Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Cheese That Brings Back Memories: The Bon Bree Cheese Brick is Back!

This posting is a follow-up to “Cheesehead Revisited - Part 2” originally posted on July 24, 2013 [
As Paul Harvey use to say at the end of his daily radio broadcasts, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

I have previously written that I find it gratifying to learn there are others out there who share my “hankering for a good hunk of cheese.”  I mentioned my particular love for the Bon-Bree cheese brick, a true Wisconsin Lake Country tradition, produced by the long defunct cheese factory in Mapleton (it closed sometime in the 1980s).  And not long after my original posting back in 2009 [“Confessions of a Cheesehead - Part 2” posted May 17, 2009 - ], I began to receive regular comments from fellow afficionados who enjoyed my story of discovery and my own enjoyment of and dedication to Bon-Bree.  We all mourned its passing into cheese history.

One of these contacts was Bob Kapsy who lives not far from the site of the old Mapleton factory in rural Waukesha County northeast of Milwaukee. He had seen my 2009 blog posting mentioning my interest in Bon-Bree and we both agreed it was a black day when the late Terry Shaw, the Oconomowoc cheese maker responsible for Mapleton’s Bon-Bree, decided to close up shop.  The good news, however, was that Kapsy, a local wine merchant, was partnering with Lloyd Williams’ Homestead Farm and Creamery, a six generation family farm in Delafield, in the hope of soon producing an artisan “Mapleton style cheese” replicating the consistency and taste of the Bon-Bree cheese of old.  Williams would make the cheese and Kapsy would take on the responsibility of sales and marketing.  In doing so, they hoped to answer the prayers of Bon-Bree’s many loyal and longing disciples – to reintroduce “The Cheese That Brings Back Memories” – while in the process making the Williams family farm financially sound.

Williams knew Terry Shaw, and years after the Mapleton cheese factory closed, they visited the Dairy Business Innovation Center and the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, where they tested several batches trying to recreate the original Mapleton recipe.  Sadly, Shaw passed away shortly thereafter and Williams carried on their plan alone.  Luckily he soon joined forces with Kapsy and they quickly discovered that you cannot patent a cheese recipe, but you can the trademark the name.  They did just that and the rest is new cheese history.

For four years Williams developed cultures and refined the recipe while looking to the future marketing of the new Bon-Bree.  He wanted to bring back what the old Mapleton customers grew to love while initiating a new generation of cheese lovers to what he believed was a truly artisanal product.  Secure in the belief that a satisfactory recipe was in hand, Williams began to produce several test batches while Kapsy sampled them at local wine tasting events and when visiting local groceries and markets.  Kapsy was kind enough to keep me in the loop on developments and to share some of these early samples with me, sending them through the US Postal Service to my home here in Maryland.  There was concern that the cheese would not withstand its transit through the mail, but I assured Bob it would be OK.  After all, my family sent blocks of the original Bon-Bree to me in college in Florida and Arizona.  I even had Bon-Bree shipped to me during a year I spent studying in Germany.  Surely it would hold up on the trip from Wisconsin to Maryland.  And it did.  I could not wait to sample it.  As I have previously reported, the color of the new brick is more white than the buttery hue of the original . . . something which only occurs with proper aging in “bringing back the Bree.”  Otherwise it looked, felt and smelled the same as the Bon-Bree of old. 

It was not long before Kapsy called me last summer to announce,“We have cheese!”   Better yet, he was shipping me a sample of the final product.   I was in heaven!  The bricks were properly aged – Williams cautions that “you can’t rush a good thing” – with the plan to soon have cheese in stores.  Like its predecessor, the new Bon-Bree brick cheese contains no preservatives, synthetic proteins, bovine growth hormones, or artificial coloring.  It is 100% natural milk from pasture-fed Holstein cows using primarily cheese cultures and salt.

By late August Bon-Bree went into full scale production at Ron Henningfeld’s Clock Shadow Creamery, an environmentally “green” and carbon-neutral urban cheese factory situated in the Walker’s Point neighborhood on Milwaukee’s near south side since 2012.  It produces grass-based organic cheese products in small batches.  It is “very much a hands-on process” Henningfeld confesses. 

Initial distribution of the new Bon-Bree brick cheese was limited to a couple dozen stores, including several Piggly Wiggly outlets and the Mars Cheese Castle, a highway icon near Kenosha since 1947 where I have bought cheese since I was a kid.  It is also served in a handful of local restaurants in southeastern Wisconsin.  One can purchase bricks – the original along with versions containing carroway, dill and chive – online

Publicity and customer reaction have been over the top and Bon-Bree now has its own Facebook page.  Fans of the earlier Bon-Bree, myself included, are ecstatic in their flights of nostalgia.   And the food establishment has been laudatory.  “It tastes a little like a cheese curd, it’s a bit like mozzarella, it’s soft like Monterey jack,” writes Nancy Strohs, the food editor of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.  “Buttery, creamy, pleasantly salty [only 3% salt content], a little sweet, a little nutty.”  It may soon be available in the relatively new Mariano’s grocery chain in the Chicago area.

I am delighted to report that the fine tradition of Mapleton’s Bon-Bree has been resurrected and is once more available to those of us who have enjoyed it in the past, and to all those who are now discovering it now for the very first time.  Nothing says happiness like a brick of Bon-Bree Cheese . . .  “The Cheese That Brings Back Memories.”

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.

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