Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Cheese and Cheesemakers of Wisconsin

Wisconsin cheese
Wisconsin is not just dairy country, but cheese country. In fact 90% of the milk Wisconsin produces goes into cheese. The state took home more awards than any other at this years American Cheese Society conference. License plates in Wisconsin don't really say "Eat Cheese or Die" but they might as well!

While I was a guest on a recent tour of Wisconsin, I did spend my own cold hard cash to buy cheese from some of my favorite cheesemakers. Here are just a few of those I met, and a rundown of what I bought from them.

Tony Hook
I met Tony Hook of Hook's Cheese at the Dane Country Farmer's Market. Tony has a sparkle in his eye and gave me a Cheshire cat grin when I asked too many nosy questions about how he makes his cheese. He makes an amazing number of very fine aged cheddar and blue cheeses. I adore his washed rind Tilston Point Blue, named after Stilton. It's rich and creamy and has a terrific bite. The texture is crumbly but it can be sliced. I also think it is a tremendous value. Of course I paid a pittance at the farmer's market but even in stores it is very reasonably priced.

Bleu Mont cheese
After meeting Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy, seeing his beautiful caves and tasting his cheeses, I couldn't wait to bring some of his cheese home to share. Willi, who has dual American and Swiss citizenship, learned to make cheese in Switzerland, where his parents are from. He is creative in his approach, and deeply committed to environmental sustainability, but it is his focus on quality that struck me the most. He is more concerned about making the best possible cheese he can, than about making the most cheese or the most money. He makes his cheese from some of the finest milk available, straight from the cows at Uplands. He makes two similar cheeses, Alpine Renegade and a bandaged cheddar. The cheddar is my favorite because it has such depth, with lots of tang and toasty flavor. It's pricey, but worth every penny.

Brenda Jensen
I am sure Brenda Jensen's sheep adore her. She is so gentle and friendly and yet passionate about making cheese and running Hidden Springs Farm and dairy in a humane and sustainable manner. Her soft sheep's milk cheese, Driftless, tastes a bit like ricotta, only better. Her latest cheese, Meadow Melody is a combination of cow and sheep's milk cheese making it more affordable but just as delicious as her other cheeses. It's semi-firm, grassy and has notes of brown butter.

I also purchased cheese from another award-winning cheesemaker who unfortunately I didn't get a chance to meet this time around. Marieke Penterman of Hollands Family Cheese is a Wisconsin dairy farmer who emigrated here from the Netherlands in 2002. She makes a fantastic gouda, that is aged over 18 months. While I love gouda melted on toast, this cheese is too precious to use for cooking. A thin slice and a piece of apple is heavenly.

You might think I only met "artisanal" cheesemakers but that's not the case. I went to three very modern cheesemaking facilities, including Emmi Roth Kase. At home I buy their buttermilk blue and am now smitten with their smoky Moody Blue. While their Swiss machinery was state of the art, what struck me was how much was still being done by hand.

It's important to note that with cheese you are dealing with a living product and so it is not always the same. There is only so much you can control. A sample of every wheel of cheese is tasted in order to determine which rounds will be suitable for aging and for how long. Yes, there are timers and thermometers, but there are also knowledgeable cheesemakers involved in every step of the process. Even in the most modern "factory" settings cheesemakers are still artisans as far as I'm concerned, doing much by hand and tasting as they go.

My sincere thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for inviting me on their wonderful Fall tour!