Cheese Tasting – Fall 2016

The Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, WI, is a treasure trove of culinary delights. Madison may just be the perfect place for a farmers’ market – centrally located for local farmers, a populous which appreciates locally harvested, organic foods, and a setting on the Capitol Square. For those of you who have not had the pleasure to visit Madison, the Wisconsin state capitol building is a classically beautiful, white granite clad structure, topped by the largest granite dome in the world, located in the center of an isthmus created by two pristine lakes, surrounded by lawns, walkways, and sculptures. The greater area around Madison includes the Driftless region, an area untouched by glacial flows, which boasts many farms and more than a dozen artisan cheesemakers. The setting helps explain why the Dane County Farmers’ Market is the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country. The farmers, bakers, cheese-makers are likely to be the one behind the table, handing you your new favorite culinary discovery.

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Photo credit: Wisconsin.Gov

A recent trip produced more than the usual number of treats, but the highlight was a few offerings from Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi Lehner has received many national accolades for his bandaged cheddar, made from locally produced milk, wrapped and smeared with lard, then aged on cedar shelves in a cave he built into the hillside. This is old-school cheese making folks. And he can also yodel like a boss.

Willi Lehner Yodels at American Cheese Society from Colleen | GlassBottle on Vimeo.

We selected the sheep milk Tomme and Alpine Renegade. The Tomme is an Alpine style, but with sheep milk in this variety rather than the more traditional cow milk. According to Steve Jenkins’ Cheese Primer, the term is an ancient word which meant “chunk” or “round”. Basically, the washed rind makes the Tomme look like a small boulder as it ages. Alpine Renegade won top honors in the American originals open-category at the 2013 American Cheese Society awards and is classic alpine-style, washed rind, cow’s milk cheese. Take a look at the beautiful color and texture of this offering –

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Our cheese plate also included a hearty Five Grain Sourdough bread from Madison Sourdough, slices of apple, and a quick apple chutney. The apple, a golden russet variety from the market called Ashmead Kernel, has a texture which veers toward Asian Pear and a tartness which mellows out to a honey sweetness. The apple chutney was prepared with onions caramelized with thyme, unsweetened cranberries from Honestly Cranberry, several varieties of apple and a dash of cinnamon and cloves.

 

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The Tomme starts with a toasted bread aroma and blends into the grassy/herbaceous/dry straw nuances of sheep milk but a more caramelized finish than many sheep milk cheeses we’ve enjoyed. The texture of the Alpine Renegade is smooth with small holes rather than grainy and the flavor strikes me as starting with cooked milk solids (you know those bits of cheddar that ooze out of the grilled cheese and get crunchy in the pan? Like those smell) and then melts into a wonderfully funky and long lasting finish. This Renegade is no wilting flower, providing a lovely counter-point to the tart sweetness of the apple and the sour punch of the cranberry in the chutney. Some cheeses might get overpowered by the pronounced flavors of the chutney and fade into background notes – this cheese demands equal billing.

The lovely bandaged cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy is often available for shipment from Fromagination in Madison and will also sing beautifully with this combination of flavors. But if you can find the time some fall Saturday morning, the drive to Madison to find Bleu Mont Dairy on the square is well worth the trip. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a chance to hear Willi yodel.

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Winter Cheese Tasting

Something about the cold winter air has me feeling a bit Alpine here in the Great Lakes region. Sure, we don’t have the picturesque mountain vistas, but we do have the alpine-style cheeses. Another road trip to Fromagination in Madison, WI yielded a multitude of wonderful choices paired with a few selectsausage offerings from the folks at Underground Meats.

Cheese Plate - Sheep Winter 2016

We’ve discussed the joy of Fromagination before in this post, and detailed the temple of butchery that is Underground Meats in this post. After much careful deliberation (and tasting!) we selected the following cheeses for our Alpine-style plate:

Cheese Plate - Sheep Winter 2016-1

Our selections, from top to bottom:

Underground Meats Wisco Old Fashioned – a clever twist on the ever-popular Wisconsin Old Fashioned, which is unique for the use of brandy rather than whiskey. Heritage pork is combined with allspice, orange zest, and brandied cherries. I’ve really come enjoy the flavor of dried berries in a well-made sausage, like dried cranberries in my landjaeger. I may have to venture completely that direction and give the Native American pemmican a try.

Underground Meats Goat Sec – a traditional sausage with the added depth of goat meat, which has the full flavor to complement bold cheeses.

Hidden Springs Creamery Ocooch Mountain – A sheep milk aged cheese in a Gruyere-style, named for the Ocooch “Mountain” which tops out at 350 feet, just 15,428 feet short of the highest Alpine peak. Aged a few months, it retains the creamy texture and showcases the sheep milk flavors.

Roth Kase Private Reserve – A cow’s milk Gruyere-style cheese, aged a few months longer, provided a comparison for the Ocooch, and highlighted the more robust flavors of the sheep milk variety.

Hidden Springs Creamery Timber Coulee – Another sheep milk cheese in a different style, aged a bit longer creating a more granular texture. The sheep milk flavors are very pronounced, with plenty of what we call “barnyard” in the cheese.

Ram Hall Dairy Berkswell – Sheep cheese from the UK which according to Murray’s has significant seasonal variation, and based on their description ours was likely a late season version. Not as pronounced in flavor nor as granular as the Timber Coulee, but an excellent international cheese for the plate.

To complete the plate, we had cranberry hazelnut crisps from Potter’s Crackers and a house-made jam from Wisconsin-grown peaches with a touch of mulling spices. A roaring fire and my take on an old fashioned in hand, the winter cold was held at bay for another delightful evening.

 

Beer and Cheese Pairings

On a recent evening, we challenged ourselves to put together a tasting comparison between California and Wisconsin cheeses and beers. We’re happy to share our pairings below.

1st course: Clock Shadow Creamery Maple Quark on whole grain rye toasts

Originating in Germany, this fresh, soft cheese tastes like a mix of soft goat cheese and ricotta. We served the Maple Syrup Quark on whole grain rye toasts, consistent with the German heritage and matched it with a traditional German brew, Ale Asylum’s Unshadowed. A Hefeweizen style brewed in Madison, Wisconsin, it was a very nice, bright, citrusy opening to the evening.

Beer - Cheese

2nd course: Cypress Grove Midnight Moon goat cheese and Columbus herb salami along with Sartori Limited Edition Extra-Aged Goat cheese and landjaeger dried sausage

Aged at least six months, an ivory-colored cheese with a lovely smooth texture, nutty and a slight caramel finish. Only after we selected this cheese did we discover it is made in Holland for Cypress Grove, which is based in California. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a perfect example of this Dutch classic, with an extra bit of complexity from goat’s milk. We paired it with a traditional San Francisco salami with herbs. Our beer pairing was Ballast Point Calico, English Pale Ale brewed in San Diego, California. One of my personal favorite combinations of the evening.

We had a direct side-by-side comparison for this course, with Sartori’s Extra-Aged Goat. The aging has enhanced its caramel notes and created a dense, dry texture with some mild crystallization. We paired this with a traditional dried, European-style sausage from Wisconsin and a big, bold red ale. Lakefront Fixed Gear is a Red IPA brewed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the additional hops creates a lovely complement to the grassy flavors a goat cheese can bring to the party.

 

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3rd course: Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog goat cheese

In this Cypress Grove offering, we’re getting the tang of a goat cheese, similar to the flavors of buttermilk with floral and herbal overtones. As it matures,  the area closest to the rind gets softer and develops a more intense flavor, perfect for the big flavors in a classic West Coast IPA. We choose Lagunitas IPA, an India Pale Ale brewed in Petaluma, California. For some of the guests, these flavors were a bit too much, but together, these partners danced beautifully. The bitter hops of the IPA tamed the tang of the ripe goat cheese. Surprising…in the nicest way.

4th course: Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam with house-made California Golden Fig spread

A smooth and creamy triple-cream cheese made with organic milk, Mt Tam is firm, yet buttery with a mellow, earthy flavor. The mouth feel is luscious. We served it on almond thins with a house-made golden fig paste. We paired this with barley-wine flavors found in Ale Smith’s Grand Cru brewed in San Diego, California. Though they complemented each other well, a contrasting flavor may have brought more interest. A previous pairing with Cracked Wheat from New Glarus Brewing worked very well. The Grand Cru is a great, Belgian-style beer, but not our favorite pairing.

5th course: Hook’s Blue Paradise and Wisconsin Honeycomb

This is a double cream blue with a smooth, creamy texture that simply melts in your mouth. We doubled the decadence by adding a bit of honeycomb and then provided a perfect set of contrasting flavors in the big, malty, sour fruit beer – Serendipity from New Glarus Brewing in New Glarus, Wisconsin. We’ve done this combination before and it is a show-stopper, which is why we place it here to finish the evening.  The creamy rich flavors of the cheese are both accentuated and then washed away in the big tart flavors of the beer.

Overall, it was a successful evening and fun exploration of the many ways the flavors of cheeses and beers can dance together. We invite to make your own music.

A Celebration of Wisconsin Cheeses

Due to a fortuitous turn of events, we found ourselves with an overabundance of beautiful, Wisconsin cheeses. A quick consult of the composed cheese courses Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook provided inspiration as well as past courses created with my good friend, Tom. In sequence of how they were served, here they are:

Cheese Course1

Oven roasted beets with Milwaukee Craft Brew Vinegar’s American Amber vinegar and buckwheat honey vinaigrette served on Growing Power sunflower sprouts with chèvre and a malt vinegar glaze.

Cheese Course2

Farmers’ market shredded carrots over a golden raisin puree with Saxony Alpine Style from Saxon Creamery, inspired by a recipe from Thomas Keller.

Cheese Course3

Roasted tomato tartar, salami-wrapped grilled asparagus, chive oil, Parmesan crisp. This owed inspiration to a Thomas Keller dish which he serves with dressed haricot vert.

Cheese Course4

Stuffed and grill-smoked Cremini mushrooms on micro-greens with Great Midwest Morel & Leek Jack cheese. We served the greens dressed with a play on warm bacon dressing – We used our bacon-wash technique on the vinegar to transfer the bacon flavor and then make a standard olive oil vinaigrette with crumbles of bacon added.

Cheese Course5

Grilled cheese with goat cheddar from Carr Valley and caramelized onions with a tomato “soup”, which was a puree of oven-roasted tomatoes and red onions. Tom and I have made a version of this in the past, though that past version benefited from an amazing onion and fennel jam Tom had created.

Cheese Course6

“Au gratin” potatoes – thin sliced Yukon gold potatoes were stacked with a blend of shredded Carr Valley Mobay and Menage between each slice, then oven roasted until crisp. The oils released in cooking were used to wilt arugula, used as the bed of the dish. Topped with a poached egg, the dish is then topped with another strip of Mobay.

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We finished the meal with individual chocolate chip cheese cakes, courtesy of my daughter.

Hidden Springs Cheese Tasting – Winter 2015

We recently made a return trip to Fromagination in Madison, WI, to pick up selections to create a tasty winter cheese plate. Our last trip we detailed here and featured a Holland’s Family Cheese offering, Marieke Gouda. This time we picked up two varieties of sheep cheese created by Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery – Ocooch Mountain and a Manchego-style cheese. We also picked up another Manchego-style from Emmi Roth, called GranQueso, this one a cow’s milk variety. We also picked up a favorite dry sausage from Underground Meats, their Saucisson Sec.

We’re using the term Manchego-style because Manchego, like true Champagne, is defined by the region it originated from. Here is Murray’s Cheese explanation:

Perhaps Spain’s most famous cheese, Manchego is a D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) protected cheese, meaning the traditional recipe must use 100% Manchega sheep milk. The breed has proven sturdy enough over the centuries to traverse the rocky, arid central plateau region of La Mancha – where cows just can’t hang. Made using fresh, pasteurized sheep’s milk, this Manchego develops a rich nuttiness and pleasant gaminess (think toasted almonds and broiled lamb chops) after over a year of aging. The patterned rind is a nod to the grass baskets previously used to form the cheese. Firm enough to grate for any culinary application, highlight its sharp, caramelly flavor anywhere you would use Parmigiano.

So Hidden Springs approach is fairly close to the tradition – sheep’s milk, organic farming, and old-school techniques. The flavor is grassier, more herbaceous, more “farmy” than any imported Manchego we have tried. We’ll admit to having never traveled to La Mancha to savor farmstead Manchego, but a taste of Hidden Springs definitely transports us to the hills near Westby, WI, where the sheep graze. We included the Ocooch Mountain in the tasting as way to distinguish the sheep milk effect as compared to the cow milk variety fro Emmi Roth. Ocooch is wonderful in it’s own right, like a sheep milk Parmesan, though slightly softer in texture, maybe hinting towards a Romano in texture, but many levels more interesting in flavor.

Cheese Plate - Winter 2015 Manchego2
Clockwise from upper left: Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain, Hidden Springs Manchego-Style, Emmi Roth GranQueso

 

 

The GranQueso is fun, approachable and an interesting addition to the tasting, as the texture is very close to Hidden Springs and a traditional Manchego.  According to the maker, this cheese is “rubbed with a spice blend including cinnamon and paprika to bring out a unique identity”. You get just a hint of cinnamon and paprika, so little that if you did not know they were there, the reaction upon tasting would be one of those “Hey, there is a little bit of something in the aftertaste. What is that?”. Upon hearing the spice mix, you’ll immediately say – “Yeah, that’s it.” It’s subtle but it adds a sense of sweetness to the cheese. Some preferred this to the other two, others liked the more pronounced flavors present in the sheep milk varieties.

We added Honey Crisp apples along with the Saucisson Sec to complete the plate. Quince paste is the traditional Spanish accompaniment, and we considered a number of pear or apple options. A pear butter with honey would likely have made a nice addition (or maybe a preserve made of Pear with Honey and Ginger from the aptly named Quince & Apple in Madison). Overall, a fun and enjoyable exploration of artisan foods, taking traditional European approaches and adapting them, tweaking them, making them a new example of Great Lakes Cuisine.