When we think of specialty cheese, we think of its accompaniments—wine, beer, fruit, jam and perhaps a platter of charcuterie—but the cheese itself is generally always served fresh and in its original form, served pure and simple.
In upscale restaurants, cheese as a dessert course has become common, and cheese plates for catering are expected. The use of cheese in restaurants is now being transformed. Murray’s Cheese just opened Murray’s Mac & Cheese next door to the cheese shop, and its executive chef worked at upscale icons, including Per Se and the NoMad Hotel.
Nation’s Restaurant News, a restaurant industry trade publication, recently held a webinar for restaurateurs entitled: “Cheese, Please! — the Growing Menu Role of Specialty Cheeses.”
They explained the motivation and the content as follows:
Chains and independents alike are increasingly turning to varietal cheeses with distinctive characteristics to freshen up long-loved comfort foods or give new dishes future-favorite combinations of taste and texture. From the use of smoked Gouda on a brisket sandwich, to the blue cheese in a chicken pecan salad, the use of cheeses that stand out and have a story are on the rise to improve the chances for success of limited-time offers and next-generation menu mainstays.
Its webinar detailed what foodservice research house and consultancy Datassential has discovered about:
Overall cheese trends in foodservice – What’s new, what’s familiar
Leading cheese prep or flavoring techniques, such as smoking, grilling and infusing
Which cheeses are being used in which menu categories
Examples of specialty cheeses in traditionally cheese-heavy menu favorites, such as grilled-cheese sandwiches, mac ’n cheese and stuffed baked potatoes
Cheeses in places you wouldn’t expect
This is more significant than one might realize. This columnist and his family were involved in early efforts to popularize kiwifruit in America. It began with upscale restaurants using the almost unknown fruit in tarts and other recipes. This attracted attention among food and restaurant writers and, before you knew it, consumers were requesting the fruit all across the country.
As restaurants integrate cheese into new dining opportunities, we can expect history to repeat itself. More delicious ways to use cheese will mean more people demanding their stores sell better cheeses in broader assortments. That is a win for us all.
It’s like the world hit the refresh button. Everything is coming alive, babies are being born, daffodils and spring onions are peeping up through the soil that has been opened due to the freezing and thawing of winter months.
We’re very fortunate to live in a country where just about everything is available year-round, since retailers can source products from every region, every country around the globe. However, for those people who wish to follow the seasons, to celebrate local farms and appreciate a sustainable agricultural system, seasonality is something to cherish.
Artichokes, asparagus, fiddleheads, squash blossoms and dandelion greens are in early. In just a few weeks, farmers will be thinning traditional fall crops and true baby vegetables will make the scene.
Cheese also has its seasonality. It is now “kidding season”, and social media is filled with photos and videos of baby goats. Adorable in photos, they are much more lovable in person. Some farms are looking for people to spend a few hours loving on these babies, and I highly recommend it. Baby goats hop like bunnies and are just looking for love. This early socialization will mean less stress when they get older and people come around. Less stress means better, sweeter milk. Hence, better cheese.
Goats do not produce milk in the winter, although there are some ways to keep production going with frozen curd. However, for the most part, spring is when milk starts to appear. As much as I love summer tomatoes, my true love is the first seasonal goat cheeses. Young, usually two to three weeks old, they are sweet, tangy and very mild.
At this young age, they go with everything. One of my favorite breakfasts is a button of chevré served with good whole grain bread (especially if the bread has nuts or dried fruit), fresh strawberries and mango.
Lunch may be based around a salad or sautéed fiddlehead ferns on a bed of fresh greens. Again, I’ll take a fresh goat cheese, but a young, creamy cow milk cheese also works well. Sheep milk Feta also is delicious, and I find it delightful with strawberries, fresh herbs and a honey or fruit dressing.
Cow milk cheeses are a little different. Cheese made in the summer may be ready in the early spring. These younger versions of Alpine cheeses, such as Comté and Gruyère, or young Cheddars are milder and lack the complexity of their aged versions; however, they are the perfect pairing for the delicate flavors of spring. One of my favorite pairings was Gruyère with lightly pickled asparagus. I must say, it surprised me.
Jennifer Bice found her life’s work early on. As a child, she and her siblings enjoyed teaching the goats tricks on the family farm. Later, she raised dairy goats for 4H, and then she continued showing goats as an adult. Eventually, Bice’s hobby became a career in her role as the longtime CEO of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery in Sebastopol, CA, one of the country’s most respected goat dairies and creameries.
Bice’s parents started the farm in 1968, and she purchased it with her late husband, Steven Schack, a decade later. Under her leadership, Redwood Hill Farm added a Creamery and a became a leading producer of goat milk kefir, yogurt and cheeses; installed over two acres of solar panels on the creamery’s roof; became the first certified humane goat dairy in the United States; and started sister brand Green Valley Creamery, which produces lactose-free organic cow dairy products.
One thing that has remained constant since her childhood is Bice’s affection for her goats. “Given that dairy goats are milked twice a day just like cows, they’re very personable,” she explains. “They’re really tame and friendly, you know, just like a dog would be.”
Cheese Connoisseur recently spoke with Bice about her pioneering role in the U.S. goat dairy industry, her commitment to sustainability, and the popular misconception that goats will eat anything.
CC: You and Redwood Hill Farm are so closely identified with goats. What are some of your earliest memories of goats?
JB: I was actually born in Los Angeles, and I didn’t move to northern California until I was 10 years old. Even though my parents weren’t what we would call hippies, there was really a “going back to the land” movement at the time, which is why they moved us to Northern California and bought a farm. And we then got just about every animal—pigs, sheep, goats. We even had some cows, rabbits, chickens and ducks.
But the goats quickly became our favorites, because of their intelligence and their playfulness. They have wonderful personalities like dogs, but they give wonderful milk, too. They also became our favorites because they could learn tricks.
CC: What kind of tricks can you teach goats?
JB: You can teach them to jump up on a bale, you can teach them to turn around, jump off the bale…and you can dress them up, too, so it was a lot of fun.
A lot of them learn their names, if you call them, they’ll come. Of course, they learn to walk with you on a leash like a dog can. I have to admit, we have quite a few these days—about 250, counting the milking goats, the bucks and animals of all ages. So I’m not up for teaching them tricks like I used to!
Goats also are good travelers, so when you go somewhere, they’ll jump in the trailer or jump in the car. Some people have even house broken them, so they can come in as a pet in the house. Since I can see the goats on our farm from every window, I’m not bringing mine in the house.
CC: How did your childhood love of goats become your life’s work as an adult?
JB: Well, I stayed in 4H through high school, and all the while I had dairy goats. During that time, my parents had built a legal Grade A dairy, so they could sell the milk for human consumption to the new health food (or as we call them today, natural food) stores.
I went on to attend junior college and a business college and became a bookkeeper and receptionist and kind of an all-around office person at a veterinary clinic. I just loved animals and wanted to work with them. I still had the dairy goats, and I was really into showing the animals. You know, kind of like there are horse shows or dog shows, there are goat shows.
But I really wanted to own my own business so that I could do things according to my own values. My parents sold the farm to my late husband and I, and we took it over in 1978. At that point, they were only selling the raw milk in glass bottles. When we took it over, we really wanted to have a larger business, so that’s when we came out with the different products, such as yogurt, kefir (which is like a yogurt smoothie) and cheeses. We built it up around that.
CC: When you started out, was kefir a fairly niche product?
JB: Yes! Our first kefir was produced in the 1970s, and so many people in this country barely knew what yogurt was. We eventually discontinued it, but we came back out with it in later years, as yogurt became more popular.
It’s nice because it has living cultures like yogurt, so it’s very beneficial. But it’s also a drink, and it’s easy to use for making your own smoothies. It can also be used as a replacement for buttermilk—in baking especially, it does really well.
CC: What misconceptions do people have about goat milk products?
JB: Worldwide, more people drink goat milk than any other milk, but in our country the cows are king. A lot of times, [goat milk] is such an unknown factor for customers or consumers, that they’re actually afraid or scared to try it.
A lot of people think that goat milk products have a strong flavor. Basically, there are some short chain fatty acids, so if the milk is very high in bacteria or it’s old and degrading, these short chain fatty acids will come out and it gives it what we call kind of a stronger, “goaty” flavor. But well-produced, good-quality goat milk products? Most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from cow dairy.
CC: What are some of the advantages of goat milk?
JB: There are people that are actually allergic to cow dairy, and that’s usually due to the protein, called casein, in the milk. And while goats do also have protein or casein, it’s of a different makeup, and so most people that are truly allergic to cow dairy are not allergic to goat dairy.
On the same note, in this country there’s a lactose intolerance issue, and certain genetic groups of people are more lactose intolerant than others. And while goat milk does have lactose, it’s a little bit less and a different makeup than the lactose in cow dairy. So some people can use goat milk even if they’re lactose intolerant. Not all of them though, which is why in 2010 we started a second brand of products called Green Valley Creamery. We buy the cow dairy from a friend of ours nearby here, and then we convert it to lactose free for people who are lactose intolerant and can’t use the goat dairy [products].
CC: What are some of your favorite goat cheeses?
JB: Well, I like just about every goat cheese, I haven’t met many that I don’t like! But probably my very favorites are the French-style goat cheeses that are Geotrichum-rinded.
CC: What is it about those types of cheeses that appeals to you?
JB: The inner cheese is a little bit
softer, it becomes more firm and it actually dries with age. It has more of a texture tending towards the fresh Chevré, which I particularly like. Geotrichum is that mold that has kind of the brainy wrinkles to it, and it gives it a particular, kind of a tart, interesting, earthy, robust flavor. For example, the Crottin de Chavignol from France. For a while we made California Crottin, which is a typical Geotrichum-rinded cheese.
CC: What do you wish people knew about goats?
JB: There’s two things. One, people think that goats smell bad. And this comes from the fact that during the breeding season, which is in the fall, breeding bucks have musk glands on the top of their head. It’s a strong goaty smell. The reason for that is, in the wild, they would be covering hundreds of acres, and that smell would permeate and then the does and the bucks would be able to find each other in the wild. So really, the bad smell is only from the bucks and only during breeding season.
The other old wives’ tale is that people think the goats will eat anything. You see [greeting] cards with the goats eating the laundry off the line or eating tin cans. But actually, goats are really quite picky about their food. The reason they get this reputation is that they’re like a two-year-old child—they’re very curious, so they put everything in their mouth to taste it.
When farmers say, “Oh, those goats eat everything,” that’s because they are browsers like deer. Cows and sheep are grazers, so their natural diet is grass, whereas the browsers, their natural diet is tree bark, the more woody, brushy materials like thistles, berry vines, rose bushes, that kind of thing. Really, goats don’t eat grass unless they’re starving and trying to stay alive.
Bice relaxes in he bakery
CC: Can you tell us about some of the goats that have made the biggest impression on you over the years?
JB: Well, I’ve had a lot of favorites over the years—it’s hard to just call out one. There’s always ones that do better at the shows, and that’s nice. But working with them day-to-day, it’s the personable ones that are really the favorites.
We had one doe named Rima, who recently passed on but she lived to be about 14 years old. And she was so friendly. We do tours on our farm for people because we’re fairly close to the Bay Area, and there’s more and more people who want to see how their food is produced. It got to the point where if she saw a group of people, even if she was laying down in the barn, she’d get up and run over to the gate. We would just open the gate and let her out, and she would just walk with the people on the tour.
She was a special one, but there have been a lot of ones that were special. That’s the nice thing about goats.
CC: What inspired your decision to become the first certified humane goat dairy in the country?
JB: I think that really goes back to our love of the animals. Of course, the way we were raising our goats, we didn’t really have to do anything [to become certified], it was humane.
But by being certified humane, it’s almost like the organic certification where you’re certified by a third party. It’s more believable to your customer that can’t come to visit us at the farm in California. They can also go and look at the standards for being certified humane. Because of the requirements in those standards, it makes it so that you can’t really be factory farming.. That’s another area that we feel strongly about—it should be family farms and not factory farming.
Today, we buy some of our goat milk from five other family farms, but they’re all certified humane, as well.
CC: Why is sustainability a driving value of Redwood Hill Farm?
JB: We always take the long term look at things rather than the short term. We feel that climate change is the biggest challenge of our time, and we want to do our part. That’s one of the wonderful things about having my own business—I can run my business according to my own personal values of wanting to be sustainable.
And businesses have, to my mind, more responsibility, and they also have the availability to do more because they’re larger and can institute savings throughout the company that can have a much bigger result than just a single person. Although with climate change being such a big challenge, it behooves everyone to do whatever little thing they can do in this day and age.
Bice in her bakery kitchen
CC: Which sustainability efforts at Redwood Hill Farm are the most important to you?
JB: We have many initiatives, both in farming and production. Probably our biggest contribution has been in solar. Our creamery has 2,500 panels that cover over 2 acres of roof space. Dairy production uses a lot of energy when you think about the refrigeration and the pasteurization, heating and cooling.
When we installed solar at the creamery—it’s 586 kilowatts—it covered about 85 percent of our usage at the creamery. Because we’ve grown since we’ve put it in, it now covers about 75 percent of our energy usage. But in our area of California, we’re able to select an [energy] provider that only uses alternative wind and geothermal. So technically 100 percent of our energy usage is alternative and not fossil fuels.
At the farm we’re 100 percent solar powered, which operates the dairy and two houses on the farm. But we’ve also done other things. Probably our second most important contribution is that we put in rainwater tanks, and so we’re able to collect and store 100,000 gallons of rainwater. This is really important in our area, because in the winter we have quite a bit of rain, but being in California we also have the droughts that come and go. Having this rainwater storage has really been beneficial in that regard.
We’re a no-till farm, and we also grow Tagasaste for feed for our goats, which is a nitrogen fixer and carbon sequester. At all our locations, we reduce, reuse and recycle. We’re into doing what we can do.
CC: In 2015, you sold Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery to Swiss dairy maker Emmi. What inspired that decision?
JB: I’m 64, I’ll be 65 next year—I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I really felt like it was more of my life’s work than just a business to sell. Ultimately, I really wanted it to go on so that even someday when I’m retired, I can still buy my products in the store.
CC: Why was Emmi the right fit?
JB: I was trying to look around to find the best company, and actually Emmi contacted me. A friend of mine, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove, had sold to them in 2010. One of the reasons that she had sold to them and one of the reasons that I really wanted to go with them was, even though the business becomes part of the Emmi group, they’re very keen on having it remain in its original community, keeping the original staff and management. They support the strategy and help when needed, but they don’t get involved in everyday decision making at the company level.
Of course, it’s very beneficial because they do have expertise in both business and production. They’re very helpful when you want advice or any kind of expertise that, as a small business, we wouldn’t have.
To this day, they’re still majority owned by a cooperative of small dairy farmers, and they only have dairy companies. That’s the other thing I liked about them.
CC: What are your hopes for the future of Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery?
Bice on the farm
JB: I really do hope that it continues on. It’s kind of fitting that, as we’re celebrating our 50th year in business, I’ll be retiring as the CEO at Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery. I’ll be staying on as the founder to give business advice, but also to be an ambassador for the business, so that will be exciting. To just walk away after doing this for 50 years would be really hard.
I have a really excellent and outstanding group of employees, and I know that they’re aligned with the values and the culture of our company. I feel that we’re in good hands with having them go on. And then I’ll also be continuing with my farm, Redwood Hill Farm. I’m really looking forward to the future.
CC: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome over the years at Redwood Hill Farm?
JB: Well, there’ve been a lot of them! Starting small, being undercapitalized and having a goat business was really tough in the beginning, because there weren’t ways to get loans to grow your business. So that was difficult. We just kept at it, and we were able to grow through having more goats and selling more product.
The other biggest challenge—again, at the beginning—was the perception of goat dairy products. Even though they’re still a niche product, the perception of goat dairy and the industry has changed quite a bit from when I started in the ‘60s. It’s really gratifying to see that change in my own lifetime, and I feel like we’ve been part of that, helping the industry to have a better reputation and people be more accepting of goat dairy products.
CC: Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
JB: One is that when I did sell the creamery to Emmi, but kept the farm. I live at the farm that my brother and I still run. To have a sustainable, thriving and diversified farm is really satisfying, and I’m really proud of that. In addition to the goats, which are the stars of the farm, we also have an olive orchard where we press our own olive oil, and we have a small [apple] orchard. We’ve started raising and growing hops, for the craft brewers that are wanting more and more fresh hops.
But I have to say my personal identity, I always feel like I’m a goat farmer and a cheesemaker. I was really proud of being named as an American Cheese Society pioneer of goat cheese.
I’ve also established a grant, and I’ve worked with the California Artisan Cheese Guild to administer it. I award $10,000 each year to the next generation of cheesemakers to help them be able to grow and become a part of the cheese world and the cheese industry.
And, looking to the future, I recently purchased with my partner Gergana Karabelov, an artisan bakery called Patisserie Angelica in our town of Sebastopol, Sonoma County. It was started 24 years ago by two sisters that have decided to retire and move to France. The Patisserie specializes in French-style pastry, custom cakes, and wedding cakes all made with local, non-GMO and organic (where available) ingredients. We also have a cozy Parisian-style café where we serve a variety of desserts, coffee and even high tea. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, and we are happy to continue the legacy and deliciousness of the previous owners. Of course, I am always thinking about cheese, and we are already thinking about adding some savory offerings such as quiche, crepes and an artisan cheese board!
The U.S. is fortunate enough to have access to a wealth of cheeses, many of which are made on U.S. soil, as the U.S. produces some of the greatest artisanal cheeses from within. A large variety of cheeses from around the world are imported into America, including a good selection of British cheeses that have travelled across the pond.
Britain has given the world some of its most renowned cheeses, and as Bronwen Percival writes in the Oxford Companion to Cheese, these are cheeses that have evolved dramatically over their long history and continue to do so. The classic British cheeses may all look different in their styles, but they share the basic elements, namely curd drainage and acidification, which give them their characteristic high acidity and crumbly textures. The classics like British territorial cheeses and Stilton follow this path, yet there are several newer recipes and lesser-known styles that are also produced in Britain.
U.S. import laws for cheese are strict, meaning that there are regulations as to what can come over.
Current United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations state that cheese can be made from unpasteurized (raw) milk, so long as the cheese has undergone an aging process no less than 60 days at a temperature no less than 35 degrees F. This applies to cheeses made domestically as well as those that have been imported.
Certain cheese styles are excluded from this rule, including fresh and soft-ripened cheeses, which must be made from pasteurized milk no matter what extent they are intended to age.
When you think of your quintessential, British cheese you immediately go to Cheddar. There are a wide variety of types and styles of British Cheddar, many of which are available in the U.S. due to their longer maturation period.
I must stress that it is traditionally-made British Cheddar and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO that are different than large-scale produced Cheddar made in the U.S. Traditional Cheddars follow a longer production method, giving them their flavor profile and complexity as well as being made in clothbound wheels as opposed to block Cheddars.
The main process that distinguishes them from others is the act of ‘cheddaring’; the forming of curd bricks, stacking, unstacking and restacking them to expel whey. This allows for their unique texture, acidity and flavor profile.
Two types are widely available in the U.S.—Montgomery’s Cheddar and Quicke’s Cheddar—both of which have unique flavor profiles.
Montgomery’s Cheddar is unpasteurized Cheddar made on Jamie Montgomery’s Manor Farm in Somerset since 1911. It is a recipe that has kept consistent and close to its roots since the beginning, with only three head cheesemakers there in the last 50 years. The cheese is still made how it used to be, with adaptations and intervention being as minimal as possible to keep to its tradition and style. Flavors are rich, brothy and have a characteristic earthy, cave-like finish and a drier texture. This makes it incredibly moreish and perfect to eat alone, paired with high acidity chutneys and, as Montgomery himself enjoys, with a cider in hand.
Quicke’s Cheddar is made on Home Farm in Devon, England and run by Mary Quicke MBE, the 14th generation of the Quicke family who has been running the business for over 30 years. She is a leading authority on traditional cheese production methods, owing to her passion and knowledge of dairy farming and cheesemaking alike. They produce around 250 tons annually. Quicke’s Cheddar is made using milk from a grass-fed herd with incredible variety.
The herd is made up of seven different breeds, including Montbeliarde, Kiwi Holstein and Scandinavian Red, all of which are chosen for their specific qualities to create the ultimate ‘Quicke’s cow’.
The Cheddar comes to life in several different age profiles with the Mature, Vintage and on occasion the Extra Mature coming out to the U.S. Its texture is a lot more buttery and less friable than the Montgomery’s Cheddar and has rich, grassy notes with a caramel sweetness to finish.
From Scotland, Isle of Mull Cheddar is great for those wanting a powerful, sharp Cheddar. The cows are fed draff, a by-product from whisky production, and sometimes you get a boozy, whisky element coming through. A Cheddar called Hafod is one of the most exciting cheeses at the moment from Britain. It is a Welsh, Organic Cheddar made in Bwlchwernen Fawr near Lampeter. Its flavor profile is smoother and less acidic than many other traditional, clothbound Cheddars.
Stilton blue cheese
The second go-to cheese when discussing British Cheese is Stilton.
Stilton is one of the most famous Blue cheeses in the world, yet it is made in such a small area; its PDO states that it can only be made in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire in England. Colston Bassett Stilton is widely available in the U.S., as it is both pasteurized and aged for a minimum of nine weeks. Its flavor profile is like no other. Its texture is buttery (even more so with the Neals Yard Dairy recipe using traditional rennet as opposed to vegetarian) and it has flavors of fruit, cereal and cream with a gentle, warming Blue finish.
An unpasteurized Stilton recipe that is slightly lesser known is called Stichelton, a cheese that has been made by Joe Schneider and his team in Welbeck, Nottinghamshire since 2006. It is essentially Stilton how Stilton used to be made pre PDO status. The raw milk and single herd allow for its complexity; however a lot of skill, passion and hard work are also necessary in making the cheese taste as good as it does.
Lesser Known Delights
Territorial cheeses, such as Kirkham’s Lancashire, a favorite amongst quite a few cheesemongers and customers alike, are available throughout the U.S. This cheese is delicious as is, but a secret is to try it paired with sweet desserts, such as English Eccles cakes and apple pie.
There are many other British cheeses, some newer and on a smaller scale such as Rollright, a Reblochon/Vacherin style made by David Jowett at King Stone Dairy in Oxfordshire. Its texture is unctuous and the flavor is reminiscent of peanuts and meat. It’s perfect for those who want a soft cheese with some funk and to satisfy any post skiing washed rind cravings.
Soft UK cheeses are a little less plentiful in the U.S. due to the restrictions on aging, however two types that are permitted are Tunworth and Stinking Bishop. Tunworth is a bloomy rind made in a Camembert style in Hampshire, England. Despite its pasteurization, its flavor is phenomenal and, when blind tasted, it easily passes as a French bloomy rind with its prominent brassica and truffle flavors at the forefront. Stinking Bishop is less widely available, but worth trying if you find it. It is a washed rind cheese that has been washed in perry, an English pear cider. The name itself, in fact, comes from a variety of local pear used in the perry. It is very aptly named, as the aromas are pungent and intense.
As well as the classics, Britain makes a good number of newer cheeses. White Lake Cheese Co. opened their doors in 2005.
Based in Somerset, England, they produce two cheeses called Rachel and Pave Cobble. Rachel is a firm, goat’s milk cheese that won Best Goat Cheese in the World at both the 2017 and 2018 World Cheese Awards. Pave Cobble is a lactic style ewes milk cheese that is thermized (sanitized using low heat), allowing for its availability in the U.S.
It is a rarer style for an imported cheese, with similarities to French Loire Valley AOC goat cheeses, such as Valencay AOC. It won the prestigious award of British Cheese Awards Supreme Champion in 2017, making it a must try.
Britain makes so many styles these days that you can produce an eclectic cheeseboard from British cheeses alone.
If you desire a little more color and modern experimentation, blended cheeses are widely available. These contain added flavors, fruits or alcohol. Wensleydale Creamery makes flavored cheeses, the most popular of which being Wensleydale with Cranberries. It is sweet, colorful and simple.
Cotswold from Long Clawson Cheesemakers is a blend of Double Gloucester and Chives, and Huntsman, also from Long Clawson, is a cheese made up of layers of Double Gloucester and Stilton. Alcohol- enhanced cheeses, including Cahill Irish Porter Cheese and Guinness Cheese from the British Isles, also are available. A secret with Cotswold is to melt it into mashed potatoes. Try it. You won’t regret it.
FINDING UK CHEESES
Below are a selection of cheese shops, delicatessens and chains that sell British cheese. Some change their ranges frequently, so it is always worth checking in with each one to see if they have a particular cheese in stock that you’re seeking.
This list is by no means finite, so ask your local cheesemonger which British cheeses they have in at any time and give them a try.
You need to turn the history books back more than 80 years to find the humble beginnings of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars of Wisconsin, the Theresa, WI-based cheese company that started when John O. Widmer moved from Switzerland to the United States.
It wasn’t by chance that Widmer settled in a small hamlet known for cheese production, and he followed in the footsteps of many Swiss immigrants in the state to enter the cheese business.
“He was known for caring about the quality of his cheeses, and he built a strong company,” says Joe Widmer, the grandson of John, who serves as owner and head cheesemaster of the company today.
Joe got involved in the business as far back as when he was just a youngster in kindergarten. Back then, he lived above the cheese shop with his six siblings, would help out before school and was excited to rush home and see the finished cheeses that his father had created.
“My father was always committed to being the best that he could be, and that’s what I have always tried to follow,” he says. “The way I see it, it’s like comparing Grandma’s donuts to Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll take Grandma’s every time.”
Although he took some time away from the cheese business after high school to pursue a dream of being a rock n’ roll drummer, the calling was too much; he returned home and was happy to be back amongst his family.
Joe is a third-generation cheesemaker, having inherited the business in 1992 from his father and uncles (John, Ralph and Jim). Today, he works alongside his son, Joey, who is also now enshrined in the family business.
About a decade ago, Joe earned his certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker for Brick, Colby and Cheddar, continuing the family commitment to offer the best cheese around.
The Brick Formula
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is known best for its revered Wisconsin Brick cheese, which is referred to amongst many cheese experts in the state as “a cheese of unsurpassed distinction.”
“The Brick is hand-crafted in small batches to ensure top quality, and its earthy, sweet flavor and sliceability make it a favorite among many, as it is easy to use as a table cheese or as an ingredient,” Widmer says. “Particularly the surface-ripened, foil-wrapped version of this cheese has always been our calling card. Because it’s a washed-rind type that’s aged longer, it develops robust flavors.”
He explains the manufacturing method isn’t too different than other cheeses, but Widmer’s Cheese Cellars has perfected the formula into something special. First, fresh, sweet milk is delivered from nearby farms and brought to the cheese factory via bulk truck, where it is first heated to 162 degrees F and them cooled down to 90 degrees, before it is pumped into stainless steel vats.
Next, they add a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria to the milk, which is mixed to distribute the bacteria. Within a half hour, rennet, a substance obtained from the lining of a calf’s stomach, is placed inside, acting as a curdling agent. The fluid milk can then set for 30 minutes, which coagulates into a soft, semi-solid curd.
“From there, two large wire knives cut the curd into quarter-inch cubes, and the paddles stir the cubed curd and whey,” Widmer says. “They are cooked for nearly 40 minutes to develop the proper degree of firmness and acidity. The whey is gradually drained from the vat, and the curds are then put into stainless steel hoops on drainage tables.”
Finally, covers are placed in the hoops and a brick on top offers enough weight to press the cheese curds into 3-pound brick pieces. They are turned three times a day and then placed in a brine, where they sit for 12 hours.
Once removed from the brine, the bricks go into a 70-degree room for about a week, where they are washed and turned twice. The cheese is then put into 40-degree cold-storage rooms and is ready to be sold in about 14 days.
“Real Brick should have a heady aroma, and the flavor intensifies greatly as it ages,” he says. “It’s not for the timid, but cheese aficionados swoon over it. We’re seeing demand for it increasing, as consumers seek out more distinctive artisanal cheeses.”
Widmer still utilizes the same open vats in the 12,000-square-foot facility that his grandfather used back in 1922, and regularly manufactures 360,000 pounds a year.
He claims to be the only cheesemaker in the U.S. who still uses real bricks as part of the procedure.
In addition to the Brick cheese, Widmer’s is best known for its Wisconsin-original stirred-curd Colby and its four-year Cheddar, which has gained in prominence in the past 15 years..
“The aged Cheddar is a specialty that’s fast become a signature product for us,” Widmer says. “Things have changed in the cheese industry, and the demographics of today show that people are looking more for Cheddar.”
There’s no shortcuts or easy ways to his cheese making process.
Widmer follows in the traditions of his grandfather and the generation before him by doing everything by hand and working hard to produce great-tasting products.
One key area that Widmer has made some changes from the past concerns marketing, where, with the help of his son, he has turned around the identity of the company.
“When I started, all of the labels we used were different, and there was no identifying the Widmer look,” he says. “I commissioned a design for a new logo and tried to create a more upscale, unified look for all of our products.”
After all, Widmer’s cheeses are known throughout the U.S. as high-quality, hand-crafted cheeses, and it was important to him that the labels reflected that.
His strategy was simple: to survive and grow, the company needed a bigger percentage of profit on each pound.
“Our prices also didn’t reflect that, and I raised them to where they should have been given the expertise and labor that goes into crafting our products,” Widmer says. “Supermarkets were beginning to realize that consumers wanted more upscale, specialty cheeses and that this was a growing market with strong potential. Sales did fall off in some of our old accounts, but we began to look at newer, more upscale targets both in foodservice and at retail.”
The 21st Century
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars employs about two dozen workers, many of whom have been with the company for decades. Widmer enjoys the family feel of the job and wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Very little has changed in the 80-plus years that my family has been making cheese here,” he says.
In addition to its three main cheese products, the company’s cheese portfolio has expanded in recent years to consist of flavored variations on Colby and Cheddar as well as convenience products such as shingle-pack Brick and natural Aged Brick Cheese Spread.
Widmer admits he would like the growth and expansion to continue, but he is limited somewhat by the facility he works in.
“Luckily, we’ve been able to grandfather a lot of things through the years, such as our bricks, open vats and brine tanks,” he says. “I have the space to expand, but if I do it, I’d have to do things differently, and I’m concerned that would affect the flavor of the cheese. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to find people to do this kind of labor, so for now, we’ll keep doing things this way and grow as we can.”
The Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW), formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, in Madison, has officially set a new Guiness Book of World Records title by creating the world’s largest cheese board. This is not surprising, as Wisconsin produces 48 percent of the specialty cheeses in the U.S.
Spanning 35 feet long and 7 feet wide, the custom board took over an entire street in downtown Madison, with more than 2 tons of the state’s finest cheeses represented. This topped the previous world record held by a European by more than 1,000 pounds.
The cheese board included 4,437 pounds and 145 different varieties, types and styles of Wisconsin’s specialty and artisan cheeses, with national and international award-winners among them. This one-of-a-kind display centered around a 2,000-pound Henning’s Cheddar wheel, which was surrounded by everything a true cheese connoisseur could imagine, from blue-veined and cave aged Cheddars to fresh Feta, squeaky curds and hand-rubbed wheels to pungent Brick and even the 2017 U.S. Cheese Champion, Sartori Black Pepper BellaVitano, among others.
“We wanted to showcase the amazing breadth of the award winning cheeses in Wisconsin and we thought what better way to do that than to create the world’s largest cheeseboard,” says Suzanne Fanning, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin’s vice president of marketing communications. “Wisconsin’s licensed cheesemakers put the art in artisan, drawing from their rich European heritage, cheese making traditions and impressive innovations, and we’re thrilled to share their masterful creations with the world in a unique and fun way.”
The gigantic cheeseboard was custom made to fit inside a life-size, digitally- fabricated barn using CNC technology—a computerized process that’s a cross between woodcutting and 3-D printing—by Better Block Foundation, a nonprofit that uses urban design to foster community. This record-breaking feat was a team effort that involved over 60 people to prep, transport, house, style and weigh all of the cheeses.
Following the official judging ceremony by a Guinness World Records adjudicator, a crowd of over 45,000 excited attendees was able to witness the first of its kind display. The first 2,000 guests in line received a curated cheese plate to-go.
Despite the vast amount of cheese involved in this effort, none of it went to waste. Spectators entered a raffle to win full wheels of cheese, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Great American Milk Drive, the first-ever nationwide program to deliver nutrient-rich gallons of milk to children and families who need it most; the remaining cheese was donated to the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.
Funded by Wisconsin dairy farmers, DFW is a non-profit organization that focuses on marketing and promoting Wisconsin’s dairy products.
Extreme diversity distinguishes the southwest from other U.S. Regions. I-40 (old Route 66) splits the Southwest into two distinct environments: the northern divide has cool climates, tall pines and mountainous terrain, for example, in Santa Fe and Flagstaff. The southern divide is hot, flat and arid, like Albuquerque and Phoenix. A short one hour drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe provides an unmistakable illustration of the difference in environment.
As you zip along I-25, your ears pop from the 2,500-foot change in altitude and the temperature drops at least 4 degrees. Mountains spring up before your eyes. Two different worlds.
New Mexico is a Southwest state, but it’s a world apart in many ways. It has its own distinct blend of cultures, fashions, cuisine—and especially its own cheeses. With New Mexicans’ penchant for adding a dash of chile to everything from beer to chocolate, as well as an abundance of native fruits and herbs to add local flavor, you’ll find New Mexico’s artisanal goat cheeses delightfully different from those made elsewhere.
A cheese platter from Old Windmill Dairy
Old Windmill Dairy
Business partners Ed and Michael Lobough, co-owners of Old Windmill Dairy, located in central New Mexico’s Estancia Valley, about an hour from Santa Fe, are artisan goat cheese makers who understand New Mexico’s affinity for food with a bite. They produce cheeses—from Brie to Blue—that reflect the Southwestern palate.
The Loboughs are somewhat unlikely cheesemongers. It was after the 9/11 tragedy that life changed for them, as they sought a more personal connection to their professional lives. With corporate America seeming to lose sight of the human side of production, Ed and Michael wanted to return to nature, to create a life filled with purpose. In 2001, Michael, a hospitality industry executive, and Ed, a health care professional, decided to start a goat dairy. Because they had no experience, this new venture was a trial-and-error endeavor that required a high level of endurance and stamina.
Ed and Michael split their dairy duties. Ed took on the role of R&D manager and became the “culture” chef, combining different strains of cultures with chiles and fruits to imbue the cheese with that unique Southwestern flavor. Once Ed develops the culture combo, he turns the profile over to Michael for implementation. New cultures are used with every batch of milk in order to maintain the integrity of the rennet. Old Windmill takes pride in using vegetable rennet, which enables even lacto-ovo vegetarians to enjoy their cheeses.
Old Windmill’s cheeses fall into three major categories: aged, fresh and soft ripened. The Sandia Sunrise Smoked Gouda is an award-winning aged cheese. In the fresh category, Chili & Hot Chèvre exemplifies the New Mexico food culture. And in the soft-ripened category, my personal favorite is the Taos Truffle Brie, with its creamy spreadability and slight tang.
According to Michael, controlling the goats’ environment is the secret to producing a great-tasting cheese. “Whether it’s the alfalfa or naturally-occurring events, the environment is what influences the taste of our cheese,” he says. Old Windmill’s hundred-strong herd of goats dines on lush alfalfa grown in the Estancia Valley. Michael contracts with a local alfalfa grower to maintain a consistent feed product.
Mother Nature plays a leading role in the taste of the cheeses, as well. In May 2008, the Trigo Fire broke out in the Manzaño mountains, burning 21 square miles of ponderosa pine and piñon. This devastation of the plant life altered the weather pattern in the valley, which resulted in the introduction of a naturally-occurring blue mold to the air. Cheese, in particular, attracts and absorbs odors—Michael makes sure the bucks are kept downwind from the milkers because their musky scent permeates the air and changes the flavor of the cheese—but this particular mold actually enhances the taste with a flavor unique to the region.
The milk contains no hormone enhancement or additives. If a goat becomes ill and must be given antibiotics, she is pulled from milking until they are out of her system, because antibiotics prevent the milk from coagulating.
Ed and Michael’s original purpose was to produce fine cheeses, but they saw other opportunities, as well. One of their goals is to bring back the “front porch social” by opening their farm to the community, similar to an earlier time in American culture when people routinely gathered on the front porch in the evenings to visit with their neighbors. By bringing in the community, they seek to promote an awareness of where food comes from. “Cheese doesn’t begin in a plastic wrapper in the dairy section of the grocery store,” says Ed. “Young people need to understand the birthing process and how to care for the animals.” Children are allowed to hold and cuddle the goats, and Ed and Michael hope that activities like this can help refocus young people so that they can socialize again, rather than isolating themselves with their phones.
Other outreach efforts include a five-hour cheesemaking class offered each quarter in which students learn about the farm and cheesemaking through hands-on activities. Michael found another way to help the community is through the Workforce Connection, a job-matching service that pairs young people ages 19 to 26 with employers to acquire practical skills. Old Windmill is currently contracted with a young woman to work in the milk production area, and it has turned out to be beneficial to all concerned. She learns new skills, while Old Windmill gets needed help and the community has another productive citizen.
Old Windmill specializes in small batches, so you’re not likely to find their cheeses at mainstream supermarkets. They do sell to the local Santa Fe Whole Foods Market, but otherwise their wares are available on-site, at specialty stores in Santa Fe and online. They also supply several high-end restaurants in New Mexico.
Old Windmill Cheese is available at Whole Foods in New Mexico; Cheesemongers of Santa Fe; the Santa Fe Farmers Market; and online at oldwindmilldairy.com.
As artisan cheese has grown in popularity, a number of goat farms have joined the push to produce hyper-local products that capitalize on New Mexico’s unique opportunities.
Mary Ann Andrews, owner of Dream Catcher Ranchito, a five-acre ranch located 30 minutes from Santa Fe, began her goat cheese dairy 10 years ago. Her top priority has always been the quality and care of the animals. For her, the mental health of the goats is as important as their physical health. Her motto is “A happy goat produces a better product.” The 50 goats at Dream Catcher benefit from what Andrews calls the “synergy between man and animal.” The goats are treated with respect, love and gratitude.
The majority of Andrews’ goats are Nubian, a breed originally found in northern Africa and characterized by their long ears. They are fed a top-quality diet of alfalfa with no extraneous foodstuffs, and they drink only pristine well water. Andrews sources her alfalfa locally, so she is able to honor her pledge to use no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The combination of love and a controlled environment produces milk with a high butterfat content of about 24 percent. The higher the butterfat, the creamier the cheese.
Dream Catcher produces Greek and semi-tart, old-fashioned Bulgarian yogurt in addition to various types of cheeses, which include Chèvre, Ricotta, farm and Feta. One cheese blend in particular, Lemon Curd, is a consumer favorite. It’s made with organic eggs from the ranch’s own free-range chickens. To create this delightful blend of creamy and tart, Andrews uses Chèvre, organic lemon juice, chicory root instead of sugar, butter and organic eggs.
Andrews sponsors a volunteer program for families who commit to one day each week to interact with the animals and learn about the cheese making process.
Dream Catcher Ranchito cheese is available online at dreamcatcherranchito.com as well as at the weekend farmers market in Santa Fe.
“We strive to always live in harmony with the natural world that supports us all.” —Nancy Coonridge, owner of the only organic certified goat cheese producer in New Mexico.
In 1982, Nancy and Andy Coonridge left California in an old blue school bus to search for land to fulfill Nancy’s dream of owning a goat farm. They found the perfect location in northwestern New Mexico between Pie Town and Acoma Pueblo. At an elevation of 8,000 feet, Nancy and Andy established Coonridge Organic Goat Cheese Ranch. New Mexico’s arid terrain was the perfect place for her Alpine, Nubian and La Mancha goats, which quickly adapted to the rough terrain and climate.
Nancy’s herd of 25 to 30 milk goats are truly free-range. The does are milked each morning, then released into the wild under the guardianship of the Maremma sheepdogs. During the day, the goats, which wear electronic trackers, roam the countryside, foraging on sage, juniper and pine needles as well as organic feed when needed. The goats live as natural an existence as possible. During the winter when natural food is scarce, Nancy supplements their diet with alfalfa and hay. This gives the cheeses different seasonal flavors.
Nancy begins the cheesemaking by processing her fresh goat milk using vegetable rennet, separating the curds and whey, and placing the curds onto cheesecloth-lined trays. The cheese “bags” are hung on hooks to drain for a couple of days. Then, Nancy selects from 15 different herbs and garlic blends, which are added to the cheese. Finally, the cheese is packed into a jar, covered with organic oil, which “gives the cheese shelf life and intensifies the wonderful flavors.” Finally, the jars are labeled and ready for purchase. Throughout the cheesemaking process, Nancy keeps in mind her overriding philosophy: “Turning milk into cheese is alchemy, but the goats are the reason I do it.”
Old Windmill paired with Malvasia Bianca
Pairing Local Cheeses With Local Wines
Wine and cheese are an age-old pairing for a reason; taken together, they enhance each other’s subtleties and intensify the flavors. New Mexico has been a wine-producing region since the 1500s, when Franciscan priests first brought their wine grapes from Spain to ensure a steady supply of altar wine and brandy. Since then, New Mexico wines have earned a reputation for quality and value—a perfect accompaniment to the region’s unique cheeses.
One of Old Windmill’s best sellers, Chili and Hot cheese, pairs well with Black Mesa Winery’s Malvasia Bianca, a fruity white that tempers the heat of the spicy cheese. Because chile peppers are technically fruits, they go well with fruity wines that bring out the subtle sweetness. Another popular matchup is Black Mesa’s 2014 Zinfandel and Old Windmill’s Holy Chipotle. This red wine is the perfect counterpart to the red chili, which is sometimes hotter than the green.
Dream Catcher Ranchito’s Lemon Feta is marinated with rosemary, thyme, herbs de Provence, lemon and olive oil, then paired with Black Mesa’s Viognier, which is made from white grapes grown in Southern New Mexico near Deming. The full-bodied fruitiness of the Viognier enhances the herbs and citrus of the Lemon Feta.
Coonridge’s Flame Roasted Green Chile, a cheese with a traditional New Mexico bite, was paired with Black Mesa’s Conejito White. A hundred percent of the grapes for the Conejito White are produced at the Black Mesa estate in Velarde, NM. This wine has body and structure; its sweetness balances the heat of the green chile.
Recently, I’ve noticed fondue sets, including a pot, table stand with burner and color-coated forks, are being sold in cookware shops and online again. I say “again” because a couple of times in my past, serving fondue was all the rage, and I loved serving this to my family and friends.
Like many fads, however, tastes change and my fondue pot was tucked away long ago. If yours is hidden or you never had one, now is a good time to rediscover fondue. Along with minimal guidelines for success, including almost no rules about proper accompaniments and condiments, the vessels have been given a makeover with newer pots that are more user friendly and perfect for stay-at-home entertaining.
When you consider the dynamics of these spear-and-dunk cheese-focused meals, the revival isn’t surprising. Fondues fit well with our desire for easily-prepared comfort foods and invite socializing. People of all ages can participate, and the relaxed style gets hosts or hostesses (or moms and dads) out of the kitchen and back with guests or family.
Swiss historians say fondues originated in the 17th century as an Alpine peasant dish. Details are sketchy, but generally focus on village families gathered around the evening hearth dipping chunks of bread in a pot of melted cheese, usually Emmentaler and/or Gruyère. The word fondue means “melted” in French. The cheese is gently cooked with wine and a splash of kirsch. Besides adding flavor, alcohol’s acidity helps break down cheese protein chains, making it less stringy and more digestible. A few drops of lemon juice or vinegar also help.
The first documented recipe “to cook cheese with wine,” or Käss mit Wein zu kochen, was published in Kochbuch der Anna Margaretha Gessner (1699), in Zurich. It included cheese, wine and eggs cooked in a wide earthenware or ceramic pot, or caquelon, over a portable stove lit with a candle or alcohol burner. In 1834, Brillat-Savarin, the noted French gastronome, described the mixture as “nothing other than scrambled eggs with cheese.”
By 1875, eggs were no longer used and classic Swiss fondue (or Neufchatel-style) was becoming the country’s national dish. But after WWI, there were severe economic shortages in Europe. Although Switzerland made hundreds of cheeses besides Gruyère and Emmentaler, the market for imported cheeses had steeply declined.
To support its dairy farmers, the Swiss Cheese Union began an aggressive marketing campaign to broaden consumption and sales of their different cheeses domestically and abroad with the slogan “Fondue is good and gives a good mood.”
The introduction of cornstarch into Switzerland in 1905 helped cheese fondues gain wider popularity, as it guaranteed the emulsion would remain smooth. Even with cornstarch, or flour as is sometimes used, it’s best to cook cheese fondues over medium or medium-low heat and never let them boil constantly.
Americans Fall for Fondue
Americans first encountered cheese fondue at the Swiss Pavilion of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and again in 1964. At the Alpine restaurant, hoards of visitors became enamored of dipping chunks of bread on long forks into vats of melted Swiss cheese, and the idea caught on. In 1952, Swiss-born chef Konrad Egli had already opened Chalet Swiss in New York. But beyond cheese fondue, Egli introduced fondue bourguignonne with beef cooked in oil in the late 50s and chocolate fondue in the 60s. Fondue pots became popular holiday gifts and favorite wedding presents.
Along with their spreading popularity, some amusing traditions evolved. For example, if a lady lost her bread in the cheese while swirling it, she had to kiss every gentleman present; for a gentleman who had that problem, he had to produce another bottle of wine or glass of kirsch for the host or hostess. If the same mistake happens again, whether male or female, they had to host the next fondue party.
Earthenware caquelons had a characteristic wide handle that I found useful when stirring my first fondue pot. The heavy-bottomed pans helped distribute the heat evenly to prevent the bottom from scorching. Still, a thin layer of crusty cheese often remained once the fondue was eaten. Called La Réligieuse, or the “nun”, it was lifted out like a wafer and equally divided among guests.
By the 60s or 70s, cast-iron and brightly-colored enameled fondue pots were imported into the American market. Today, along with pots with a nonstick interior or non-scratch external finish, some have electric cords with adjustable heat settings. Most hold enough melted cheese to serve six to eight, with that number of indentations in the open lid on top. More than that number, says Rick Rodgers, my friend and author of Fondue: Great Food to Dip, Dunk, Savor, and Swirl, (William Morrow, 1998), the cheese cools down. There are also small-scale fondue pots for two that can be romantic and fun.
My friend chef Kathleen Kenny Sanderson says that while today’s fondue pots are quite attractive and reasonably priced, rather than buying another piece of equipment, she thinks that an electric skillet works just as well to maintain the melted cheese at the table. Personally, I prefer making fondue in a deep heavy pan on top of the stove, then transferring it to a fondue pot set over a burner or into an electric skillet at the table.
Tradition vs. Invention
When creating fondues, be guided by what appeals to you. In Rodger’s classic Swiss fondue, along with Gruyère and Emmentaler, he uses a small amount of Appenzeller. As in many fondues, the inside of his pot is first rubbed with a split clove of garlic. In other versions I’ve made, the garlic is sometimes minced or not used at all.
For a German-inspired fondue, I used hard cider, cider vinegar and a splash of apple brandy, along with Müenster and smoked Gouda cheese. The Blue cheese fondue is combined with Sauternes, a little cream to offset the saltiness and a few drops of lemon juice.
What to Serve with Fondue
Fondue’s original partner was bread, and it remains a perfect dipper. It should be firm or even slightly stale with a little crust so it doesn’t fall apart. I suggested pumpernickel bread with the German fondue recipe and semolina bread with golden raisins and fennel for the Blue cheese version, but the choice is yours. Even pretzel logs would be good. Rodgers suggests spreading roasted garlic on the bread before dipping.
For other dippers, I like to include ingredients of different colors, tastes and textures, but limited to about six choices. Lee Smith, publisher of Cheese Connoisseur, who has eaten more than a few fondues, suggests that along with bread and small potatoes, you want things that are pickled, like onions, sweet and sour beets or gherkins for the acidity to offset the fattiness of the cheese. Slices of tart green apples or dried fruits, like apricots and prunes, also make nice foils.
Crunchy foods like small fennel wedges, celery sticks or blanched broccoli florets add another taste dimension. The melted cheese can also be seasoned with minced fresh herbs, like tarragon, or caraway seeds in a German-inspired version.
As for condiments, grocery aisles offer a global assortment. Pesto? Mix it with the melted cheese, suggests Rodgers, or add minced vegetables. If curry is a favorite flavor, why not add grated fresh ginger and curry powder to Cheddar cheese? Markets are filled with great fondue fixings like thinly-sliced meats, peeled shrimp and chicken morsels, along with a large variety of sausages and pre-cut vegetables.
Finally, Rodgers offers some trouble shooting tips for cheese fondues:
If the fondue is too thin, and you have leftover shredded cheese, stir in about one cup. Or, dissolve 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in 1 tablespoon of the cooking liquid and gradually stir in enough of the mixture into the simmering fondue for it to reach the desired consistency.
If the fondue is too thick, just add more of the cooking liquid, warmed first in a small saucepan or microwave oven.
If the fondue separates, return it to the kitchen stove and reheat over medium heat, whisking constantly. If the fondue is mixed well by guests as they dip, this shouldn’t happen.
Tell guests to give the fondue a good “figure eight” swirl with their forks as they dip to discourage the fondue separating and to occasionally scrape the bottom of the pan with their bread to keep the bottom from burning.
Along with Pucci prints and martinis, fondue is back. This fad of yesteryear is once again a hot entertaining idea.
Blue Cheese-Sauternes Fondue
I tasted different Blue cheeses to develop this recipe. First was Roquefort, which is often served with Sauternes, but it was too sharp and salty. After several others, I thought Gorgonzola and Maytag Blue were both delicious options. I learned Blue cheeses vary so widely that you should choose a crumbly variety according to your taste and budget, and don’t be afraid to mix two or more together.
Serves 2 to 3; may be doubled
Have Ready To Dip: • Celery sticks with leaves
• Cubed bread, preferably walnut-raisin bread
• Bosc pear, cut into wedges
• Steamed asparagus spears
• Pickled beets or cornichons
For The Fondue: 8 oz mildly sharp Blue cheese or mix of sharp and mild Blues, crumbled (2 cups)
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 clove garlic, split
1 medium shallot, minced
1/4 cup Sauternes
Few drops fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup heavy cream
Generous pinch freshly grated nutmeg
2 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon leaves
Freshly grated nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
In a bowl, toss the cheese and cornstarch together to coat. Set aside.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, mashing it with the back of a fork, then add the shallot and cook until golden, about a minute. Pour in the wine and lemon juice and bring just to a boil. Remove the garlic. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in the cream.
Stir in the cheese in batches, making sure each handful is melted before adding the next one. The fondue can bubble, but do not let it boil constantly. Add the tarragon, nutmeg and pepper; transfer to a fondue pot and serve with the dipping ingredients.
Classic Three-Cheese Fondue
Thanks to Rick Rodgers, my friend and author of Fondue: Great Food to Dip, Dunk, Savor, and Swirl, for sharing his classic version of Swiss fondue with me. Along with Emmentaler and Gruyère, he includes some Appenzeller
Have Ready To Dip:
• Boiled small new potatoes
• Multi-grained or country bread with crusts, cut in cubes
• Crisp-tender steamed broccoli florets
• Granny Smith apple slices, unpeeled
• Small wedges fennel
• Cooked chicken thighs, skinned, boned and cut into wedges
For The Fondue:
8 oz Gruyère, trimmed and shredded (about 2 1/2 cups)
8 oz Emmentaler, trimmed and shredded (about 2 1/2 cups)
3 oz Appenzeller, cut into small cubes (about 1/2 cup)
4 tsp cornstarch
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 Tbsp kirsch
Freshly grated nutmeg
Place the fondue pot in the center of a large platter. Add the dipping ingredients around it or in separate ramekins.
In a medium-size bowl, combine the Gruyère, Emmentaler and Appenzeller cheeses with the cornstarch and toss to blend.
Rub the inside of medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan with the garlic; discard. Add the wine and lemon juice and bring just to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the cheese mixture a handful at a time to the wine, stirring each batch until it is almost completely melted before adding another one. The fondue can bubble gently, but do not let it boil. Stir in the kirsch, season with a few gratings of nutmeg and pepper to taste.
Transfer to the fondue pot and keep warm over a fondue burner. Serve at once.
Gruyère is complicated… in a good way. Not only does it have a complex mix of many flavors and capabilities, its production is a carefully curated process mired in centuries of tradition. This cheese is so cherished and beloved that it prompted an international skirmish for naming and geographic designation. Despite all this history, Gruyère is a multifaceted jewel in the cheese world that is easy to use and enjoy.
This is a cheese that is a true triple treat. Its wide range of varieties are a great addition to any cheeseboard, pairing well with many fruits, breads and beverages. When added as an ingredient in different of dishes, Gruyère provides a unique depth and pronounced dairy notes. Going beyond flavor, it melts with a silky and creamy texture, which makes it a star of beloved classic dishes like fondue, French onion soup and Croque Madame sandwiches.
The tastes and textures of Gruyère vary greatly, depending on its origin, processing and aging. Cheese can range from mildly sweet and fruity to rich and nutty with pronounced earthy or ripe notes. Most Gruyère variations have a subtle salty flavor, moderate acidity and strong dairy notes. Like many cheeses, the texture changes and dries out with age. Young cheeses will be firm and compact, while well-aged varieties will be somewhat crystalline and crumbly. French versions of the cheese are generally sweeter and have small holes throughout. In contrast, Swiss Gruyère does not have holes, while American and other nations’ versions of the cheese may or may not have holes.
Although many people associate Gruyère cheese with French dishes, its origins are purely Swiss, which is the cause of a long history of arguments across France and Switzerland’s shared border. The Swiss have been making the cheese we know now as Gruyère since 1115. The cheese takes its name from the Alpine town of Gruyères in the Canton of Fribourg, Switzerland. The history and providence helped to establish the geographic designation. After decades battling over who had the rights to use the name Gruyère, Swiss Gruyère was granted the AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) in 2011, which granted the Swiss to claim the geographic designation.
The Swiss Gruyère AOP cheesemaking process has changed very little in over 900 years. Fresh milk is obtained from Fribourg cows, which are only fed GMO-free and silage-free diets of grass, hay and herbs. The use of antibiotics or growth hormones is prohibited. The milk these cows produce is 40 to 60 percent milk fat and is not pasteurized prior to beginning the cheesemaking process. Not pasteurizing the milk is believed to enhance its unique flavor. Animal rennet is used to form the curd, which is heated in large copper vats. These containers not only heat the mixture very evenly, but the copper ions react with the contents to create unique flavor compounds.
The curds are put into large hoops and pressed for a day under pressure, before being submerged in a salt brine bath for an additional 24 hours. The first three months of the young cheese’s aging process is a time of constant care. The cheesemaker frequently turns the cheese and coats the outside of the wheel with salt in order to produce the perfect rind and mature the flavors. Aging continues in the “cave d’affiniage”, where the cheese matures in approximately 59 degrees F and 90 percent humidity for five to 18 months.
The AOP standard mandates that Gruyère be aged a minimum of five months in order to be approved by the Swiss government.The aging process provides time for more complex, earthy or “funky” flavors to emerge, while moisture evaporates from the wheel, creating a dryer and denser cheese. Swiss Gruyère has additional designations, which help distinguish age and processing methods. “Classic” is aged six to nine months and “BIO” is a version of the Classic made with certified organic milk. “Réserve” is aged for more than 10 months and “d’Alpage” is a special cheese only made in the summer using milk from cows that have been exclusively grazed in the mountain pastures. The large finished wheels of Gruyère range between 55 and 100 pounds and measure 22 to 26 inches in diameter.
Gruyère is also made in the United States. The domestic cheeses follow much of the Swiss’ basic cheesemaking process, which is outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 133.149) and thereby regulated by the FDA. The significant differences are that most commercially available brands of Gruyère are made with pasteurized milk, the cows do not have the same alpine grass diet and the cheese is generally aged for shorter periods of time. The regulations require the cheese to be a minimum of 90 days old versus five months for Swiss-produced cheeses. These differences can be noted when tasted side by side with the Swiss or French cheeses.
Wisconsin’s Roth brand has chosen to respect the AOP and does not use the designation of Gruyère, choosing instead to use the name Grand Cru for its cheeses. Its original is aged four or more months, the Reserve is aged six or more months and the award-winning Surchoix is aged nine months. It should be noted that the Roth creamery is part of the Fitchburg, WI-based Emmi Roth Co., a major Swiss Gruyère producer and importer.
Gruyère Cheese Puffs (Brazilian pão de queijo)
Gruyère is becoming more readily available both in retail and foodservice. Most grocery chains carry one or more varieties in the specialty cheese section or look for the cheese in club stores, online and at local gourmet/cheese shops. Several grocery chains sell Gruyère under their own private label, which can make it difficult to ascertain the exact origin and age of the cheese.
Foodservice is recognizing Gruyère’s excellent attributes and is using it in a variety of traditional and un-traditional ways. Starbuck’s is featuring a sous vide egg bite with bacon and Gruyère on its breakfast menu. Alesia’s in St. Petersburg, FL, is refining the hot dog by nestling an all-beef version in a baguette and topping it with Gruyère, Mornay sauce and caramelized onions. Ladyface Ale Companie in Agoura Hills, CA, has a new spin on the Canadian classic, poutine. French fries are somothered with pulled pork, Gruyère and beef gravy. It’s no surprise that chefs across the country are exploiting Gruyère’s great flexibility and flavors to elevate their dishes and excite their customers.
Gruyère can easily adapt to the home chef, as well. It can be added to almost any dish that calls for cheese. Gruyère’s rich flavors and creamy melting qualities make it a great addition to grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, mac and cheese, egg bakes, flatbreads or the humble casserole.
Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate Gruyère’s unique flavors is by serving it as part of a cheeseboard. Pairings will depend on the intensity of the cheese’s flavors. Younger cheeses work best with lighter wines like Rieslings, sparkling and pinot noirs. Hard ciders, pilsners and ambers are also good compliments to the cheese. More mature and complex Gruyères can stand up to heartier wines like a Shiraz, Zinfandel, Grenache or bolder reds. Other good combinations for aged Gruyère are heartier beers, such as porters, stouts or lighter IPAs as well as a variety of whiskeys and bourbons, which can compliment the earthier notes in the cheese. However you choose to enjoy it, Gruyère is a cheese worthy of exploration, and maybe it’s not so complicated after all….it is just delicious.
French Onion Gruyère Dip
This dip features all the best parts of French onion soup, sweet caramelized onions and lots of cheese.
Ingredients: 3 Tbsp butter, unsalted
2 cups yellow onions, diced (about 2 medium onions)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
3 Tbsp flour
1 cup whole milk
1½ cup Gruyère cheese, shredded (about 4 wt. oz)
Melt the butter in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat.
Add the onions, salt and sugar. Cook the onions until they begin to become slightly translucent and soft. Stir frequently to avoid burning.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the onions become golden brown (caramelized) and very soft. Stir frequently.
Dust the onions with the flour and stir to thoroughly combine. Continue to stir the mixture over medium-low heat for approximately one minute.
Slowly add the milk while stirring constantly and cook until the mixture is thickened.
Mix in the Gruyère, about ½ cup at a time, until all the cheese is added and melted. Remove from the heat.
Serve immediately with bread, crackers, chips and/or vegetables for dipping.
Note: This dip can also be used to top burgers or other warm sandwiches.
Named after the caves in which it is aged, St. Pete’s Select from Caves of Faribault in Faribault, MN, has quite a history behind it.
It was 1936 when a series of 13 sandstone caves in Minnesota were commandeered by Felix Frederiksen for Blue cheese aging. The conditions were ideal. Because the caves’ stone was 99 percent quartzite and there were no stalactite or stalagmite formations, water moved vertically as opposed to horizontally, contrary to most caves. The environment also was perfect, with 99 percent humidity and a temperature of 52 degrees F all year.
The cheese plant shut down in the 1990s due to consolidation, but the caves reopened in 2001; a year later, St. Pete’s Select was conceived. Caves of Faribault was purchased by Swiss Valley Farms in 2010 and then became a part of the Prairie Farms Dairy family in 2017.
Head cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson, who worked at the company when St. Pete’s Select was conceived, describes this cheese as a traditional American Blue style recipe.
“The Universities of Minnesota and Iowa were doing work developing Blue cheese recipes for the domestic cheese industry back in the 1930s, and that’s where our recipe comes from,” he says. “The strain of mold we’re using was collected in the caves by the culture house that uses it today.”
St. Pete’s Reserve is made using unpasteurized cow’s milk, with 95 percent of it sourced from a single farm.
“The curing in our caves is open to the environment,” says Nilsson. “Over the decades, native yeasts and molds created a microbial community to give this cheese unique flavor characteristics. You still can taste the milk, it’s tart, creamy, with a distinctive pecan note. This is a very friendly Blue cheese.”
When St. Pete’s is cold, it easily crumbles with a fork, but it’s best served at room temperature, as this is when it comes alive and blooms with a spreadable consistency.
In 2008, Caves of Faribault partnered with local microbrewer Summit Brewing of St. Paul to create beer soaked wheels of St. Pete’s Select. The line, called Blues & Brews, provides three seasonal versions using Summit’s Winter, Summer and Octoberfest brews. In 2018, the company entered the summer version, Summertime Blues, in the American Cheese Society’s annual competition and took third in the Marinated Cheese category. Among the original St. Pete’s Reserve’s many accolades was a 2014 third place Best in Class win at ACS.
“This cheese is a wonderful addition to burgers, poultry or fish. It can be stuffed in a portabella mushroom or eaten atop whole grain or multi grain crackers with honey or jam,” says Nilsson. “It’s also a good pairing with dried fruit and other sweet foods.”
Beverages that are a good compliment include dry red wine and darker, malty beers like a porter, stout or black IPA.
St. Pete’s Select is available at many supermarkets across the country.