By Kathy Gerhardt
Excerpts of this article were originally printed in the August/September 2012 Rollin’ Oats Journal.
If you are planning to take part in the Eat Local, America! campaign, a visit to the Linden Hills Co-op cheese department should be on your list. According to Jason Anderson (aka “The Cheesemonger”), 80-90% of the cheese stocked by the co-op is local.
Before jumping into his current role nearly five years ago, Anderson was like many Americans. His cheese palate was somewhat limited. Today, he admits to having fallen in love with many other cheese varieties as he’s flourished in his role as the co-op’s Cheese Coordinator/Buyer.
Now, it should be pointed out that Anderson considers Wisconsin “local” – particularly for dairy and cheese. In fact, in his eyes, it would be a shame not to take advantage of what our neighbors to the east have to offer, because the quality is tremendous.
“To be a cheese-maker in Wisconsin, you have to be a master, and it is quite a long process to become a master. It takes three years of internship to get a license to make cheese under a master, and the master’s program is 10-year program,” Anderson shared. “So, you have to have 13 years of experience before you can make cheese on your own.”
Over the last several years, Anderson has had the opportunity to visit numerous farms and cheese production facilities in Wisconsin and Minnesota to see first-hand how the animals are treated and what care is taken by the farmers and producers related to their overall operations.
“I have been to about a dozen farms and a dozen cheese factories,” he said. “It is really interesting to see everyone’s way of valuing what’s important with the stewardship of their animals.”
In fact, it’s that stewardship which Anderson mentions as a factor in what he is willing to carry in the store – whether or not it is organic.
“Having visited these farms, to me [certified organic] isn’t always important. It’s more so that the cows are grassfed and on pastures,” explained Anderson. “Any [farms] that I’ve been to that allow their cows to eat grass aren’t spraying their fields with chemicals. I think usually the biggest reason they don’t take that next step into organic is the cost. They have to pay for certification and then we all end up paying for it as consumers. I trust, especially when I have visited [the farm], that they are doing a good thing and it helps me drive their product.”
Among the farms he has visited have been Red Barn Farms near Pulaski, WI, Saxon Creamery in Cleveland, WI, and Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, WI. He’s also had the opportunity to visit several Amish farms in the Westby and Cashland areas of Wisconsin. The biggest difference between the Amish farms and more standard operations were the size of the farms.
“The Amish keep their herd sizes very small. The ones that I saw that make cheese – the largest herd size was 30, but typically it is around 15,” said Anderson. “When I asked why only 15 cows, the farmer said, ‘Well how many lives can you look after in a day?’ That makes a lot of sense. If you have a couple hundred animals to look after, it makes it hard to ensure they have good health.”
No matter the herd size, the quality of the products leads to some very tasty options. When pressed for some of his favorites, Anderson mentions Rush Creek Reserve, which is only available during the holiday season.
“It has a bit of pork or bacon flavor to it. It’s very interesting. I wish I had some to share with you, but you will have to wait until Thanksgiving,” he said with a smile. “I’ve done baked potato with it. I think it would be good with grilled vegetables, nice crusty bread or strawberries or any sweet fruit. I think with most cheese you can do whatever you like. Your imagination is the limit.”
A few other favorites would be Bent River – which is a Camembert made in Mankato with Cedar Summit milk, Pleasant Ridge Reserve and “anything that Sartori makes.”“Most of the co-op’s Italian cheeses come from Sartori, because they have such high quality products,” said Anderson. “They have even gone to Europe and entered their cheeses in European competition and taken first place there.”
One little secret you may not know about the cheese display is that there is a bin of “odds and ends” on the left side of the case. Those pieces are for customers interested in trying something new without spending a bundle. Most of those little packages cost only a dollar or two. So, it would be easier than ever to add local cheese to your locavore diet.
As you are perusing the case, you may also notice a very cute picture of Anderson with a little lamb. You should also ask to see the picture of him surrounded by goats on one of his farm tours. Apparently he is adored by goats.
“The last stop of that farm tour day was at one of the goat farms. The three people I was with had already left the barn-area and were in the pasture- area. As soon as I came out of the barn, all the goats that were around them left and came up to me,” explained Anderson. “I thought they wanted to eat my clothes, but they just wanted to taste [my clothes] because they are very curious animals. They wanted to get their mouths’ on my shirt.”
Perhaps he should really be known as the “Goat Whisperer,” in addition to the “Cheesemonger” and the co-op’s Cheese Coordinator/Buyer.