American-Midwest


Happy new year, cheese lovers! The start of a new year is always exciting, but Jan. 1, 2011 is particularly thrilling for me since my beloved Wisconsin Badger football team is facing Texas Christian University in the Rose Bowl this afternoon. Of course, it won’t really be a contest – Wisconsin is known for kicking major booty during previous Rose Bowl games – but it’s a great excuse to get together with fellow Badgers and cheer on our team. While eating cheese, of course.

In honor of this year’s Rose Bowl competitors, I’ll be serving a cheeseboard with two regional favorites. Wisconsin will be represented by Hook’s 7-Year Cheddar, and since I couldn’t find any Texas cheese at my local shop, Green Hill will stand in for the South. (And I really wanted an excuse to buy a fresh wheel of Green Hill, anyway.) We’ll have my favorite Carr’s whole wheat crackers on hand, as well as gluten-free rice crackers, and lots of beer and other appropriate beverages.

Since both cheeses are amazing, our taste buds will win no matter which team comes out victorious, but you all know my bias. Go Badgers!

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If you’ve been following Cheese + Champagne for the past two years, you’ve read our musings on cheeses from all over Europe – France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal. And while there are many, many European cheeses that Colleen and I love and enjoy on a regular basis, we’ve taken special notice of the newer artisanal cheeses that are made right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Many are so new that they didn’t make the Wine Spectator 100 Great Cheeses list that sparked this blog, and now through we’re practically done with the list, we decided it was time to turn our focus exclusively on America. We won’t give up eating our beloved Chaources, Roqueforts and Manchegos, of course, but you’ll be reading more about the exciting newcomers and rediscovered favorites from our own shores.

I can’t think of a better cheese to start with than one hailing from my home state of Wisconsin. Uplands Cheese Company of Dodgeville is making it a very merry holiday for all of us cheese fanatics with the release of its first batch of Rush Creek Reserve. Inspired by the Swiss Vacherin d’Or, which isn’t available in the United States due to FDA regulations on imported raw-milk cheeses, this dreamy, drippy cheese is carefully made with autumnal raw cow’s milk and aged for just 60 days. Each 12-oz. wheel is bound with spruce bark and washed with various bacteria that give the rind its orange color. You’ll want to avoid tasting that rind, though – its grittiness mars the creamy goodness that lies underneath. Rather than cutting wedges from the side, run your knife along the cheese’s circumference on top, peel off the rind and dig in with a spoon.

I first heard about Rush Creek Reserve this spring, when Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch visited the Cheese Shop at France 44 with a huge wheel of his award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. After swooning over the Pleasant Ridge Reserve for several minutes (and scoring a complimentary wedge in the process), I asked Andy if he was working on anything new, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got this new cheese that I think will be ready in November. It’s like Vacherin d’Or.” I was immediately intrigued and asked Andy if I could come down to Dodgeville to watch the cheesemaking process, and he said he’d be happy to welcome me. Unfortunately, the demands of a new baby and a new job didn’t allow me to visit this year, but I don’t think I’ll let another year pass before knocking on Uplands’ door…

Anyway, back to the cheese! Saying it’s good is an understatement. Saying it’s great is an understatement. This is a world-class cheese that can go against Epoisses, Langres or any other washed-rind cheese that France has to offer. The paste is so sumptuous, so sublime, that it’s a dessert, not an appetizer. Not as stinky as Epoisses, Rush Creek Reserve still has the barnyardy aroma that a cheese lover associates with spectacular cheeses, as well as a meaty, slightly smoky flavor that is easy to savor. You can protest all you want that washed-rind cheeses are too strong or stinky – I challenge you to have one spoonful of Rush Creek Reserve and not be an immediate convert to the washed-rind cause. This is a truly special cheese and the perfect gift for the caseophile in your life.

Alas, it’s not easy to find. Its seasonal nature only allows Uplands to release Rush Creek over a few short months, and not all cheese shops have received shipments yet. I was lucky to snag one at France 44 (thanks, Benjamin, for putting me on “the list”), but Colleen hasn’t been able to buy one in Northern Virginia so far this winter. If your local cheese shop hasn’t had it in stock yet, be sure to ask your cheesemonger if he or she has put in an order. This is one cheese you won’t want to miss, and it’s worth every penny (I paid $24 for my wheel). And when you do get your hands on it, pair it with a Riesling, Gewürztraminer or a malty beer, per Andy’s suggestions in his interview with The House Mouse last month.

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To the untrained eye, it might look like just another strip of shops along the Tamiami Trail heading south through Sarasota, Florida. But cheese hounds like yours truly could hardly miss a sign like this beckoning in between the surf shops, surf ‘n turf casual dining establishments and auto repair shops.

Naturally, we pulled in to sample the curd. Greenleaf Wisconsin Cheese shop professes to have 140 types of Wisconsin cheese; I didn’t count, but the coolers were well stocked with the ubiquitous cheddars and cheese spreads as well as a handful of Wisconsin’s finer offerings: Carr Valley cave-aged Marisa, the beloved raspberry BellaVitano, UplandsPleasant Ridge Reserve.

You could also stock up on Sprecher’s, sausages, Door County cherry preserves and assorted Wisconsin paraphenilia.

cheeseheads in paradise

Most exciting to me, though, was a new discovery: Billy’s Midget Bandaged Goat Cheddar from Capri Creamery. Capri Creamery is a one-man operation making cheese in Blue River, Wisc., from nearby organic Amish goat dairies. This raw milk cheddar has the flaky, crumbly texture and salty taste of a traditional clothbound cheddar, with added earthiness from the goats milk.

billy's midget goat cheddar (left) and bellavitano

billy's midget goat cheddar (left) and bellavitano

Capri’s cheeses are primarily found at the Dane County Farmers Market and Milwaukee and Madison, Wisc., shops and restaurants — and at Greenleaf in Sarasota, Florida. Perfect for your next picnic at the beach.

I was poking around Surdyk’s last week, not because I really needed any more cheese in my cheese drawer, but because I was in the neighborhood. (But do I really need an excuse to stop by? No.) I asked the cheesemonger what was new, and he pointed me toward Goodhue Grass-Fed Gouda, a cheese from Minnesota’s PastureLand Cooperative. Always eager to support local producers, I bought a wedge and have been immensely pleased with it ever since.

Made from the organic milk of 100-percent grass-fed cows, Goodhue is aged in the Pasture Pride cellars in Cashton, Wis. (Isn’t it nice when two rival states get along?) The result is a sweet cheese that reflects many of Gouda’s signature characteristics – a nutty, even grassy flavor that is perfect for snacking. The Goodhue hasn’t been aged long enough to form the crystals often found in aged Goudas, but I don’t find the cheese to be lacking in flavor or texture. If you can find it at a local cheese shop, it’s a great cheese to try, especially if you’ll be serving it to guests who aren’t very adventurous with cheese or if you don’t know their cheese preferences.

PSA: If you’re in the DC area, head down to La Fromagerie in Alexandria right now for a chance to snatch some of the infamous 15-year-aged cheddar from Wisconsin’s Hook’s Cheese Co.

After selling out before Christmas, the second batch is rolling out to cheese shops now. Have you tried it? Spotted it? Cheesemongers, let us know if you’re carrying it and we’ll alert our cheese friends on Twitter.

We may have had a whole box of cheeses waiting when Jill arrived for her visit last month, but that didn’t stop us from venturing to a cheese shop.  After all, Jill hadn’t been to La Fromagerie yet and we’re certainly not ones to miss out on visiting a new cheese shop! And of course we managed to come across something new, Bloomin’ Idiot from Hook’s Cheese Co. of Wisconsin. Yes, the same Hook’s whose 15-year cheddar has become something of an obsession around the cheese world. But that’s no reason to overlook their other fine cheeses, particularly the clever double-creme-slash-blue specimen here. In fact, prior to the cheddar craze Hook’s was known for their variety of blues. And since it’s Valentine’s week, it’s worth pointing out that Tony and Julie Hook were college sweethearts who’ve been making cheese together for over 30 years. Now that’s romance.

Bloomin’ Idiot is a cows-milk, semi-soft and creamy cheese that at first glance resembles a brie-style cheese. In fact, if you scoop out a bite from the middle and exclude the rind, it has that same mild, creamy, slightly sour milky taste you would expect. Take a bite with the bloomy, mottled rind, however, and you’ll get the tangy astringent flavor of a blue. Huh?

is it just me or is that cheese smirking?

In traditional blues, the milk is inoculated with mold and mold spores are injected into the cheese to encourage its development. By skipping the injections, this cheese develops blue only in the rind, creating a cheese with almost a split personality. We give this experiment two thumbs up, with bonus points for the amusing name.

Though my cheese drawer is chock full of cheeses from the Wine Spectator list, I recently made room for several off-list varieties for a Heavy Table story I was writing about Rochdale Farms cheeses. Made in Wisconsin from the milk of more than 325 Amish farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota, these cheeses have starting appearing in co-op dairy cases in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest. All are good, some are fantastic, so seek them out if you live here or will be visiting these parts!

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