There’s no question that I enjoy food – eating, creating, serving, sharing. Especially the sharing part. Isn’t it wonderful to sit around the table, laughing, talking, enjoying something tasty with people you adore? That’s one of my favorite afternoons, right there in a nutshell. Good food, good wine, good company – are you kidding me? What I enjoy almost as much is discovering these little gems – maybe a wonderful artisan bread from a new bakery or a unique hand-crafted cheese. Perhaps some funky salamis, nifty olives or other interesting little tidbits. I can easily spend hours wandering through a new grocery store, lingering in the funky ethnic aisles, picking up crazy stuff that I don’t know what to do with. My pantry shelves are filled with such treasures.
I also really enjoy meeting the people that make these wonderful things – the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. I relate to folks that are passionate about their hobbies and have even more respect (and perhaps a tinge of jealousy) that they’re making a living doing it. These are my kind of people!
As the lead on membership programs for the local chapter of The American Institute of Wine & Food, my role is to organize interesting things for our members – dinners, tours, tastings and such. The AIWF has some serious food cred – it was started 25 years ago by Julia Child and Robert Mondavi with the mission to enhance quality of life through education about what we eat and drink. Now that’s something I can get behind. Right now, we’re working on putting together a farm tour to bring some exposure to wonderful people doing wonderful things right in our backyeards. I’m pretty excited about this.
Unfortunately, farms are disappearing at an alarming rate in this country. It’s a rough business and not many farmer’s kids want to continue the tradition. I get it. It’s extremely hard work and the lure of an easy desk job in the big city with a fat paycheck is hard to resist. (Oh boy, do I know that.) But what happens when all the local farms disappear? Do we really want Big Ag responsible for 100% of our food supplies? The thought makes me shudder. We need options and to have those options we have to do a little work ourselves and seek these things out. Which is what this farm tour is about – learning about seasonal farming in our area, crop rotations, organic farming practices, raising animals humanely, handcrafting beautiful products using time-tested techniques and finding the people who do them.
During a research trip to Wisconsin last week, my fellow board members and I met some really amazing people. If you haven’t been to Wisconsin in the spring or summer, let me tell you something – you’re missing out. It’s GORGEOUS. Perhaps because I grew up in a dessert, the rolling green pastures and hills of the Midwest really sing to me. I swoon over every red barn and corn crib we pass. I shout out to every cow roaming the fields (and there are a lot of them in Wisconsin so this can get annoying.) But I want to tell you about Willi. You need to know about Willi.
Willi Lehner is a cheesemaker in western Wisconsin. The lovely rolling hills of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin to be precise. He comes from a long line of cheesemakers, learned his skills at the knee of his Swiss father and has spent many many years honing his craft both here and abroad. I do believe he has whey running through his veins as cheese is so strongly inbedded in his family DNA … his two brothers, a sister and her husband are Wisconsin cheesemakers as well. Quite the legacy. I’m so jealous I can barely stand it. After reading this article from the NY Times, I learned that Willi is a bit of a local legend as well – “the off-the-grid rock star of the Wisconsin artisanal cheese movement.” Awesome.
His dairy – Bleu Mont – is interesting in that it is neither a farm per se, nor a dairy. [Discuss.] What he does is make cheese; very good, very interesting and very delicious cheese. He uses milk from local dairies in his friend’s cheesemaking facilities then brings it back to his rather unique aging cave. And oh boy, what a cave it is. After traveling through Great Britain studying cheesemaking he noticed that many were aged not in climate controlled, clinical stainless steel rooms but in chambers built into the ground. He started asking around and learned that this was by far preferred as there are distinct advantages. The temperature is consistent all year round and doesn’t require a lot of energy to heat/cool/maintain, the humidity levels remain constant and it’s a very friendly environment for the necessary spores and bacteria needed for aging. So a few years ago, he dug out a massive crater on his land, built his own “cave” and hasn’t looked back since. There are a few photos of the construction process here.
To enter the cave, we had to remove our shoes and wear borrowed slippers. (Side note: there’s nothing quite like slipping your bare feet into someone else’s Crocs. Oh well. I wasn’t going to miss this.) Walking into the aging room, I was immediately struck by the austere beauty of it all. Bandaged washed cheddars, all lined up in neat little rows on wooden planks. Little discs of sheep’s milk cheeses, ever so slowly developing their distinct flavor. Some experiments, just to see what would happen. You see, mass produced cheese is meant to taste consistent each and every single time, every single batch. There’s no variation and there’s not supposed to be. But a small batch cheesemaker, like a wine maker, will never make the same cheese twice. There are so many variables just in the milk itself – the type of milk, the breed of cow, what season and therefore what grass was growing in the field, the time aged, even what cheeses are aging nearby as they can develop and attract different spores. Every single variation changes the flavor ever so slightly. Basically, it’s a calculated crapshoot. You control the external conditions and hope for the best. Over time, you figure it all out.
After the tour, we tasted some of Willi’s cheese. Wow. First off, fresh cheese curds. If you’re not from the Midwest, chances are you’ve never had these. In fact, until recently I had never seen them outside of Wisconsin but they seem to be pushing onward. Squeaky, fresh, chewy – I love ’em. Deep fry them, add a cold beer and I will love you forever (I’m easy like that.) Discovering fried cheese curds in a small northern Wisconsin bar was a banner food moment in my life.
His blue cheese – Bleu Mont Blue naturally – is easily one of the best blue cheese’s I’ve had. Tangy, creamy, a little piquant – it was mighty fine. His award-winning bandaged cheddar bears no resemblance to the orange crap we’re so used to. It was sweet, nutty and nuanced and reminded me of cheddar I’ve tasted at Neal’s Yard. His swiss – made with organic milk – was unlike any swiss cheese I’ve had before. I bought 2 big hunks of his cheese to hoard and a bag of cheese curds because I couldn’t resist. The curds was gone in mere moments. Dammit. I just couldn’t help myself.
As for Willi’s distribution, I’m sure it’s not very large or if it exists at all beyond what he sells himself (He’ll ship! Call or email.) That’s the thing with these small artisan producers – you definitely have to go to them but that’s OK because then you get to talk to these fantastic people. Bonus! Willi sells most of his cheese – and the garlic and asparagus he grows too – at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison, one of the truly great farmers markets in this country. Every Wednesday and Saturday I’m told he’s there, along with a lot of other really interesting people who make/grow/raise great things too. Check them out – these are the kinds of things we should be supporting when we can.
If you’re interested in AIWF programs, sign up at www.aiwf.org to be on the mailing list of your local chapter or better yet join. The member benefits are outstanding. You’ll get discounts at various shops, first crack at tours, tastings and events including this Chicago-based farm tour I’m working on (spoiler alert – I’m also working on a tour of Rick Bayless’ home garden this summer!) Unfortunately, Willi likely won’t be on that tour – after 16 hours of driving that day, we all determined that those wonderful WI folks may be a little too far for what we have in mind. We’re touring Illinois locations next week that are a lot closer and will make for an easier day. But if you are interested in visiting Bleu Mont, and I highly recommend it because that aging cave is absolutely worth seeing, Learn Great Foods does great food tours of the Midwest. Check them out.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: Well, I didn’t really bake anything but I did scarf down an ungodly amount of cheese – both from his tasting table and what I brought home (not too mention treats from the other folks we visited.) That in itself is rather stress inducing, I suppose, but I’m too fat and happy and warm and fuzzy and envelopped in a warm cheesy glow to worry about it right now.