2019 Cheese Classes at Firefly Coffeehouse

It’s time to announce the 2019 lineup of educational & tasting classes at Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese in downtown Oregon, Wisconsin! This year, we’re offering 11 different classes with Sara Hill, an inducted member of the Guilde Internationale Des Fromagers & Jeanne Carpenter, an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and owner of Firefly Coffeehouse. (For their full bios, scroll down).

All tickets must be purchased in advance and may be found here: https://store.fireflycoffeehouse.com/collections/cheese-classes

Here we go!

January 6: Wine & Cheese of France – Regional Pairings
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Taste and learn about exquisite French wine and cheeses, taste four regional pairings, and hear the stories of each from Jeanne & Sara, both of whom have traveled France extensively in search of good cheese. You’ll leave with a better understanding of terroir, or taste of place, and enjoy the magic of pairing the perfect wine with the perfect cheese. Ooh-la-la! $29/each.

February 10: Best of Wisconsin Cheese & Beer Pairings
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Wisconsin Craft beer and Wisconsin artisan cheese: could there be a more perfect pairing on a Sunday night in America’s Dairyland? You’ll taste four Wisconsin beers and four Wisconsin cheeses, and then learn the secrets of pairing two of Wisconsin’s favorite food groups. $29/each

March 3: Blue Cheese & Port – Made for Each Other
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Pairing Port and cheese is a classic food and wine combination, but have you paired Port with Blue Cheese? Brace yourself for magical goodness. Taste four blues and four Port wines. $29/each

April 7: Wine & Cheese of Spain – Regional Pairings
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Spanish cheeses and wines are lesser known in America than their French or Italian counterparts, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as good. Your guides: Sara & Jeanne, have each traveled and visited many cheesemakers and winemakers in Spain. They bring their experiences and expertise to the evening. $29/each

June 9: Cheeses of England
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
England, similar to America, is experiencing a renaissance in farmstead and artisan cheese, with much of the inspiration and credit going to the experts at Neal’s Yard Dairy, master affineurs of London. You’ll hear of Sara’s very recent experiences, and Jeanne’s experiences from her trip a few years ago as you taste four English cheeses. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

July 21: Sheep Milk Cheese of Wisconsin
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
It’s hard to believe the American dairy sheep industry is less than 30 years old, and that Wisconsin sheep milk cheeses have only come of age in the last generation. Taste four of Sara & Jeanne’s favorite sheep milk cheeses. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

August 11: Wine & Cheese of Italy – Regional Pairings
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Four years ago, Sara & Jeanne spent 10 days together, visiting cheesemakers and winemakers in Italy, learning ancient stories of cheesemaking and winemaking. Since then, they’ve put together countless pairings of Italian foods. Join them this evening and taste four Italian wines, each perfectly paired with four different Italian cheeses. $29/each

September 22: Mixed Milk Cheeses of Wisconsin
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Taste the complexity and hear the origin stories of four Wisconsin Original mixed milk cheeses, each crafted from the milk of goats, cows and/or sheep. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

October 20: American Cave Aged Cheddar
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Learn and taste the distinct flavor differences in five American aged cheddars, each aged in either a cave-like environment or an underground cellar. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

November 17: Understanding & Entertaining with Triple Cream Brie
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
With the holiday season fast approaching, it’s the perfect time to taste and learn the different in Brie, Camembert and Triple-Cream Cheeses. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

December 8: Cheese Duel – Wisconsin Vs. European Cheeses
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Old World favorites versus New World upstarts: you’ll taste and compare six cheeses in three different styles, then decide for yourself which side of the Atlantic makes better cheese. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer of your choosing. $25/each

More about your class leaders:

Sara Hill has been involved in the specialty food world with a concentration on cheese for 36 years. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park N.Y in 1976 and cooked at clubs and resorts until 1982 when she was hired by the first cheese importer in the upper Midwest. She continued to be involved in cheese distribution and working with chefs and retailers, helping key store groups to develop cheese programs, involving cheese mongers behind the counter, until 2006 when she left distribution to work with Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese as his first National sales manager. In 2008 she joined the WMMB as Manager of cheese education and was involved with training chefs and retailers about Wisconsin Cheese all over the U.S. and she steer headed the total update of the Cheesecyclopedia. In 2018 she joined Hook’s Cheese as National Sales Manager. She is a former board member of the ACS and has been inducted into the Guilde Internationale Des Fromagers.

Jeanne Carpenter is an award-winning journalist, former spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, and worked several years as a specialty cheese buyer for Metcalfe’s Markets in Wisconsin. Today, she and her husband, Uriah, own and run Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese in their hometown of Oregon, Wisconsin, and are committed to building a community gathering place for folks who like good coffee, good food & good cheese. She enjoys her involvement in local politics, and represents Oregon as a three-term elected member of the Village of Oregon Board of Trustees, the Oregon Planning Commission and Oregon Library Board. She was recently elected to the Oregon Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

The Big Winner at The World Championship Cheese Contest? The Consumer.

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I’m writing this six hours before the World Champion Cheese is named. That’s because no matter who wins – whether it be a little-known cheesemaker from the Alps, an artisan cheesemaker from Wisconsin or a woman who’s making donkey cheese on a farm in Turkey – the winner of this year’s contest has already been determined. It’s us. The consumers. The cheese eaters.

Media interest in this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest is unreal. There are television cameras, documentary crews and print journalists from around the country camped out at Monona Terrace. I find myself looking around for Hollywood celebrities, given the amount of paparazzi that’s patrolling the place. And, I keep comparing today’s scene to 10 years ago, when the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association asked me to help organize the first-ever evening public event. I was thrilled when two local tv news crews showed up, 300 people bought tickets, and we sampled 30 cheeses. Tonight, we’re expecting more than a dozen tv crews, 800 attendees, and 30 volunteers will work with me all afternoon to cut up and sample 100 cheeses from 25 different countries. Why? Because all of you demanded it.

Since 2008, consumer interest in good cheese – whether it’s made in a big factory, little factory or on someone’s farm – has skyrocketed. I emphasize GOOD in that first sentence. Consumers want food that tastes good. In a country where half of us are overweight and the other half are on a perpetual diet (I fall into both of those camps), all of us are looking for cheese that awakens our taste buds and satisfies our stomachs without eating half a pound of it with a box of crackers. Today’s cheeses are doing that.

In the last 10 years, it’s been heart-warming to watch the camaraderie between cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese scientists and judges from across the country and the world bloom and grow at the World Championship Cheese Contest. My Facebook feed has lit up all week with photos like the one below, showing Kari Skibbie and Lisa Hall, two women who work for different companies in the Wisconsin cheese industry, and perhaps who only see each other only a few times a year, volunteering to slog cheese all day on the B Team:

camOf course, winning the World Championship Cheese Contest is a BIG deal. Two years ago, Emmi Roth from Monroe, Wisconsin, took home the big trophy. It was the first time in decades Wisconsin had won the top prize.

So who will be the big cheese this year? For a preview of the cheeses in contention, you can peruse the list of first place winners on the contest’s official website. As I write this, every first-place cheese is being judged from scratch by nearly 60 accredited cheese experts from around the world. The top 20 cheeses, and finally the big winner, will be revealed at tonight’s sold-out shindig. No matter who comes out on top, we’re all winners. Good cheese is in our future.

Cheesetopia Milwaukee: Thank You Marieke Gouda

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Here’s a huge shout out to Wisconsin Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman, her amazing family and all the staff at Marieke Gouda for making Cheesetopia possible this year in Milwaukee.

What is Cheesetopia, you ask? It’s a festival I organize with the goal of bringing some of the best artisan cheesemakers from the Midwest to the heart of a different city every year. This year, Cheesetopia calls Milwaukee home, and thanks to the sponsorship of Marieke Gouda, the event is sure to be a success.

Already, the event is nearly sold out, with little to no publicity, thanks to the hundreds of loyal members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Today, less than 100 tickets remain on sale. Act quickly if you’re interested in attending.

Here’s the scoop:

Cheesetopia Milwaukee 2018
Presented by Marieke Gouda & Wisconsin Cheese Originals
April 8, 2018
The Grain Exchange, 225 E Michigan St, Milwaukee, WI
Noon – 4:00 PM

Cheesetopia 2018 returns to downtown Milwaukee in the historic Grain Exchange room of the Mackie Building. Finished in 1880, the room was built as a sunken trading pit, where traders set the price of wheat. It was considered to be the most lavishly decorated public space of its time. The walls are adorned with large murals depicting the themes of transportation, agriculture, trade and commerce. Colossal faux-marble pillars boast carved depictions of locomotives and steamships. It is inside this room that 40 of the best artisan cheesemakers from across the Midwest will sample and sell more than 150 artisan cheeses.

Tickets
$35. Includes appetizers & samples of 150 cheeses. Cash bar. Click here to purchase.

More Information
Cheesetopia brings a star-studded line-up of award-winning cheesemakers and artisan food producers to a unique venue in the heart of a different city every year. A cheesemaker, company owner, farmer or senior representative is required to be present for each company, ensuring attendees meet the makers of their favorite cheeses.

Here’s the line-up in 2018:

  • Alemar Cheese Company, Mankato, Minnesota – Cheesemaker Craig Hageman sampling Bent River, Blue Earth Brie & Good Thunder
  • Ames Farm Honey, Delano, Minnesota – Artisan Sarah Mogilevsky sampling Single Source Raw Honey
  • Caprine Supreme, Black Creek, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker and Owners Todd & Sheryl Jaskolski sampling Goat Milk Cheese Curds, Feta, Lavender Jack, Brie, Cheddar & Chevre
  • Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wisconsin – National Sales Director Dave Christoff sampling Marisa, Black Sheep Truffle, Porto Duet, Billy Blue, Cocoa Cardona, Menage, Mobay, 6-Year Cheddar, Wildfire Blue, Penta Creme, Fontina de Provence, Cheese Stix & Flavored Butters
  • Caves of Faribault, Faribault, Minnesota – Head Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson Cheese Plant Manager Jill Ellingson sampling St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese, Jeff’s Select, St. Mary’s & Smoked Amablue
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills sampling Olive Cheese Spread, Quark with S.A. Braai Chutney, Montague, Extra Sharp Organic Cheddar & Ovella
  • Cosmic Wheel Creamery, Clear Lake, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Rama Hoffpauir sampling Circle of the Sun, Antares & Moonglow
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, Wisconsin – Owner George Crave sampling Fresh Mozzarella, Marinated Fresh Mozzarella, Part-Skim Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Cheese Curds & Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese Curds
  • Deer Creek Cheese, Sheboygan, Wisconsin – Representative Kayla Immel sampling The Doe, The Rattlesnake, Vat 17, The Blue Jay, 5-Year Cheddar, Stag & Moonrabbit
  • Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman sampling Grass Based Raw Milk Aged Gouda, Havarti, Dill Havarti, Butterkase & Tuscan Dream
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Brenda Jensen sampling fresh Driftless in various flavors, Wischago, Ocooch, Vernon Renegade & Bohemian Blue
  • Hook’s Cheese, Mineral Point, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Tony Hook and National Sales Manager Sara Hill sampling Colby, 5-Year Cheddar, 10-Year Cheddar, Galway Bay, Triple Play, Goat Pepper, Sheep Milk Cheddar, Sheep Milk Butterkase, Blue, Blue Paradise & Little Boy Blue
  • Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese, Connersville, Indiana – Owner Matthew Brichford sampling Everton, Everton Premium Reserve, Tomme de Fayette, Briana & Ameribella
  • Kettle Range Meat Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – Artisan Mark Bearce sampling Kettle Range Cured and Charcuterie products including Guanciale, Pancetta, Summer Sausage, Snack Sticks, Bacon Jam, Nduja & Smoked Sausages
  • LaClare Farms Specialties, Pipe, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Katie Fuhrmann & owners Larry & Clara Hedrich sampling Evalon, Martone, Cave Aged Chandoka, & Raw Cheddar
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany, Wisconsin – Cheesemakers Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates sampling Petit Nuage, Aged Anabasque, Samwell & Pecora Nocciola
  • Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Monroe, Wisconsin – Owner Shirley Knox & Cheesemaker Jake Huffman sampling English Hollow Cheddar, Smoked Gouda, Jalapeno Jack & 10-Year Cheddar
  • Marieke Gouda, Thorp, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman sampling Belegen 4-6 month Gouda, Marieke Golden, Foenegreek Gouda, Truffle Gouda & Summer Fields
  • Potter’s Crackers, Madison, Wisconsin – Owner Nancy Potter sampling crackers, crisps and oyster crackers
  • Quince and Apple, Madison, Wisconsin – Owners Clare & Matt Stoner Fehsenfeld sampling a variety of small-batch preserves
  • Redhead Creamery, Brooten, Minnesota – Cheesemaker Alise Sjostrom sampling Lucky Linda Clothbound Cheddar, Little Lucy Brie, North Fork Whiskey Washed Munster & Cave Aged Garlic Cheddar
  • Renard’s Cheese, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Christopher Renard & Sales Director Samuel Perlman sampling Farmers Cheese with Pesto, Sriracha Cheddar, Legacy, Morel & Leek Monterey Jack
  • Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli sampling Dunbarton Blue & Red Rock
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Pam Hodgson & Master Cheesemaker Apprentice Jeremy Werdeo sampling Black Pepper BellaVitano, SarVecchio Parmesan, Merlot BellaVitano & MontAmore
  • Saxon Creamery, Cleveland, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Eric Steltenpohl & Anthony Servais sampling Saxony Alpine, Snowfields, Asiago Fresca, Big Ed’s Gouda & Various Spreads
  • Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin – Sheep Dairy Farmer Laurel Kieffer sampling a variety of Wisconsin sheep milk cheeses
  • Shepherd’s Way Farms, Nerstrand, Minnesota – Cheesemaker Jodi Ohlsen Read sampling Friesago, Big Woods Blue, Hidden Falls, Shepherd’s Hope, Friesago & Sogn Tomme
  • Tulip Tree Creamery, Indianapolis, Indiana – Cheesemaker Stephanie Montalban & Sales Director Laura Davenport sampling Trillium, Tigerlily, Foxglove, Fromage Frais, Nettle & Dutch Tulip
  • Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, Wisconsin – Cheesemaker Andy Hatch sampling Pleasant Ridge Reserve
  • Vermont Creamery, Websterville, Vermont – Representative Molly Browne sampling St. Albans, Bonne Bouche, Cremont & Fresh Chevre
  • Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wisconsin – Master Cheesemaker Joseph C. Widmer, Sr. and Cheesemaker Joseph C. Widmer, Jr. sampling Aged Brick, Mild Brick, 4-Year cheddar, 12-Year Cheddar, Caraway Colby & Brick Spread

3,000 Cheeses. 25 Countries. 1 Winner. Tickets to Cheese Champion on Sale

World Champion Cheese 3

Big news, people! The world’s largest technical cheese competition is coming to Madison, giving the public a rare opportunity to taste more than 50 cheeses from across the globe and witness the reveal of the 2018 World Champion Cheesemaker.

Tickets to Cheese Champion, an evening of global cheese tasting presented by Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the World Championship Cheese Contest, are $25 and went on sale today. Held on Thursday evening, March 8, in the Monona Terrace Exhibition Hall, this signature event of the biannual contest is open to only 500 attendees, with all tickets sold in advance. Click here to get yours!

In addition to tasting more than 50 cheeses from 20 countries, you’ll learn cheese evaluation from international cheese experts while enjoying local specialty foods and craft beer samples, all the while tasting samples of some of the rarest cheeses from every corner of the globe. Plus, you’ll be on hand for the reveal of the 2018 World Champion Cheese, as 53 expert judges from 20 countries stand in salute of the winner. Doors open at 6:30 pm. See you there!

If You’re Buying a Story, It Should be a Story You Can Taste

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People who don’t work in the dairy industry are always amazed when they visit my house and come across back issues of Cheese Market News and The Cheese Reporter.

“Wait, you actually read these? How on earth can there be TWO national weekly newspapers dedicated to just cheese?” and the standard: “Wow, you’re weird.” These are the same comments I get when I take past issues into a coffee shop and dare to catch up on cheese news in public.

While I appreciate keeping up on the latest technology, industry news, commodity block prices and Class III milk futures that these publications provide, it’s always a jolt to sit down and read them after I’ve visited a small-batch, artisan cheesemaker in a far away place. I get reminded in a hurry of what’s important to Americans.

For example, here are three headlines from the current issue of Cheese Market News: “Laughing Cow Adds New Flavors to Cheese Dippers Line” and “Fairlife Introduces SuperKids Ultra-Filtered White and Chocolate Milks With Omega-3” and “Borden Cheese Unveils Snack Bars.” I’m not even cherry-picking headlines from multiple pages – all of  these stories actually exist on the centerfold pages of 8 and 9 in the October 13, 2017 issue of CMN.

When I compare these American dairy industry headlines to passages of the new book by Bronwen and Francis Percival: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, I get a little depressed. In America, we are so focused on creating the next biggest, boldest flavor and punching it into the most-convenient-to-eat dairy package, that I’m not sure we still appreciate what actual milk can taste like when we turn it into cheese without adding starter culture cocktails, berries or peppers.

Creating – and appreciating – simple cheese is going out of style in America. In an instant gratification society of snap chats, instant messaging and presidential orders issued in 140 characters, more of us are demanding every bite of cheese should rocket every one of our senses. Every. Single. Time.

I compare those headlines to the half dozen sheep dairies I visited in the French and Spanish Basque region last month, and I remember tasting cheeses made from just milk, rennet and salt. No added berries. Not a pepper in sight. Most of these cheesemakers weren’t even adding starter cultures. The tools at their disposal included a recipe for “mountain cheese” that had been passed down through generations, and a reliance on raw milk that contained enough natural bacteria to acidify on its own. (If you’re not familiar with what I mean by starter cultures, here’s an excellent primer from HomeCheeseAdam).

Were these Basque sheep milk cheeses flaming rockets of flavor? Did they transform my every sense into rainbows and unicorns? They did not. But each cheese was slightly different. Each was startling in its simplicity. And each allowed me to taste and appreciate the valley, mountain top or farm on which it was made.

Cheese worth eating has a story. It doesn’t come conveniently packaged, and it doesn’t have the words super or ultra in its name. What it does have is a story you can taste. In fact, my favorite passage from the Percivals’ book, Reinventing the Wheel, comes near the end, and after reading 250 pages that reignited my passion for artisan cheese, this passage was like salve to my soul: “If it is a story that we are buying, then it should be a story that we can taste. And if we value environmental and farming decisions, these are the attributes that we need to value. This is the ‘best’ taste for now. It is the moral dimension of flavor.”

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You can meet the Percivals and hear them speak on Sunday, November 5 at The Edgewater in Madison, Wisconsin. The pair, along with Uplands’ cheesemaker Andy Hatch, are presenting a 90-minute “Taste of Place” seminar featuring cheeses from Europe and America. Tickets available only in advance here. The seminar is part of Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ Wisconsin Cheese Camp.

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.”

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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 www.FaribaultDairy.com.

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Setting Up Cheese in the Dark: Hook’s Cheese

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Listen to a podcast with Tony Hook, his sister, Julie, and what it takes to sell cheese at the largest producer-only farmer’s market in America on Cheese Underground Radio:

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

A bit of the backstory:

A few weeks ago, I called cheesemaker Tony Hook in Mineral Point with the idea of doing a story on what it was like to sell cheese at the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the nation. Every Saturday morning from April to November, about 170 stands pop up on the capital square in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the items for sale are grown, raised, and produced by the person behind each table.

Tony told me he usually arrives by 4:45 a.m., so I told him I’d see him there. I’m not entirely sure he believed me, so as he navigated the orange construction barrels on Pinckney Street in his Chevy Tahoe and trailer at 4:40 am, he shook his head in disbelief as I greeted him at the curb.

“Well, you told me you’d be here early, but I didn’t think you meant this early,” he said. As I helped him unload the trailer in the pitch dark under the light of a street lamp, it occurred to me how very quiet a city can be before dawn. Hell, even the swarms of squirrels that usually dot the capital grounds looking for leftovers weren’t even up yet. And to think, in just a couple of hours, the market would be so crowded that customers three-deep would be vying to buy cheddar, blue and American original cheeses from the Hook’s Cheese team.

Tony and his wife, Julie Hook, have been selling their cheeses at the Dane County Farmer’s Market since 1994, and they have it down to a science. Tony is generally in charge of setting up the booth, and Julie is in charge of prep work – cubing cheeses, setting up everything on the tables, and making sure toothpicks are in the right spot.

But this week, Julie is missing, because she’s getting a new knee in a few weeks, and standing on the cement aggravates the pain. So, Tony is happy to see another family member arrive – someone who actually knows what she’s doing (unlike me) – and that’s his sister, also named Julie. When he’s talking about his wife and sister, he keeps his Julies straight this way: Julie Ann is his wife, and Julie Marie is his sister. Because they all work together in the same cheese plant, middle names are key when calling for a Julie.

Now that Julie Marie is here, the set-up really begins to click along. We unload the Tahoe, which is filled to the absolute brim with more than a dozen giant square blue coolers, filled with dozens of varieties of cheeses, and each cooler is meticulously labeled with the contents. I get tasked with emptying little cubes of cheese from plastic baggies into individual sample containers, so that in another hour, customers can try each cheese before they buy it.

Before long, we look at our watches and it’s already 6 a.m. The market officially opens at 6:15 a.m., so we snag Tony for a few minutes to talk cheese before the crowds descend, and Julie Marie promises to hold down the fort.

I ask Tony why he’s been selling cheese at the Dane County Farmer’s market (which celebrates its 45th year this summer), since the early 1990s. “This is the best market in the country,” he says. “About 6 percent of our overall sales comes from this market. We’re selling cheese in 37 states, and we attribute an awful lot of our artisan cheese growth to this market.”

Up until about 2001, the Hooks were making big vats of commodity cheeses – Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack – and selling that cheese to “the big guys”, who then sold it under a third-party label. “In 2001, we cut back on making cheese, and said: ‘Alright, everything’s going to go under our label. It’s going to have Hook’s on it, no matter where it goes,’” Tony said. “That’s when we started dealing with small specialty retailers, grocery stores and distributors that were willing to pay a little bit better. We attribute a lot of getting our name out there to the chefs buying our cheese here at the market.”

Back in 1994, the Hooks sold at 10 different varieties of cheese. In 1997, they started making blue cheese. Today, they make 70 different varieties of cheese, including dozens of different ages of Cheddar and Swiss. They also specialize in making mixed milk cheeses, and are making more sheep and goat’s milk cheeses every year. They purchase their sheep and goat milk each from one farm, while all the cow’s milk cheeses come from three small farms, the largest of which milks 50 cows. These are the same three farms that have shipped milk to the Hooks since they started making cheese in Mineral Point in 1976. “We’re trying to keep the little guys in business,” Tony says.

We walk with Tony back to his cheese stand, and by now, it’s already starting to get busy. People in this town love their Saturday morning farmer’s market, and many come early to get the best selection. We walk past stands of apples, popcorn, organic vegetables and beautiful bouquets of flowers.

Once we’re back at the Hook’s booth, it doesn’t take long for customers to start sampling and buying cheese. One customer wants to know the difference between different ages of cheddars, and Tony does a remarkable job of explaining in detail how acid plays a huge part in the flavor of cheese. His cheddars aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 years will be more acidic, while the cheddars aged 10 and 12 years are much smoother, sweeter and full of calcium lactate crystals. The customer purchases the 10-year cheddar. By the way, that’s the same age cheddar Tony says he keeps in his fridge. Every day.

By this time, I am in serious need of coffee, so we say our goodbyes to Tony and Julie and head across the street for caffeine. And this being Wisconsin, there is of course a guy standing on the corner of the farmer’s market, playing an accordion for tips. We put a dollar in his bucket and walk away, humming “On Wisconsin.”

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Today’s Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Dairy Connection Incorporated, supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheesemaking supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheesemakers nationwide. To learn more, visit dairyconnection.com.

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