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 recently got to spend 48 hours in the wonderful foodie mecca of San Francisco. Unfortunately, I failed to consult the event calendar at the Cheese School of San Francisco until after booking my flight, an oversight I’ll be sure not to repeat in the future. It turned out that that very evening, as my flight was due to arrive, the School would be hosting a fundraiser for the California Artisan Cheese Guild. Needless to say I was determined to hightail it to the event. While I arrived too late to meet the cheesemaker behind the @BellwetherFarms Twitter handle, I did luck out and meet Mariano Gonzalez, the cheesemaker from Fiscalini Cheese Co., whose bandaged cheddar was one of the few cheddars we hadn’t yet secured from the 100 cheeses list. I had a lengthy discussion with Mariano about the challenges of doing business in California. With the added problems in the dairy industry, Califonia’s happy cows are not as happy as they used to be. 

There were several other California cheesemakers represented whose names might ring a bell… Cowgirl of course, Redwood Hill, Cypress Grove, Bellwether as mentioned (oh, their creme fraiche is delightful) and a brand new producer, Barinaga Ranch. I enjoyed sampling Marcia Barinaga’s wonderful Basque-style sheeps-milk cheeses and chatting about her small start-up farm in Marin. (Check out her website and try not to be jealous of those sheeps’ gorgeous home!) And of course it was a privilege to chat with Jennifer Bice of Redwood, founder of the Cheese Guild and one of California’s artisan cheese pioneers. (In good company with Mary Keehn at Cypress Grove, Laura Chenel, and the Cowgirls …. hmm, see a theme here? Not that men don’t make good cheese, but there are quite a few notable women in the cheese world.)

 

Fiscalini cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez

Fiscalini cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez

And the Who’s Who of cheese didn’t stop at the cheesemakers. I picked the brain of Canyon of Cheese blogger Bryce about his favorite California cheeses, and met Gordon Edgar, S.F. cheesemonger and author of Gordonzola and an upcoming book. Before leaving San Francisco I paid homage to the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building, naturally, and brought home some more California treats. Here’s a sneak peak.

 

Now to the Cheese-of-the-Day: Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar. Fiscalini’s cheese making began in 2000, when John Fiscalini, a third generation dairy farmer, was inspired by a visit to his ancestral home in Lionza in the Swiss Alps. He added a cheese plant to the Modesto, CA, farm,  hired master cheesemaker Mariano Gonzalez away from Shelburne Farms in Vermont, and quickly began winning awards for their farmstead cheeses. The bandaged (a.k.a. clothbound) cheddar, like their other cheeses, is made in small batches from their raw cows’ milk. Click here for a slide show of the cheesemaking process.

Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar (photo courtesy of Bryce Allemann, Canyon of Cheese)

Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar (photo courtesy of Bryce Allemann, Canyon of Cheese)

 Having tasted Vermont cheddars in a relatively short amount of time before my western trek, I was amazed at the difference between the two. Fiscalini’s has a creamy, dense, granular texture, sweet yet salty, with a bright flavor that makes the cheese dance on your tongue. I’m not going to make judgments about the relative happiness of cows in California vs. Vermont, but I swear you can taste the sunshine in this cheese. It goes wonderfully with a red wine, like Zinfandel (from California, naturally). 

Fiscalini also makes the unique San Joaquin Gold — following the European tradition of naming cheeses after the place where they’re made — which is excellent. Do give either of these Fiscalini cheeses a try if you happen upon them, and let us know what you think!

 

with Bryce of Canyon of Cheese

with Bryce of Canyon of Cheese

 

(A big thank you to Bryce for allowing me to use his picture of Fiscalini’s cheddar, above — in my haste to sample every bit of cheese before closing time, my meager iPhone pictures turned out even blurrier than usual. And thank you to Mariano, who generously sent me home with a doggy bag full of cheddar, which was my breakfast and midnight snack for the weekend!)

Colleen’s recent jaunt to New England for the inaugural Vermont Cheesemakers Festival made me very jealous, of course, but as the stars would have it, I was about to embark on a cheesy road trip myself later that same week. Well, really I was going to Madison, Wis., for a friend’s wedding, but I managed to put cheese-shopping on the agenda, and my home state did not disappoint me. I was able to find some cheese that have eluded me here in Minnesota and find some fabulous new cheese shops in the process.

A cranky toddler made a stop in Osseo necessary, and my lovely husband managed to find a cheese shop right off the highway where we could disembark for a short break. (How lucky am I!) I was pleasantly surprised to find that Foster Cheese Haus wasn’t your typical Wisconsin side-of-the-road shop aimed at tourists (not that I don’t love those shops, too), but it had a wide selection of artisanal Wisconsin cheeses from well-known cheesemakers like Carr Valley, Crave Brothers and Roth Kase. I was thrilled to see a wheel of Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar, a cheese that had recently come to the Twin Cities but had sold out before I could get my hands on a piece. No fear – Dean at Foster Cheese Haus was happy to share samples and wrap up a wedge for me.

Located near Blue Mounds, Wis., Bleu Mont Dairy produces excellent cheeses from the organic milk of pasture-grazed cows. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner learned to make cheese from his father, who learned to craft cheese in Switzerland. Lehner’s dad certainly taught him well – the raw-milk bandaged cheddar (left) is a delight. Almost candy-like in sweetness, this cheese has a smooth texture (no crystals, like you’ll often find in aged cheeses) and a nuttiness that comes off very cleanly. Paired with a lager or off-dry riesling (as per Wine Spectator’s recommendation), the cheese makes a wonderful addition to a salad course or even dessert.

After tasting the cheddar, Dean also introduced me to a new addition to his cheese case – an aged gouda (right) also from Bleu Mont Dairy. Since I never refuse a sample, I eagerly snacked on this 10-month gouda and liked it so much I brought home a piece, too. Fans of Prima Donna Gouda will definitely enjoy this cheese, though the flavor isn’t exactly the same. The creamy paste is both sweet and nutty, and the flavor would hold up well in fondue.

Lehner regularly sells his cheeses at Madison’s Dane County Farmers’ Market, and you can also find them at cheese shops throughout Wisconsin, such as Foster Cheese Haus and Fromagination in Madison. If you don’t make it to Wisconsin, though, don’t fret. An e-mail to Lehner can go a long way to getting these delicious cheeses into your refrigerator.