A Primer in Exciting Cheddars

The other night, at dinner, I was talking to some friends about artisanal Wisconsin cheeses. One of them interjected, “Artisanal cheese? From Wisconsin?? What, do you mean cheddar?” They were expressing an attitude that I see frequently in Americans; this idea that there is no good cheese from the United States. Americans love our imported cheeses, and impressing friends with ‘exotic’ cheeses. I’ve said it before, though, and will keep saying it—there is SO much more incredible artisanal cheese on the platter (so to say) in the United States than most people realize.

Although it makes me sad to hear people speak this way about American cheese, I totally understand where this idea comes from. Americans too often have little cubes of bland, plastic-tasting store-brand ‘mild cheddar’, or, even worse, a nice slice of Kraft Singles: American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product (we won’t even get in to why they have to call it a ‘cheese product’). I understand the desire to look down upon American cheeses, and there are plenty of American cheeses I will say ‘No, thank you’ to. However, the idea that cheddars in particular have to be bland is almost shocking to me, after growing up on Hook’s sharp cheddar (2, 5, 10, 12, and 15 year aged, as well as a 20 year limited edition that’s coming out soon!). So, I want to start making the case for cheddar.

The first thing to understand about cheddars is that there are two main categories of cheddar: block cheddar and bandaged cheddar. Block cheddar is what we normally consume today, the stuff that can sometimes be bland and boring and plastic-y, but has the possibility to be one of the most punch-packing cheeses you’ve ever tasted. The reason this cheese is so varying is that it is packaged in large cryovac packs, so that the cheese ages very slowly. A cryovac cheddar that’s only a year or two old won’t taste like a lot, usually. However, cryovac is how star cheese makers like Tony Hook make star cheeses like Hooks 15 year cheddar. This cheese melts on your tongue while small crystals crunch between your teeth, and a tiny piece packs a huge amount creamy, strong flavor that lingers on your palate.

Cryovac cheddar was only made possible in the past 50 years, since cryovac technology has been introduced to the food industry. Before then, all cheddar was bandaged, which means it was made in large rounds literally wrapped in bandages, and then aged (usually in a cave). A cave aged bandaged cheddar can only age a few years before its flavor begins to decline, so a flavorful bandaged cheddar is usually around a year and a half to two years in age. However, bandaged cheddars have the advantage of absorbing some of the flavor of their surroundings—you can really taste the caves that they are aged in.

How is Cheese Made?

When I tell people that I’ve worked making cheese, they always ask me, ‘so, how do you make cheese?’ I never quite know how to answer this question, because for every new cheese, there exists a new method of making cheese (and, always more coming along!). It is totally possible, and even pretty fun, to make basic cheeses at home; fresh cheeses like paneer or feta, for example, can be made in your own kitchen. If you want the really good stuff, though, cheese isn’t really a DIY food. Even though you can technically make some fresh cheeses yourself, the flavor of a cheese is affected extremely by the care that the cheese make puts in to the process—I say, leave it to the professionals.

However, it is good to have a basic idea of what goes in to making a cheese, before the creativity of the cheese maker takes over to create their own unique flavor. I’m going to give you a general idea of what goes in to a cheese, colored by my own experience (primarily with fresh goat milk cheese).

The basic ingredients in a cheese are as follows: first, you need any type of milk—cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, or anything else you can get your hands on. Second, you need to add culture, which begins the process of ‘ripening’ the milk, as some call it—changing the lactose in to lactic acid and beginning the process of solidification. Third, you need rennet, which helps to solidify the curd and separate it from the whey.

Once the cheese maker has the semi-solid curds and whey, they generally either cut it or ladle it in to forms, beginning the process of draining the liquid whey out and creating a more solid cheese. The curd must be salted during this process, to bring out the flavor of the cheese, although the level of salting and type of salt varies based upon the desired product.

After the cheese has been formed in to individual cheeses and drained, there are many different ways to go. The cheese maker can sell the cheese fresh, after a few days, like a lot of the fromage de chèvre that you see in the United States. They can also continue to age the cheese, developing a bloomy rind or introducing some sort of mold, creating a stronger and more complex flavor. They can hold the cheese in a cave for some time, allowing it to obtain some of the earthy flavors of a cave-aged cheese, add other ingredients such as vegetable ash or garlic, or wrap it in leaves to lend it another interesting flavor…the possibilities are endless!

La Fermerie: A New Experience in Affinage

‘Un petit piece de comte—comme ca.,” the customers at La Fermerie would say, gesturing how much cheese they wanted me to cut with their hands. I’d cut just about the right amount, quickly wrap it up in some paper, and they’d be on their ways. In a small cheese store like La Fermerie, in Paris, cheese is sold very differently than in the United States. French customers have different expectations than Americans, and the cultures around cheese in the two countries are extremely different.

In France, you don’t really taste cheese before buying it. The customer is generally expected to know what they are buying—they can ask about the affinage of the cheese, and they would expect some variation between cheese stores in taste, but the Fromagere is expected to take care of the taste of the cheese; once you find someone who treated their cheeses well, you return over and over to buy from them. Charles, my boss, was an extremely well respected businessman, and taught me a lot about how to take good care of the cheese.

The biggest difference between American cheese stores and French cheese stores, though, is the way that the cheese arrives at the store. Most of the time, in the U.S., the aging of a cheese is done by the cheese maker. Every cheese comes to the store ready to sell, and can be put in front of the customer and tasted right away. In France, though, cheese stores more often buy the cheeses young and then bring them to their caves to age and care for them in-house. The age at which the cheese is sold and consumed is at the discretion of the cheesemonger.

One of my favorite parts about working at La Fermerie was the opportunity to work directly with the cheeses in the cave. We had to work with them daily to ensure that they were doing well, turning them, washing them with vinegar or salt water if they were developing unwanted molds, tasting to see if they were ready to sell.

Where should this power be held? Should the cheesemonger be the one to age the cheese and choose when it can be sold, or should the cheese maker put the cheese in his own caves? Clearly, no matter where the cheese is aged, this shows that the relationship between cheese maker and cheesemonger is extremely important in creating and selling a great cheese.

Chèvrerie de la Baie

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I got off the train in Quimper, 24 hours in to my trip from Madison, Wisconsin to Treguennec, France, half asleep and half scared out of my wits, and realized that I had somehow forgotten to write down the address of the farm where I was spending the next two and a half months. I had spent the two hour ride there trading between trying not to nod off and miss my stop, and struggling to comprehend the garbled French coming out of the overhead speakers—after seven years of French classes, I was pretty sure they had chosen this day to announce the stops in some other language.

An American expat, John Tevis, was supposed to meet me at the station and drive me the rest of the way to the farm, called Chèvrerie de la Baie. I realized, however, that not only had I not brought along any contact information for the Chèvrerie, but I also in my tired state had completely forgotten what John looked like, having only met him once via Skype.

Thankfully, John recognized me, probably because I was the only deliriously tired person at the rural train stop lugging a giant suitcase and looking around frantically. We got in his car and made the trip to the Chèvrerie, while John told me more details about the family, who I had never met. John had generously helped me find this job, and I was the first person outside of the family (other than John) who had ever worked on the farm.

John introduced me to the family, and promptly drove off to his house, leaving me to struggle to communicate in French that, yes, I did want to stay awake and help out, and yes, I would love to help get the cobwebs off of the roof of the barn! Meanwhile, I was having a small internal panic attack that the one person who spoke English had just left me alone and wasn’t coming back to visit for another week. Marisa and Fred, the owners of the farm and two of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met, hid their smiles as I forced my way through an afternoon of work while my eyes drooped and I stifled a yawn. And then, right before dinner, Marisa took me in to the laboratoire.

If you worship good cheese like I do, getting in to the laboratoire on the first day of my visit was like St. Peter handing over the golden key to heaven. We tasted each cheese, and she told me about what she was working on and how she made each cheese. I watched everything she did and tried to understand the French—but, what I understood the most was the taste. Oh, that cheese…her rounds of fresh, raw milk fromage de chèvre melted softly on your tongue, while the more aged cheeses had a tangy, creamy paste and a slightly chewy, soft rind. Marisa’s super dry crotin were immensely salty, tiny, crunchy rounds that tasted like nothing I’d ever had before. As we left the laboratoire to go make dinner, I made a mental note to go through my French dictionary that night for a few more vocabulary words for ‘delicious’.

Fromagination: A Sanctuary for Local Cheese

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In 2012, I applied for a job at Fromagination, an innovative local cheese store in downtown Madison, Wisconsin that focuses on creating a relationship between local cheesemakers and Madisonian customers. Wisconsin is known for its cheese. We’ve all had a good Wisconsin cheddar, some cheese curds, maybe a little brick cheese. But, if we want a cheese that will impress a guest, most people go for something imported (and probably French); a Camembert, some Roquefort, or perhaps Tallegio.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with imported cheeses. Importing cheese is a good way to get the culinary experiences of the world without having to travel to the cheeses countries of origin. However, in the U.S., people tend to miss a lot of what this country has to offer, cheese-wise.

The French concept of terroir is the understanding that a food created in a certain region embodies some of the characteristics of that region. When you taste an artisanal cheese, you can also taste the place where it was made. I really believe that one should try to experience the terroir of the region that you are in by tasting its local delicacies. What better way is there to acquaint yourself with a place than through your taste buds?

It makes sense environmentally and economically to eat locally made cheese (cheeses that don’t have to travel have less of an environmental impact, and are generally less expensive). It also makes sense taste-wise. The closer you are to a cheese’s place of production, the better it will taste; cheeses that don’t have to travel hold up more of the delicate flavor that the farmer works to create. Supporting local cheese producers is also extremely economically important in the U.S., where artisanal cheese production is in tough competition with government subsidized industrial agriculture.

Some regions have more varieties of interesting cheeses to offer than others (ahem, Wisconsin), but there are incredible cheeses being made all over the U.S. At Fromagination, about three-quarters of the cheeses available are Wisconsin originals. One of my favorites is Pleasant Ridge Reserve made by Uplands Cheese. This nutty, buttery, Alpine-style cheese (i.e. like a gruyere) is a crowd pleaser. It’s not too strong to put off cautious cheese eaters, but still full-flavored enough that it can be paired with a good jam or a full-bodied wine.

Next time you go in to your local cheese shop, instead of asking for something with a recognizable name, try tasting a few cheeses that are made in the region of your store! When you discover something like Pleasant Ridge Reserve, your taste buds will thank you.

Fantome Farm

It all started with a ghost.
Or was it a goat?

In 1982, Anne Topham and Judy Borree, two University of Wisconsin professors, were on the phone with their friend from France, asking for advice. They had just started milking their first goat, a big step in their career change from professeurs to fromagères. They were getting ready to start selling the fromage de chèvre that they had taught themselves to make, but still needed a name for their farm. So, they asked their friend for a quick translation into French.

Their friend got off the phone quite confused. “It’s very strange,” she said to her family. “Annie and Judy just told a story about a mother ghost and her baby who are living on their farm. They speak to the ghost, and play with her, and feed her…and for some reason they wanted to know what to call her in French!”

And so, Fantome Farm was named, not after the goats from whose milk their cheese was made, but instead after a ghost.

Annie and Judy were pioneers of artisanal goat milk cheese production in the United States. They introduced goat milk cheese to a country that wasn’t interested in tasting something so seemingly bizarre and un-American. Every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers Market in downtown Madison, Annie and Judy had to coerce people to taste the odd-looking cheese. But one taste, and they were hooked for life.

Fantome Farm’s fromage de chèvre was the beginning of my path to cheese obsession. As a baby, my mom used to give me tastes of the creamy, light, almost-sweet-tasting cheese off the end of her finger. Like everyone else, I was hooked. Every Saturday, my mom and I went to the farmers market to get a container of the fresh chèvre. Although her favorite was the chèvre with fresh garlic, she got plain chève instead for me, one of the sweetest acts of motherly love I could ever imagine.

When I became old enough, Annie offered me a job helping out at the market stand, where I worked until college. I showed up every Saturday around 7:00 a.m., returning home in the afternoon with a giant pile of cheeses to savor. Annie led me through tasting each of her cheeses, teaching me to recognize when a cheese had been slightly over-salted, needed a bit more age, or when the goats were producing milk with a slightly higher fat content than the week before.

This cheese was, and always will be, the holy grail of cheeses for me. Annie’s fresh fromage de chèvre, her slightly aged fleuries (both with ash and without, referred to as the ‘fleurie noir’ and the ‘fleurie blanc’), her rounds of fresh cheese in olive oil and herbes de Provence…just thinking of them makes my mouth water. Annie’s dedication to her cheese and her understanding of how delicate and susceptible to change an artisanal cheese is allowed her to create incredible and varied flavors. Each week, she tasted and adjusted. She paid close attention to the weather, time of year, milk-handling, and treatment of the goats…every aspect of the cheese-making process was important. Each batch of cheese was made by hand, and by her practiced and loving hand.

The foundation of my love and respect for cheese comes from that patient education from Annie. I learned that cheese is not just something you eat, but something you experience. For me, cheese both is a vocation and a way of life. Learning from and supporting local farmers, tasting and pairing cheeses, and understanding what goes into making a truly exceptional cheese has become my life’s passion.