine beef cows for meat production.

The Tambourin farm is located in a small commune in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in southwestern France, and consists of 12 farms. Each farmer owns between 22-40 acres, and all practice transhumance, the practice of moving animals from one mountain pasture to another in a seasonal cycle, typically from lower pastures in the winter to higher pastures in summer. The Tambourins paint a small red and green marking on their sheep in a specific pattern to distinguish their flock from their neighbors, which is important when it’s time to bring the sheep down from the mountains and back into each farmer’s barn for winter lambing. Lambs are sold when they weigh 11 kilograms, or 24 pounds, and most end up on the Christmas platter of Spanish families as milk-fed lamb.

The Tambourins milk their sheep in a modern parlor made by DeLaval, and in one hour, two people can milk 280 ewes. Cheese is made every two days into Ossau-Iraty, an uncooked, pressed raw-milk cheese, and aged a minimum of 80 days. The fat and dry matter content of the cheese are also fixed at 50 percent and 58 percent, respectively, and all farmstead-produced wheels carry a special sheep face-shaped brand in the top of the wheel, marked with an F.

Whey from cheesemaking is fed to hogs on the farm, located down the hill from the commune, and housed in huts with roofs made from mountain ferns.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Ossau-Iraty made at the Tambourin farm is sold in a small retail shop right on the farm, as well as at farmers’ markets and festivals. While producing a PDO cheese is more expensive than making a cheese which does not carry an appellation name (farmers must pay 8 Euros per every 1,000 liters of milk produced to the Ossau-Iraty PDO syndicate for help with promotion), Jean-Francois said they chose to become part of the Ossau-Iraty syndicate because of the help they receive in promoting their cheese. Ossau-Iraty is a relatively new PDO cheese, achieving its protected status in 1996. The mountain cheese recipe, however, is ancient, and is believed to be hundreds of years old.

Here’s a curious thing about the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty: it varies widely. We tasted both 4-month and 7-month wheels at the Tambourin farm, and both were exquisite – sweet, creamy and buttery with rinds that even tasted sweet. The next day, we went to a different farm in a different region, and tasted the Ossau-Iraty made at the local cooperative, and it was much drier and full of pea-sized holes.

This is because, even as a PDO cheese, the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty is allowed to vary significantly. In a very informative presentation to our tour group (which by the way, took place in the middle of a sheep barn, with the projector placed on a portable table), Celine Barrere, Secretaire Generale of the Ossau-Iraty Syndicate, revealed that aging techniques vary widely between regions.

In the Basque Country, aging cellars for Ossau-Iraty are dry, whereas in Béarn, they are more humid. In the Basque Country, the affineur rubs cheeses with a dry brush, while the Béarnais affineur coats the crust with salt water and a damp towel. These different aging techniques, which are obviously profoundly different, help explain the taste and visual differences between the Basque Ossau-Iraty and the Ossau-Iraty Bearnais. Also keep in mind that Ossau-Iraty is made by 150 different farmstead producers and 20 different cooperatives, with milk supplied by 1,300 farms.

At the Tambourin farm, located in Basque Country, all members of the family are well-versed in all aspects of the operation – farming, cheesemaking and cheese-aging, with no one person particularly specializing in any one aspect. In fact, this particular family is the 8th generation to milk sheep and make cheese on the estate, and their family’s house, or etxea (pronounced etch-A), dates back to 1778.

In Basque culture, the etxea is extremely important, For Basques, the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In fact, under ancient laws, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for a serious crime, police had no right to enter the house. In the modern world, the etxea retains its cultural status, but is not above the law.

Even the look of a Basque etxea varies significantly within each of the seven different Basque provinces. In a shop in the tiny village of Ainhoa, France, I found a display showing the seven different styles of Basque etxea, in miniature form.

basque houses

Alas, I digress. Back to Ossau-Iraty. When I asked Jean-Francois how he would describe the cheese he makes on his farm, he gave me a smile, flexed a muscle in his forearm, and then said a short exchange in Basque. When I turned to the interpreter (an older, deeply Catholic and extremely proper French woman), she blushed, and said, “He says that a good cheese is like a man. The outside is quite tough. The inside is quite tender.”

A huge thank you to the Tambourin family for your hospitality!

Wisconsin Cheese Camp Debuts This Fall

Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook

Exciting news, cheese peeps! Tickets to my brand new Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day festival in Madison featuring cheese tours, a Wisconsin Cheddar dinner, a master cheese seminar and Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, go on sale Sept. 6 to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Remaining tickets will go on sale to the public on Oct. 3.

Wisconsin Cheese Camp takes place Nov. 4-5 at The Edgewater in Madison. Tickets will be available first to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization dedicated to connecting consumers and Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers. Anyone may join the organization for $35 a year. All membership dues are used to fund beginning cheesemaker scholarships for new Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

It’s been several years since I retired the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival at the Monona Terrace, and I wanted to bring a new event to Madison. So I thought: who doesn’t want to go to a cheese camp? It will be a fun and educational way for folks to meet their favorite cheesemakers, learn more about the cheeses they love, and most of all: eat good cheese!

Wisconsin Cheese Camp is generously sponsored by Carr Valley Cheese – check out their super cool new website. Thank you, Carr Valley! Cheddars crafted by Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook (that’s him, pictured above) and a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar dinner at The Edgewater. Author Gordon Edgar (one of my most favorite people in the world), the cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the keynote speaker, and all dinner attendees will receive a complimentary copy of his book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

On Sunday, a master cheese seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place will be presented by Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen (who I secretly want to be when I grow up) is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and Francis is a cheese and wine writer and educator in the United Kingdom. They’ll partner with Wisconsin cheesemaker Andy Hatch, of Uplands Cheese, for a 90-minute talk and tasting. All seminar attendees will also receive a complimentary copy of the Percivals’ new book.

A big thanks the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. All attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Woot woot!

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: tickets are available both in VIP packages and individually for three different Saturday bus tours, the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner, Sunday morning master cheese seminar, and Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala.

VIP Package:
All-in-one package is $359: includes your choice of one Saturday all-day cheese factory bus tour, one ticket to Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner featuring author Gordon Edgar, one ticket to Sunday morning seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place with authors Bronwen & Francis Percival, one VIP ticket with early entrance to the Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala inside The Edgewater Grand Ballroom. Note: hotel not included — book separately if needed (see below).

Ala Carte Prices:

  • Saturday small-group All-Day Cheese Factory & Dairy Farm Bus Tours, each limited to 25 people: $139 (see the website for tour descriptions)
  • Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner with author Gordon Edgar at The Edgewater: $120 (includes complimentary copy the book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese)
  • Sunday morning Cheese & Microbes seminar with Bronwen & Francis Percival and Cheesemaker Andy Hatch: $45 (includes complimentary copy of the book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes)
  • Sunday afternoon VIP – early entrance to Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $75 (includes one-hour early access,  three free drink tickets good for craft beer, wine or soda — see the website for a listing of all artisans and cheeses being sampled)
  • Sunday afternoon regular admission Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $50 (includes two free drink tickets for craft beer, wine or soda)

I’ve set up a hotel room block at The Edgewater. All you need to do is book before Sept 20 for $199/night. Make your online reservation here or call 800-922-5512 before Sept. 20 and ask for the Wisconsin Cheese Camp block rate.

For a full listing of all tour descriptions an all the cheesemakers involved, please visit my website here:

I can’t wait to see you all at Wisconsin Cheese Camp!