It’s that time of year again when we in the cheese department like to puff up our chests, and proudly tell you about all the wonderful cheeses that we carry here at the Co-op. For the last several years our goal, reflected in your requests, has been to focus the cheese case on local Wisconsin cheeses. We now carry approximately 239 products depending upon availability. Sixty-nine percent of those products are made here in Wisconsin; however, in terms of the quantities of cheese we actually sell, Wisconsin producers accounted for a full 89 percent of total sales averaged over the last quarter. Now, those may just be dry statistics, but we’re proud to say that not only do we carry and sell primarily Wisconsin cheeses, but some of the very finest examples of Wisconsin cheeses available. These cheeses are culinary works of art produced by men and women with a passionate eye for quality, character, and craft. They reflect the special environmental richness of our pasturelands, the vitality of our dairy herds, and the resourcefulness of our citizens.
There are now 31 different Wisconsin cheesemakers represented in our case; of those, 23 are producing traditionally hand-crafted, small batch, artisanal cheeses. There are many different stories about how they came to focus on the demanding craft of artisanal cheesemaking: some exchanged lucrative careers to focus on their passion; some had it in their blood from birth, following several generations of family tradition; others saw the keen interest growing among Americans for high quality small batch cheeses, and shifted their production to meet the need. But all of these cheesemakers represent a commitment to making Wisconsin cheeses some of the very best available in the nation, and in the world. I’d like to introduce a few of them to you. Next time you purchase a piece of cheese, you can be as proud of buying and supporting their collective efforts as we are of offering a showcase for them.
The Co-op has had a long and fruitful relationship with Cedar Grove Cheese for many years now. They form the essential anchor in our cheese case, providing us with virtually all of our basic workaday cheeses: everything from cheddars to jacks to colbys. We currently carry 20 different cheeses from Cedar Grove, including five varieties of organic cheese. Located in the lovely rolling hills near Plain, Wisconsin, Cedar Grove has been a family-operated company since 1878. Owner Bob Wills has made a commitment to sustainable agriculture and manufacturing. In 1993 he began to use only rBGH free milk, and actively encourages the practice among other cheese producers. His manufacturing facility uses a closed system of waste management that is unique in the state. He has also generously reached out to fellow cheesemakers to lend his facility to support, assist and, in many cases, offer basic and necessary training. One of our very best cheddars, the Prairie Premium Extra Sharp, a five-year aged cheddar made from the milk of only grass-fed cows, proudly carries the name of Cedar Grove. Our Co-op and many thriving artisanal cheesemakers in Wisconsin would be impoverished indeed without the efforts of Cedar Grove.
Willi Lehner’s father was a master cheesemaker in Switzerland, and he carries on this tradition here at Bleu Mont Cheese. Located in the countryside near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, Willi has built from the ground up one of the most exciting experimental cheese facilities in the State. He buys his milk from small family farms, including Uplands, to ensure that cheeses are made with the highest quality milk. Bob Wills is one of several local cheesemakers who lend their equipment and production lines to help Willi craft his unique specialties. He then takes the freshly made cheeses back to hand-built aging rooms at Bleu Mont to allow his wheels to develop their marvelous flavors. Bleu Mont Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar is one of the newest additions to our cheese case, and one that we are very proud to carry. It closely resembles in flavor and texture an authentic English farmhouse cheddar, with its special earthy nuttiness. Truly one of the finest cheeses produced in Wisconsin.
The Zimmer and Zabel families of Otter Creek Organic Dairy are committed to the philosophy and practice of sustainable agricultural techniques and humane animal practices. This ensures that their milk, from grazed dairy herds, is of the healthiest, highest quality. Cedar Grove lends their facilities for the creation of five wonderful organic cheddars. Four different seasonal varieties reflect in their rich, multi-faceted flavors the everchanging flora of Otter Creek’s pastures; and the fifth, their Pesto Cheddar, is seasoned deliciously with basil-infused oil from artisan Mark Olson’s Renaissance Farms.
Next Generation Organics represents the collective efforts of over fifty small, family-run dairy farms to create and craft healthy and flavorful cheeses made with only unpasteurized, organic cow’s milk. Again, Cedar Grove cooperatively lends its facilities to Next Generation’s cheesemakers. We carry four different varieties of their cheeses, and are proud to help promote their philosophy of sustainability and healthful organic agriculture.
Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude decided to combine their family dairy farms in 1994 to have greater control of the quality of their outstanding milk produced by only grass-fed cows. They subsequently decided to try their hand at artisan cheesemaking. Mike apprenticed with Bob Wills at Cedar Grove, and in 2004 the families built a cheese plant on their property. The result is a Wisconsin masterpiece, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a cheese crafted in the traditional style of French Beaufort or Swiss Gruyere, but with the subtle nuances of the upland region’s terroir and a meticulous craftsmanship that create an American original. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is one of the very finest cheeses produced in this country.
Diana and James Murphy own a beautiful little farm in the hilly countryside just east of Madison between Black Earth and Cross Plains. Several years back they decided to buy some dairy goats, and soon found they had plenty of milk to start making cheese. Diana did an apprenticeship at Cedar Grove and obtained her cheesemaking license in 2004. While the Murphy’s creamery was being constructed, Diana worked with Anne Topham at Fantome Farm. Diana and James now produce one of the most deliciously creamy soft goat cheeses in the state, as well as an amazing feta. We now carry five varieties of chevre, as well as both their pasteurized and unpasteurized fetas. Since their herd of fourteen goats is grazed, and their cheeses are very fresh, they provide us with outstanding product only seasonally—so make sure to buy it while it’s available.
The newest additions to the case are three cheeses from John Dougherty, a third generation dairy farmer
in Southwestern Wisconsin near Governor Dodge State Park. John’s family has been milking cows since the early 1900s. In 1989, the family decided to begin marketing the cheeses made from their milk through the Scenic Central Cooperative. Farmer John has been a fixture at the Eastside Farmers’ Market for a number of years now, and we’re absolutely delighted to finally carry his terrific Italian-style cheeses. We now have his Asiago, his Parmesan, and a unique cheese of his own creation, Provonella, a cheese made combining the techniques used in crafting Mozzarella and Provolone.
Sid Cook began working with his father making cheese before he was a teenager. He earned his cheesemaking license when he was just sixteen. Cheesemaking is a tradition on both his mother’s and his father’s sides of the family. Sid bought Carr Valley Cheese Company located in La Valle, Wisconsin in 1986, and started producing original hand-crafted cheeses. He has experimented with many different techniques and different milks to create a huge variety of specialty cheeses. We currently carry ten varieties of some of his finest, award-winning creations, including the interestingly complex mixed-milk Benedictine, a rich, deep-flavored washed rind cheese and one of our favorites.
A fixture at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Felix Thalhammer has been making and selling high quality goat cheeses for several years now. Residents of the small community of Blue River, Wisconsin, he and his wife Catherine decided to go into the business of dairy farming back in the nineties. Felix did his apprenticeship, got his license and then built his creamery in 2001. Initially he used milk from his own goats, but with increasing demand he has had to expand and uses goat milk from several local family farms. We carry five different varieties of Capri cheeses; we’re especially fond of his bright, full-flavored Greek-style feta.
In the driftless region of Wisconsin just Southeast of La Crosse, Wisconsin, lies the pastureland of Brenda and Dean Jensen’s dairy sheep farm. Brenda had long had a dream of starting a dairy farm, and left a corporate career to pursue her passion. The Jensens are committed to using traditional farming and cheese making techniques with a respect for their land and their animals. Hidden Springs Creamery produces some of the tastiest sheep cheeses in the State, and has already won several awards and positive media recognition for their high quality. Jeannie Carpenter chose Hidden Springs Sheep Milk Feta as one of her top five Wisconsin cheeses on her blog Cheese Underground. We carry ten different varieties of Hidden Springs cheese, including their delicious new Bohemian Blue.
Tony and Julie Hook have been in the cheese making business since 1976. Their factory, located in Mineral Point, Wisconsin produces a wide selection of fine crafted cheeses, but their specialties are robust blues and long-aged full-flavored cheddars. We carry five different varieties of Hook’s cheese, including their unctuously rich double cream Blue Paradise, and the oldest cheddar currently on our shelves, Hook’s Seven Year, a bracingly sharp masterpiece.
The Roth family has been making fine cheeses in Switzerland since 1863. In 1991, Roth family descendants Fermo Jaekle and his cousins Felix and Ulrich Roth saw a business opportunity in the similar terroir and culture of Green County, Wisconsin. An existing cheese plant in Monroe was acquired and refitted to accommodate the crafting of high quality European-style cheeses that Americans increasingly sought. They started producing Gruyere, which hadn’t been made in the States for many years. Roth Kase set up an apprenticeship program in which American and Swiss cheesemakers spend time mastering techniques in both countries. We currently sell the magnificent Grand Cru Gruyere, as well two other varieties of Roth Kase cheese.
Also out of Green County come Edelweiss Creamery cheeses. In a plant located in Monticello, Wisconsin, resident Master Cheesemaker, Bruce Workman fashions a big-wheel Emmenthaler using a traditional copper kettle technique. Its breathtaking bite and grassy aroma stand up to any imported variety. Workman has partnered with three local family farms to create the Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative. We carry outstanding examples of grazier (grass-based) cheddar and gouda as well as the superb Emmenthaler from Edelweiss.
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
One more great bastion of Monroe, Wisconsin is Chalet Cheese Cooperative. The only crafter of the legendary Limburger in the United States, Chalet also produces stellar Swiss-style cheeses in keeping with the region’s dominant Swiss heritage. Cheesemaker Myron Olson received his license to produce Limburger in 1972, and also hand-crafts the award-winning Deppeler line of Swiss cheeses. In addition to the Limburger, we carry the Deppeler Baby Swiss, the Deppeler 18-month aged Swiss, and Chalet’s Smoked Baby Swiss.
Crave Brothers is another example of a small family dairy farming business that saw an opportunity and made good. In 2002, they built a creamery, brought in licensed cheesemakers and started making cheese. George Crave also apprenticed and became a licensed cheesemaker himself. We currently carry four varieties of Crave Brothers cheese: their delicious naturally sweet Mascarpone, their ciliegine and ovaline sizes of fresh Mozzarella, and their wonderful abbey-style washed rind Les Freres.
Three generations of Joe Widmer’s family have been fine-crafting cheeses at their small plant in Theresa, Wisconsin. Joe’s grandfather John is the man who created that Wisconsin original, Brick cheese; and at the factory they still use the original bricks to press this unique creation. Joe Widmer’s amazing aged cheddars, as well as his Brick cheeses, have been anchoring stalwarts in our case for many years now. The Six Year Cheddar is one of Wisconsin’s very finest.
Saxon Homestead Creamery
One of our more recent additions to the case, Saxon Creamery cheeses are stellar full-flavored original creations produced from the delicious graziered cow’s milk of the Klessig family in Cleveland, Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Michigan. As with several of our other small family dairies, the Klessig family is committed to using sustainable agricultural and manufacturing techniques and humane animal practices. We offer three varieties of the Klessig’s wonderful cheeses: Big Ed’s, a full-flavored new favorite, Green Fields, and LeClair Farms Evalon goat milk cheese. All the cheeses that we sell from Saxon Homestead Creamery are unpasteurized, and made from the milk of grass-fed animals.
These are a few of the wonderful cheesemakers whose masterfully crafted products are now available in the Willy Street Co-op’s cheese case. Please make sure to come to our cheese sampling on December 12th. Many of the cheesemakers whose stories you’ve read will be represented there. Brenda Jensen’s Bohemian Blue, Willi Lehner’s Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar, Farmer John’s Provonella, etc. We may even be lucky enough to have a few of the cheesemakers show up as well!