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.

 

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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.

Drifting through Madison, WI

With some free time in the Madison, WI area you can discover all sorts of lovely surprises, including two new additions to our Purveyors page. On a recent business trip to the area, a walk around Capitol Square brought me to Fromagination, a specialty cheese shop featuring Wisconsin cheeses and other artisan and local products.  It is an absolute gem of a store, which my poor picture does not do justice.

FromaginationThe service was helpful, offering tastings of a number of different cheeses including a number of exclusive offerings. They clearly have an excellent relationship with their suppliers, as some the cheeses on offer here will not be found any where else (How about a curry-rubbed, Manchego-style cheese aged for 6 years?). A new offering from an old favorite eventually caught my eye, Golden from Holland’s Family Cheese. Their description: “This creamy, semi-soft, American Original boasts a flavor profile rich in nuttiness with hints of sweet fruit. Handcrafted by award-winning cheesemaker, Marieke Penterman and her team, this raw milk beauty is carefully aged on Dutch pine planks in our cellars.” The flavor profile is full and creamy, reminiscent of a young sheep cheese. We paired the Golden with the other end of the Holland Family Cheese spectrum, the “Super” aged Gouda, which has a Parmesan-like texture with a deep, caramel nuttiness.

A quick trip west of Madison will take you to the Fitchburg/Verona area, which is the edge of the Driftless Region, an area that has been left untouched by the glaciers which flowed over much of the Great Lakes region in the geologic past. Here is where Bavaria Sausage continues a 5o year tradition of making authentic German sausage. Smoked sausage, fresh sausage, frozen sausage, smoked meats, thick-sliced bacon, and nearly every German condiment you could ask for (How about seven varieties of curry ketchup?).  Amongst the variety of summer sausages, we selected the venison, and then grabbed a small beef summer sausage for comparison. Check out the bundles of landjaeger (upper left).

Bavaria sausage

The venison summer sausage is blended with beef which balances the flavor and adds moisture. Bavaria Sausage uses no fillers, no colorants, no artificial flavors. The flavors of the sausage are pure meat. In the picture below, the darker venison sausage is on the left, paired with the Super.  The beef summer sausage on the right was paired with Golden. But playing with combinations made this a simple, tasty, quickly consumed treat, enjoyed with summer cocktails.

Cheese Plate Summer 2014

 

So as you drift through the area, explore the old traditions, and the new producers. Enjoy the experience of ethnic traditions honored, and made new again. This is the exploration of Great lakes Cuisine.

New Restaurant Added – Graze, Madison, WI

Let’s start with this admission – L’Etoile is one of my all-time favorite restaurants. Over the last 25 years, L’Etoile in Madison and Sanford in Milwaukee have defined the best of dining in the state of Wisconsin.  In 2005, Tory Miller moved from chef de cuisine to owner of L’Etoile and has wonderfully nurtured the concept Odessa Piper first opened in 1976. Neither Sanford nor L’Etoile fits the working definition of Great Lakes Cuisine we subscribe to here, but they are both fantastic examples of the best of cuisine, and just happen to be located in the Great Lakes region. L’Etoile, by name and by execution, is French inspired. It is the very best of the French tradition of connection to the farmers, attention to detail, and coaxing out the best flavors possible from every ingredient.  The rolls are wonderful, the butter somehow more buttery. And it is amazing what they can do to vegetable.

The reason L’Etoile is relevant has to do with the “companion” restaurant for Tory Miller, Graze. They attribute the inspiration for the concept to the “New York gastropub scene”, the effort to serve pub fair at a higher culinary level, but they also directly reference the inspiration from local products, the local farmers, and the local food traditions. And the most intriguing part is the collaborative dinners with local craft brewers,  upcoming dinners feature pairings with Hinterland and Rush River Brewing Co.

They describe their menu this way: “Our eclectic menus allow you to taste the local terroir through farming practices that embrace the land where food is grown or raised: grass-fed beef, acorn and whey fed hogs, artesian trout, cave aged cheeses, and an amazing variety of vegetables grown in Wisconsin’s most fertile soils.” A number of local traditions find their way on to the menu from Friday Fish Fry to Fried Cheese Curds. The menu promises to be eclectic, so you may also their version of Bibimbap on the menu or Korean BBQ. These would be less traditional and more reflective of the owners’ wide ranging experiences. Nevertheless, the beer dinners trump all and warrant inclusion in our list of Great Lakes Cuisine.

 

New Restaurant Added – The Old Fashioned, Madison, WI

When we add a new restaurant to our Restaurant page, we choose a representative dish which best captures the Great Lakes Cuisine concept on the currently offered menu.  With The Old Fashioned in Madison, WI, we could have easily listed the entire menu. This is an updated take on all that is best of the culinary traditions in the state of Wisconsin. Though we take a broader view of the cuisine on this site from a geographic perspective, the same passion for this cuisine is on display in everything done by the folks at The Old Fashioned. From their site:

“Inspired by the traditions of Wisconsin taverns and supper clubs, The Old Fashioned exists to pay tribute to the foods and spirits that make our state famous. That’s why we chose to highlight meats, cheeses, produce, and local specialties from small Wisconsin producers. It’s why we drive over 100 miles to Seymour to pick up a shipment of their world-famous soda (and of course, take back our empties). It’s why we don’t mind a jaunt to Sheboygan for brats and hard rolls. And it’s why it’s commonplace to find Willi Lehner from Bleu Mont Dairy sitting down with a cheese plate featuring a selection of his craft. These things are all as much a part of the Wisconsin culinary tradition as an ice-cold PBR paired with a spicy pickled egg, or Reuf’s Meat Market landjaeger sausages.”

Now I may quibble with the ice-cold PBR, and plead for an update to an ice-cold Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing. But anyone that is serving Willi Lehner’s beautifully cave-aged cheeses along with Bavaria Sausage Kitchen’s delightful offerings has our support. The Old Fashioned faithfully reproduces and updates many of the traditional dishes featured in supper clubs, restaurants, and dinner tables of Wisconsin through-out the years.  These food traditions are the touchstone, the taste foundation, from which Great Lakes Cuisine emerges. Let The Old Fashioned inspire you.