Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marieke Penterman: One Rockin' Mama Cheesemaker

There is no doubt that U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is absolutely a good cheesemaker. She's got the credentials, awards and aging room full of cheese to prove it. And there's no doubt the girl can dance - anyone who's ever witnessed her moves when winning an award can attest to her prowess on a stage. But above all, and perhaps not as well known, is the fact that Marieke Penterman is an amazing mom and wife. All it takes is a visit to her family's new retail store, cheese plant, dairy barn and milking parlor off Highway 29 in Thorp to confirm that Marieke is indeed a master at balancing work and family.

Walking up to the brand new Holland's Family Cheese agri-tourism facility - where visitors can see every step of cheesemaking from farm to fork - is seeing every dream of a first-generation immigrant family come true. After winning the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, Marieke, her husband, Rolf, and their five children, aged 11 to 5, put their plans of building a visitor-friendly dairy facility in high gear.

Today, from 7 am to 7 pm, visitors start in the Holland's Family dairy barn, where they can watch 435 cows milked three times a day. Two sets of viewing windows - downstairs and upstairs - make for great viewing perspectives of how the Pentermans' herd of Holsteins, Red Holsteins, Brown Swiss and crossbred cows are milked in a modern parlor. School groups can visit with teachers for just $2 per child, and  gather in an upstairs educational room to hear the details of milking cows, followed by cheese tasting. Self-guided tours for the public are free, and guided tours may be booked in advance for a fee.

From the dairy barn, visitors walk just a few yards past a giant fiberglass Holstein cow to enter the retail store and cheese plant, which features large viewing windows of both the cheesemaking room and the aging rooms. A cozy fireplace with comfortable couches invites guests to get a cup of complimentary coffee, buy a wedge of cheese, and enjoy it right on site. An ice cream counter filled with Kelley's Country Creamery is perfect for kids, and shelves of authentic Dutch foods and goodies are available for purchase. Marieke also believes in supporting her fellow Wisconsin cheesemakers, so a huge cooler filled with Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheeses round out the shopping experience.

But it's not until one sees the parts of the facility not open to the public that one begins to learn what a a devoted mother Marieke is to her five kids: twin girls Luna & Joyce, age 11; Dean, 8; Fenne, 7; and Finn, 5. After school, the kids march up to the offices of the cheese plant to do their homework, where each has a self-decorated workstation with their initial on it, and where, three days a week, a high school student helps them with homework.

Marieke says she also helps them with schoolwork when she can, but like most parents - including me - by the time your kids are in middle school, math problems and grammar exercises are beyond us. With her office right across the hallway - marked by a bright orange door (each of the employees got to pick the colors of their doors and office walls), Marieke can both make sales calls while watching her kids out the door.

Unlike the original Penterman farmstead just a few miles away - where the farm house was across the yard from the dairy barn and cheese factory, the Pentermans purposely built their new house away from the farm - close enough to see it, but not close enough to walk there. "I liked being right on the farm before, but now, with a store open 7 am to 7 pm, we are here a lot. And I want my kids to know that when we're home, it means we're home. That's for the family."

The Penterman kids also remember where they came from. Marieke and Rolf speak both Dutch and English to their children (on a visit this weekend, each child was asked in Dutch to introduce themselves, and each did so with incredible cuteness), and Marieke proudly displays pictures of both her and Rolf's family on the upstairs walls above the retail area. This area is available to the public to rent out for parties - "Our first party was a bachelorette party, and we didn't even have it done yet," says Marieke. Especially poignant photos include this one of Marieke's grandmother and father, who as a small boy, is watching his mother milk the family cow:

And then there's this one, taken many years later, which show Marieke as a little girl, holding the lead rope of one of her father's Holsteins.

It's hard to believe that not yet 10 years ago, Marieke started her cheesemaking journey with just one helper in the cheese room. Today, the Holland's Family crew is made up of 20 women and 4 men, a strong and growing team, including Natalie, the sister of one of the original cheesemakers Marieke hired when she first started. That's Natalie pictured at left below, with Marieke in the middle.

When she's not in the cheese room or her office, or attempting to help the kids with homework, Marieke still finds time to be in the barn. She knows many of the cows by name, and even talked a local veterinarian into setting the broken leg of a recently-born calf. The vet, of course, wrote "Gouda Luck", and all the kids signed it.

But it turns out Marieke isn't the only devoted parent with a sense of fun - on a visit to Holland's Family Cheese this weekend, we watched as Marieke's husband, Rolf put air in the giant "Kangaroo Pad" right outside the front door of the retail store. The pad is open to all visitors - no matter their age - to jump on and have a little fun.

On this day, the first kids to break it in for the season were the Penterman brood. Twins Luna and Joyce jumped with abandon, while Dean chased his sisters, Fenne took frequent breaks to eat Laffy Taffy gathered at that morning's Thorp Easter Egg Hunt, and little Finn tried valiantly not to slide off the edge when his brothers and sisters jumped near him.

And to top it all off - Rolf joined in on the fun, jumping from end to end right along with the kids, stepping off at the end, out of breath, to give Marieke a hug and to encourage her to give it a try. She smiled and joked she was happy to watch him and the kids. Because as a champion cheesemaker, mother and wife, she needed to hurry back inside the store to wait on a customer who was eagerly waiting to buy a wedge of cheese with her name on it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

2015 Willy Street Co-op Cheese Challenge: Cast Your Vote!

Never mind that the U.S. Cheese Championships are happening today in Milwaukee, or that UW-Madison's own Big 10 basketball player of the year Frank Kaminsky is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or that spring has sprung in Wisconsin, the real news today revolves around the "Cheese Taste Testing Challenge" dreamt up by the geniuses at Willy Street Co-op in Madison.

Behold the ultimate Wisconsin specialty cheese bracket:

Inspired by the NCAA basketball tournament, the 2015 Co-op Cheese Challenge sets 32 Wisconsin cheeses against one another to determine the state's big cheese. In even more exciting news, several cheeses will be sampled at both Co-op locations from 9 am to 1 pm on:
  • Today, March 19 through Sunday March 22 - Round 1
  • Thursday, March 26 and Friday, March 27 - Squeaky 16
  • Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 - Edible 8
  • Thursday, April 2 and Friday, April 3  - Fromage Final 4
  • Saturday April 4 and Sunday, April 5 - Cheese Championship
Throughout the Cheese Challenge we cheese geeks can vote via Facebook on which cheeses we like best to see who advances to the next round. You can also vote in-store at both Willy St. locations.

May the best cheese win!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

American Stinkies in the Spotlight

American cheesemakers are finally beginning to rival the great
stinky cheeses of Europe.
More American cheesemakers than ever before are perfecting the art of crafting stinky cheese. Once a category limited to just smell-my-feet Limburger and German-style smear-ripened Brick, American stinkies are arcing into the realm of the greats: Taleggio, Reblochon, Alsatian Munster. This category of cheese, similar to strong coffee, hoppy beer or aged Scotch, can be an acquired taste. But once you get a taste for this kind of cheese, you'll drive miles to find a good one.

Here are five of my American favorites:

1. Good Thunder, Alemar Cheese, Mankato, Minnesota. This miniature square of stinky comes from southern Minnesota, which much like my hometown in southwestern Wisconsin, is more famous for its potluck hot dish and rhubarb recipes than French-inspired, smear-ripened mountain cheese. But cheesemaker Craig Hageman hits nothing but net with Good Thunder. Bathed in Minnesota's own Surly Brewing Bender beer (an American Oatmeal Brown Ale), the cheese sports a  pumpkin-hued rind with a velvety, buttery, savory paste with just-right notes of meaty and mushroom.

2. St. Jenifer, Creme de la Coulee Artisan Cheese, Madison, Wisconsin. I've got to give Cheesemaker Bill Anderson credit: the dude is aspiring to make the kinds of cheese most Wisconsin cheesemakers walk away from in favor of a safe, orange cheddar. St. Jenifer is named for Jenifer Brozak, affineur at Bear Valley Affinage, a custom cheese aging facility turning out some of the state's best cheeses. A young, gypsy cheesemaker with no facility of his own, Bill makes his cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese in Berlin. My favorite wheels of St. Jenifer are on the younger side, with a slightly firmer paste and less bitter finish.

3. Kinsman Ridge, made by Landaff Creamery and matured by Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont. Helder dos Santos at CE Zuercher & Company, a distributor out of Chicago, first sent me a sample of this cheese about a year ago. Inspired by French tommes, such as St. Nectaire, Kinsman Ridge is as close you're going to get to a raw-milk French mountain cheese without going to France. Aged three to five months, this stinky beauty is a bit firmer than most others on this list, but the taste is consistently stellar. If you can find this cheese in the Midwest, snatch up every last piece, throw a party, and share the gospel of good cheese with your best friends.

4. Ameribella, Jacobs & Brichford, Connersville, Indiana. This is the kind of semi-soft, washed rind stinky you can smell three feet away. Oh yeah, baby. Inspired by the cheeses of northern Italy, its salty, savory flavor is perfectly matched with a smooth, stretchy texture that resembles Rush Creek Reserve in rectangular form. It just won a 2015 Good Food Award, and with good reason. One of the newest stinkies on the American market, it's just beginning to achieve national distribution.

5. Hooligan, Cato Corner Farm, Colchester Connecticut. An oldie but a goodie - this one's been around since 2006, but it's hard to find in the Midwest because many of our white bread cousins are still cutting their teeth on food with flavor. I first tasted this cheese several years ago at the American Cheese Society's annual Festival of Cheese, and essentially stood guard next to its table and ate half the platter over the course of an evening. (Don't ask how that turned out). It's been selected by both Saveur magazine and Slow Food USA as one of the top American cheeses made today. Another raw-milk cheese, Hooligan is aged more than 60 days to achieve that tell-tale pumpkin orange washed-rind outside color and inside buttery, creamy, savory flavor. It's pretty much perfection on a plate.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

On Location: In Pennsylvania Studying Cheese & Eating Whoopie Pies

Well, it's official, I love Pennsylvania. Not only does this fabulous state host one of the best cheesemaker conferences I've ever attended, it also makes a whoopie pie that will literally be the best thing you've ever eaten in three bites.

Maybe I'm still riding the sugary high of this hand-made bad boy from the Rotelle family at September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA:

or perhaps it's the cheese induced coma I've been in the past two days, but I'm telling you, the little burg of New Holland, Pennsylvania - birthplace of New Holland Equipment, home to my favorite hay rake growing up on the family farm (yes, I already emailed my dad a picture of the big downtown headquarters sign) - is one happening artisan cheese mecca. This is what I discovered, thanks to the fine folks who invited me to speak at the 2015 Cheese Makers' Resource Conference, sponsored by the uber-organized Agri-Service LLC team.

More than 170 cheesemakers and dairy folk from around the country coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut, descended on New Holland this week to attend the annual conference, featuring in-depth educational sessions on Cheddar cheesemaking, sheep & goat cheeses, regulatory challenges, cultured dairy products, creamery start-ups, and panel discussions on breaking into markets with new products.

My job was to lead two different tasting and sensory sessions on salt, sour and bitter notes in cheese (there's nothing I'd rather do than talk cheese!), but by far, the highlight of the conference for me were three back-to-back sessions with veteran artisan cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon, who talked a rapt room through the art and science of making goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Taking notes as fast as humanly possible, I learned a whole lot of new information on how goat and sheep milk is different for cheesemaking, and how milk composition of these species varies greatly depending on the animals' lactation calendar. As we all know, a female animal must give birth in order to start giving milk (lactating). The average length of lactating for sheep is 220-240 days, and for goats, 305 days, before the ladies "dry up" in time to give birth again a few months later.

Milk produced during the length of a ewe or doe's (or cow's for that matter) milking season varies greatly in composition. For example, the ratio of protein to fat in the last 30 to 60 days of a sheep or goat's milking cycle is greatly decreased. In other words, the percentage of milkfat is higher, and the percentage of protein in that milk is much lower. Cheese yield goes up, but the quality of that cheese may go down, and be much higher in moisture.

That's why it can be hard to make a good quality hard, aged cheese from late lactation milk in all species, Dixon says. The key is to make different types of cheese depending on the type of milk produced during the lactation cycle. European cheesemakers had this figured out hundreds of years ago in the Alps. They knew that after giving birth in the spring, the height of the cow's lacation cycle was in the summer, when the cows would be on Alpine pastures, producing milk rich in both fat and protein and perfect for making huge, round Alpine cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyere. In winter time - at the end of the cows' milking calendar - cheesemakers invented tommes, smaller cheeses that didn't need to age as long, and were often considered inferior in quality to the big wheel cheeses of summer.

Since we don't live in the Alps, a modern American solution as to what to do with late lactation sheep's milk, Dixon says, is to blend it with cow's or goat's milk to still get a solid quality ratio of fat to protein, and to have enough milk to make a vat of cheese (animals will start drying up at the end of the lactation schedule, resulting in less and less milk in the waning days of the season). Dixon's general rule of thumb? Any cow's mixed milk cheese must contain at least 20 percent of goat or sheep milk to obtain any flavor profile of the sheep or goat.

In addition, goat and cow's milk may also be blended with sheep's milk to make softer cheeses, or, late lactation sheep milk may be frozen and mixed with the next year's milk to make a fresh batch of cheese.

"The key is: don't make the same cheese thinking you have the same milk every day," Dixon says. "Different milk equals different cheeses depending on the time of the year."

While this year's conference focused on cheddar and goat and sheep cheeses, next year's conference will focus on soft-ripened cheeses, with keynote speaker Gianaclis Caldwell already booked for the February 9-10 event, said Dale Martin, president of Agri-Service. I'd highly recommend attending the conference, and then making a short road trip to September Farm Cheese to not only eat their line-up flavored cheddars and jacks, but to also consume the best Whoopie Pie of your life. Best. Day. Ever.

September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA, home to the best Whoopie
Pie ever. Yes, ever.