Tag Archives: wisconsin

Wisconsin Day One: From urban to rural

My first day in Wisconsin was all about transportation. I got a direct flight from SFO-Milwaukee — on what I later saw was a kinda scary airline — and my trip was fast and pleasant. I got my rental car in my after-flight daze and just said no to all the scare tactic extras (“If you don’t spend $24/day more for supplemental coverage we will leave you and your car in whatever ditch you drive into. In fact, if this situation arises we will hire a local farmer with a backhoe to bury you alive in the rental vehicle and then sue your estate for a new car. Would you like to add the supplemental insurance so we don’t have to do this?”) and was on my way.

In fact, very soon after landing I was driving out of Milwaukee, listening to their local punk station, and heading west to Schullsburg which is in the South West corner of the state, closer to Illinois and Iowa than Madison or Milwaukee.

I wasn’t just going there so I could experience Gravity Hill, that was an added benefit:

No, I was going to visit Chris Roelli who makes the Dunbarton Blue and attend a gathering of Cheddar makers for a day of cheesemaking, fellowship, and education. Driving through small town Wisconsin was a great way to acclimate to a few days of cheese talk.

Unfortunately, as I got to Darlington, where I was staying I realized my big city ways had not prepared me for small town life. It was 9:15, I hadn’t eaten and nothing was open. Well, nothing except for the gas station McDonalds, and it was about to close too. I had to think fast… cobble together a meal of Pringles, powder donuts, and cookies from the gas station mini mart, or get my first McDonalds meal in about 20 years.

I’m an American. I did what I had to do. This may be one of the only food blogs in the US where the author will admit in print that they ate fast food but there you go. Oddly, or perhaps not oddly at all, the Big Mac tasted exactly the same as the hundreds of Big Macs I had growing up. Everything just seemed a little smaller than I remembered.

The mini mart did carry New Glarus beer so I bought a 6-pack of Spotted Cow to pair with my Big Mac just to prove I really was a snobby urbanite. It was terroirific.

What’s new in Wisconsin

Cheese and politics don’t mix. That’s what a bunch of pro-Walker folks e-mailed to tell me after I sent that letter to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

“Walker Guts Farmland Preservation Efforts”

Open letter to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc.
8418 Excelsior Drive
Madison, Wisconsin 53717

cc: Governor Walker, Senator Fitzgerald, House Speaker Fitzgerald

James Robson, President
Stan Woodworth, Vice President

WMMB,

The current Wisconsin budget crisis has caught the attention of many people outside of Wisconsin. The proposed budget, as it stands right now, seems to many of us as an unprecedented and undeserved attack on one of the most basic rights of organized labor: the right to collectively bargain. Customers at our store have been asking about what they can do. Some have even brought up their willingness and desire to boycott Wisconsin products if this current budget passes.

You know me. You know I have been a long-time supporter of Wisconsin cheese and that we carry a lot of it, especially for a California supermarket. I have no wish to stop carrying any of your numerous cheeses that we have on our shelves. (It varies of course, but right now we have about 40 different cheeses from about 15 Wisconsin cheesemakers.) I love Wisconsin cheese.

However, if this current budget passes it will make Wisconsin a bad word among many people who shop and who work in our store. Since you are in the marketing business, you can well understand that the kind of result a political decision like this can have in many of the cities that sell a lot of specialty cheese. You know that it doesn’t take much of a decline in sales for a perishable food to lose its place on the shelves; that’s the nature of the business. It doesn’t even require an organized boycott, just the change in consumer perception from Wisconsin being a “friendly state of cheese lovers” to “that mean-spirited state that hates unions and teachers”. Because I care about Wisconsin dairy farmers on a personal and professional basis, I do not want to see that happen.

For the good of Wisconsin cheesemakers I personally ask that you put what pressure you can bear on the legislature to not pass a budget that strips organized labor of their rights. This is an issue that goes beyond Democrat or Republican and beyond state lines. Taking a budget crisis (that many see as manufactured for this purpose) as an excuse to end the right to collectively bargain is wrong.

This is not a threat. I am not speaking for my workplace because, as a cooperative, my workplace is a democracy and does not have an official position on this issue. What I am saying is that the Wisconsin state budget has ceased to be a local issue. What happens next may very well affect every business in the state. Since Wisconsin’s most visible business is cheese, I think you owe it to your members to take a stand against this budget.

Thank you,
Gordon Edgar
Cheese Buyer

Cheese-a-Topia favorites: Saxon Green Fields

Another cheese that surprised me was the Saxon Creamery Greenfields:
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The batch at the show seemed to finally reach the bigger flavor and pungency that I’ve always wanted from this cheese. This is true family-farmed cheese from Wisconsin and the price is great for what you get. This is an Oka-style cheese for all you Canadian immigrants out there. Buttery and pungent.

During Best of Show voting I seriously considered this as one of my top 3 cheeses.

Wisconsin Whirlwind addendum

I just got sent this one last picture from Wisconsin. Here’s me smearing salt water and bacteria into a Rothkase “Gruyere”:

smearing gruyere

Totally fun! (when one doesn’t have to do it for 8 hours a day)

Wisconsin Whirlwind 5: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars

The last cheese factory on our trip was the smallest and most old-school: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wisconsin. Joe Widmer is a third generation cheesemaker, another Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and is still operating out of the factory his grandfather bought 80 years ago. The family has finally moved out of the house above the factory, but that’s about all that has changed.

Here’s the “factory” with my trip mates in the foreground for scale
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I had visited once before (on a road trip in 2005 and I actually can’t believe I didn’t write about it). Joe Widmer is one of my favorite cheese people: funny, friendly, and non-pretentious. Just look at him standing over the Brick Cheese brine tank!
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What is Brick Cheese anyway? Why is it called Brick? If you are not from the Midwest you shouldn’t feel guilty about not knowing. Like real Colby, and fresh curds, it’s kind of a regional cheese. It’s another washed rind cheese, very stinky and strong if allowed to ripen to its full potential. Widmer actually makes two versions. They start the same, but one is annattoed up to differentiate it. That (orange) one is plastic wrapped and meant to stay milk. The uncolored one is aged longer and paper-wrapped. It’s as stinky as you want it to be.

Why Brick? Well, it’s because real bricks were/are used to weight the cheese and push out excess moisture. Here’s a third generation brick!
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Here’s the process! (Germ-worriers please note: the brick lie on top of stainless steel forms.)
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Plus the cheese – in a whole block – resembles a brick too. Here it is aging. Please note slimy bacteria on shelves. That’s what makes it great.
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I don’t know why I started talking Brick cheese so early in this entry since we sell a whole lot more of his cheddar. Joe Widmer is one of the best block cheddar-makers in the country, managing to make very sharp cheddars that remain moist and creamy. Not brittle like Vermont cheddars, with (I hate to say this as a Californian) more flavor than any California blocks I’ve had. Some are scared of the orange annatto coloring to which I say, this is a Wisconsin tradition. Respect diversity!

Here it is being made:
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And here is my favorite picture of the trip. Still life of bricks for Brick cheese at rest. Timeless, eh?DSC00252

Wisconsin Whirlwind 4: Crave Brothers

The next stop on our journey was Crave Brothers, a farmstead dairy in Waterloo Wisconsin. It’s a big farmstead* dairy – nearly 1000 cows – and they make some of the best mascarpone in the country and one of my favorite American cheeses: Petit Frere.

This was the first time on our trip that we got to see cows. On the way there we hit massive thunder storms and thought we might not be able to visit them, but the weather cleared just as we arrived and we got the tractor tour by one of the Crave Brothers: George Crave.**
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We were too late for the cheesemaking – they were already hosing down the plant – but just in time for the cows. We got slimed by the baby cows who were very excited to see us.
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One of the best things about the Crave Brothers farm is that they have the most productive dairy farm methane digester that I know of*** producing all the energy needed to power their cheese plant as well as 120 local homes.**** They titled their press release about this “From Cow Pies to Blue Skies”. Heh.
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It was an awesome tour. The only thing we didn’t get to see was the manure lagoon.

As for their cheese (which I feel funny writing about after typing “manure lagoon” in the last paragraph) I love their little washed rind cheese called Petit Frere (little brother). It’s rich, creamy and – if you let it ripen right – oozy and pungent. I’ve been experimenting around with them at the store and would say give it 60-65 days after the make-date on the box and it will be perfect.

*Farmstead means that the cheese is made on the farm and only from the milk of cows that live there.
** They made a point of telling us that, yes, that was their real name and not a clever marketing ploy “Crave Brothers” could go either way, eh?
***Other dairy farms are also doing this. Local dairy heroes at the Straus Family Creamery were – unsurprisingly — one of the early innovators.
**** They even made the news with this and there’s a nice little video (sponsored by Glaxo, heh)

Wisconsin Whirlwind 3: Roth Kase

While I am kind of a whiner in real life, I try to keep it off my blog. I know no one wants to read that. Still, the Cheesemaking day at Roth Kase deserves a little whining.

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I often work at 7 AM so I don’t mind getting up early. We had to get up at 4:30 to go make cheese at Roth Kase. That would not have been a very big deal except that we were on Wisconsin time so to us it was really 2:30 in the morning. I was so obviously falling asleep on the cheese tour that I became the designation person of ridicule for the entire day. Oh yeah, now I remember why I hated school.

I blanked when asked a question so I had to stand in a cheese corner and write “We leave the vat alone while we wait for the proper PH level and for the curds to knit together,” 100 times.

We were supposed to “make cheese” and we did… kinda.* We were a large (exhausted) group doing the work of one person so it wasn’t like we were breaking sweats. We did cheesemaker things though. We cut curd, we took breaks*, we flipped havartis. It was a good day.

After making cheese we got to go down to the aging areas. We got to rub paprika into the Gran Queso and – best of all – smear bacteria into their gruyere. It’s always amusing to be in a factory “working” while the real workers get to take it easy and mock from the sidelines. If I did nothing else, at least I made one day easier for a cheese factory worker.

Roth Kase gruyere-style cheeses are really something to be proud of. Except for maybe the Pleasant Ridge Reserve (which has only a fraction of the production of Roth Kase) no one widely distributes an American cheese with a Gruyere flavor profile. We got to taste their 15 month-aged cheese and it really is everything you want in a Swiss-style Gruyere: nutty, sweet, oniony, and just a touch of pungency.

I would have taken a photo of their wall of aging gruyeres but they requested no photos for technology security reasons.*** So, instead of floor-to-ceiling cheese, here’s a picture of the hand towel in the Roth Kase bathroom:
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I didn’t take my camera in at all because I didn’t want to drop it in a cheese vat while I “worked” but I should have more pictures soon.

*Don’t worry cheese consumers, the have a couple of old vats segregated from the rest of the cheese equipment for people like us. ( Oh, here they are!) You might eat our cheese, but only if it worked out.
**excuse me, we didn’t take breaks, we waited for the proper PH level and for the curds to knit.
***I couldn’t give you just a hand towel pic, so here’s a picture of Gruyere de Savoie in a similar aging warehouse in France. The French cheese is about 4 times bigger than the Roth Kase gruyere.
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Wisconsin Whirllwind 2: Edelweiss, Maple Leaf, and robots

I thought I would be bored at the slicing and shredding factory. This part of the tour was definitely organized for Lunardi’s, not us. As a one store operation, we aren’t big enough for private labels or custom blends. Still, I love factories so I was happy to go. Plus we were promised cheese robots!

First though, we got to meet more master cheesemakers. Jeff Wideman from Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative and Bruce Workman from Edelweiss Creamery*. We carry the Maple Leaf smoked Gouda because it’s a natural cheese (unlike most smoked goudas) and I have always admired the Edelwiess Emmenthal, made in copper vats and in 180 lb. wheels like the real Swiss version.

However, the most exciting thing about the visit was the revelation that Workman had helped start the Edelweis Grazier Co-op, made up of five farmers doing rotational grazing for pasture-based milk. I had actually already ordered a cheese of theirs without knowing the whole back-story because it tasted so good! In the absence of regulation for “grass-fed” dairy** the Edelweiss Grazier Co-op members agree, by being members of the co-op, to such restrictions as 1.5 acres of pasture for every cow and to not milk at all in the winter, non-grazeable months, giving cows a much needed rest that lets them produce high quantities of milk and live , for much longer than the average dairy cow.

While grass-based dairy has obvious health benefits for the cheese-eaters, the farmers, and the farmed, the lack of any unified definition leaves is ripe for abuse in the future. Hopefully we are a few years away from Jack in the Box offering “grass-fed” *** cheese on their “local”,“artisan” ciabatta bread, but that is only as far away as the creation of a sizable market that desires “grass-fed” cheese. I hope the grass-based dairies all over the US can create some kind of agreed upon definition before this concept gets abused.

But you don’t want to hear that negativity… Look ! Robots!!!! (Unfortunately, I realized too late that you can’t rotate videos on flickr. Put your computer on its side!)

((Hmmmmm, I can’t seem to get this video to embed at all here actually, try looking for it here on my flickr It’s only 9 seconds long))

*OMG, I love the slogan “You know it’s real when it’s cut from the wheel!”
**”grass-fed” meat is regulated, just not dairy. Meat animals and dairy animals have some different needs.
***there wouldn’t be any fine print since there is no regulation, but perhaps if there were it would say, “Grass fed cheese comes from cow that get at least 1% of their daily feed through grazing (or silage).”

Wisconsin here I come!

Hey folks,

I will be on a whirlwind Wisconsin (cow milk) cheese tour so don’t expect any posts from me this week. Hopefully I’ll have good pictures and stories when I get back.

I will be back in town in time for the California Artisan Cheese Guild Benefit (held at the San Francisco Cheese School) on Friday night. If you want an evening of cheese eating, cheesemaker schmoozing, and/or something to do before the clubs open, this is well worth the $35. Reserve your spot through the Cheese School (and check out their other classes while your there!).