The Best Use of Milk

It’s perhaps controversial (or even unwise) to make an early post on my cheese blog about how ice cream is better than cheese.

But it is.

The fact of the matter is that I am a sugar fiend. I would eat dessert for every meal if it wouldn’t make me sick (and it does. I’ve tried). So while I think ice cream may be the greatest thing on the planet, I do realize that in practical terms, cheese is a better everyday use.

My one request while my husband explores the Delaware beer scene this week was to go to Woodside Creamery. My sister and brother-in-law brought us there 4 or 5 years ago, but since we usually visit in the winter, we haven’t been back since.

On a cool and cloudy Sunday evening, the line for this ice cream in rural Delaware was about 40 people long. It felt like I was in San Francisco again…

But it’s a pleasant wait. You’re basically in the farm family’s front yard, with a giant tree, picnic tables and sugar-jacked kids running around to play. The chill Jersey cows graze on a hillside just behind you. And they post the flavors partway down the line so you can start dreaming.

Now, the best ice cream I’ve ever had in my life was at John Taverna’s organic farm in Marin. It’s a bit unfair, because I had just finished hugging the cows and touring the farm and meeting John who may be the most Norman Rockwellish farmer still alive today. He made the ice cream himself, peach and chocolate. Jersey cows, you should know, are the brown ones with the sweet, ladylike faces. The milk they give is higher in fat than most other breeds. John’s milk is so rich it’s actually pale yellow. This can actually cause some troubles in cheesemaking, but when it comes to ice cream, it’s perfection. I imagine the Woodside Farms Jersey milk comes out looking similar.

I had Chocolate Thunder and Cappuccino Crunch. They don’t serve the ice cream too cold, which is perfect, and it costs 53 cents a pound, so you can have as much or as little of any flavor as you like–no restrictive one-scoop-one-flavor or only-kids-get-kid-sized rules.

And then you sit outside, enjoying the moment with your family. Check and check.

sarah_woodside

American Cheese Society Conference 2013

The above title post, however accurate, is also a little boring. Much like the conference itself. Thoughful. Useful. A little dull. Which is a shame, since half the fun of working in cheese is the silly and un-snobby nature of it.

The difficult thing is that I have been to many, many conferences–except all the rest of them have been science fiction and fantasy based. ReaderCon, WisCon, WorldCon, FogCon. And so at ACS my brain is continuously slightly disappointed that we are not discussing Jo Walton and fairies or Greg Bear and gene hacking. I have trained it to associate bad hotel ballroom carpeting and hard red felt chairs with talking about nerdy books.

And while the panelists were all knowledgable, and while I adore cheese and learning about it, the sessions left me a bit cold. Maybe it’s that “Striving for a Successful FDA Inspection” can simply never compete with “Mars Wants Our Genitals” (both real panels at real conferences I went to). Plus not a single person was wearing a cape or a corset. Not even a single funny cheese hat.

It has now become my belief that you should always be tasting as you’re learning. Otherwise the whole thing takes on a tone of We’re Sooo Sooper Serious Here. To me, things like cheese and beer and science fiction, while all being incredibly hard things to make well, are meant to be light-hearted and rowdy the rest of the time.

The one time I really enjoyed myself (other than the previously noted Cheese Curd Tasting, of course) was actually during a rather long and arduous volunteer shift. I was a Station Caption for setting up the Festival of Cheese and I had a blast. By the time we were done, I could barely stand, but that will always stand out as my favorite experience there. It meant I got to be hands-on, work with cool cheesemongers/makers, and to feel again like what I was doing–making the competition cheese beautiful–was really helping cheesemakers and farms.

So next year I hope to do it again if we land back in the Bay Area, since it will be in Sacramento. I’m not sure if I would bother to buy a day pass. I’ll just volunteer again and do my thing behind the scenes as usual. But maybe this time I’ll wear a funnier hat.

Cheese Curd Tasting

What better way to kick off Curds & Words than with a recap of the cheese curd tasting I went to last week?

It was my first American Cheese Society Conference this year. I finally decided to go because it was in Madison, my alma mater, and because my parents still live in northern Wisconsin.

I was only going to volunteer, since tickets are exorbitantly expensive (do they put bricks of cheese in the welcome bags? Free massages in the exhibition hall? Hand out gold plated cheese knives? None of the above. I’m still confused) but after agreeing to a somewhat long and arduous volunteer shift on Saturday, my former boss gave me a free Friday day pass.

The only tasting not sold out by the time I signed up was the cheese curd one–and it never did fill up. Why? It turns out most people still think of curds as a byproduct, or a processed food, or just low-quality cheese. So wrong. So, so wrong.

Curd Close and Personal

Curd: Close and Personal

Sure, eating cheese curds vs. slicing off delicate curls of aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve may feel like cramming fistfuls of chocolate chips in your mouth rather than waiting for your chocolate soufflé to set up, but can we all agree that both joys are necessary in this life? Most good Wisconsin curds are made from the same milk as all those cheddars winning awards and topping your meals.

Curd lineup

At the tasting, we tried curds from Hennings, Clock Shadow/Cedar Grove, and Decatur. I was especially excited about Decatur, since on my Great Cheese Curd Tour of 2011, I declared Decatur my favorite of all the ones we tried. Unfortunately Decatur only brought their jalepeno and buffalo wing flavors which I consider a crime against nature. So did Steve Stettler, the cheesemaker, as far as I could tell. Oddly enough, he seemed to have the same attitude about curds as most snobs. To him, they just seemed to pay the bills.

My favorite of what we tasting were the Hennings–two colors of the same curd. They were the most classic and had the best salt content, I believe. One of the interesting things the panel pointed out is that they sometimes try to tweak their recipe depending on who will be eating them. One panelist said that for Northern Wisconsinites, you have to salt them more since most people will be eating them in a bar with beer. Maybe that’s why these all seem undersalted to me, a born and bred Northwoods girl. I enjoyed the Clock Shadow and Cedar Grove ones as well. They are two branches of the same company. Same recipe, different cheesemakers, and different milling techniques. See how huge the Clock Shadow curds are? That’s because they mill them by hand in an old press, rather than mechanically.

This was the first year (!) that the American Cheese Society creating a category for cheese curds. I realize they are difficult to judge fresh, but I consider curds an American original and I’m glad to see them in finally. I’m horrified it took so long. The winners were: 1st, Springside Cheese Corp; 2nd, shared between Arena and Carr Valley: and 3rd, Jisa Cheese (in Nebraska! Who knew? Time for a road trip…). I haven’t had any of these, so I look forward to tracking them down to eat warm, straight from the bag, as God intended.