Showing posts with label Fromagination. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fromagination. Show all posts

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.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cheesewench goes to Madison pt.2

So, what's the deal with the World Cheese Championship Contest? Here's the thing. This is a competition based on technicality. Every entry starts with a perfect score of 100. Doing this guarantees that you will have a winner in every category. Points are deducted and at the end of the day winners are chosen based on the highest score.

Compare this to the way the ACS judges cheeses. Every cheese starts on a level playing field-zero-and is awarded points based on merit. There are minimum scores that must be reached in order to have a winner declared. Every year when the winners are announced at the conference (being held in Seattle this year) there are categories where there are no winners, or maybe there's a third and second place winner, but no one in first place.

So how does the judging at the WCCC affect cheesemakers? Here's the big thing: industrial-and even to some extent specialty-cheeses are often going to fare better than their artisan counterparts. Why? Artisan cheese often has more variation to it. Polly-O mozzarella-which won first place in its category-tastes the same. Every time. Every state. Every day of the year. It will never change, unless they change the recipe. Artisan cheese by nature will have a variation, and while I am certainly not saying that artisan cheese is automatically better, someone who produces on an industrial scale is going to have a bit of a leg up in my opinion.

Although there were quite a few specialty and artisan cheeses that won awards, I felt that this was a competition that awarded industrial cheeses a bit more. It also looked like there were a lot more winners from the U.S.A. this year compared to last. Are we really kicking everyone else's butt?

The bottom line for me is this: if cheeses from every cheesemaking country were entered in this contest, and K***T really does make the best Mozzarella and cream cheese, so be it. After all, what I really want in the long run is for American cheeses to be highlighted and recognized around the world for their fabulous deliciousness. But really, Sarge**o makes the best ricotta? In the world? Really?*

So what did I learn during my trip to WI?
1. Madison likes to party on St. Patrick's Day
2. Matt & Clare can boogie down
3. Willi can yodel
4. Bradbury's has the best morning crepe in the world
5. If I were to leave Chicago but stay in the midwest I would move to Madison
6. The capital building is gorgeous
7. The people at Fromagination are a bit odd-like most people involved in cheese-but are very friendly and love their cheese
8. Apparently, based on my morning after I also like to boogie down on St. Patrick's Day
9. You can make a lot of tasty product with two burners and a campstove AKA To make ridiculously tasty food what is importatnt is not the size of the kitchen, but the passion for your product.
10. I need a car so I can make more trips to Wisconsin

*You should take a look at the winners list for yourself. There are definitely artisan producers in the winners circle, but I wonder if the judging started at zero and went up if we would see different cheeses at the top.

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, July 23, 2009

More on my Wisconsin trip

So I left of towards the end of the raw milk cheese discussion. Here's how the rest of the day went.

During the discussion I'd raised my hand to chime in multiple times. The coordinator never seemed to see me. At the end he called on me. It was more of a gesture really. That's when I realized that he didn't remember my name, and that even though I was wearing a name tag it's an unusual name to pick up "on the fly". I spoke. I didn't want to. I gave in to peer pressure. I'm not a public speaker. Not in front of a room of virtual strangers who don't know me, and have years, decades and generations more experience than I do. It felt like I was talking for an hour although I'm sure it was about 20 seconds. I was so embarrassed.

If you've never seen a brown girl turn bright red you should have been there, it's quite a sight to behold. It's happened to me twice in my life. I think the first time was when I was in junior high and a boy I liked asked me to the dance in front of everyone. I wanted to pour my water over my head while simultaneously burying my head in the sand . When the session was over I scurried downstairs, splashed water on my face and high tailed it to Madison.

Why Madison? Because that's where Fromagination is. They closed at 6pm so I had to book it. Luckily I have a lead foot and a GPS unit. The owner, Ken was there and gave me a tour of the place. Everyone was really nice, even though they were close to closing and it had been a busy Bastille Day for them. The store is beautiful. Set on the square of downtown Madison the interior is so much bigger than it looks. The chotchkies in that place are stunning. I want them all. They have a pamphlets on perfect pairings along with a great selection of sandwiches, books, cheese accessories, pasta, and of course cheese. So, let's talk about the cheeses.

We're going to start at 12noon on the plate. That square piece of cheese is one of the best things I've tasted in a long time. Raspberry Bella Vitano from Satori in Wisconsin. It is a parmesan/cheddary cheese that's rubbed in a raspberry ale. It is fruity, floral and sweet smelling. The taste is mild with some salty, yeasty and almost-ripened berry flavor coming in. I don't normally buy pre-packed cheese, but this is a tasty exception.

Next up is the orange cheese. Yes, I know. As a rule I don't believe in dyed cheeses. Milk is not orange I am always willing to try new cheeses, so here it is, the 10 yr Cheddar from Hook's. Very nice cheese. Smooth texture, nice sharp bite to it. I am used to the wildness you get from Cheddars from the east coast, or the UK and no matter how long you age it, WI Cheddars don't have that. Did someone say terroir? Even at 10 yrs. this Cheddar was smooth and creamy with a slight crystallization. If it weren't so expensive I might have made macaroni and cheese out of it.*

The orange wedge with flecks in it is the aged Marieke Gouda. Aged for at least two years this cheese is starting to develop a deep caramel flavor profile. Similar to a young scotch. I love aged Gouda and this is a good representation of the cheese.

The yellow wedge is Dante made by the WSDC-Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. This is a nutty cheese with hints of pasture and a lovely rich, round feeling in the mouth. Sheep's milk cheese is so good. Higher fat content, higher protein levels and easier for even the most afflicted lactose intolerant person to digest.

The blue in the middle is also a sheep milk cheese. This is Bohemian Blue from Hidden Springs Creamery. Actually it's a joint venture. Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs and Tony Hook from Hooks Cheese Company come together and make this cheese. Lovely little cheese. Sheepy, salty and creamy. Brenda's flock are the same type of sheep used in France to make Roquefort, so there are some similarities in the flavor. This cheese isn't nearly as strong, or peppery as Roquefort and so in my opinion, it is the tastier snack.

While there I managed to find a nice little hunk of Vermont. Ascutney Mountain was nestled in the case. Just waiting for my tummy. Two cheeses didn't make it here. One of them was cut and paid for, but never made it into my bag. I didn't realize it until the next day. The other one I said I wanted, but it must have been forgotten also. Oh well, that just means I have to go back to Madison soon. This time I'm bringing a cooler, and a driving buddy. I put about 400 miles on the rental car that day and was tired beyond belief that night. A 14 hour day with driving, tasting, discussion and cheesy goodness. Not a bad way to spend a day off.

*Yes, 10 year Cheddar is expensive. When a cheese is made it sits and is aged until the maker determines that it's ready. If it's cheese ready in one year, it's less expensive. Why? The cheesemaker can move that cheese off of their shelves and put something new on. The rotation of product has a good flow. When the cheese is aged for 10 years it just sits. It takes up space in the aging room and space=money. The cheesemaker is paying to store that cheese in the hopes that when the correct time for aging and affinage has happened they will end up with a great product. Imagine holding something for 10 years, not having any guarantee that the end result will be what you want or something the public will buy. That is one of the reasons that aged cheeses can be rather pricey.