Sunday, October 11, 2015

Looking Over the Cubicle Wall at Days Gone By

My favorite picture of my daughter when she was little,
surrounded by memories of places visited or projects
created at our dining room table. The crocheted butterfly
was made by my own mother over 25 years ago.
I cry about three times a year. I don't cry when I'm sad or angry, and my tears always catch me by surprise. What's worse, they are often embarrassing, because they pop out in public.

When I worked at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, I would break out into tears at my desk about every six months, mostly from the sheer frustration of trying to work in a government bureaucracy that did not move as fast as I wanted. On those days, Dr. Myron, the state fish veterinarian, who sat in the adjacent cubicle, would slowly stand up, gently peak over our cubicle wall, and gently ask if I was alright. I would always answer with an emphatic yes, and that I would be fine in a few minutes. And I always was. Whenever I cry to this day, I think of that tall, kind man, asking if I was going to be okay.

Today was the first time I cried in a long time, and it happened in of all places, the Sunday church service. There's nothing like breaking out in tears in a room of 150 people, many of whom have become like family over the years, but many of which are still strangers, and where in both cases,  men have no idea what to do, and frantically elbow their wives to do something.

Today was Children's Sunday, where the kids in our Sunday School presented all the things they had been learning the past few weeks about discipleship. As I watched a three-year-old girl dressed up in a fancy dress not follow her script and instead interrupt the pastor with a very detailed story about what characters were her favorite in a game she played at home, I looked to the parents, sitting in the audience, who were wearing looks of utter mortification. I'm sure they believed their child was ruining the children's sermon. What I wanted to do, was to stand up over the cubicle wall, and tell them it was going to be alright: that this was a moment they would remember forever, and that every adult in the audience was either 1) remembering with fondness their children at that same age, 2) thanking God it wasn't their kid talking, if they had kids that same age, or 3) wishing it was their child because they either had lost a child or perhaps couldn't have children.

And that is when I inexplicably broke out into tears. Because my little girl is now 18, has moved out of our house, and is happily living her own life. But when she was three years old, she sat on steps just like the ones today, wearing a fancy dress, and in the very middle of the Children's Sermon, stood up, lifted up her skirt, and announced as loud as humanly possible: "I forgot to wear underwear today." I remember frantically motioning to her from the audience to sit down, and still remember the feeling of being utterly mortified, wishing God would at that moment just swallow me up whole. I believe the situation was rendered by the pastor hastily saying: "Let's pray," and all the kids following his lead of sitting down and putting their hands together.

That moment has become a storytelling staple in our house, and it is always told with laughter and fondness. And while I remember that moment vividly, it seems the years that led to that point, and the years after that day, are a blur. As a parent, we are always too busy. Busy with work. Busy with school. Busy with stuff. Stuff. And we very rarely take the chance to sit down and think: this day is never going to roll around again. And pretty soon those days turn into months and the months turn into years, and in a flash, your little girl with the fancy dress is all grown up and gone.

While parents of grown children are always happy for our kids to go out into the world to do their own good work, it is often not until they are gone, that one sits on the sofa and realizes how quiet the house is. And sometimes one wishes they could have just a day or two back of having a little girl, especially one, who one Sunday long ago, interrupted a children's sermon with a story of her own.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dairy Sheep Symposium Comes Back to Wisconsin

If you're currently milking sheep, have ever thought about milking sheep, or just curious about why people milk sheep, then you should plan on attending the 21st Annual Dairy Sheep Association of North America (DSANA) Symposium in Madison, Wisconsin on Nov. 5-7.

This year marks the first year in six years that the symposium has been held in Wisconsin, considered by many to be the dairy sheep mecca of North America. Hundreds of folks will descend on Madison for the event, which also includes a pre-symposium sheep milk cheese-making course at the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison.

Twelve presentations by 16 animal scientists, dairy sheep producers, veterinarians, and sheep milk cheese makers and marketers will be held at the Pyle Center. A sampling of topics and presenters include:
  • Impacts on Non-GMO Labeling on Artisan Cheese Production, by Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer, Whole Foods Market
  • Special Considerations for Small Ruminants, by Dr. Doug Reinemann, UW-Madison
  • Perspectives on Surviving and Growing in Dairy Sheep Production, by Bill Halligan, Bushnell, Nebraska; Dean and Brenda Jensen, Westby, Wisconsin; and Dave Galton, Locke, New York
  • A New Producer and Their New Cheesemaker – Challenges in Getting Started, by Sam and Abe Enloe, Enloe Brothers Farms, Rewey, Wisconsin, and Anna Landmark, Landmark Creamery, Albany, Wisconsin
  • Markets and Marketing of Sheep Milk Cheeses, Jeanne Carpenter, Specialty Cheese Buyer, Metcalfe’s Markets, Madison, Wisconsin (yep that's me).
In addition, attendees are invited to an all-day tour on Saturday, Nov. 7 (also led by me -whoo-hoo!) to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, and to Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby, where participants will visit a modern dairy sheep farm and artisan cheese plant operated by Dean and Brenda Jensen. We'll also enjoy a farm-to-table-lunch at The Rooted Spoon in Viroqua.

Be sure to click here for a complete program with registration information. I hope to see you there!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Wisconsin Farmers Introduce Moxie Munch: A Powerful Whey to Snack

From my early days of walking astride my father on the family farm, to writing about Wisconsin agriculture for The Country Today, to acting as a dairy industry spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, I’ve often thought: if you want to figure something out, ask a farmer. 

Farmers have a knack of seeing problems as opportunities. Almost every farmer I've ever known loves a good challenge. Maybe it’s because they take more time to think than the average person - whether it's driving tractor, feeding cows, or taking care of the land - a farmer is almost always thinking about the next step, the next hour, the next day, the next week. I am convinced that growing up on a farm led to my great (or, if you ask my family, super annoying) ability to multi-multi-task.

So today, I have a story to tell about farmers. This small group of folks - some of whom are still farming, grew up farming, or wish they were farming - are mostly former colleagues, and at this time, wish to remain in the background. So I'm not going to name a lot of names here, but this group has spent many, many years viewing a problem as an opportunity, and then setting out to solve the challenge. (I've even had a few cups of coffee with them, talking, thinking, and then thinking and drinking coffee some more. Mostly I just drank coffee - they did all the thinking).

These farmers thought there must be alternative ways to get to people to consume the good things in milk without necessarily drinking more milk. They knew people need protein, calcium and other vitamins milk offers. So over time, these farmers, with help from good resources in the Midwest, started coming up with ideas of milk-based products. They mixed up experimental recipes in their farm shops - yes, in their farm shops - in their kitchens, and eventually, in a professional laboratory.

And now, after eight long years of thinking and solving, they have come up with an actual product. They call it Moxie Munch: A Powerful Whey to Snack (yes, notice the play on words with whey - referring to whey protein). A crunchy chip, Moxie Munch is loaded with 21 grams of protein per serving, is low fat, and gluten free.

Available in Madison stores and online, Moxie Munch features a picture of a Holstein cow flexing her muscles on the packaging. (Disclaimer: I was apparently not included in the coffee-drinking session when the packaging was decided).  

One member of the Moxie Munch team - my friend, Lowell - who worked with me at the state Department of Agriculture after retiring as head chef at Betsy's Kitchen (a community restaurant that served Barneveld until it was torn down in 2001 to allow for a new highway interchange), said, in typical low-key, Midwestern farmer fashion: “Well, we don’t know if people will like it. We’re not very good at selling it. But we know it is good for people.”

Yep, despite their deep thinking skills, no one ever said farmers were public relations gurus. So, in an effort to help this great group of farmers, I'd highly recommend you try their new Wisconsin Moxie Munch: available in two flavors - Honey BBQ and Apple Pie. Thank you to them and to all farmers who think about and see things in their own unique way and come up with ideas and solutions that benefit us all. 

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

On Location: Making Alp Cheese in Switzerland

Andreas Michel with the wooden milking stool his
father made for him.
It's early September, and Andreas Michel - who goes by "Dres," as do most Swiss men named Andreas, is using the wooden stool his father made for him as a boy to milk his herd of 11 Simmental cows on the Eigeralp in Switzerland. Dres doesn't speak English, so he doesn't understand my question of how many generations his family has spent summers with the cows on this Alp, but when he shows me a wooden stool, with his name carved in the seat, and says his father made it for him, I suspect he comes from a long line of Swiss dairyman.

I've been on a mission since first discovering Alp Cheese 10 years ago to see the tradition in which it is made. I was almost too late. Very few alpine cheesemaking chalets still exist - just six on the Eigeralp above Grindewald. This is a country where hundreds of chalets existed years ago. And quite frankly, the only reason this particular chalet is still in existence is because Dres, a herdsman first, and cheesemaker second, found an executive from SAP - the world's largest inter-enterprise software company - whose life dream was to become an Alpine cheesemaker.

Michael Utecht is 50 but looks 10 years younger. He attributes whey baths to his youthful look. He grew up in a village on the Swiss-German border, and like a lot of city kids, had romantic notions about caring for cows and making cheese. But like most city kids, he went to college instead. Three years ago he was a career communications executive for software giant SAP. Then, remembering his childhood dreams, he took a six-month leave to learn how to make cheese in the Alps. Today, he makes cheese every summer for Dres' family and lives in Paris the rest of the year, freelancing as a communications coach. "I am fascinated by big cities, but I love to come back to the countryside," he says.

It's easy to see why. We arrive at 8 am on the Eigeralp, after a harrowing bus ride up hairpin corners and a dozen switchbacks on a one-lane road that the locals use for sledding in the winter. It's early, and the morning fog is lingering in the air, and the hills are suprisingly quiet - no cowbells in the mist. That's because all the cows are still in the alpine milking barns. Just five minutes after we arrive, a dozen cows start to slowly emerge from a wooden barn, having just been milked. Their clouds of breath - it is about 35 degrees F - fill up the valley as they emerge to stare at us, I suppose wondering what this group of 20 people is doing on their mountain. Soon, another dozen cows emerge from a nearby barn, then another dozen from another. In total, there are seven barns on this alp, each milked and owned by a separate farmer, but all released onto the same alp to graze during the day.

Of these seven farms, only three make cheese. The rest contract with the remaining cheesemakers to use their milk. Dres and Michael use only the milk from Dres' herd - 11 beautiful Simmental ladies with bells as big as melons hanging from their necks. In the morning, it takes Michael and Dres at least an hour to round up their cows for milking. They find them by the bells.

"Our cows all have names. They are part of the family," Michael explains. "Dres know each of his cows at a distance - by how she holds her head, or how she moves. If it's too foggy to see, he listens for their bells - every cow on this alp has a different pitch bell - and we set off in the direction of his cows' bells."

Two days ago, Michael and Dres moved the herd to the middle pastures - we are at 6,000 feet. The cows and men spent the early summer in the high pastures - at nearly 7,000 feet, and when the grass from this altitude is spent, they will move to the lower alpine pastures at at 5,200 feet. There is a cheesemaking chalet with attached barn at each level, and the cheese aging hut is built at the middle level.

The barn, with attached cheesemaking room.

Michael is explaining all of this to us, when Dres yells at him through the window of the barn, letting him know the morning's milk has been added to the previous evening's milk, and it's time for him to get to work making cheese. We follow. What we find is a traditional alpine cheesemaking hut, with a cauldron over an open fire, and milk beginning to heat. At 86 degrees F, Michael adds the starter cultures, and a bit later, the rennet. Thirty-five mintues later, Dres "rolls over" the curd, and Michael scoops a bit heavy cream with chunks of early curd into a wooden bowl, for all us to try a bit of Schluck (shl-oahk). We use the same wooden spoons Dres and his siblings used when they were younger.

Eating Schluck - heavy cream with a few lumpy curds - the morning tradition.

The cheesemaking chalet dates to 1897, but parts have been renewed every few years. The roof was last replaced 15 years ago, and the small living quarters - with stove and table - were remodeled two years ago. Meanwhile, the cheese house (where the cheese is aged) dates back to the 1600s - no one knows for sure, because the two numbers after 16 that are carved by the door have rubbed away.

Today, we will make only two wheels of cheese, instead of three, and Dres is not happy about it. He had to keep the cows in the barn last night because it was unseasonably cold, and they have not given as much milk this morning as they would have if they had been released to the alp overnight. So the work is less, but the reward also less. It's time to stir the curd for 45 minutes, and when Dres gets out a small, electric metal stirrer, I pipe up that there are two cheesemakers in the room, and perhaps they wouldn't mind stirring the curd for 45 minutes. So the modern agitater is put away, and the traditional stirring paddle is washed and sanitized in a tub of steaming hot water near the door.

Dres hands the tool to fourth-generation American cheesemaker Chris Roelli, of Roelli Cheese, and Chris begins to stir the mass of curds and whey, I suspect much like his great grandfather did 100 years before him in Switzerland. A few minutes later, cheesemaker Brenda Jensen takes a turn. The rest of us file out to eat breakfast at two picnic tables outside the hut. While we're huddling for warmth and eating homemade bread, jams and yogurt, Dres is cutting the perfect size pieces of wood to put in the fire to slowly increase the temperature to 123 degrees F. Chris and Brenda constantly stir the curd for 45 minutes.

American fourth-generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli
stirring curd, much the same way as I suspect his great-
grandfather did 100 years ago in Switzerland.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Brenda Jensen, of Hidden Springs Creamery,
takes a turn at stirring the curd.
While I was eating breakfast, Chris Roelli snapped this picutre for me of
Michael cutting wood next to the cheesemaking cauldron to keep the fire
going slowly, raising the temperature of the cheese mass to 123 degrees.
Everything about alpine cheesemaking is a learned art.
Eating breakfast on the alp - fresh bread, homemade jam, yogurt, and of
course, Alp Cheese made by Dres Michel and Michael Utecht.

Then it's time to scoop the curd out of the cauldron with a cheese cloth. Dres is an expert, and scoops out the first batch of curd, putting two corners of the cloth in his mouth, and the other around a metal bar. He bends down into the hot mass and slowly scoops up a bag of curd, wraps up the top, to let some of the whey drain out, and then takes the piping hot mass to a form on the counter. He repeats the process a second time.

There are just a few curds left in the cauldron, so Michael asks Chris Roelli to scoop them out. This is the second time in his life Chris has done this method - the first was last year at the old Imobersteg factory at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe. That time, he went too fast and the curds rolled out of the cloth. This time, on the Swiss Alps, he does it perfectly. 'This is the best day ever. Ever," he says.

After the cheeses are put in the forms, Dres uses the stone press to keep releasing the whey.

Using a press weighted by stones to expel the whey.
 About an hour beforehand, while we were all busy watching Chris stir curd, Dres had taken yesterday's cheese out of the press and trimmed the edges.

Dres trims yesterday's wheels.

Now that we are done making cheese, Michael carries yesterday's wheels to the cheese house, where another helper puts them into a small brine tank for 24 hours, and then proceeds to wash and turn 74 days of wheels from that season. It will take him between two and three hours to hand wash each wheel with a brine solution, flip and then put back on the wooden boards.

Michael carries yesterday's wheels into the cheese house
for brining and aging.

While we are busy organizing a group photo in front of the cheese house, Michael is back at the cheesemaking hut, persuading Dres to play a bit of accordion and yodel for us. Dres comes down the hill with his instrument, and plays a lovely Swiss song for us, but says no to yodeling. We insist. The man then stands up and sings the most beautiful song you've ever heard, in perfect pitch, against a backdrop of cowbells ringing around him. His favorite cow approaches from behind us and begins to beller, recognizing her owner's voice. It is the perfect ending to a perfect morning.