by Terese Allen, Food Editor
As a self-proclaimed foodie I usually have no trouble coming up with creative ideas for dinner, but on a recent weekday evening I found myself facing the cook's equivalent of writer's block. Resorting to the commonplace, I got out the fixings for grilled cheese sandwiches--and resigned myself to serving a pedestrian meal that night. Life happens.
A few mouthfuls into supper, though, my husband put his sandwich down gently, looked me in the eye and said, "Wow. This. This is best grilled cheese I have ever had."
I was as flabbergasted as he, but since I hadn't done anything out of the ordinary to cook the sandwich, I couldn't take credit. It had to be the cheese--a variety we'd never tried before, called Raw Sharp Cheddar from Organic Valley Family of Farms. Full-bodied, with a creamy pale flaxen color, it melted gracefully between slices of seven-grain bread with no greasy oozing. The cheese's amiable bite, not as flagrant as some cheddars, held a hint of hay and salt. There was sweetness, but not too much. Like a benevolent despot, commanding but kind-hearted, this cheese ruled.
I'd picked it up at my neighborhood co-op because the label said it was a prizewinner--Best in Show, in fact, in the 2005 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, the nation's largest cheese competition (it also won a bronze medal in the 2005 World Cheese Awards in London). Curious about a cheese that could turn a standard sandwich into a meal to remember, I had to find out more. And that's how I came to meet Phil Vantatenhove. He's owner and head cheesemaker at Gibbsville Cheese, where Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar is produced, and where I traveled to learn about the stuff such cheese is made of.
The Gibbsville plant lies smack in the middle of America's Dairyland among the rolling, milk-happy hillsides of eastern Wisconsin. Miles from the nearest four-lane but close enough to Lake Michigan to sense its vast vigor, the site has had a cheese factory in operation on it since 1873. The Vantatenhove clan has owned it for three generations, packaging numerous varieties under their own label and, today, also producing several types for Organic Valley, including classics like Colby, Monterey Jack, and both raw and pasteurized cheddars.