You are here
Pleasant Ridge Reserve
It is quite a feat when a cheese wins "Best of Show" at the annual conference of the American Cheese Society, but to win it twice is practically unheard of. Yet that's exactly what happened on July 23rd in Louisville at the annual conference of the American Cheese Society. The remarkable cheese: Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
The story and quick ascent of Pleasant Ridge Reserve is almost as impressive as the cheese itself. Mike and Carol Gingrich were living in southern California when they decided to give up their city life and jobs and take up life on a farm in Wisconsin. They along with their partners, Jeanne and Dan Patenaude, purchased a herd of dairy cows with the intention of selling the milk on the fluid milk market. Noticing that when their cows were on pasture from spring through fall the milk was superior, they decided to learn how to turn that good milk into cheese.
First, they began by gathering different styles of cheese from reputable cheese shops, mostly in New York City, to get an idea of the type of cheese they might want to make. After many tastings, they decided their milk and their taste buds pointed to a French mountain cheese called Beaufort. Along with researchers at the University of Wisconsin, they found a Beaufort recipe and got to work. Making it eight different ways, they came up with the recipe that would become their flagship (and only) cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
There is little question that part of the reason this cheese is so flavorful is because of the way the Gingriches and Patenaudes manage their herd of cows. Early on, they implemented a system of rotational grazing. With this, the cows forage on pasture that is at a height of between eight and twelve inches. Mike Gingrich explains that this is the height at which the grass is thought to be at its maximum nutritional level for the cows. This translates to best quality milk. Once the grass is below the minimum optimum level, the cows are moved to another part of the pasture. This allows the grasses to grow back, and as a result, is instrumental in preserving the health of the land.
To make the cheese, the Gingriches use raw milk to which they add cultures. Once the milk is at the proper acidity, they add calf rennet and let it set until the mixture looks and feels like pudding. At this point the curds (solids) and whey, or liquid component, are heated and stirred. The curds are then pressed under the whey before they are scooped into hoops and pressed for 24 hours to extract as much moisture as possible. The wheels are dry-salted for two days and then washed daily for two weeks with a saltwater solution to which beneficial bacteria have been added. These bacteria help act as a barrier to any unwanted molds as well as being essential to developing the flavor in the cheese. The cheeses are then put in the aging room for a minimum of four months and as long as fourteen months. The ten-pound wheels emerge with a reddish-pink rind and a deep golden interior.
The flavors and aromas in this cheese are almost indescribable. The aroma, which is fairly assertive because of the washed-rind nature of the cheese, is also sweet, almost intoxicating. Some say it smells like grass, which wouldn't be a stretch. It has an unmistakable earthiness, and it's nutty too.
Complexity is a hallmark of this and almost any excellent cheese. The term complexity just means that the flavors come in waves long after the piece of cheese has been swallowed. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve flavors begin with grassy "outdoor" and earthy nuances. This is followed by notes of nuttiness. Completing the flavor picture are buttery and slight caramel notes. But just when you think the flavors have dissipated, an ever-so-slight sharpness creeps in, although it's fleeting and simply adds to the sensory explosion this cheese ignites.
Because of the power of this cheese, dessert wines make particularly good companions. Wine authority Andrea Immer-Robinson recently came up with a brilliant wine pairing for Pleasant Ridge Reserve - Yalumba Museum Muscat from Australia. The wine is sweet but by no means cloying, and it matches some of the nuttiness and sweetness found in the cheese. For a different experience, an Italian torcolato, which is a sweet wine from the Veneto, works very nicely. It too matches the nuttiness in the cheese. For a dry wine companion, a fruity shiraz can't be beat. Andrea sourced the very excellent Jim Barry McCrae Wood Shiraz for the Cheese and Wine seminar she and I did together at Food & Wine Magazine's annual Aspen Classic, and she pointed out that a bridge ingredient like fig jam tied the combination of Pleasant Ridge Reserve and the wine together particularly well.
In the end, though, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is so magnificent that it's worthy of the well-worn but appropriate line: the cheese stands alone.