Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cheesewench goes to Madison pt.1

Earlier this month a few co-workers and I went to Madison, WI for the World Cheese Championship Contest. The contest is held every year, although Madison is host only every other.

The first stop was to Quince & Apple where I got a chance to meet with Matt and Clare. This husband and wife super-duo make some of the tastiest preserves on the shelves of any store, and are winners of my highly coveted and completely made up "Holy Moly This Stuff Is Fantastic!" award for best orange marmalade I've ever had. Seriously.

When they say that they make small-batch preserves they're not kidding. Two burners and a camp stove. That's what they've got for cooking all their lovely preserves. During the Christmas season the two of them were making do with just two camp stoves. M & C of Q & A use local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible. They also have a wonderful creativity that goes into their flavor combinations, I mean who else do you know combining fig and black tea? They are friendly kind people who make exceptional product and I'm really glad I got a chance to meet them both.

Luckily our hotel was on the same block as Fromagination. Owner Ken and his crew do a great job of showcasing local fare such as delicious cranberry relish by Quince & Apple, and carrot graham crackers which taste like carrot cake in cracker form- minus the frosting -from Potter's. I ended up with some Q&A pear, honey ginger spread, volume 4 of cheese slices and some delicious Cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy.

Madison is a very beautiful town. We spent some time walking around the city and spent some times just hanging out on the capital steps. It was a beautiful warm sunny spring day and for a brief moment I felt like I was on vacation. If I were to leave Chicago but stay in the Midwest I would surely try to find a place to live in Madison. For some reason it kind of reminds me of Vermont.

I love the Capital building on the square in Madison. Absolutely beautiful.

Moments after walking into the capital building we were asked by a woman if we wanted to sign her petition. Being Chicago residents and not quite understanding what she was chanting we declined.

Later that day we went to the event put on by Jeanne of Cheese Underground and Wisconsin Cheese Originals Fame. It was called Wisconsin vs. the World, and I have to be honest and say that in general, Wisconsin kicked the world's butt. My journey started in Japan and ended in the rolling hills of Wisconsin.

This was the first cheese I tasted at the event. Also the first time I'd ever had the opportunity to try a cheese from Japan, and well, I was a bit underwhelmed. For a Gouda I expect a bit more flavor, more oomph, more pizazz. The representative at the table told me that the cheese is made for the Japanese palate which likes cheese milder than their American counterparts.

It was St. Patrick's Day so I had to try the Kerrygold Cheddar. Yes, I would've rather had Coolea, or Ardrahan, or Cashel Blue, but the Kerrygold is what was there, so I tried it. Firm, aged for about 12 months, creamy and a little moist. Tasty little cheese. Side note: did you know that Kerrygold sells milk powder?

No. Nonononononononono. Here's what I know of New Zealand: LOTR, Flight of the Conchords, sheep, and based on LOTR gorgeous countryside. Yup, I know almost nothing about the country, it's people or it's cheese. I was very excited to taste the blue from New Zealand. Then I was sad. Very sad. And had to take a swig of my friends' beer to get the taste out of my mouth. It smelled like barn. It tasted like an unmucked sheep's stall. When I asked about the cheese, I was told that it was cow's milk, not sheep. I remain unconvinced. The cheese smelled like manure and old wet wool, tasted like a barn and old wet wool, and had a big fatty mouthfeel. In any case, it was a cheese that made my mouth sad, and a little angry.

Luckily, one of the best Cheddars in the world was also at the contest. Keen's Cheddar. This is a raw milk, farmstead cheese from Somerset. Nutty and a bit buttery with a finish that just won't quit this cheese made my mouth happy again. When I first started working at the cheese shop in Chicago we were getting Keen's and Montgomery's. Now we only get the Montgomery's. I'm trying to get that changed. I miss my Keen's. I miss her dearly. Yes, I went back for thirds.

I tasted a lot of WI cheeses that I loved. Some Gouda from Holland's Family Farm, Bohemian Blue from Hidden Springs Creamery, a lot of Hook's Cheddar, and a Brick cold pack cheese spread from Widmer's Cheese Cellars that knocked me off my feet. My favorite new to me cheese was from Bleu Mont Dairy. A three year bandaged wrapped Cheddar. Vibrant, staw, pasture, acidity, butter, and a long finish with subtle caramel notes made this cheese a first place winner for me. Unfortunately, Willi does not ship his cheese to Chicago. Yet. Our senior buyer is working on it. For the time being I'll have to go to the Dane country farmer's market, or to the source itself to taste his aged Cheddar. I think I see a road trip in my future.

Oh yeah, the man can yodel. I think everyone who was at Jeanne's event until the end got a video of this, but mine has really bad lighting so there! More on the actual contest in part 2.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fair Oaks Farms Cheese Review

All of the cheeses written about in this post were sent to me as free samples. While I appreciate getting cheese in the mail, it has absolutely no effect on what I write in my review.

I'm going to be honest. I'm not the "send me free cheese" kind of gal. True, I like free, and I like cheese, but when it comes to my blog it's just not something I do/did. When I got the review request email from Fair Oaks Farms in Indiana I thought about it for a few days. In the interest of not being a cheese snob and opening myself up to new cheese experiences I figured I'd give it a shot.

The first thing you should know is that Fair Oaks Farms is HUGE. On their website they say Besides 30,000 cows being milked three times, four million glasses of milk being produced and 80 calves being born everyday

That sounds big. Really big. Way too big. 80 calves born every day? That's really big. In addition to being the official milk for the Indiana Colts which would mean more to me if I weren't from the East Coast-Go Pats! Go Giants!, generating enough fluid milk to give everyone in Chicago a glass, making cheese and ice cream that there's also a gas station. Hello random.

In an article dated from 2007 they had 3000 cows. Based on everything I've read they do take very good care of not only their animals, but of the land and their waste. Going from 3000 to 30,000 cows is a lot of growth (Jacqueline did correct me on this point. The article was speaking of just one of the families that contribute to the cheese production. Each family has 3000+/- cows. ) and a lot of poo. But the waste doesn't go to waste. That manure is going towards generating not just electricity for the farm, but also helps out local families.

So, what are the cheeses I tasted and how tasty were they?

First up is the young Asiago. It was nice. All of the cheeses had a very plasticine taste to them so I faced them all and let them sit out for a while. After doing that the Asiago tasted okay. It was creamy and milky, but was a bit bland. I like Asiago Fresco, but this was not as creamy or milky as I normally encounter.

There was a blue in the package also. Royal Blue. Did not like. When you cut into a blue cheese you should start to see color change happening in front of your eyes. Faint veins become more prominent, blue-green molds get darker. It's like your own little magic show. That didn't happen with the Royal Blue. It wasn't even very blue. It had more of a slightly sour feta that had some molds growing on it.

Next is the Emmentaler. This was probably my favorite of the five cheeses. Personally I like the holes in my Emmentaler to be deeper and wider, but it had that slightly sour sharp flavor that I was looking for. A faint nuttiness was there when I broke the cheese in between my fingers.

Sweet Swiss. I have got to stop tasting cheeses that have sweet in their names. It tasted to me and the other people tasting that the cheese had perhaps been made with condensed milk. Or fallen into a vat of condensed milk. Too sweet. The representative who sent me the cheese said that the higher moisture/higher fat content helps to contribute to the perceived "sweet" taste. I will take Jacqueline's word for it. It was just too sweet for me.

Finally we come to the Aged Gouda. I love an aged Gouda. A five year Gouda has a nice crystallization and deep cognac-esque caramel flavors. This cheese did not have that, so it was a bit of a letdown for me. When asked about how long the Aged Gouda is aged for the answer is between six months and one year. Technically speaking it is aged, but I still felt a bit disappointed. There was a very faint smell when the cheese was rubbed between my fingers that was kind of hazelnutty.

I'd like to thank the folks at Fair Oaks Farms for sending me samples of their products. With the exception of the blue, nothing went to waste. When we were done tasting them I made a macaroni and cheese (without the blue) with Smoked Pepperoni from Vermont Smoke and Cure and mushrooms. Delish!