Monday, June 4, 2012

June is National Dairy Month!

So, here's a strange fact:  I write a local Wisconsin food blog.  I have been writing a local Wisconsin food blog for over a year now.  And I've never written a post about cheese.  What's up with that?  I mean... Wisconsin... Cheese... what gets more local than that?  And it's not for lack of love.  I love me some cheese.  I love me some cheese almost as much as any other good Wisconsin cheese-head.  I have to say almost because... **looks around to make sure no one is listening...** I don't actually wear a cheese-head because I don't like football.  And because I'm classier than that.  Okay, maybe just the first one.

But, really, I would say I like cheese MORE than the average WI cheese-head.  Because I like lots of kinds of cheese, not just cheddar.  I like cheeses that make you go "hmm... is this cheese French?  Or is it spoiled?"

And, so, I find it bizarre and shocking that I have not yet written a post on cheese.

That will change today!

At the end of February, I got an email from a wonderful woman named Lori Fredrich, who writes for #MKEfoodies and Burp! Where Food Happens asking if I would be interested in:

"an incredible opportunity for you to learn more about Wisconsin's cheese making culture and taste a wide variety of award winning cheeses.  

Thanks to our partnership with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), we are thrilled to be able to offer you an exclusive opportunity to participate in an all inclusive, all expenses paid, tour of Madison area creameries"

Uh... yes?

I responded within 1 minute of receiving the email.  No exaggeration. 

The tour itself was amazing, and the Milk Marketing Board treated us like kings.  We started out on a rock star bus, a little too early in the morning for my taste, and headed into South Western Wisconsin.  I personally wasn't paying attention, but according to Google, our route should have looked like this:

My favorite part of the trip, if I'm being completely honest, was when we got pretty deep into South Western Wisconsin and everyone's phones lost service.  Imagine, if you will, a party bus of bloggers, completely ignoring the beautiful countryside, hunched over their phones: "I can't get a signal!  It says I have two bars, but I can't get a signal!" "I'm just getting an E.  What does that mean?  Where is my 4G?"  "I can't connect to Twitter! I can see other people's posts, but it won't let me post anything!  WHATEVER WILL I DO!!!"  And so on.   This was taken at a slightly calmer moment.

Oh, I should point out that the pictures that will be featured in today's blog post were not taken by me... as proven by the fact that I am in the above picture.  I know my strengths, and picture taking is not necessarily one of them.  It's cool.  A picture is worth a thousand words, but I can easily spew out 2000 words, so I'm good.  But, I had the opportunity to meet many of my fellow food bloggers, including a fine young man named Joe, who takes fantabulous pictures and who agreed to share them for a shout out.  Check out Joe on Twitter @EatingMilwaukee.  While I'm fairly certain I'm required by law to promote his food blog, what I would really like to promote is his photography.  Joe takes what anyone could consider to be the best Facebook profile pics around.  He took one of me at the cherry contest winner announcement party that I just tracked down and (surprise, surprise) made my profile picture!  Since his pictures are crazy better than mine, I will be featuring them here.  Check him out and show him some love!

So, I learned enough and took enough notes to write a pretty long book report.  It would be very educational, but not all that interesting.  So I'm going to try to stick to some of the key points:

1. The Chalet Cheese Co-Op in Monroe, WI is the only cheesery (I'm going to continue to use that term as if it were an actual word...) in the United States to make Limburger Cheese.  It employees two master cheese makers, one of whom is this guy:

Myron Olson knows a heck of a lot about cheese.  Especially Limburger cheese.  It's not easy to become a Master Cheese Maker.  In fact, we learned it takes at least 15 years.  15.  At least.  So don't try to throw down cheese with this guy.

I also learned here that Limberger Cheese gets a bad rap.  It's not so bad.  It's pretty good.  And fresh, it tastes an awful lot like feta, which was surprising.

2. Cheese curds eaten on the day they were made are quite possibly the best thing in the entire world.  You may have had them fresh and squeeky, but if you haven't had them at the cheesery, before they even had time to be bagged up, you have been missing out.  Within hours they had lost some of their squeek.  They were still the freshest I had ever had prior to that day about two hours earlier, but I have basically been spoiled for cheese curds forever.  Thanks to Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point, WI, for this valuable lesson.

I took this one.  Just thought I should clarify because it's clearly crappier than the rest.

3. If there is an opportunity for food OR a photo-op, I'm choosing the food every time.  This is my hand grabbing the fresh cheese curd that was pulled out of the cheese making vat just seconds before.  Note all the other food bloggers snapping pictures.  But I can use their pictures, and they can't have the first bite of cheese!

4. Even in the face of overwhelming foodie-ness, I am basically a child.

The final stop of our tour was Uplands Cheese Company, creator of Pleasant Ridge Reserve Artisanal Cheese.  The "Artisanal" in this name is well deserved.  Uplands raises their own cows and produces their own milk.  When the milk doesn't suit their very particular taste, they sell it.  If they don't make cheese, they don't make cheese.  It's more important to have the particular quality of cheese that they are looking for than to have cheese at all.  There was a lot of talk about letting the ingredients of the cheese speak for the cheese.  Not trying to find a flavor in the cheese, but trying to bring out the flavor of the milk, of the grass, of the clover in the cheese.  They spoke of using rotational grazing on their grass fed cows, shifting the cows from pasture to pasture, making sure they were always eating fresh shoots of grass, and never mowing the grass all the way to the ground, so the grass (and therefore the milk, and therefore the cheese) was always sweet.  They raise their own hybrid cows, which again produce milk to meet the needs of a perfect fat and protein mix for the flavor they're looking for.  Cheese wheels, once made, are given a salt rind, and hand washed as they age, being tasted again and again to find that moment when they are perfect.

It's basically everything I believe in.  Local.  Focused on the natural flavor of the food.  Not forcing, not pushing.  No over processing.  Just real food, given the time and attention it needs to be perfect.

And yet, as cheesemaker Andy Hatch (above) sliced us wedges of this beautiful, perfect, artisanal cheese that he had hand crafted, I couldn't help but make a 3rd grade joke.

Andy decided to make big wheels "for fun"

Testing the cheese leaves it pocked.

"Cutting the cheese" ;)

After the cheese tour came an amazing dinner at the Madison club, with cheesemakers Sidd Cook of Carr Valley Cheese and Bob Wills of Ceder Grove Cheese.  Bob Wills is also responsible for the Clock Shadow Creamery; a project which deserves (and will get) it's own post at some point in the future.  The next day we visited the Madison Farmer's Market, and had brunch at Graze, a Madison restaurant focusing on local food.  I'm kind of weird when it comes to brunch, so I was happy to have the ramen.  Man alive do I love me a good bowl of noodle soup!

Especially when trying to break up a belly full of cheese.

Food bloggers, full of cheese and ready to go home.


  1. You know this event made me realize how little I'd written about cheese as well... But "rock star bus"--I love it! Didn't we all feel taken care of like stars!

  2. I guess you can tell I'm not originally from WI. I like cheese (some of them anyway), but I don't LOVE cheese. :)

  3. "This is my hand grabbing the fresh cheese curd that was pulled out of the cheese making vat just seconds before. Note all the other food bloggers snapping pictures. But I can use their pictures, and they can't have the first bite of cheese!"

    Omg, hilarious! :)