Monday, September 19, 2016

Montchevre in Belmont Goes Non-GMO

Because baby goats are cute.
You'd think with my hometown of Belmont, Wisconsin being only an hour away, I'd get back home more often. However, the closest I usually get is Mineral Point, where we meet my parents most Sunday nights at the Midway Tavern for homemade pizza and five games of Euchre (we have a running score of who wins each game - women vs. men - written in pencil on the bottom of the Green Bay Packers poster on the wall).

But last week, with an invitation from fourth generation French cheesemaker Jean Rossard to visit the ever-expanding Montchevre goat cheese factory in Belmont, I made the trip to my hometown. With a population of 986 people, this thriving metropolis has gained exactly 160 people since I left home in 1994, and I'm pretty sure they all work at Montchevre.

That's because Montchevre employs 250 people. In a small town, that's a big deal. And when you combine that number with another 200+ working at the Lactalis President Brie factory just down the street, French-style cheese has eclipsed Belmont's one-time claim to fame of being the state's first capital. Heck, even the village's homes are powered by methane gas from Montchevre's anaerobic digester - the first digester installed at a goat cheese factory in America.

Touring a cheese factory these days is complicated. With increased regulations and sanitary requirements from the Food Safety Modernization Act, most won't let you in at all. But Jean got me suited up in a full-body jumpsuit, booties to cover my shoes, a full head hairnet with openings for my eyes and mouth, and a long white jacket. I looked like I was ready to go cook a meal on the moon. And no, I'm not posting a picture. Let's just say the outfit was not slimming.

As one of the largest goat cheese factories in America, Montchevre makes an astounding number of different types of goat cheese, all in the same facility, and it does it very well. Jean and Arnaud Solandt founded Montchevre in 1989 in Preston, Wisconsin. In 1995, they moved operations to Belmont and took over the old Besnier America factory on the southeast side of town. When the pair started, the Belmont factory was a rather outdated 30,000 sq. ft, historic cheese factory. Today it is a 110,000 sq. ft. modernized wonder and takes up nearly an entire city block.

The "Welcome Cheese Geek" cheese platter full of Montchevre cheeses,
including from left: 10 flavors of chevre, mini brie and goat cheddar.
In the beginning, Montchevre produced three different cheeses; Le Cabrie, Chèvre in Blue and Chevriotte—all of which are still in production today. Since then, Rossard and Solandt have added more than 50 different cheeses to their family, including a full line of non-GMO fresh chevre logs in a variety of flavors ranging from cranberrry/cinnamon to tomato basil to garlic and herb.

Montchevre is the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chevre, and Jean acknowledges it took his team nearly a year to make it happen. All feed for animals certified non-GMO must be sourced from non-GMO seeds, which sounds A LOT easier than it really is. Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seeds, provide seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy-based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. (Eighty percent of a goat's diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seeds).

A few varieties of the new non-GMO Montchevre goat
cheese 4-ounce logs.
All of Montchevre's non-GMO milk is currently produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and that's a responsibility Jean Rossard does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with goat dairy farmers to troubleshoot problems and solve challenges.

The current pay price for goat's milk in Wisconsin is about $38/cwt (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for cheese. In comparison, the current pay price for Class III cow's milk (milk processed into cheese) is $16.34/cwt. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goat's milk.

Goat dairy farmers Elaine and Dennis Schaaf graciously pose with a cheese
geek who peppered them with questions for a good hour.
Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. "Physically, there's no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat," Dennis says. "A cow steps on your foot, you're going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off."

The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat milking parlor, and just this summer, built a new open-air free stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside.

"Goats don't like sun and they don't like water. That means if it's raining, they stay inside. If the sun's out, they stay inside. About the only time you'll see them in the pasture is at night when it's not raining."

The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day, and are breeding 350 goats this fall in anticipation of expanding next year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese year-round. The Schaafs' herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds of goats.

In a young industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to up-and-coming dairy goat farmers. They say three farmers in their area have switched from milking cows to milking goats just this year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second generation goat dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Milk is picked up about every three days from the goat dairy farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese 363 days a year around the clock. The demand for goat cheese is ever increasing in a nation where eating goat cheese is a relatively new phenomenon. "We're already planning another expansion," Jean says. "Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and we're well on our way to meeting that goal."

My favorite picture from my day spent with the talented Montchevre crew, pictured from left: Cheesemaker and co-founder Jean Rossard, Milk Supply Manager Cody Taft, Packaging Manager Jeff Amenda and Quality Control Manager Craig Howell. Jean bought us lunch at downtown Belmont's McCarville's My Turn Pub, which coincidentally, used to be called the Heins Pool Hall (my maiden name is Heins) and where I a) grew up playing cards with my dad after chores were done and b) hosted my wedding reception with my husband, Uriah. Sometimes life comes full circle.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Modern Day Thelma & Louise: Landmark Creamery Lands in Green County Cheese Days Tent

Anna Thomas Bates (in blue) and Anna Landmark take a selfie with their
first winning ribbon at the 2016 American Cheese Society Competition. The
duo went on to win three awards for their cheeses at the prestigious event.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Watch out, world. For just the second time in the 100-year history of Green County Cheese Days, a woman cheesemaker will sample and sell her cheese inside the event's iconic cheese tent on the downtown Monroe historic city square.

With more than a dozen cheese factories in Green County, the massive cheese tent at Cheese Days has been dominated by male cheesemakers for years. Only Julie Hook, co-owner of Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point in Iowa County, has been able to break the glass vat in the past 20 years and sell cheese inside the Green County tent. And no wonder: America's Dairyland is full of third and fourth generation cheesemakers, as fathers traditionally pass down their craft to sons.

But starting Friday, Wisconsin cheesemaker Anna Landmark and business partner Anna Thomas Bates will set up a table to sample and sell a half dozen of their different artisan cow, sheep and goat cheeses they make at area cheese factories during off-hours. The pair do not have their own plant, and instead rent space at Thuli Family Creamery in Darlington to make their cheese.

Perhaps the first selfie EVER. Taken by Thelma & Louise, one of my all-time favorite movies.
(It doesn't hurt that a college boyfriend once told me I looked like Geena Davis. Sigh. If only).
"All the cheesemakers have been so welcoming to us, and we're very honored to be invited to participate in the cheese tent," Anna Landmark says. "We're planning on introducing lots of folks to artisan sheep and goat cheeses."

The Annas, as they are affectionately known in the industry, have been making cheese since 2013. They purchase sheep milk from a partner dairy in Rewey, cow milk from a grazier near Belleville, and goat milk from a neighboring farm. They are perhaps best known for their award-winning Petit Nuage, a fresh sheep's milk button cheese, and Anabasque, a natural rinded, hard sheep's milk cheese that rivals the Franco-Basque cheese on which it is based.

Some of the cheeses Landmark Creamery will be sampling and selling this weekend at Green County Cheese Days include:
The Annas at a Milwaukee dinner last year celebrating
a successful year of making artisan cheese.

  • Samwell, an earthy, cave-aged sheep cheddar, as well as a non cave-aged version
  • Anabasque, inspired by Ossau Iraty from the Basque region of France
  • Pecora Nocciola (a cave-aged version), perfect for grating or shredding on pasta
  • Pipit, a smooth and creamy sheep cheese, made for melting or slicing for sandwiches
  • Petit Nuage, a fresh, French-style soft sheep milk cheese, made weekly
  • A new raw milk Spanish goat cheese, cave aged, and yet to be named (they're looking for ideas)
  • Chèvre: the original fresh goat cheese, with versions flavored with savory spice, thyme, black pepper, lemon peel, sumac and chili flake
  • A goat version of their ACS award winner Summer Babe, flavored with orange peel, lavender and honey.
Cheese Tent hours at Green County Cheese Days start on Friday, Sept. 16 from 9 am to 8 pm,  continue Saturday from 9 am to 8 pm and conclude on Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm. You'll find Uriah and me helping out the Annas at their table Saturday morning. (Please stop by and say hi!)

Cheese Days itself runs from Friday through Sunday this weekend and includes a myriad of events all three days, including a main stage and several side stages featuring yodeling, alphorns, polka bands and Swiss heritage music. There's also a cow milking contest, numerous food stands, and deep-fried cheese curds that are completely worth waiting in line for an hour or more.

On Saturday from noon to 4 pm, don't miss the cheesemaking demonstration right on the square, where veteran cheesemakers craft a 200-pound wheel of Swiss the old fashioned way in a giant copper kettle. Green County cheesemakers take turns at the microphone, and the public is invited to help stir the curd with an old fashioned “Swiss harp.” After the cheese is hooped, Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers Gary Grossen and Jeff Wideman plug a block of cheese and demonstrate the grading and judging process using the criteria of the U.S. and World Championship Cheese Competitions.

Then on Sunday, come for the grand poobah of all parades, starting at 12:30 pm, and led by a procession of Brown Swiss cows and their Green County dairy farm family owners in full Swiss traditional clothing. The two-hour parade features 11 different divisions of bands, floats, dairy queens, horse-pulled wagons, trucks full of past and present cheesemakers, as well as the Limburger Queen, Stephanie Klett (whose day job is the Wisconsin Secretary of Tourism). Everyone should experience the Green County Cheese Days parade at least once in their lifetimes.

More importantly, come for a weekend of good cheese made by award-winning cheesemakers, and be sure to take a wedge or two home with you!

Uriah and I helped cut and wrapped 546 pieces of Landmark Creamery's Samwell, a cave-aged sheep milk cheddar,  for Green County Cheese Days. Make sure you buy a wedge at the cheese tent in Monroe this weekend!
Photo by Jeanne Carpenter



Monday, September 05, 2016

Small-Batch Bandaged Cheddars of the Midwest

The long hot month of August can be a slow time in the world of specialty cheese retail, so we cheesemongers spend extra time thinking of clever ways to encourage customers to keep buying cheese. That's why one day last week, the cheese counter at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale turned into an impromptu Battle of the Bandaged Cheddars, after a customer asked to try several to see which she liked best.

In an exquisite stroke of good timing, cheesemaker Willi Lehner had just that morning arrived with two wheels of his Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. The wheels were placed in the walk-in next to two new truckles of the elusive Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. And, because all good things come in threes, one of our favorite distributors the day before had delivered two long-awaited Flory's Truckles from the same batch that in July won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition.

The stars had aligned, creating a trifecta of Midwestern bandaged cheddar goodness. We started stripping wheels of their larded linen and cutting wedges to taste and sell.

From left: Flory's Truckle, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Avondale Truckle.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

 A quick break for a public service announcement on bandaged cheddars: while it is undisputed that cheddar was born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, the origin of bandaged cheddar is a bit murkier. Read this column from Culture Magazine for the scoop. In any case, all cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. After starter culture is added to the milk, and rennet separates curds from whey, the curd is cut and the whey drained off. The mass of curds left behind are then cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed into forms. After the cheese has set, wheels are coated in lard and wrapped in cotton cloth. Each cheesemaker generally has a signature way of wrapping his or her cheddar. Wheels are then placed in a cool, humidity-controlled aging room for six months to two years, depending on the desired flavor profile. By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a mottled, aromatic rind in its place once the cloth is removed. Bandaged cheddar has a drier, crumblier texture than a waxed or plastic-wrapped cheddar. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a more complex flavor profile of caramel, fruity and earthy notes, which trend toward grassy and earthy flavors closer to the rind.

In England, a handful of cheesemakers still make traditional, clothbound cheddar. You can read about three of them in these posts from my 2014 cheddar journey to Somerset County: Montgomery's Cheddar, Quicke's Cheddar, Westcombe Cheddar. In the U.S., some of the most awarded and well-known cheeses are bandaged cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound in Vermont and Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar in California.

But I digress. Back to our Battle of Bandaged Cheddars at the Metcalfe's specialty cheese counter.

The undisputed winner (according to the customer, whom we all know is always right): Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner gets a lot of good press, all of it deserved, and is considered by many to be a living legend when it comes to making artisan cheese. With no cheese factory of his own, he makes cheese at four different factories, and then ages it in an underground cheese cave he built on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, in 2007. In 2013, his Bandaged Cheddar took runner-up Best in Show at the American Cheese Society competition. The rind is delightfully musty and cave-y, and once cracked open, emits aromas of earth and pineapple. The cool thing about most bandaged cheddars is they taste nothing like how their rind smells - a good bandaged cheddar is nutty, with hints of fruit on the finish, with calcium lactate crystals dotting the paste. Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar is one of the best. The wheel we tasted was about 18 months old and perfect.

Tied for first runner up: Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. The Avondale Truckle is absolutely a beautiful cheese. Fayette Creamery (also known as Brunkow Cheese) is owned by Karl and Mary Geissbuhler near Darlington, Wisconsin. In 2007, the pair, along with cheesemaker and marketer Joe Burns, worked with a world-renowned consultant to create the recipe and a special mold for this elegant, extra tall, drum-shaped cheese. The cloth-wrapped cheddar is aged in Brunkow's hand-dug cellar for 6 to 18 months and is made from milk sourced from Lafayette County dairy farms. Round and buttery in its youth, Avondale Truckle develops a full, layered flavor and wild, earthy aromas as it matures. The bandage had been removed on the truckles we received, so it was hard to get a gauge of the cheese's age, but I would guess it's on the younger side, because fruity and floral notes shine through. Most Avondale Truckles are sold in the Chicago market, so we are super lucky to get a taste of this elusive cheese in Madison.

Tied for first runner up: Flory's Truckle. At this point, you're probably asking yourself: "what the hell is a truckle and why don't I have one?" In old English, a truckle means cylinder shape. Flory's version is shorter than Fayette Creamery's truckle, and is produced on a dairy farm near Jamesport, Missouri by Tim and Jennifer Flory. The couple has ten children and 30 Jersey cows. After aging 60 days on the farm, Flory's truckles move to Milton Creamery in Iowa, where they spend the next 10 months being turned three times a week. Similar to Bleu Mont's Bandaged Cheddar, this cheese is exceptionally creamy and fruity with just-the-right-amount of earthy notes creeping in from the rind. This is another cheese that's hard to find, so to have it on the shelf next to Avondale and Bleu Mont is a cheesemonger's dream come true.


Cesar's Bandaged Cheddar
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
Of course, no post on small-batch bandaged cheddars would be complete without mentioning Cesar's new Bandaged Cheddar. You may be familiar with Cesar Luis' World Champion hand-stretched Queso Oaxaca that he and wife Heydi cut into sticks for us Americans to eat as string cheese. The Wisconsin pair of licensed cheesemakers recently branched out to harder cheeses, including bandaged cheddar. Cesar's creamy cheddar lacks the fruity and floral notes one might expect of a bandaged wheel, but replaces them with brothy, herbal and earthy notes, highlighting the aroma of the rind. We sampled it one day last week for a few hours at Metcalfe's and promptly sold half of the 25-pound wheel. Only a few wheels of this unicorn cheese exist, but Cesar says he will be making more. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Mike & Carol Gingrich Awarded ACS Lifetime Achievement Award

Mike Gingrich and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
In March, Uplands Cheese co-owner and lead cheesemaker Andy Hatch asked Ari Weinzweig and me if we might write letters of support asking the American Cheese Society to consider awarding Mike and Carol Gingrich the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.

I asked Andy if he could send me the nominating document he had submitted, as I wanted my letter of support to fill in any gaps and convince the ACS that the founders and creators of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, were indeed so very worthy of the award. After all, past recipients include some serious cheese icons, including Ig Vella, Dan Carter, Kathleen Shannon Finn, Daphne Zepos, Ari Wienzweig, Cathy Strange, Ricki Carroll, John Greeley and Steve Jenkins. No one deserves to be in that list more than Wisconsin artisan cheese pioneers Mike and Carol Gingrich.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
As I watched Andy present, and then Mike accept, the ACS Lifetime Achievement Award award on behalf of Carol and himself last week at the annual ACS conference in Des Moines, I remembered why Andy's original nomination papers had brought me to tears. Nowhere in the history of a master and apprentice relationship has a former apprentice (now a rock star cheesemaker in demand at every cheese event in the country) given so much credit to the two people who took a chance on their successor. And never before has the master given most of the credit to the industry and the people who surround him. You all might call it "Wisconsin nice." I call it being humble and kind.

When Mike & Carol Gingrich asked for my help in spreading the gospel of Wisconsin artisan cheese, I said yes. When Mike & Carol asked me to join a committee or help with an event, I said yes. And I said yes because I respected the time, sweat and money they had given to the industry. Mike & Carol Gingrich will never, in a million years, take credit for anything. But they have changed everything.

A standing ovation for Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

An excerpt from Andy's nomination papers, repeated for the audience at the award presentation:

"Mike and Carol were pioneers in the renaissance of grass-based dairy and farmstead cheesemaking, who had the vision to revitalize old-world traditions in modern ways. Their vision began in the early 1980s, when, together with neighboring dairy farmer and eventual Uplands Cheese co-owners, Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, they were among the first dairy farmers in the country to utilize electric fencing as a way to intensively manage rotational grazing patterns.

"By the late 1990s, when Mike and Dan had combined their herds and purchased a 300-acre grazing farm on Pleasant Ridge, they were producing wonderfully distinctive grass-fed milk and began looking for a way to take advantage of that flavor. After a serendipitous meeting with Ari Weinzweig at the 1998 ACS Conference, Mike became convinced of his milk's potential for alpine-style cheese. Although his idea came in a period when small Wisconsin cheesemakers were contracting, consolidating or just plain quitting, Mike drew up a business plan for a raw-milk, farmstead cheese named Pleasant Ridge Reserve. As with rotational grazing, he saw an opportunity to take advantage of old traditions in new uncommon ways.

Andy continued: "When I bought the farm from Mike in 2014, he gave me a copy of that original business plan. Incredibly, he had done exactly what he had planned in 1998. His was not an easy path to envision back then, and it certainly wasn't easy to navigate. Mike's initial vision of a raw, grass-fed, farmstead cheese struck many as misguided and doomed to fail. When it was proven successful, his refusal to compromise those principles in the name of expansion seemed out of character for an American cheese business. But Mike has the rare combination of a mind sharply attuned to business (he earned an MBA from Harvard before milking cows) and a heart that gravitates to simplicity and authenticity. As he guided Uplands Cheese through growth, awards and recognition, he never wavered from his founding principles, and as he became an impressively profitable cheesemaker, he still provided an opportunity for me, his apprentice, to share in the success and eventually take the reins.

Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter
"Despite his obvious accomplishments, Mike never took undue credit for the success of his cheese, and he recognized that his company was riding a wave propelled by many people" from the scientists at the Center for Dairy Research who helped him develop the recipe, to Bob Wills, who opened up his cheese plant to allow Mike and Carol make the first batches of Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Andy concluded: "People in our industry regard Mike not only as a successful cheesemaker, but also as someone who plowed ground that became fertile for the rest of us. It's rare in any industry to find such a celebrated producer with his humility and altruism. While our larger food culture at times seems to revolve around its own narcissistic gravity, the ACS does well to honor a career based on core values of education, networking and sustainability. Mike and Carol Gingrich have embodied those values since they began milking cows in 1980. This is our chance to honor what they have achieved and given to all of us."

Congratulations to Mike and Carol Gingrich, and thank you for putting Wisconsin artisan cheese on the map.