One of the most interesting and least understood aspects of contemporary Wisconsin artisan cheesemaking is this: There are cheesemakers out there making flavored cheeses that are worth a damn. For a long time — rightfully, justifiably so — flavored cheeses were looked down upon, mocked, sneered at, kicked to the curb, and generally assigned to the category of stuff eaten by ignorant tourists.
The fact of the matter is that European cheese artisans have played with flavorings for hundreds of years, whether it’s Dutch caraway goudas, French cheeses flavored with parsley, tarragon, and pepper, or the pepato of Sicily.
In recent years, with relatively little fanfare, Wisconsin cheesemakers have begun to move away from blueberry- or cranberry-adulterated wrecks into more carefully conceived and ultimately delicious experiments — the cumin, pesto basil, or clove gouda of Marieke Penterman, for example, or the cave-aged peppercorn cheddar of Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, WI.
Sartori made a breakthrough a few years ago with its raspberry BellaVitano, a Wisconsin original cheese flavored by a good soaking in New Glarus Raspberry Tart beer (a beer that just won the gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for best fruit-flavored beer in the country).
Now, a triumphant follow-up: Espresso BellaVitano (seen above at a Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board sample tasting). Made by rubbing roasted espresso into wheels of creamy BellaVitano cheese, it packs two distinct but complementary flavor profiles: the nutty, cheddar-meets-parmesan flavor of the cheese, and the roasty depth of the coffee. The blackened exterior of the cheese, where the coffee was applied, is particularly espresso-esque and delightful. Pairing with stout or coffee beers is a breeze, as is pairing with chocolate or coffee itself.
Sartori cheese turns up frequently in local cheese shops — I’ve seen it at the co-ops (Linden Hills and Seward come immediately to mind) and it’s likely to pop up at Kowalski’s or Lunds. And if you’re intrigued and not finding it, it can be ordered online by the 4-oz. wedge ($5.87), 5-lb. quarter wheel ($78.63), or 20-pound whole wheel ($299.50). Good as it is, it’s probably worthwhile starting with the wedge before committing to the wheel.