Southwest Wisconsin: Cheese Paradise
Forget last night’s Emmys — the results of the 2010 American Cheese Society Awards are here. The annual competition at the ACS “Festival of Cheese” is among the highlights of the nation’s culinary calendar. This year’s contest took place on August 28 in Seattle, Washington. The society released the complete judging results from the competition online today, and they are a great reminder of why life in Wisconsin is so appetizing. Wisconsin cheesemakers took home almost one third of the awards given at the contest, including 29 firsts, 36 seconds, 33 thirds, and the prestigious best of show prize for Upland Cheese Company’s extra-aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
I’m not an expert cheese taster, but I did grow up on a small Wisconsin dairy farm where cheese was always a treat. More than half a century ago, my grandfather helped manage a cheese factory just a mile up the road from my family’s farm, and although the place stopped making cheese before I was born, I can still see the little old factory building across the valley from my bedroom window. Today the farm where I live no longer even produces milk, but I’ve kept my childhood eagerness to always sample all the cheese on the tray, and growing up I’ve learned how to appreciate skillful affinage.
Given my background, I’m often surprised at how few of my fellow young Wisconsinites realize the diversity and renown of the cheeses made in our midst. We’ve been raised in a generation of big box stores and chain restaurants, and they’ve spread an illusion that every city and every state is the same, except that some places have more people and more chain stores than others. These chains breed ignorance of the homegrown products that make every town materially different from the next. People know that Wisconsin is “America’s Dairyland” — it’s printed on the license plates — but the cheeses in Wisconsin’s big supermarkets arrive from mass-producers across the Midwest, and the award-winning cheeses made right in the neighborhood go to high-end restaurants and specialty stores in California and New York. Luckily, our farmer’s markets, locally owned shops, and the cheese companies themselves all continue to sell the fruit of the state. For the unfamiliar, here’s a quick tour of just a few of the remarkable cheese producers in Southwest Wisconsin
Best of Show at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition went to Uplands Cheese Company, located just north of Dodgeville. It makes a highly-decorated cheese called “Pleasant Ridge Reserve,” which has now won the top award at the ACS contest an unprecedented three times (2001, 2005, 2010). Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese in the style of French Beaufort, created by Mike Gingrich and now crafted by Andy Hatch. The cheese is made in small quantities on the same farm that supplies all its milk. I have not yet had the opportunity to sample the extra-aged variety of Pleasant Ridge Reserve that took a ribbon this year, but I have tried the younger version in the past. It has a nutty flavor that is complex but amiable — pleasant, like the name suggests.
Hidden Springs Creamery, outside Westby, was another big winner this year. Hidden Springs, run by Brenda Jensen, specializes in sheep’s milk cheeses and has built an international reputation. British humorist Stephen Fry visited the creamery in 2008 as the basis for the Wisconsin segment of his “Stephen Fry in America” documentary series on BBC One. This year the creamery’s “Driftless” variety swept the flavored fresh sheep’s milk category at the ACS contest this year, with a first for the Lavender Honey flavor, a second for Cranberry Cinnamon, and a third for Maple. There is nothing better on warm bread or bagels in the morning than Driftless Cheese. The creamery’s aged Ocooch Mountain Reserve also tied for second in its category this year.
There are several other local cheesemakers whose work I can personally endorse:
- Edelweiss Creamery, near Monticello, picked up a blue ribbon for its Emmentaler, which the creamery makes in a copper kettle that produces 180 pound wheels. Noted for its holes, Emmentaler is a traditional cow’s milk cheese created in Switzerland, but it’s far richer than the so-called “Swiss Cheese” sold in the U.S. The version I’ve had from Edelweiss has a grassy flavor with a tinge of caramel sweetness. I haven’t had Edelweiss’s Gouda, which also got a ribbon this year.
- Maple Leaf Cheese is affiliated with Edelweiss, and is located a few miles to the south in the hamlet of Twin Groves. Although it did not place at this year’s ACS Awards, Maple Leaf has won accolades in the recent past for its aged Cheddars. I can attest to their sharp, crumbly, and occasionally crystalline deliciousness.
- Montchevre-Betin in Belmont is run by Frenchman Arnaud Solandt. It makes goat’s milk cheeses including an unusual goat’s milk “Mini Cabrie” and several flavored soft-fresh cheeses perfect for crackers. This year the company got a first-place ribbon for its Chevre in Blue, which is still on my list of cheeses to try.
- Lactalis USA, which also has a plant in Belmont, mass-manufactures soft-ripened French style cheeses for the American market. It’s President Brie is too uniform to compare to Brie from France, but that doesn’t keep teams from Lactalis from routinely preparing ribbon-winning wheels of Brie for the ACS contest.
- Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle, Sauk County, took 18 ribbons at the ACS show this year. Sid Cook, the company’s leader, has crafted an amazingly diverse variety of original cheeses with the milk of cows, goats, and sheep. Marisa, a rich sheep’s milk cheese named for Sid Cook’s daughter, placed first in its class for its fresh variety, and second in another class for its aged version.
Finally, I’ve saved the last spot in this post for the Mount Sterling Co-op Creamery, the only active cheese producer in my home county, which specializes in goat’s milk cheeses. The Mount Sterling Co-op earned a ribbon for its tasty raw milk cheddar at the ACS contest this year. The creamery’s best product, in my opinion, is the cave-aged Sterling Reserve, a washed rind cheese with a hard texture and varied flavor streaked with mouthwatering tanginess. Sterling Reserve won first place in its class last year at the Los Angeles International Dairy Competition, and it took second in its category early this spring at the World Championship Cheese contest in Madison, Wisconsin.
I could write more, and there are many local cheeses with rave reviews that I have yet to sample. Why waste time just reading about cheese here, though, when you could be out tasting new varieties for yourself? Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with Mild Cheddar and Co-Jack, but living in Wisconsin without sampling our more unique artisanal cheeses would be like living in Champagne and only drinking Kool-Aid. This is Cheese Paradise! Enjoying it is as easy as eating.