Friday, May 28, 2010

I Have a Huge Crush on Madison, WI

From time to time Chicago gets on my last nerve. There are no stars. No mountains. No hills. I love my neighborhood here in Chicago. Great bookstores, terrific architecture, one of the most beautiful University campuses I've ever seen and fantastic gelato are all within walking distance, but every once in a while I feel like I can't breathe.

I decided to get away and brought my brother, sister-in-law and nephew along for the ride. "Ready the credit cards, we're going to Madison!"

First stop on my weekend was the farmers' market. Unfortunately we picked a super crappy Saturday to do outside activities. Cold, gray, rainy ick. We got an obnoxious amount of pastries in addition to a tasty plumbarb jam, and two tasty cheeses: 6year Cheddar from Hook's and a 2yr. bandaged Cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy are absolutely delish! More on those two cheeses during another post.

We had to take a break from the farmers' market to grab some lunch. I had such high hopes for this quiche. Made with Hook's Cheddar, morel mushrooms and ramps. All local ingredients. Three of my most favorite things to eat. Unfortunately instead of tasting quichey it tasted more flannish.

There is a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. just off of the square on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.. This is the most disturbing thing we saw in Madison. My suggestion for why the bust (is it still a bust if it goes to the torso?) looks like that is that MLKjr. has just turned into a zombie-hulk monster. He stares at his abnormally large for his frame and ridiculously veiny hands in horror. "What have I become?!"

Thanks to this was the view from my hotel room.
There are two non-cheese related stores in Madison that you MUST go to. The first one is Mango Boutique. Located on 124 State St., not only does this store have the coolest clothes, but the woman behind the counter was very jolly.

She was also very drunk. It was 1045 in the morning. How do I know she'd been drinking? She told us. Oh yeah, and I have the sense of smell, sight and hearing. I've only been there once. I can't promise you that she'll be drunk and kiss your (2 3/4 yr old) nephew, but the clothes are awesome and the woman behind the counter is insane.

The other store is Pop Deluxe on State St. They have the cutest, snarkiest, most clever and sarcasticy things ever. I puffy heart them with glitter and ribbons and unicorns.

Of course, if you're going to Madison and need cheese, you have to go to Fromagination. They're closed on Sundays though. Don't be like me and not do it Saturday because you want to get your cheese on Sunday before you head back to Chicago. You'll be disappointed. And will irrationally take it out on your brother. And sister-in-law.

What I did get was a visit to Uplands Cheese in nearby (40 minutes in a fast car with the windows down and the ipod pumping) Dodgeville, WI. Yes, technically I got a wee bit lost on my way there, but a quick call to cheesemaker Andy Hatch, and I was in the right spot.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a fantastic American cheese. Similar to a Gruyere, this cheese is cooked and pressed and has a nutty, grassy, and sometimes slightly oniony taste to it. It's the only cheese to win the Best of Show award twice at the ACS. Currently the only cheeses they make and sell are Pleasant Ridge Reserve-and on wheels that show promise and are selected for extra aging- Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve.*

Salted Pleasant Ridge Reserve wheels.

This is what a cheese looks like after it's been sampled with a tool like this a few times. Since cheese changes every day the cheesemaker is able to see how a cheese is maturing. Andy gave me tastes from several different wheels. When I tell people to taste cheese since every wheel is different I'm not just saying it to be a smart ass. Every wheel really is different.

When you're talking about a cheese like Pleasant Ridge Reserve-a cheese that is made seasonally from animals who spend a lot of time frolicking in lush fields-the differences can be huge. Some wheels are nuttier than others. Some wheels have more tang. Some of the wheels I tasted were months apart, some were just two weeks. Although delicious, each batch of cheese had its own personality and flavor profile. If you take nothing away from all the posts I've written please believe me when I say that tasting is the most important thing you can do as a cheese consumer.

One of the things I absolutely loved was tasting the batch that had gone bad. In the 2 1/2 years I've been working at the shop we've never gotten a bad batch of cheese from Uplands. Ever. There are very few cheeses I can say that about. Andy asked me if I wanted to try some of it. Of course I did. It was bad. Really bad. Awfully bad. Not the worst piece of cheese I've ever eaten, but if someone had given me a piece of it without telling me it was PRR I never would have guessed.

Why would I want to taste bad cheese? As a gal who buys and sells cheese for a living I get to taste all manner of product. Some of it is really really good. Some of it is crap. Being good at my job means I have to be able to tell the good stuff from the shit. I looked at this as an opportunity to grow and learn. Really cool.

I could go on and on about how nice it was to talk to Andy, or how cute calves are when they're jumping around and playing. I could talk about how adult cows still kind of scare me even though I know they're the sweetest animals (childhood trauma involving my foot, my knee and two hoofs). I could go on and on about all the things that the people at Uplands do to make their cheese great like how their milk is pumped from the milking room through some awesome piping right into the creamery, or how the pigs they have that are fed on whey are probably some of the tastiest piggies in the Midwest but none of that is as important as the one line Andy said,

"It's all about the milk."

In the end it's all about the beginning. What is in your milk? It doesn't matter the skill of the cheesemaker, the milk you start out with will show in the cheese you make. You can't make a great cheese from bad milk. The cheese will tell. Luckily, for our tummies the cheese made at Uplands Cheese is made with truly sublime milk.

Okay so it's not my beloved Vermont, but the rolling hills at Uplands sure are pretty.

Look at that grass. So thick. So lush. So green and tasty. This is the base for all good cheese. Good food for animals=good milk. Good milk+stellar cheesemaking skills=excellent award winning cheese.


Finally when I got home I was able to eat some cheese. Nutty, milky, slightly sour, tangy, floral and just a wee bit earthy. A perfect ending to a great weekend.

*Andy showed me the new cheese that they're working on. A brined soft cheese belted in spruce bark that is similar to Forsterkase. It should be ready for tasting later this year.


boldlybalding said...

Randomly came across your blog while Googling Madison, WI. (We're moving there. Wife is already there, I'm deployed to the Middle East for a couple more weeks.) Having never really been anywhere in WI, I am REALLY looking forward to learning all I can about cheese. I think your blog just became my guidebook!

Cheesewench said...

Thanks so much for the comment BB. Madison is a great place to live and has a fantastic food scene.I know you'll love it there and I'm always here to help you in any cheese needs.