Last night I had the great fortune of meeting up with many other far more illustrious food bloggers than myself at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul for the Wisconsin Cheese Course at Cooks of Crocus Hill: St. Paul. Sponsored by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, this event included an absolutely wonderful array of representatives and samples from Wisconsin’s dairy products and cheese-making industries.
The event began shortly after 6 PM in the *huge* upstairs classroom at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul. The Wife and I took a class at their Edina location several years ago and she’s been to both locations on other occasions for other fun events including Thanksgiving dinner class and one through her previous employer who bused them over to the St. Paul location to make and eat cookies. While their Edina location was nice, the one on Grand is the Taj Mahal of cooking classrooms. Beautifully decorated, staffed with personable people, and stocked with Surly Furious and huge piles of cheese this kitchen and reception area was a cheese addicts absolute dream come true.
Just after walking in I was greeted and sat down at one of the long wooden tables. A gorgeous spiral bound notebook was waiting for me and outlined the courses that evening, including their appropriate pairings. The first pairing was amazing–especially coming from a marketing team working out of Wisconsin: Death’s Door Gin Negroni or a lovely pint of Surly Furious.
After a great introduction of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board staff and cheese-making artisans and related personnel on hand, we were treated to an introduction into the history of Wisconsin cheese making and the current status of the trends and the evolution of the very serious artisans working on some of the most decorated cheeses in the world. This opened us up into the first course: a tasting of artisan cheese techniques including smoked, rubbed, and flavored cheeses.
The Espresso BellaVitano (center), noted as being great for dessert or breakfast and providing a farmhouse cheddar/Parmesan flavor mix, was one of the most hyped for the evening. Unfortunately while it was sweet and creamy for me, carried no distinctive espresso flavor and might as well have been any of the other cheeses provided.
My favorite of the group, the Marieke Foenegreek Gouda carries a seed native to Holland which is used in Indian cooking (chutneys and curries) and provides a nutty and sweet flavor. The cheese itself tasted just like maple syrup and with the creamy texture as it melted on your tongue, if I had closed my eyes and no one had told me different I really would have thought it was. Amazing experience and one I highly recommend you attempt to repeat and soon.
The next course included samples of (left to right): Widmer’s Cheese Cellar’s Brick Cheese & Cheddar Spread, Bandaged Cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy, and Dunbarton Blue.
The cheese spread was amazingly smooth and creamy and unlike most spreads you can find out there. With prices in the same range, I really see no reason why I should ever buy anything else. The cheese comes from three generations of cheesemakers squeezing the whey out with heavy stone bricks passed down over the generations. While the State of Wisconsin originally scoffed at the use of the bricks for cheesemaking, the current owner found a loophole where the Amish were permitted a variance due to their heritage–something he argued should be allowed for him as well. Thankfully it was granted and we get to taste some of the most amazing spreadable cheddar you’ll ever taste.
The highlight of the evening, as expressed by those around me, was the butter tasting. Three different butters (two of which are shown) provided some of the most intriguing flavors I’ve ever experienced from this type of dairy product. The first was a hand-rolled butter from Rochdale Farms and is available at local co-ops such as the Wedge. The flavor was creamy and intense. The first butter I could eat plain, which means no bread or crackers, and keep going back for more. Supposedly the hand-rolled technique allows for the butter fats to remain intact which provides for a much better taste and mouth feel. Mmm.
The others included hand-rolled butter from Alcam Creamery (top right of the photo) which, in all honesty, was like eating a dollop of real ice cream. So tasty and described as a “chef’s dream” because it doesn’t burn off the fat and provides a nice coating in the pan while it heats, this is one butter I’ll be getting my hands on for future cooking for sure.
We were provided a nice variety plate of several cheeses paired with many different items aside from the usual wine, cheese, and fruits. The Les Freres with Marinated Mushrooms provided an aggressive and punchy flavor with a soft and creamy mouthfeel. The Caso Balo Mellage paired with jam comes from several different kinds of milk (cow, goat, and sheep) and you can taste the distinct flavors of each as you let the long-lasting, tart but surprisingly sweet cheese melt in your mouth. The three Wisconsin Blues (Buttermilk Blue, Tilston Point, and Ader Kase Reserve) were tasty, aside from the Tilston Point which I originally described as “pungent and almost antiseptic,” but later noted as more like eating a band-aid (even when eaten with the very strong and spicy crystallized ginger).
The final cheese course was the Marieke Penterman (50+ awards worldwide in only ~5 years) Gouda Selection which was garnished with a spoonful of very strong Stonewall Kitchen Spiced Rum Butterscotch Sauce. From bottom to top the cheeses shown are aged 4 months, 6-9 months, and finally 1.5-2 years.
While the cheeses created by Marieke are very highly sought after and the longest aged cheeses are scarce at best due to the demand (people are reserving future cheeses already), my favorite was the 6-9 month aged version. A smooth and buttery flavor which almost tasted like cheddar, this one had the others beat for me. However, a friend of mine noted that the oldest aged cheese was hands down her favorite. Thankfully there are a lot to choose from–if you can find some!
Overall I was thoroughly impressed with the presentation by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the artisan cheese-makers, the facilities and Cooks of Crocus Hill and especially the products we sampled. If you ever have an opportunity to eat any of the cheeses linked above please, by all means, do so. Aside from one, I enjoyed everything I sampled and it appeared that everyone at our long table mirrored my assessment.
Have you ever participated at an event put on by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board or Cooks of Crocus Hill? If so what did you think of each? Have you ever eaten a pile of different cheeses paired with interesting sides? What about plain butter? Have you ever just eaten several different kinds of it in a sitting (or even just one kind?) without thinking you were going to have a heart attack right then and there? Whatever you have to say about this one go ahead and comment on as I’d love to hear what you have to say!
See all the pictures from the Wisconsin Cheese Course on Flickr here.