Tag Archives: california cheese

Wisconsin vs. California

So, I did a class at the Cheese School that was a battle between Wisconsin and California. I figured it would be a fun class, because, hey, why not stoke the rivalry? I almost got a Wisconsin food blogger kicked out of his home state because (his idea!) we bet on the Niners/Packers playoff result. When my Niners won, he had to go put up “California Cheese is better than Wisconsin Cheese” on his facebook page. I felt so bad for him… he got hundreds of comments, many very nasty, and people were unfriending him in droves.

The Cheese School folks suggested a Super Bowl Cheese class but we had to cancel it when Baltimore got in from the AFC. There are some good Maryland cheeses, but none are available out here and it just didn’t excite people the way that a battle people the top milk and cheese producing states would.

No, Wisconsin vs. California is the real battle. Since they will never get to battle in the Super Bowl (Sorry Raiders fans), I decided that it would be fun just to have a battle at the Cheese School.

I didn’t hype the class at all because it sold out really fast. So, I was surprised when people started lobbying me about what cheeses should compete. I am known as a Californian, so it did NOT surprise me that the lobbying came from Wisconsin. Was I going to set up a California victory? Would I battle some cold pack cheese spread against Humboldt Fog? An Aaron Rodgers-shaped mild, waxed Cheddar against Fiscalini bandage-wrapped aged for 18 months?

From others I got dismayed reactions about having the cheeses fight against each other. Can’t we all just get along? My answer to that is that in a cheese case (or a buyers desk) these cheeses are in competition every day. This doesn’t mean we can’t cooperate and work together, but a customer, unless doing a horizontal tasting, does not want two traditional Cheddars, Two aged sheep cheeses, two blues etc and they are going to have to choose one. It’s my job, behind the counter, to help them figure out which one to choose, presenting them with tastes, stories and contexts. So really, this is a more real-life situation than my average cheese class.

I’m not the most prompt blogger, but I promised results to folks. I tried to pick categories that would be a fair fight. I conceded block Cheddar to Wisconsin. I claim ripened goat cheese for the Californians. Here’s what happened with the match-ups I chose.

Round 1:
Fiscalini Bandage-Wrapped 18 Month Cheddar vs. Bleu Mont Dairy Cheddar

I did my samples anonymously and switched the California/Wisconsin order around so people couldn’t stack the deck. I thought that there would be a lot of Wisconsin people there because the class sold out so quickly, but it was mostly because a law office was having a night out together. I was a little disappointed because I had planned a bunch of Wisconsin-baiting but there were only 3 Badger-Staters in attendance.

People loved both these cheeses. We were definitely starting out strong with two giants of the cheese world. The Fiscalini was the first non-English cheese to take home the award for Best Extra Mature Traditional Cheddar at the World Cheese Awards. Bleu Mont is an amazing traditional Cheddar from organic pastured cows aged in a cave made by cheese genius Willi Lehner. CheddarSharp or sweet.? Moist or shard-y? Who will win?

Me and Mariano from Fiscalini. At least Mariano looks good.

I was shocked when I counted the hands. It was an absolute tie. It didn’t seem fair to go all Speaker-of-the-House and be the tie-breaker, so I let it stand.

California: 0, Wisconsin: 0, Ties: 1

Round 2
Bleating Heart Fat Bottom Girl vs. Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-op Dante

I love both of these cheeses, but let me start with the unexpected: This was the best piece of Dante I have ever tasted and we have carried this, on and off, since soon after they started making it. It was an incredible balance of sweet caramel, sharpness, and earthiness.

Here are some of the co-op members

I love the Fat Bottom Girl a million different ways and think that it is one of the best versions of Basque-style cheese in the USA but its more subtle nuance, and grassiness could note compete with the hammer smash of this particular wheel of Dante. I don’t know how it would come out next time, but this time the winner was Dante.

California: 0, Wisconsin: 1, Ties: 1

Round 3
Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk vs. Crave Brothers Petit Freres

A washed-rind stink off. Who would win? Our local hero and past ACS Best of Show winner? Or the little, underrated washed rind from the family dairy with one of the biggest methane digesters in the US cheese business?

I like the Freres a lot, but Red Hawk may be unbeatable in this category. Red Hawk, I should note, just keeps getting better and better. It’s another cheese I have eaten pretty much since it was invented and every time I try it, it seems better than the last. I should note, that this was the only cheese of the evening that people could recognize.

California: 1, Wisconsin: 1, Ties: 1

Round 4
Pt Reyes Farmstead Bay Blue vs. Roelli Dunbarton Blue

To decide it all two cheese that have little but blue in common. Bay Blue is the new Blue from Pt Reyes Farmstead which has been a huge hit since we started carrying it. Natural rind, richer than Original Blue and with more depth of flavor despite being pasteurized. The Dunbarton is basically a traditional Cheddar with Blue veining. Pretty original as cheeses go, and made by one of my favorite cheesemakers. This was the only category where some folks said that they might actually buy both for a cheese plate (eve if we cheesemongers know that only about .01% of customers would actually buy two blues at one time) 😉

This one was close, and I thought we might have another tie on our hands, but when everyone was counted Dunarton Blue was victorius, bringing home the overall win for Wisconsin.

California: 1, Wisconsin: 2, Ties: 1

It was a close one. I hope to schedule a rematch soon with different cheeses. After all, I am a Californian.

*I do have an upcoming class at the Cheese School, if you are interested.

Ignazio Vella 1928-2011

I think almost anyone who has been in the cheese world for a period of time has their “meeting Ig” story. It’s like a rite of passage. It’s not even just a California thing. Cheese folks came from all over the country to talk to him. He was that important.

He really was. Very few people (at least in this state) had been in the cheese making business as long as he and his family had. Until he could no longer do it, he had his hands in the vat every day. He was a walking history of American cheesemaking and we are all diminished by his passing. He was a cheese elder and that link to our shared oral history is gone forever.

dry jack aging
(Wheels of Vella Dry Jack in their Sonoma aging room)

But it’s not like he was just an old-timer who you’d talk to get some trivial or nostalgic stories. He loved helping new cheese folks. True, he also loved spotting phonies and self-promoters and bursting the bubbles of aspiring cheesemakers who had more fantasy than reality in their plans, but I think most hard-working people are like that. He was hands-on in his own plant but also with the folks at Rogue Creamery who had bought his family’s old blue cheese factory. That Rogue makes some of the finest blue cheese in the country (and with the Rogue River Blue, I’d say the world) is a tribute to David and Cary and all the folks who work there, but also to Ig who traveled up there regularly them turn their product from the mediocre, unmemorable cheese it was when they bought the place, to the amazing cheese it is now.

Traditionally, Vella cheese came from the milk of one main local dairy where the quality and care could be assured. Even writing that sounds like boilerplate now in our current cheese-trendy times, but this was a carry-over from the old dairy days for the Vellas and you knew it was true. Heck, he would bring his dairyman to the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference that he founded with Sheana Davis and Professor Moshe Rosenberg.

Which is the other way he helped cheesemakers. Ig’s legacy lives on in Vella Cheese and Rogue Creamery of course (and through other cheesemakers, who can choose to credit Ig themselves). However, it also lives on in the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference. It’s where I knew him from best since I helped wrangle a number of panelists and speakers for that conference over the years. On the schedule there was always “Ig Time”. From, say, 8:00-9:00 AM he would have the floor to discuss – loosely – whatever the theme of the conference was and what it meant to him. These were always some of the best times for me.

You never really knew what to expect but it would be opinionated, historically-based, and make you think about the big picture cheese issues. Very few people have that ability to make people think big, especially in a trade-based conference. It always set the tone – that lives on today even without Ig’s active participation in the last couple of years – for honest, open discussion, and mutual aid. It’s a far cry from other trade events we’ve all attended filled with panelists doing infomercials for themselves and the “educational programming” really being a sparsely attended front for deal-making, instead of intending to be conversation set up to uplift the whole group.

And yes, I do remember the first time I met Ig. Surprisingly, it wasn’t through Sheana Davis who is my good friend, who continues to run the Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference, and who Ig mentored for a decade or two.
ig and sheana
(Sheana and Ig at the dedication of the “Ig Bridge”)

No, it was through Andrea London a well-respected cheese person who – at that moment – happened to be my sales rep for a now-defunct company. I had only been working in cheese for a couple of years but she couldn’t believe I hadn’t met Ig. She arranged a tour for us and after meeting the other cheesemakers (who’ve each been there about 30 years themselves by now) and looking at all the aging cheese, we went out to lunch. I made him laugh when I mocked Domestic Parms for lacking in flavor and how much I appreciated the Dry Jack as an alternative. I’m sure in retrospect I did it in a clumsy and ahistorical way but he laughed and I knew the rest of the meal would be ok. I felt even luckier six months later when he almost made someone cry who dared to ask him about the “terroir” of the region.

I feel luckiest now though, thinking about all the times I got to hear Ig talk cheese history. I don’t know anyone who has done more for the world of small-production, hand-made, sustainable cheese. This “artisan cheese” resurgence that we are in right now is the product of a lot of people, but Ig was always an example of how to do it right. His practices and influences are felt all over the state and the country.

Many of the cheeses on the cover of my book were grabbed out of convenience or because of their size and shape. However, as I was leaving our walk-in that day, I made sure I brought a wheel of Dry Jack. There is a reason I chose to hold it in that picture. It was really my tiny way of honoring his work.

Goodbye Ig. You will be missed.

*Sonoma News has a great biographical article on Ig that covers more than just his cheesemaking. Well worth a read.

Redwood Hill Cameo

Let me note first that Redwood Hill Farm is producing some of their best cheese ever. The last batch of Camellia we got was stunning, unlike any I had eaten previously. They were pungent, onion-y, and tasted French. I know this because for some reason we had a lot of French tourists in the store and most refused to believe it was made in California.

In addition, they are making a bigger version of Camellia called Cameo: about double the size and with decorative stuff on the outside. The Cameo we have gotten — while less strong than this last batch of Camellia — has been better than any Camellia of the last couple of years, texturally much oozier and with a tastier rind.

The Cameo has been in short supply, however. Because of this, yesterday our distributor made a point of telling me that they they had a couple of cases for our order today. She said, “We have Cameo.”

I said, of course “Word up!”

Silence made me realize that the person taking the order was much younger than me and I just sounded like an old guy trying to sound hip. I said, “Uh, you don’t know that song, do you? It’s probably a little before your time… Search for Cameo and “Word Up” on youtube… Let’s just move on”

I’ve been listening to it ever since. So here it is, the unofficial California goat brie anthem: