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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

The Autumn Ritual – Apple Orchard Trip

A recent piece by James Norton over at HeavyTable on the “Noble Farce” of the modern apple orchard inspired me to comment here on our autumn ritual of visiting the folks at Barthel Fruit Farm in Mequon, WI. If you haven’t read the blog, articles, and books by Mr. Norton over at HeavyTable, you are missing out. Please go read them now. He proposes a 10-point scale for the modern apple orchard which try ever so nobly to generate a profit from a seasonal influx of city dwellers. His scale is for the level of “farce” involved: a full 10 is essentially an apple-themed amusement park and a 1 is just trees in a field. He opts for the farm with at least a corn maze and apple-cider doughnuts, something like a 7 on his scale. I can respect that, but for me and mine, I’ll take something a bit closer to a 2 or 3 on the scale. Rolling hills, rows of many different apple varietals, a pumpkin field, and fresh pressed cider in the lower level of the barn. I lean rustic.

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Making the annual visit with the family obviously adds to my fondness for the excursion. Barthels allows cars to drive into the orchard on a gravel road to park close to the trees that are available for picking at the time. We timed our visit for the Honeycrisp apples, which pairs very nicely with an aged cheddar or perhaps with a creamy blue cheese in a salad with walnuts. We also picked a bushel of Cortland apples, which are great for applesauce and apple pie. The day was one of those “warm for fall” sort of days, when you are hot when the sun is beating down on you, but can get suddenly chilled in the shade with just a slight breeze. A fall day that reminds you the summer is coming to a close. The geese fly in formation south, calling loudly, bon voyage. We are left behind to hunker down, eat well, and prepare for the cold months ahead.

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With our bounty of apples, we turned our efforts to a batch of applesauce – simply peeled and cored, cut into large dice and then simmered with a splash of apple cider. We add brown sugar and/or apple cider vinegar to balance the sweetness or the “tanginess” to the desired level and then add cinnamon and a bit of powdered clove, sometimes a bit of nutmeg, allspice, the standard autumn spices. A potato masher breaks the apples down to a nice texture, a hand blender would create something more like store-bought. I like a little texture – like I said, I lean rustic. I like it warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, light sprinkle of powdered clove. The whole experience – walking the fields, picking the apples, enjoying a cider or a caramel apple in the barn, peeling the apples with the kids, patiently waiting for the applesauce to break down to the perfect flavor and texture, and then enjoying it with the cool contrast of ice cream – the whole experience is part of our fall ritual. And it is part of what it means to live in the Great Lakes region – bountiful harvest, changing seasons, hunkering down, together.

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Feeding the Soul – The Wisconsin Supper Club Experience

The clouds glowed in the early evening sun, over fields of corn interrupted by occasional groves of old oak trees. We rolled along a winding country road past the barns, faded red. We passed one or two cars as we drive the twenty minutes. The one critical turn from the lake to the town of St. Anna’s is marked by a simple road level sign with an arrow – “Schwarz – 4 Miles”. As we approached, the church steeple rose above the trees.

We pulled into the unincorporated town and quite suddenly, there are cars parked on the side of road and two parking lots nearly filled, and groups of four and six walking the sidewalks. All headed to one destination – Schwarz Supper Club. Since 1957, people have flowed into the bar, grabbed a Old Fashioned and a menu. They took our dinner order as I sipped a cocktail and life slowed down to the speed of a conversation between good friends.

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I’m not sure how long we waited for a table. Could have been 30 minutes, might have been 45. We didn’t really care. The Old Fashioned went down really smooth. Likely because this is a Wisconsin Old Fashioned, not some retro-rye-whiskey-house-made-bitters thing. Truth be told, I kind of like the rye whiskey thing, but when in St. Anna’s, just order an Old Fashioned Sweet with cherries, shut up, and drink. We’re not doing a throwback thing here, we’re actually stepping back to the 1950s. So we need some good fried food with our cocktails. Fried cheese curds, mozzarella sticks, and fried onions fit the bill.

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Prime rib is the specialty, and apparently they go through quite a bit of over a weekend, but we went with a selection of excellent steaks and some beautiful fried walleye. A standard baked Idaho potato is the only side, which was baked to buttery perfection.

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There is a couple of books out there celebrating the unique culture of Wisconsin supper clubs. Of the 24 supper clubs featured in “The Supper Club Book” by Garrison Keillor and David Hoekstra, 14 are from Wisconsin. But the true definitive guide is “Wisconsin Supper Clubs: An Old-Fashioned Experience” by Ron Faiola, with over 50 locations detailed. Reading these books is a great place to start, but the supper club experience is all about actually experiencing these restaurants in all their Friday night glory. Go at 6 PM, wait as long as it takes to get a table, drink Old Fashioneds in the bar, eat fried food. Above all, go with a group of good friends. Talk about family, and politics, and dreams of the future that glow like a Norman Rockwell painting. These are the good old times. The sign leaving Schwarz’s captures it best: Good food and drink hold body and soul together.

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