Our weekly happy hour – Funky Friday – will have an interesting twist this week: Local ciders.

It is mid-October, so apple season is upon us and now’s the time to find out more about local offerings made from some special, locally grown apples.

Our staff will welcome visitors from Mineral Point, Wisconsin, where the Cider Farm is located.  Cider Farm is run by Deidre Birmingham and John Biondi (see photo), who make several types of cider, and apple brandy, from certified organic apples from the Cider Farm orchards.

Fromagination is very excited to be partners with this outstanding local producer.  And we’ll have more local visitors to Funky Fridays in coming weeks!

The Cider Farm people began grafting special trees in 2003 to create orchards that provide vintage apples they could not normally find in Wisconsin.

For this Funky Friday, our cheesemongers have chosen a cheese board menu this week will include specific pairings to compliment the ciders we will be tasting:

  • Cider Farm’s Classic Dry Cider paired with BellaVitano Black Pepper cheese  Cider Farm’s Classic Dry is described as having “firm tannins” and a “clean finish,” which will not overpower this creamy, nutty but spicy version of BellaVitano.
  • Cider Farm’s Cyser paired with GranQueso Reserve cheese  Cider Farm Cyser has notes of green apple and honey, and should provide a nice contrast to Roth Cheese’s Spanish-Style, well-aged GranQueso.
  • Cider Farm’s Oak-Aged Cider paired with Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese  Depending on your taste buds, this may be the more interesting or challenging pairing – Pleasant Ridge’s unique flavors with a cider said to have notes of vanilla, toast and butterscotch!
  • Cider Farm’s Equinox paired with Hook’s 12-Year Aged Cheddar cheese  The Equinox cider is billed as having flavors “herbaceous, citrus” and “soft hop,” which should be a great companion to one of Hook’s well-aged Cheddars!

All of these choices will be available with Potter’s Winter Wheat Crackers, Fromagination’s Cranberry Relish and dried Wisconsin cranberries.

Head over to the Fromagination shop to have one (or some) of these delicious ciders this Friday…or have a glass of wine or a local bottled beer.

Cider Farm also produces apple brandy, and they will be hosting a “release party” for a new version in Fitchburg in November.  See their site for more information.

From the Cider Farm website, they explain their approach to creating aged apple brandies: “We focus on growing tannic apple varieties, varieties rare in the U.S. yet cultivated for hundreds of years in France and England for brandy and ciders. These apples yield an apple brandy similar to that of the Calvados region of France.”

If you want to find out more about how to get Cider Farm products, or how they are made, stop in and discuss your questions with Deirdre.

Don’t forget: Funky Friday happy hour runs from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. every week at our shop, 12 South Carroll Street, next to the Park Hotel on the Capitol Square.

As usual, Fromagination will have cheese boards and raclette plates available for hungry cheese fans.  Call 608-255-2430 for more information.


Andres started out not knowing much about Wisconsin cheese culture, but now he is a seven-month cheesemonger at Fromagination.  

“Well, I didn’t know a whole a lot about cheese,” he said. “I felt like this was a good way really to acquaint myself with the world of cheese.”

Andres had already decided why Fromagination was his first pick for employment.

“I always enjoyed coming into the shop. I feel like the environment and the atmosphere Ken [Monteleone, Fromagination’s founder] is trying to convey here in the shop is just the kind of place I wanted to be apart of.”

A cheesemonger’s first day on the job is always a chance to learn.  Andres arrived at the shop in early March.

“It was a learning experience,” Andres said. “There were so many kinds of cheese towards winter. It was a relaxed day and I got time and attention to my training.”

According to some customers, Andres has already become an expert!

“I made a cheese plate for some people…actually I made a few cheese plates and they loved them. They were calling me ‘the cheesemaster’ and they were just overjoyed,” he said. “It felt good to be able to make people feel like that.”

But Andres hasn’t always been in the Wisconsin cheese community.

“In South Dakota, [I] worked with kids, [and] graduated school for art…I’m a painter. Met my wife here, and now I work at a cheese shop.”

As with most cheesemongers, Andres has his favorite cheesemakers, one of whom lives here in Dane County and founded Bleu Mont Dairy.

“Willi Lehner, he’s my favorite cheesemaker. I’m sure there are a lot of really cool, awesome people making cheese, but Willi really appeals to my…I guess, independent spirit, and [it] doesn’t hurt that all of the cheeses he makes are basically like my favorite cheese.”

Andres thinks that cheese is a universally popular food.

“Cheese is one of those things where you know even if you don’t have much experience with it… [I] mean it’s delicious,” he said. “And it’s not really an acquired taste…it is an acquired taste, but I would say a lot of cheese isn’t. It’s the kind of thing anybody can pick up and recognize, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ you know?”

And what is Andres’ favorite part of the cheesemonger job, you may ask?

“Being able to help people find what they love and the joy on their faces,” he said.

 


Greg has been part of the kitchen staff at Fromagination since it opened more than 10 years ago. He was drawn to the shop because of his family legacy in dairy farming.

“All of my relatives were dairy farmers when I was a kid. Even when I was a little boy I lived in a cheese factory for a while. My relatives had one of the very first herds of Holsteins cows so that’s what I grew up around. It was very natural to step into it. Then we had our own flower shop, then that closed down and Ken was opening a store, so it was a nice transition. And I needed a new job and I talked cheese so…,” he said.

His trial period at Fromagination was different from other staff members because he was one of the very first employees.

“None of us knew what to expect because it was just opening, so we didn’t know how busy it was going to be. It was pretty busy because we opened in the fall…we had…Thanksgiving and Christmas on the way so it was kind of exciting because it was all new.”

Day-to-day, Greg is often answering the phone at the shop, taking orders and making sure other employees get messages.  Especially during the December holidays, we should call him the “Voice Of Fromagination.”

To make customers happy, you meet their expectations and surprise them, Greg said. “Find your favorite cheese and don’t mess with it again,” he often says.

One of Greg’s favorite cheeses is also a favorite of many customers – Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese.  He cuts a lot of that cheese to make the cheese and charcuterie trays that Fromagination sells for events.

“I love traditional, soft-ripened washed rind cheeses too,” he said.  One of those, Rush Creek Reserve, is also from Upland Cheese, sold at Fromagination traditionally during the December holidays.

Greg is a chef and has long maintained an interest in fine foods. He has done catering and makes impressive, elegant desserts and appetizers.  When asked the key to making food visually attractive – such as Fromagination’s cheese trays – he sounds more like an artist that is opening his paints.

“It’s the same way I would arrange flowers, decorate a Christmas tree…or other projects.  It’s about contrasting textures and flavors…it’s just all about inter-relationship so that it puts everything into its best light.”

And like Greg’s creations, the Fromagination staff has become one of various talents and interests that make Fromagination an interesting place to work.

 


Kristi is a long-time cheesemonger at Fromagination, starting her cheese sales position two and a half years after the shop opened in 2007.

Customer service and finding the best cheese for particular customers is Kristi’s focus. Before Fromagination, she cooked in several restaurants and a private school. But she always wanted to work with dairy.

“The reason why I wanted to work in the food industry was to be able to support Wisconsin dairy and agriculture by working in artisan cheese shops that would give me the opportunity to become more aware of our cheesemakers.”

As the artisan cheese movement has grown, it has been a process to learn the ropes.

“My first day was a little overwhelming. My coworkers were very instrumental in teaching me things, and slowly but surely I learned how it worked here.”

Kristi has to know what cheeses will fit the customer she’s talking to in order to provide the best experience.

“I think my work ethic is strong,” she said. “I also think to make a happy customer is to go above and beyond. I call it my ‘surprise and delight’.”

Kristi likes to make it easy for her customers to reach that delightful moment.

“The best part of Fromagination is working with the customer, tending to their needs and recommending things they would have never thought of. It’s a little overwhelming and intimidating for some people, so I like to kind of narrow it down so it’s easier for customers to make choices that way.”

But Kristi has her favorites if you ask her what she likes.

“My favorite pairing is our signature cranberry relish with a nice sharp cheddar.”

Outside the shop, she likes reading, cooking at home and taking care of her pets.

“I try to encourage people to ‘Love cheese more’,” said Kristi, echoing Fromagination’s tagline.


Fromagination assisted with a world record on Wednesday, August 1!  The world’s largest cheese board was assembled in downtown Madison…and we helped!

4,437 pounds of cheese came to the Capitol Square – engineered by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board) to break the Guinness Book of World Records’ mark, previously set in the Netherlands.

Assembled on a huge cheese “board” on King Street, directly east of the Capitol Square, the gigantic display was seven feet wide and 35 feet long!  2000 guests received a curated cheese plate with Wisconsin cheeses chosen by Fromagination.  Others were invited to bid on wheels of cheese for a raffle that benefited the Great American Milk Drive.

Fromagination’s owner and general manager, Ken Monteleone (picture above on an optical illusional chunk of cheese), helped coordinate the cheese cutting, which took place next to the Fromagination shop at Madison’s Park Hotel.  He was there at 6:00 a.m. to make sure that the Guinness representative saw all the cheese officially weighed before it was delivered to the street display.

“It was a long day,” Monteleone said, “but it was an impressive display of Wisconsin’s flagship export, artisan cheese!  And lots of people got to taste some very delicious cheeses.”

The leftover cheese was donated to Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, which provides food to people in need.

 


In the summertime, our shop can be very busy with our normal customers and tourists on vacations or students on summer break. This summer Fromagination put together a teenage staff to help in the shop and business office.

Teen staff member Meriem – who began at Fromagination in 2017 – chose to work at the shop because other teenagers work at fast food places but Fromagination is a unique cheese shop. She says her favorite thing about working there is the environment and the diverse staff she gets to work with everyday that she never thought she would ever meet. After high school she plans to attend UW Madison. Meriem often says, “Don’t be cheesy; be a sweetie.”

Four of this summer’s teenagers were actually trained and suggested to Fromagination by the Youth-Business Mentoring program at Common Wealth Development.  Those mentors start the students with a intensive three week pre-employment training, followed by a job placement with a supportive business. They begin by teaching teens how to effectively find, apply for, and interview for jobs. They also educate youth about financial management with field trips and guest speakers. After a student successfully completes the training, she/he is placed in a real-world job. Together with their workplace supervisor, the Common Wealth mentor assists participants during their work placements, focusing on how to keep and excel in a job. This double-mentoring ensures a youth has the support she/he needs to make the most of the employment opportunity and overcome problems that may arise in a first job.

Shariah, who started this summer, says working at Fromagination is a great first job. She also likes working with all her coworkers. One bonus she says is meeting people from all around the world who come to the shop, and, of course, learning and trying cheeses.  Once she graduates she thinking of becoming a CNA or chef and attending a historically black college or university. Shariah thinks “To live the best life is to live the cheese life.” Shariah and the rest of the teen staff operates the booth at downtown Madison’s Concerts on the Square, which is her favorite part of the job.

All the teenagers help with the Concerts, a six-week Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra event on Wednesday evenings. Different food booths offer meals for anyone attending the concerts.  The teenagers staff and sell from Fromagination’s booth and everything has to be quickly organized and set up  – their end goal is to sell out.  Everything has to be calculated correctly from the number of, and popularity of, Fromagination’s sandwiches to boxes and other food items.   The team coordinates that each time and its personal sell-out record this summer is two hours!

The rest of the teenage staff, Brady, Matthew, Tamia, and Poetry, have helped in various ways. Brady is in charge of the Concerts on the Square booth and makes sure everything runs smoothly. Matthew gets everything organized and a counted for the booth. Tamia’s hard work has earned her the title of “Cheesemonger” and makes her a big help in the shop. Poetry helps in the office with writing blog posts (like this one!) and fixing small things on Fromagination website.

Stop by the Fromagination shop to meet the teen staff and taste cheese!    

 


Have a look below at the results!

https://www.thrillist.com/videos/eat/nation/fromagination

In May, Fromagination had a visit from the travel and entertainment news source Thrillist.  That prompted us to do a Wisconsin artisan cheese “short-course” for our visitors.

Two of our cheesemongers, Shannon and Jeff, talked to the Thrillisters about “stories you can taste”…the animals, people, land and traditions behind our delicious cheeses.

We also demonstrated how to put together a cake of cheese for a special event, and assembled a cheese platter to discuss how to pair the cheeses with other foods.

Wisconsin produces lots and lots of cheese…as almost everyone already knows…but Fromagination tries to highlight the unique and interesting local creations for our many visitors.

One of the interesting soft cheeses on the cheese platter was Cambozola, a German creation that mixes Blue and Camembert cheeses.  Another on that platter was a Wisconsin sheep cheese, Ocooch Mountain, made from raw milk in a Gruyere-style by Hidden Springs Creamery.  Needless to say, we impressed the out-of-towners.


This spring has already had such an interesting rhythm. A perfect combination of sprinting to get as much done as humanly possible in the span of 24 (or 48 or 72) hours followed by enough rain to give us time to recover. We’re able to keep busy while also able to stay (reasonably) sane which is a bit irregular for spring but absolutely welcome. Plus, the plants are (literally) drinking it all up.

There was a short-lived but dramatic hail storm a little over a week ago that really threw us for a loop– shredding our expensive row cover and allowing pesky flea beetles into our young, delicate brassica crops– but overall the weather has been gentle and we’re feeling healthy, balanced and back on schedule after a slow to start season. We may have lost a couple crops due to hail, but that’s a reality we’re reluctantly learning to accept in this whirlwind way of life we’re forging.

I’ve been using my free time to do more freelance writing on farmers and the good energy brought to me while chatting and learning more about their stories has been palpable. We’ve also added a small but mighty crew to our days at the farm which is filling our hearts immensely. It’s amazing the joy passionate people bring to our little operation and the peace of mind we find in their hard work, compassion and understanding.

I guess it should come as no surprise to me by now, but the good people in our lives continue to be the fuel that gets us through hard weeks. My dad’s respect for our operation has expanded exponentially since we added a tractor and he shows up before he’s asked to help change attachments or mow our fields when our brand new attachments malfunction.

And my mother continues to be my rock during the farming season taking every emotional outburst in stride, calmly and rationally looking for silver linings and rays of optimism in hard situations. She races out to help get greenhouse plastic stretched tight on a windy day. She makes phone calls to contractors on our behalf and offers up opinions and knowledge all along the way. She adjusts her own rhythms and routines to accommodate our growing farm business. She yells out to to the fields every couple hours with offers of food she’s just made knowing that our stomachs are always growling.

That’s why last week it seemed necessary to take a break from the long days and gentle chaos to prepare some food for her for once. We gathered together on the back deck with an elegant cheese board and some bottles of Strawberry Rhubarb Ale from New Glarus Brewery.

The spread was inspired entirely by my mother: a woman who somehow balances being both strong and delicate alongside a bright yet earthy disposition. These flavors are that: a melding of strong cheeses with delicate notes and bright, earthy accents.

The cheeses used hardly need an introduction. My mom, a Wisconsin-born, Midwest lover, deserves a cheese board made up of local heavy hitters. All the cheese on this board, with the exception of the exceptional Bent River Camembert style cheese from Alemar out of Minnesota, are Wisconsin made.

Roelli’s Red Rock is one of my favorite local cheeses: a cave-aged cheddar with thin blue veins that bring just enough subtle funk. The Mobay too has been on my list of favorites for years with creamy goat and sheep milk cheeses separated by a thin line of ash leaving you with a perfect balance of bright, tang with sweet, grassiness. The buttery, sweet Big Ed’s Gouda from Saxon Creamery is a crowd pleaser while the Cave Aged Marisa from Carr Valley contrasts beautifully with complex aged notes and an elegant natural rind.

The accents to this cheese spread are plentiful. The deep, rich Wm. Chocolate from Haita sits alongside a pile of sweet pickled shittakes (recipe below), a bunch of roasted asparagus, and Underground goat salami with its subtle cinnamon and rosemary flavors. Honey from Hilltop Community Farm and a Quince & Apple cranberry relish (exclusively available at Fromagination in Madison) allow every bite to be tinted with sweetness if desired.

I’ve made just enough cheese boards over the last couple years that I’m beginning to find joy in the artful arranging of personalities and flavors– to create boards that can emit feeling and dedicate them to the people I love. This one, I must say, was just perfect for you tough momma.

Even in our craziest months, when we don’t have much of our own produce to use regularly, I am so grateful for the local producers who surround me and the great care they take in the goods they create. It’s an honor shopping at the stores that celebrate these visionaries and sharing the things I love with you all. I hope you spend this Mother’s Day with the folks who matter most and I hope you are surrounded by good food that brings forward wonderful memories.

With adoration, respect and joy,
Your Leek


On Saturday, May 12, Alice in Dairyland will visit the Fromagination shop.

You may be familiar with Alice in Wonderland…but might ask, “Who is Alice in Dairyland?”

Good question.  Here in Wisconsin – “America’s Dairyland,” according to our vehicle license plates – there is a public relations professional employed annually to promote state agriculture.  This year, Crystal Siemers-Peterman, from Cleveland, Wisconsin and a recent University of Minnesota graduate, is Wisconsin’s Alice.

She contacted Fromagination recently to ask us how to put together a cheese platter.  Then she followed up with a visit to our shop to get a quick lesson from our cheesemongers, first talking with Shannon about how to arrange a cheese platter.  Then she talked with Jeff, whom she asked about a famous local, product, cheese curds.

Tomorrow, Crystal will be providing information about Wisconsin’s dairy industry, including basic milk and cheese information for children.  She has a degree in Agricultural & Food Business Management, and has been an intern for Sassy Cow Creamery, Land O’Lakes, Inc., and an advertising agency.  Now she is finishing a year of promotional work across the state.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), “Each year, Alice in Dairyland travels more than 40,000 miles throughout the state, promoting Wisconsin agriculture to various audiences. Additionally, she conducts hundreds of media interviews, speeches and school presentations.”  A new Alice will be chosen in June for the coming year.

The Alice in Dairyland program has been around for 70 years, and Crystal has helped provide educational for 10,000 4th grade students, with support from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Come in tomorrow to talk with a bright, young professional who wants you to eat your cheese!

 


Easter is such a tricky time of year for us. We treasure time with family and love any reason to get together but late March and early April is so weird for us farmers.

We’ve passed the winter resting phase where the work doesn’t necessarily slow down, but is way more in our control. Paperwork, record-keeping, seed orders, marketing plans, and budgets all need to be finalized in the months of December, January and February (not to mention a myriad of projects we saved for the “slower winter months”) but all those things can be scheduled around time with family and friends. They’re the rare farm tasks that don’t care one bit about what the weather outside looks like. Then later in the year, the months of May through November are pure chaos with planting, harvesting and weeding practically daily, but at least we have a routine. We know when we have to do certain things and there just isn’t much variability. It becomes clear what we can yes and what we can say no too.

But March and April are just so weird. We’re tending to our greenhouse and (new!) germination chamber which really limits how far and how long we can be away from the farm. The cloud cover also dramatically affects things. A surprise sunny day when we’re halfway across the state could bring utter devastation to a hot box of growing plants.

There is a ton to do this time of year but it’s all sort of non-urgent yet vitally important. It’s not a bad place to be in generally. It means we’re doing things right that we have a laundry list of things to get done pre-crazy to make our chaotic summer lives easier. But it is nearly impossible to make solid plans that involve driving to visit families a couple hours from the farm. So Easter really needs to come to us or move to a different time of year altogether. That’s what I’m finally realizing after six years of this wacky life as a farmer.

For some reason or another, Easter still remains a holiday I never want to ignore. To me it feels like the welcome celebration of spring and that means so much to me as a vegetable producer. I want to celebrate warmth and sun and flowers and the start of a new growing season. So for the past few years we have celebrated our own little Easter close to home by ourselves wrapped in a blanket of nourishing simplicity as we tend to farm tasks.

Last year we went to Cow & Quince for Easter brunch. It was bright and colorful and absolutely perfect, but this year I wanted to keep things even more simple. I wanted to enjoy one of our favorite indulgences: a decadent cheeseboard.

The cheeses on this board were selected by my dear friend Shannon of Fromagination because of their spring flair. Most of them are from Wisconsin because I’d be crazy not to highlight local delicacies when designing a cheese board from my home within the dairy state. The board plays with fresh and aged cheeses as well as a fun mix of sheep, goat and cow dairy.

The deeply complex Cave Aged Chandoka from LaClare Family Creamery sits alongside the young and creamy Petit Nuage from Landmark Creamery and the buttery, washed-rind Meadow Melody from the small and enchanting Hidden Springs Creamy (who happen to also make my favorite fresh sheep milk cheese in the state). I always need a little funk on my cheeseboard so I added Hook’s Barneveld Blue which is made with goat milk and subtly fragrant. The Humboldt Fog Dill Remix from Cypress Grove was also essential as no cheeseboard of mine can go without something soft-ripened in a bloomy rind; the dill featured in this seasonal classic out of Arcata, California made it too perfect to be ignored.

Now if that’s all way over your head and you don’t know one thing about cheese you can still have fun with this for Easter. Simply pick your three favorite cheeses (one aged, one firm and one soft is a good rule of thumb) and pair them with some bright spring jam, a jar of pickled green beans, a dozen or so Pimento Cheese Deviled Eggs (recipe below) and delicate herb-infused crackers.

This post was generously sponsored by the great folks at Fromagination in Madison.

Happy Easter weekend everyone! Have a joyous couple of days,

Leek