Monday, February 13, 2006

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The good:

The great thing about Wednesday’s New York Times Article “Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds” is that it might mean we are turning the corner away from a food culture that champions synthetic, chemically altered foods that protect us from our favorite food villain: FAT. As cheesemongers we appreciate the terrific potential of this kind of shift in our culture. Cheese could actually move from the ranks of forbidden to recommended food. Then Oprah would not have to put a caveat in her magazine next to the Murray’s Selection holiday gift box suggestion- telling you to be sure you find a good cardiologist before you consume.

We would welcome this kind of change. At Murray’s we are fans of products made with ingredients we recognize: milk, salt, and rennet to name just a few. This change would do more than support our belief that eating largely whole and unprocessed foods- even the sweet and fatty stuff- in moderation, plus exercise is the equation for a healthy America. A shift in our diets towards whole foods could also alter the entire way our food is produced.

The bad

New York City recently slashed whole milk from the lunch line in all of its public schools. While we empathize with the complexity of the federally funded lunch programs in public schools their decision raises serious concerns. In our minds, Mr. Naczi of Dairy Management Inc (parent of the American Dairy Association) summed it up best in this statement, “Milk consumption in this country is in a 20-year decline because of competition from soft drinks; obesity is on the increase. I don’t know how you can take a decreasing graph and blame obesity on this product.” They are canning whole milk because it is easier to do than removing chocolate milk from the line up, or decreasing the number of soft drinks and other synthetic, processed foods consumed by their students.

Whole milk contains fats that are vital for your body and those fats contain vitamins that aren’t available from other sources. The synthetic vitamins that they add to low and nonfat milks are not the same, in fact they have been linked to some health problems. Adding insult to injury, industrial skim milk is not made from liquid milk, it is reconstructed from dry milk and during the process cholesterol is oxidized which actually raises cholesterol in the body. And besides, when is someone going to talk about the amount of sugar and processed food in children’s diets? We challenge the schools to figure out how to feed their students nutritious food made from whole ingredients that tastes good. We encourage anyone who says it can’t be done to read about successful efforts by some of our favorites Alice Waters ( and Jamie Oliver (

The ugly

While there are some amazing advances in American artisan foods there are seriously scary things happening on the processed side. Take “Pizza Cheese” the bastardization of Mozzarella that Pizza Huts around the world use on top of their pizzas. We give you this tidbit from The Milkweed a small, dairy industry monthly, “Pizza Hut’s cheese supplier- Leprino Foods- uses a silicone-based industrial chemical in the patented manufacturing of “Pizza Cheese: That chemical- Polymethylsiloxane- has no FDA approval for use as a food ingredient.” What is this about for Pizza Hut? Money. Leprino adds so much starch and water to the “cheese granules”, before flash-freezing, that they don’t melt properly.

The reality

We understand that the logistics, economics and ecology of food production are complex. But our bodies are also complex and we can’t help but think that maybe the best way to remain healthy is to feed our bodies food it understands- food that is made up of ingredients we can pronounce.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Profiles in Cheesemaking: Myron Olson, Chalet Cheese Cooperative

For some cheesemakers, the love of the trade has much to do with the opportunity to be innovative, to create new varieties that they can call their very own signature cheeses. For Myron Olson, general manager at Chalet Cheese Coop, a small, alpine-style factory in the hills of southwest Wisconsin, the love of the craft is all about tradition and a fervent belief that, for some things, the old ways are best and must be preserved.

Olson, one of the elite corps of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, has made his mark by championing a cheese not likely to win any popularity contests or grab the spotlight on fashionable restaurant menus. It’s smelly, it’s misunderstood and, according to Olson, it’s a cheese for which you almost need a mentor. It’s Limburger, and, as America’s last traditional Limburger maker, Olson happily fills the mentor role for anyone who will listen, taste and give Limburger a chance.

A surface-ripened cheese that originated in Belgium, Limburger is made at Chalet the old-fashioned, labor-intensive way—as it has been for more than 60 years. Once formed, the individual pieces of cheese, which are the shape and size of small bricks, are laid side-by-side on specially cured pine boards. “You want the bacteria to grow on the boards. It inoculates the cheese and protects it from other bacteria that could grow,” Olson says.

Held in a cool, very moist cellar the little white bricks are hand washed with a B-linen bacterial solution called a “smear” and turned twice over a seven-day period. During this time, the bacteria introduced on the surface of the cheese begins to work its magic, ripening the cheese from the outside in and beginning Limburger’s transformation from a firm, chalky, salty cheese when young to a buttery, pungent, aromatic delicacy when fully aged. Finally, each piece of cheese is hand-wrapped in parchment and waxed paper and readied for shipping.

In fact, Olson says the key to enjoying Limburger is to know when it was made. When very young, up to one month old, it’s firm, crumbly and salty, much like Feta, he says. At six weeks, it’s softening on the corners but still has a firm center that’s salty and chalky. At two months, the core is almost gone and the body is smooth and creamy. At three months or more, it’s developed an intense smell and flavor; it’s spreadable, pungent and almost bitter. “If you like it now, you’re a real Limburger lover,” says Olson, a big, gentle man whose face lights up and eyes twinkle when talking about his favorite cheese.

Committed to carrying on the Limburger tradition, Olson laments the fact that his area of Wisconsin, just outside of Monroe in Green County, used to be home to more than 100 small cheese plants making Limburger, among other Old World varieties. “We’re the only one left—not just in Wisconsin, but in the whole country,” he says. “Sales declined over the years as the old timers died out and consumers started preferring blander cheeses, but they’re on the rise again. People are looking for more fully flavored foods again, and they there’s big interest in handcrafted, authentic regional foods. Our Limburger sales rose significantly last year.”

In addition to its notorious flagship cheese, Chalet produces traditional Swiss, Aged Swiss, Organic Swiss and meltingly creamy whole milk Baby Swiss varieties; Brick and German Brick; Muenster and petite Muenster; and traditional Cheddar cheese varieties.

Myron Olson
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
N4858 Highway N
Monroe, WI 53566
(608) 325-4343

1999 Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, LARRY STECKBAUER: Antigo Cheese Company – Antigo, WI

In 1973, Larry Steckbauer was fresh out of college with a history major and geography minor, and a career in urban planning was on option on the table. He retuned to his home town of Antigo, where his father once was an ice-cream maker and fluid milk bottler, and where Larry began feeling the pull of the dairy industry. That same year, he began his 26-year cheesemaking career at the Kraft Cheese plant in Antigo, becoming a licensed cheesemaker in 1981. He has never regretted his decision, and is now proud to join the upper echelon in his profession as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker.

In 1993, after Kraft announced it would close the Antigo plant, Steckbauer led a group of employees who sought to keep the facility in operation. With community support, dairy farmer loyalty, and tremendous assistance from Kraft and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, the plant was purchased by employees and community investors, giving birth to Antigo Cheese Company, which has thrived ever since.

Steckbauer refined his cheesemaking skills over the years, studying at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of Wisconsin. Once he learned about the Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker program, he decided it was a opportunity he wanted to investigate for himself and his company.

With the full support of Antigo President John Jacobs, Steckbauer enrolled in what he described as "an incredible learning experience," and his today certified as a Wisconsin Mater Cheese Maker in Parmesan and Romano cheeses.

"This was a special personal goal for me and I knew it would be a tough program," he says. "But the CDR makes it as user-friendly as possible. I traveled to Madison just twice a year, in Spring and Fall. The written exam was open-book, so I could complete it at home during a specified time-frame. Since I begin work at 3:00 a.m. and work at least a 10-hour day, this was a critical point for me. I found that as I did the test research, I learned so much more than just the answers to the questions. Another great program benefit was having cheese graders come to the plant on a periodic basis to test our cheese. I recommend the program highly and it's made me feel really proud."

Antigo Cheese Company plans to promote Steckbauer's achievement as a Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker. The company feels it's a significant product benefit for its customers. The company's business has grown steadily because of its commitment to quality. The number of accounts it sells to has grown from five when the company formed in 1993, to more than 80 today. Meanwhile, production increases 10 to 15 percent per year. The plant has produced Parmesan cheese for over 50 years and stepped up production several years ago with Italian-style specialties Romano and Asiago.

In 1997, Antigo introduced a unique specialty product, Stravecchio, Parmesan aged for 20 months, and their own retail product line, WISANTIGO.

Antigo Cheese Company has won several awards, including the prestigious Wisconsin State Fair First Place Govenernors Sweepstakes blue ribbon in 1995, 1996 and in 1998 for the Italian Grana category, and the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Award in 1996 for the emerging companies category and as a Manufacturer of the Year in 1998.

Steckbauer and his wife, Sally, an accountant, are proud parents of Ben, 18, Anne, 16 and Sam, 11.

Mr. Steckbauer can be reached at (715) 623-2301

Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese – La Valle, WI

One of the greatest pleasures Sid Cook gets from his life long journey as a cheesemaker is the personal freedom it affords him: the freedom to travel, to discover delicious cheeses from around the world and to bring them back to Wisconsin as inspirations for his own unique creations. A proponent of specialty cheeses long before they became the current rage among American gourmands, Cook is best known for producing high-quality, artisanal aged Cheddars. He now takes particular delight in trying new things, however, and in coming up with new varieties that he hopes will become as well-known "Wisconsin originals" as Colby and Brick.

The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program has helped him in this quest. "Jim Path, at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, urged me to get involved in the program," Cook says. "I resisted, thinking I really didn't need it, but once I got started I found it to be extremely valuable. Most of my cheesemaking experience has been hands-on. But I now better understand the technical side and the theoretical side. That's what's allowing me to make the new cheese varieties. It's opened my knowledge base so I can do new things."

Among the varieties Cook produces at Carr Valley's plant in La Valle and a second plant in Mauston are Fontina and Cheddar, in which he is certified as a Master Cheesemaker and specialty proprietary cheeses such as Canaria, Me'nage, Benedictine, Mobay and Marisa, named for his 14 year old daughter. Many of his new creations are small batch mixed-milk cheeses that he's had success selling to high-end restaurants and to specialty food stores nationwide, as well as to customers at Carr Valley's own retail stores.

A fourth generation cheesemaker, Cook grew up in a cheese plant and has been involved in making cheese for nearly 40 years. "My family lived at the cheese plant," he says. "When you opened the kitchen door, there was the plant. I started helping out a lot before I was 12 and got my cheesemaking license when I was 16. After high school, I went off to college and got my B.A., in political science, but I came back and got involved in the family business."

Carr Valley in La Valle has been in business for more than 100th years. "My mom's family started one of the first cheese plants in Vernon County in the 1890's," Cook says. "And Carr Valley Cheese dates back to 1902. So our roots run deep here."

Cook says his father, Sam Cook, has been his biggest mentor in life and in cheesemaking. He also credits his uncle, Floyd Burt, for teaching his father the art and business of cheesemaking, and he points with pride to the fact that his 18 year old son, Sam Jr., just got his cheesemaking license.

Lucky for Wisconsin specialty cheese fans, the Cook family tradition is stronger than ever. Sid hopes to start working soon on getting Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification in two varieties of his own creation.

Profiles in Wisconsin Cheesemaking: Mike Gingrich, Uplands Creamery

Growing up on a Midwest dairy farm instilled in Mike Gingrich a love for the land and a deep appreciation for farm life. Even after marrying his high-school sweetheart, Carol, and leaving the Midwest for California on a career path with Xerox Corp., his yearning for rural life endured. When children arrived, Mike and Carol decided the time was right to make a life change and return to the farm. “I had such fond memories of my childhood on the farm. I wanted our kids to have the same experiences, so we bought a small farm in southwestern Wisconsin. We had only about 30 cows, but it was enough to convince us that we had made the right decision,” Mike said. Eventually, the couple partnered with friends Dan and Jean Patenaud to buy a postcard-perfect 300-acre farm near Dodgeville, Wis. They manage it using a traditional, but no longer common, rotational grazing style of farming. Says Mike, “We’ve never looked back.”

Neither has he looked back on another life-changing decision: the decision to use the uniquely flavorful milk from his farm to produce a signature artisan cheese. “The farm was operating smoothly and didn’t need both Dan and I to manage it, so we began looking for another venture. Cheesemaking seemed a natural choice, particularly given the quality of our milk. I had it evaluated by experts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who confirmed that it did have flavor components related to pasture grazing that were different than conventional milk. I’d also heard repeatedly from old-time cheesemakers that spring milk made the best cheese. Armed with those insights, I became hooked on the idea of doing a seasonal cheese that would showcase our unique milk supply.”

Gingrich went to work getting his cheesemaking license and researching a wide variety of cheeses to determine what he’d make. “Our style of farming and milk production, with the cows moving from one fresh pasture to the next from spring through fall, resembled the traditions followed for centuries in the alpine regions of southeastern France,” Gingrich said. “Ultimately, we settled on a farmstead, raw-milk Beaufort-style cheese. The aging techniques we use were developed in the Middle Ages, when cheeses similar to ours were aged in limestone caves and washed frequently with a brine solution. We named it Pleasant Ridge Reserve because our farm is located on lands within this Uplands region once called Pleasant Ridge. The terroir of our farm is so important to the quality of our milk, and ultimately to our cheese. And our cheese is made right on the farm, so we wanted it to have regional identification.”

Pleasant Ridge Reserve is widely recognized as one of the best artisan cheese made in America. In 2001, its first year of production, it took Best of Show at the prestigious American Cheese Society competition. It was named America’s best cheese in the 2003 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, and made a repeat performance at ACS in 2005, taking Best of Show for a second time. It is the only cheese to have ever won both the ACS Best of Show and the U.S. Contest top prizes.

They journey into artisan cheesemaking has brought Gingrich unexpected pleasures and nurtured in him an even stronger belief in the importance of farming, of the land and of local food production. His happiest moments as a cheesemaker? “Seeing the sheer joy and sense of discovery on peoples’ faces when they taste my cheese for the first time. That’s a great feeling,” he says.

Uplands Creamery
4540 County Rd. ZZ
Dodgeville, WI 53533