[Note: The image above is of Martone, a cow-goat cheese from LaClare Farms, one of the more “interesting” looking cheeses at Fromagination.]

In this ninth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, tells us what your cheese choices may tell others….

What does your favorite cheese say about you?

My talent for small talk (or lack thereof) consists mostly of my ability to talk about cheese. At parties, one of the most common questions that I get asked is ‘What’s your favorite cheese?’. For me, this question is the equivalent of asking a parent which one of their children is their favorite—it is just not possible to choose (unless my mom has been lying to me all of these years?).

Instead of answering, I usually ask people what their favorite cheese is, something that actually helps me gain a lot of insight in to what sort of person I’m talking to. Every once in a while I end up with some interesting answers that shape my future relationship with the person.

Once, at a party, my friends introduced me to a guy who worked at Murray’s, a prestigious cheese store in New York City, citing our shared interest.  He was pretty cute, so we started talking about what cheeses he liked, my main metric for deciding if someone is date-worthy. When he told me that he only liked ‘mild cheeses’, I immediately started looking for a way out of the conversation.  A cheese aficionado who limited himself to mild cheeses was not my idea of a good date!*

I know someone who purports to only like French cheeses, because there is no way that Americans could ever master the art of cheese making like the French have—a silly idea that attests to his extreme Francophilia.  He also scoffs at the idea that cheddar could ever be a worthwhile cheese; he’s someone who has ‘taste’ in cheese, but who doesn’t really taste it.  I take this as a challenge, though, because all he needs is a taste of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Holland’s Family Cheese’s Gouda, or LaClare Farms’ chevre, and he’ll be a convert!

Most of the time, though, people tell me that they like brie or camembert, or maybe even name a local cheese if they’re adventurous cheese eaters.  And although a person’s favorite cheese can say a lot about them, most of the time people I meet haven’t discovered their favorite yet, which means I get to suggest a new cheese—my favorite conversation topic!

*(Don’t worry, I gave him another chance-he started tasting more flavorful cheeses and liked them, and we’ve been eating stinky cheese together for 6 months now!)

In this eighth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, examines a very different source for mozzarella cheese….

A few weeks ago, I bought my ticket to France, which means I’ve finally locked in my summer working at Chevrerie de la Baie, the small goat and buffalo farm that I worked on two summers ago. The last time I was there, Marisa, the head cheesemaker, focused her energy on learning to make buffalo mozzarella, a new business enterprise that Marisa was working to perfect. Fresh mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk is often understood as one of the hardest cheeses to make, something that one can only really get in Italy.

A few years before I met her, Marisa had decided to diversify her cheesemaking business and get buffalos. Fresh goat cheese doesn’t sell for much in France, and Marisa was barely making enough to make ends meet with only goats on the farm. She was also looking for a new challenge; at this point, making the goats milk cheese feels like second nature to her, and she wanted to try her hand at something different. So, she went for something really different, and started looking for investors to help fund her starting to make buffalo mozzarella.

This was quite the proposition; buffalos are not only extremely expensive animals to purchase and care for, but they are also extremely dangerous. Even with well-trained and happy buffalo, if you catch them on a bad day and they choose to charge you, you’re pretty much toast. Training a buffalo to be comfortable being milked is exhausting and dangerous work. You have to teach them to enter a ‘cage de contention’, a large metal cage that protects the milker from being kicked or butted by the buffalo (well, mostly-Marisa got a few kicks while I was on the farm). And once you finally get the milk, you’re in for a difficult and painful cheesemaking experience, including hand-forming balls of mozzarella by pulling pieces of the curd out of approximately 175° fahrenheit water.

All of this, though, is worth it for that incredible fresh buffalo mozzarella. I was on the farm two summers ago when Marisa made her first successful batch—something she figured out how to do by herself. It was one of the most glorious moments, after weeks of struggling to get the buffalos in to the cage de contention, after trying different ‘recipes’ and seeing failure multiple times, after Marisa repeatedly stuck her hands in water slightly below boiling temperature so she could form the balls of mozzarella by hand. That first ball of mozzarella that we cut in to was firm, and a bit of milk oozed out as we cut it, testifying to the freshness of the boule. The flavor of the fresh, milky, fatty cheese was out of this world; the texture still needed a bit of work, but Marisa is still tweaking and adjusting to get the cheese perfect every time. The best part of the cheesemaking process is this constant adjustment and playing, making every cheese slightly different from a similar one made a month before.

[Note: The image above is of Crottin de Chevre, a goat cheese by Xavier David, soon to be sold at Fromagination.]

In this seventh edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, discusses about the work that went into French goat cheese….

This past week I tasted some palhais, a small goat milk round from Portugal that is salty, creamy, rather mild, and quite ‘sessionable’ as I like to say (a term borrowed from beer fanatics like my brother, used to describe beers that are suitable for long drinking sessions).  I finished this small palhais round in about 10 minutes, eating it with my fingers standing at the kitchen counter. This little, white goat milk cheese made me nostalgic for the cheeses that Marisa made at Chevrerie de la Baie, and the evenings we would spend sharing a few rounds of fresh chevre and mozzarella de buffle.

An average day on the farm consisted of me waking up and having a bowl of coffee, a few crepes with nutella (okay, maybe more than a few), and then heading off to the barn to feed the goats and check in on ‘my babies’ (the kids). After making sure everything was copacetic at the barn, we would take an ATV out to the field to feed the buffaloes and check in.  There was always something to do out with the buffaloes, in the barn, or in the laboratoire, and we spent most of the day going back and forth (with regular breaks for coffee and a square or two of chocolate, of course).  We usually didn’t finish for the day until 7 or 8 at night, but every once in a while we’d get done in time to sit down together before dinner with a glass of wine and few cheeses while the sun set.

Although I learned a lot from Marisa and Fred during the day, one of the best parts of living on the farm was when we got a moment to sit and talk (well, once I could understand French well enough to keep up with the conversation).  They would tell me stories about how they had built their business, starting a goat cheese farm in a region in France known for their cows because they wanted to do things their way. They told me about how crazy everyone thought they were when they got the water buffaloes, and about how much work it had been to start a cheese business themselves.  There was something so idyllic about sitting around a table outside, snacking on an impeccable cheese that we had made together, and learning about the years and years of work that went in to being able to make that delicious piece of fromage.

In this sixth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, thinks about Cheddar cheese….

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.

Fromagination is celebrating spring with a new lunch menu that includes new sandwiches and other offerings at our shop on South Carroll Street.

The Dehli Deli Sandwich (pictured above) is a hybrid Wisconsin/North India-themed sandwich: Roasted chicken with a Tandoori marinade on a Telera roll with chutney mayo, Wisconsin mozzarella cheese, and lettuce.

The Gastronome Trio Sandwich is meat-lover’s mix of smoked turkey, smoked ham, roast beef, Wisconsin Muenster cheese, shallot confit with red wine, lettuce and olive oil, on sesame semolina bread. It is made at the time of order.

And our new vegetarian offering is the Ambrosia Minor Sandwich, which is a Greek-themed concoction of feta cheese, red onion, tomato and cucumber, served on focaccia. It is also made at the time of order, to ensure that it’s fresh.

We have more new items, including a Cheesemonger’s choice cheese sampler box, and two crostini plates for after-work snacking on our outdoor patio.

Come in and sample our new sandwiches April 15, 16 and 17 between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.!

[Note: The image above is of Myron Olson, cheesemaker at Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wisconsin.]

In this fifth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, explains how cheese is 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!

Grace will be in Europe to study cheese-making this summer, and has an Indiegogo campaign going to help her fund her trip!  Can you help?  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-wandering-cheesemonger

In this fourth edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, explains some differences in how people treat their cheese…

“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 [care & aging] 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 cheesemaker. 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.

Fondue lunch is a Fromagination winter tradition, and our communal table is still set this week for more fans of Swiss culture!

Aside from the great tastes – our three-cheese fondue recipe, roasted vegetables, bread and cornichons – the dipping, eating and communing is part of the fun of fondue.  We talk to guests about the tradition that came from poor people in Switzerland, and how the best part of the meal is sometimes at the end when you get to clean the fondue pot.  And we explain the various cheeses we use to create such a fabulous taste….well, those and the wine that goes in, too!

The Wikipedia “fondue” reference list 1699 as the first time cooking/melting cheese with wine was listed in a book, published in Zurich.  From there, it took on the French passive past participle for melt (fondre) in 1735 as a noun, and voila!…fondue.  It was promoted as a Swiss national dish beginning in the 1800s.

You may not feel very Swiss today, but we’ll bet you feel happier after a fondue lunch with friends.  Frigid weather and hot cheese seem to go well together.  Come in, get your fondue fork pointed toward the pot, and let your winter stress melt away.

See our fondue schedule to make a date for lunch!

In this third edition of The Wandering Cheesemonger, our intrepid blogger, Grace, begins to explain how the wandering started…

I got off the train in Quimper, 24 hours in to my trip from Madison, Wisconsin to Treguennec, France, half asleep and half scared, 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.”

Grace will be in Europe to study cheese-making this summer, and has an Indiegogo campaign going to help her fund her trip!  Can you help?  https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-wandering-cheesemonger

Need a good recipe for a fondue dinner?

We have it!

This month’s Fromagination Cheese of the Month Subscription shipment is titled “The Fondue Dinner.”  February is cold in Wisconsin, and people need a better reason than beer to gather around the table and commiserate!  So we’ve sent three great cheeses to our Cheese of the Month subscribers for them to create a superb fondue sauce: Emmentaler (Edelweiss Creamery, Monroe, WI), Grand Cru Surchoix (Emmi Roth USA, Monroe, WI) and Baby Swiss (Chalet Cheese Cooperative, Monroe, WI).

Did you notice a certain geographic similarity among these great fondue cheeses?  Monroe must be Fondue City about this time of year.

Below, we tell you how to employ those cheeses at your dinner table to entertain guests, use up your stale bread, avoid drunkenness, and create some great “Shepherd’s Underwear”!*

Dairyland Fondue

You don’t need to own a fondue pot to create fondue cheese sauce – any heavy pan will work. (Fromagination carries a heavy, cast iron fondue pot ) A cast iron crock is especially convenient as it can be heated on the stove and transferred to the table for service.

  • kosher salt
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
  • 1 cup Edelweiss Emmentaler, grated
  • 1 cup Emmi Roth Grand Cru Gruyere Surchoix, grated
  • 1 cup Chalet Cheese Cooperative Baby Swiss, grated
  • 1-1/2 cup dry white wine (recommended: Tariquet Sauvignon Blanc)
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • black pepper, freshly ground

In a medium bowl, mix the cheeses and combine with one cup of wine and the lemon juice. Let the cheese mixture soak for at least 45 minutes (Fromagination soaks its overnight). When ready to prepare the fondue, add a pinch or two of salt to the pot. Starting in the salt, vigorously rub the cut end of the garlic over the entire interior surface of the pot. Discard garlic.

Add 1/2 cup wine into the prepared fondue pot and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Slowly add the cheese mixture, whisking continuously.

The fondue is ready to serve when the cheese is completely melted and the fondue takes on a smooth consistency. Serve with bread, roasted or fresh vegetables, cured and smoked meats and/or pickles.  Serves 6 people.

*Underwear references always get people to keep reading…it must be engrained from 2nd grade.  “What IS Shepherd’s Underwear?” we heard you ask.  Well, it’s the cheese baked to the bottom of the fondue pot when most of the fondue dinner is over, and only this crust remains.

Even if you think the guy should really go to the Alpine Laundromat and deal with his dirty clothes more often, we think you find the Shepherd’s Underwear a truly divine part of your fondue meal.

Have a great fondue dinner before the snow melts!  And if you don’t want to do it at home, you can come and have some fondue at our shop.