Another big year is about to come to a close for the Co-op! We opened our westside location last year, and after a full year in business, it continues to thrive and grow with the enthusiastic support of our Owners and the public at large. Our eastside store was beset by a massive city street construction project for a large portion of the year, and yet in spite of the strategic difficulties of getting around this obstacle, our loyal customers continued their unflagging support and kept our store as healthy and vibrant as ever. All this has been true in the microcosm that is the Willy Street Co-op Cheese department. There was a slight dip in our business during the construction, but since its completion we’ve bounced back nicely!
This year we’d like to take the opportunity to put into sharp focus for all of you what we consider one of our primary missions in this department. We have used this forum repeatedly to promote local, small-scale, artisan cheese production, and this year is no different. But it becomes especially important in these economically challenging times to remember the intense personal commitment to quality and craftsmanship that our local cheese masters have invested in their creations. So many of them are people who took great personal risks to fulfill their dreams.
Because they took those risks, and because we sell the products of their hard work and their inspired imaginations, we have all grown much richer in the experience of food and eating. This is no small thing.
Food, what we eat, and what we support with our hard-won earnings, has a huge, deep and direct effect upon the quality of our lives and our world. Perhaps at no time of the year does this come home to us more clearly than during the holiday season when we are surrounded by those people most precious to us, when our very dearest memories are forged. It is a time devoted to the best within us all: to the generous spirit of sharing, and to earnest reflection upon our place in the world and the importance of the choices we make each day. The act of eating can be transformative; it can turn mundane experiences into profound ones that enrich our lives and the lives of those around us.
Why do we as consumers choose certain cheeses over others? There is a whole gamut of reasons: a simple burst of protein energy, sometimes price, sometimes an artistic appreciation for a label or the way a cheese is packaged. But more often than not we choose cheeses because of the way they taste, and we want them to taste delicious and memorable. Sometimes a flavor will be simple and direct. A nice fresh goat cheese will be creamy, tart, slightly sweet—just immediately flavorful in a way that appeals to the child in each of us. Sometimes, on the other hand, we hunger for depth and complexity. A cheese has to be carefully crafted and cared for to achieve such a character, and often these cheeses are quite dear. They are, however, rarely beyond our means. Cheese is relatively democratic; we may not be able to afford a Rolls Royce, but every so often we can treat ourselves to a really excellent Gruyere. And we owe ourselves this; to enliven and enrich our lives, to experience an everyday marvel. It is these small treasures that make us feel the most profoundly alive and connected with the world. Whether simple or sublime, there is no better time of year than this to indulge ourselves, our friends and our families in some of the most memorable eating experiences of our lives.
Willy Street Co-op continues its long and fruitful relationship of many years now with Cedar Grove Cheese. 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 twenty 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 using only rBGH-free milk and actively encourages the practice among other cheese producers. Sustainability is a guiding principle for Bob, and 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 Sharp, a uniquely complex cheddar made from the milk of the grass-fed cows at Uplands Farm, proudly carries the name of Cedar Grove. Our Co-op and many thriving artisan 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 insure that cheeses are made with the highest quality milk. Cedar Grove 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 has been in our case for over a year now, and we are extremely proud to continue carrying it. This cheddar 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 husbandry. This assures 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. These are some of our very favorites in the case. Four different seasonal varieties reflect in their rich, multi-faceted flavors the ever-changing flowers and grasses 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.
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 the outstanding milk they produced from their wonderful grass-fed cows. They subsequently decided to try a 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. If you haven’t experienced the extra-aged version, then you’re in for a treat!
In 2008, Andy Hatch took over the management of the Uplands cheesemaking facility. Andy got his degree at the UW in Dairy Science and went on to study cheesemaking in Europe, before returning to Wisconsin and apprenticing with Bruce Workman and Gary Grossen to earn his Cheesemaker’s license in 2007. Last year, about this time, Andy introduced his marvelous Rush Creek Reserve, a soft-ripened cheese inspired by French Vacherin Mont d’Or. He created it to take full advantage of the autumnal change in the Uplands cows’ diets. Rush Creek Reserve is a very delicate, raw milk cheese with remarkable depth of flavor, the unmistakable flavor found in traditionally crafted soft-ripened cheeses with their delicious heady beefiness. This fantastic cheese will be in limited availability until the end of the holiday season this year.
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 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. They began carrying a fine queso fresco as well this year, which is available at our westside location. Since their herd of twenty 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.
We continue to sell the popular cheeses produced from the milk of 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 many years now, and we’re delighted to carry his terrific Italian-style cheeses. We carry his Asiago, his Parmesan, and a unique cheese, 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 cheese-making 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 high quality 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 styles of some of his finest, award-winning creations, including the interestingly complex mixed-milk Gran Canaria, a rich, deep-flavored cheese and one of our favorites.
A fixture at the Dane County Farmer’s 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; and we’re especially fond of his bright, full flavored Greek-style feta.
In the Driftless region of Wisconsin just Southeast of La Crosse, lies the pasture land 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 cheesemaking 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. Hidden Springs Sheep Milk Feta was chosen as one of the top five Wisconsin cheeses on her blog Cheese Underground in 2010. It is a smooth and creamy delight, with a wonderful tart flavor. We carry twelve different varieties of Hidden Springs cheese, including her classic creations Bad Axe and Ocooch Mountain. Her delicious Bohemian Blue is one of our very favorite local blue cheeses!
Tony and Julie Hook have been in the cheesemaking 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. With luck, we will again see the extraordinary Fifteen Year Cheddar grace our shelves this year. Keep yours eyes open for this treasure when it arrives.
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 re-fitted to accommodate the crafting of high quality European-style cheeses that Americans have 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 now have available the stellar Surchoix extra-aged Grand Cru Gruyere, perhaps Roth Kase’s very finest cheese, as well as their also magnificent younger Grand Cru Gruyere, and five other varieties of Roth Kase cheese specialties.
Their subsidiary brand, Sole, produces our Queso Quesadilla, Queso Asadero, and Gran Queso cheeses—wonderfully flavorful inspirations based upon classic Latin American cheeses.
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 an outstanding example of graziered, aged Gouda as well as the superb Emmenthaler from Edelweiss.
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
Another great cheesemaker in 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, and Chalet’s Smoked Baby Swiss.
In 2002, the Crave family 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. The quaintly boxed Petit Freres is the same delicious washed rind cheese, but in a smaller size. A wheel of Petit Freres is a perfect gift for the holidays, and a great addition to a banquet table.
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 with its magnificently deep, complex sharpness, and classic crumbly texture.
Saxon Homestead Creamery
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 husbandry. We offer three varieties of the Klessig’s wonderful cheeses: Big Ed’s, a full-flavored favorite Gouda; Green Fields; and Saxony; as well as Katie Hedrich’s Best-in-Show award-winning LaClare Farm Evalon aged goat milk cheese. All the cheeses that we sell from Saxon Homestead Creamery, besides being some of the very finest Wisconsin cheeses we have to offer are unpasteurized, and made from the milk of grass-fed animals.
Holland’s Family Farms
Rolf and Marieke Penterman are first generation dairy farmers who moved from the Netherlands in 2002. They own a cheesemaking facility in Thorp, Wisconsin, that uses their own cow’s milk to craft some of the tastiest Goudas we have ever had the fortune to sample. Marieke produced their first cheeses in 2006, and she has been going strong ever since. All of their Goudas are produced using only their finest unpasteurized milk. We currently carry five different varieties: a 2-4 month young Gouda, a fenugreek-flavored, a cumin-flavored, a smoked, and an unforgettably delicious 6-9 month aged Gouda. These are some of our very favorite Wisconsin cheeses.
New to our case
In addition to these core local cheesemakers, we’ve added a number of new ones to our case over the last year.
Al Bekkum started his career in cheese-making after being laid off from a construction job one fall 20 years ago, and he has been passionately producing cheese ever since. Al and his wife, Sarah founded Nordic Creamery three years ago in the Driftless region near Westby, Wisconsin. They craft many remarkable cheeses, two of which we now sell: Capriko, a cow/goat milk blend with a smooth, sweet, nutty flavor; and Grumpy Goat, a semi-hard goat milk cheese aged for over a year with a full, robust flavor.
Cesar Luis is a fairly recent immigrant to the United States now working out of Columbus, Wisconsin, but cheesemaking has been in his blood since childhood. He longed to craft the wonderful cheeses from his native Oaxaca here in Wisconsin. Cesar went through the demanding work of getting his Cheesemaker’s license, and now creates an unforgettable and extremely popular traditional Oaxacan-style string cheese, as well as a remarkable fresh Mozzarella, both of which we now proudly carry in our cheese department.
Chris Roelli carries on a tradition of cheesemaking from four generations of the Roelli family. Out of Shullsburg, Wisconsin, Roelli Cheese produces a wide selection of fine, small batch, artisan cheeses. At present, we carry only their amazing Dunbarton Blue. This extraordinary cheese was inspired by the great farmstead Cheddars of England, and mirrors those cheeses in its complex flavor and texture with the added subtlety of fine blue veining. We hope to bring more exceptional Roelli cheeses in to our department in the near future.
Grass Point Farms
Grass Point Farms markets cheeses made with only certified graziered cow’s milk from small, family-run farms here in Wisconsin. Chad Pawlak, president of Grass Point Farms, began the organization in 2005 to offer a healthier, more humane option to conventional cheeses. We now carry four varieties of their delicious cheese, including an utterly unforgettable four-year cheddar.
Castle Rock Organic Dairy
Wayne and Carla Kostka head Castle Rock Dairy near Osseo. Wisconsin. They represent the most recent of five generations of farming in our state. The Kostkas are committed to sustainable, organic farming practices and quality and craftmanship shows in the dairy products they produce. Currently we carry both their cream cheese and their excellent créme fraiche, and we look forward to bringing in more of their wonderful cheeses in the near future.
Keith Adams became obsessed, as many of our great local cheesemakers did, with crafting an enduring legacy in new American cheese traditions. In Keith’s case, this meant creating a truly magnificent Camembert from high quality organic cow’s milk. Although not strictly local—Keith produces his one-of-a-kind cheese in Mankato, Minnesota—Bent River Camembert is a masterpiece, and carries on in the same tradition of small batch, artisan cheeses that our customers demand.
So take some extra time the next opportunity you have to visit our cheese case, and explore the magnificent products we carry for you. Every holiday party and banquet can be made that much more memorable and meaningful with the addition of these fine, hand-crafted Wisconsin cheeses. Also, please don’t miss out on our annual Cheese Sampling in December. Many of the cheeses you’ve just read about will be there for you to sample, and many of the craftsmen and women will be on hand for you to meet. Thank you again for making this year so very special for all of us; and we look forward to the coming year with your enthusiastic support.