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.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Two New Cheeses

Return of the biased, Vermont-loving, Green Mountain State adoring Cheesewench. Today I'm going to talk about two new cheeses from two of my favorite cheesemakers.

Remember when I fell in love with this cheese? I wrote about it in March 2009

"And so, with crusts of homemade bread this cheese was devoured. The paste is mild. There are some mushroomy, straw and musty qualities to it. Everyone at the table (every one of us spent quality years in VT and NH) agreed that it felt as though we were taking a walk through the woods when eating this cheese. A bit poetic sure, but it's true.The rind had just the right amount of bitterness and tang to make this a really well balanced cheese. I'm going to have a hard time not buying another round today."

Weybridge is now a small disk of cheese. It's maybe 1/3 the size of the previous Weybridge. The rind is thinner. The foresty, mushroom-osity isn't really there anymore. I get a little bit of earthiness and some salty creamy goodness. It's just not the same.

And now the Weybridge looks like this when you cut it in half. Is it tasty? Yeah. It's not as creamy as before, and has a bit of a heavier mouth-feel. Good cheese, but I miss the old stuff.

New cheese alert! New cheese alert!

From Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, Cremont is a combo of three tastes flavors: cow milk, goat milk and heavy cream. The end result is a delicious, heavenly, light, fluffy, airy round of cheese that tastes a bit like a Bonne Bouche and Ricotta had a baby. Lucky for me, we're going to be getting this new cheese in at work. We don't have the Bonne Bouche, but the Cremont will satisfy me until I can get back to VT.

Friday, May 7, 2010

My (upcoming) Summer Vacation

So what are you doing for your summer vacation? My time off this summer is centered around cheese. Shocking isn't it?!

I'm getting ready for my summer starting this weekend with a trip to the Madison, WI farmers market. Goal: 3 yr bandaged cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy. Yes, I am renting a car and driving 2 1/2 hours each way to Madison to get cheese. It's a sickness.

The rest of May I spend my time busting my hump and saving money. What do I need money for? Plane tickets and hotel rooms.

June- Besides "busting out all over" that one is for you ma June is also time for the Fancy Food Show in New York City. The Fancy Food Show is a wonderful opportunity to see new products and taste taste taste! A list of some of the exhibitors can be found if you look here. Now yes, it's true I haven't officially gotten my time off approved yet, I'm just hopeful.

July-It's time for the 2nd annual Vermont Cheesemaker's Festival! This gives me the opportunity to go back to my favorite state, visit some farms and gorge myself on fantastic, delicious, soul-pleasing cheese. My goals for this visit to Vermont is to go and visit Laini at Lazy Lady Farm and to get my goat cheese on at Blue Ledge Farm. It sold out early last year, so you're going to want to get your tickets straight away!

August-I'm Seattle bound. You should be too. Why? It's time for the ACS conference! I am super excited about this one for two reasons.
  1. I get to go to the conference, meet new people, try new cheeses, go to educational seminars, taste cheese, and taste cheese
  2. I've never been to the Pacific NorthWest. I am so excited! Of course a stop at Beecher's is going to be necessary, but there's so much to do out there. Cheeses to eat, farms to visit!
So what are you doing for summer? Are you going to a festival? Cheese eating competition? Cheese art sculpture contest? I'd love to hear what's going on in your neck of the woods.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

My virgin Costco trip.

I started my day Saturday with a huge breakfast bowl of rice, beans, avocado, corn, eggs and cheese. Took a shower, put on a super sweet Threadless t-shirt and waited for my brother to come and pick me up so he, my nephew and my sister-in-law can go to Costco.

For the record, I've never been to a Costco before. I was completely unprepared for the sheer ginormity of the place. When I was a kid my biological mother, brother and I were poor and would go to the food shelters once a month with a voucher to get staples. Usually those were 10# cans of tomatoes, peanut butter and jelly. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed every time we went in.

Costco is just as overwhelming. Especially for a single gal. I mean, I love soy sauce but gallon jugs of the stuff is just too much.

Our plan is to go to Costco quarterly for all our bulk needs. My personal mission was to get ridiculously large amounts of paper products, vitamin water by the case and to check out their cheeses. Budget: $150

There are some truly great deals in that store. 2000 straws for less than $6?! I love straws! 500 paper plates for $8? Yes please! Four pounds of K***t American Cheese Slices for $9.99? Um...suddenly I don't want to play anymore.

The ridiculously large quantities of things didn't change once entering the cheesy area.

Processed cheese portions.
Weird and partially creepy.

The weird thing about going to Costco is that it's the complete opposite of what I do on a day to day basis. The shop I work in focuses on small artisan producers. People who work off the grid, people who call their animals by name, people who work sustainably, seasonally and humanely. Looking at the cases of processed "cheese" just weirded me out. I felt like at any moment I'd see someone from work and have to explain what I was doing ogling the little individually waxed wrapped cheeses that I secretly love.

Yes, that is a pie in the cheese case. It was a a peach pie. By my judgement, that pie was a 12" monster of canned peaches in syrup in a pie shell with a fake lattice top. And by the way, it's sitting on top of the Mexican style cheeses.

Pop quiz! What's the better deal: The $3 per pound price I paid for a 2lb. block of cheddar from Cabot, or $2.50 per pound for the "American Cheese" singles? If you answered "American Cheese" singles please stop reading this post right now and instead read either this one or this other one.

Even more disturbing than the 3lb. bag of shredded mozzarella or the 4lb. log of processed cheese singles was this. Brie slices. Based on the packaging it looks like the "Brie" has been formed into some obscene shape so it can be sliced on a deli slicer. This was the creepiest thing I saw.

My first trip was a success, but I think that going quarterly is going to be enough big bulk warehouse shopping for me. It's just too weird looking at non-restaurant food in that volume.

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