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Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009

Potter’s Crackers and Wisconsin Cheese: The Perfect Pair

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There is finally a worthy vehicle for the outstanding farmstead, craft and artisan cheeses Wisconsin cheese-makers have introduced to the market during the last decade. They craft more than 2.4 billion pounds a year in more than 600 varieties, types and styles, accounting for over 25% of all domestic cheese. At the 2009 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, Wisconsin dominated the 64 categories with 115 awards, including the top award for best U.S. cheese. Yet cheese needs a partner in taste. At how many parties have you snacked on a cheese plate that was accompanied by lousy crackers? Until Nancy and Pete Potter hit the scene, Wisconsin’s cracker market was rather stale.

Armed with Pete’s food science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Nancy’s 28 years of experience owning the New Glarus Bakery, the mother-son team began making wholesome organic crackers in 2006. “My goal was to have a healthy, 100% organic cracker with high fiber, low sodium, low fat, and still retain the textures and flavors I wanted,” Nancy explains. “I wanted a product I could feel good about.”

To make their cracker a true Wisconsin product, the Potters have found as many of their ingredients as possible from local farmers. Keewaydin Farms in Viola deliver vegetables and herbs like sweet potatoes, onions and basil. The Potters buy their whole grain flour from Great River Organic Milling, located on the upper Mississippi River in Fountain City, and all of the milk used in the crackers is from Sassy Cow Creamery, just north of the Potters’ location in Madison.

When the cracker business was in its infancy, the products were sold solely at farmers’ markets. It was there that Pete began experimenting with different cracker flavors based on interesting ingredients the vendors were selling. “Once we had that concept,” Nancy says, “we were constantly looking for new flavors.” The Potters make nearly 30 varieties of crackers, and they sell eight year round: classic white, vegan classic wheat, caraway rye, garlic and baby onion, hazelnut graham, six seed, toasted sesame and Washington Island flax.

Crackers play a dynamic role in that they need to have a compelling flavor that can stand on its own, yet also have the subtlety to act as a vehicle for the foods hitching a ride, like cheese, pates and spreads. On their Web site, the Potters recommend pairing their crackers to complement certain Wisconsin cheeses, like serving caraway rye with Wisconsin Limburger or sweet graham crackers with goat milk cheese from Dreamfarm.

Pete runs his end of the business from Northern California, where he is earning his master's degree in business administration at UC-Davis. Here in Wisconsin, his mom manages the cracker company hands-on. Baking Potter’s Crackers requires three people: one to make the different batches of dough, one to sheet the dough and one to cut and bake it. Once the crackers are finished baking, they’re placed in large bins until part-time workers, usually students after school, package them in reclosable bags.

In addition to farmers’ markets, Potter’s Crackers can be found in local stores like Grasch Foods, Sendik’s, Whole Foods, Outpost, and West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe, as well as on Wisconsinmade.com. They also make an appearance in Williams-Sonoma’s seasonal catalog as part of the “Pastoral American Cheese Collection.” Nancy is eager to continue Potter’s Crackers’ reach into Illinois and Minnesota, but doesn’t plan on expanding beyond the Midwest—all the more for us to enjoy our stellar Wisconsin cheese.

100 S. Baldwin, Suite 303, Madison, Wis., 53703; (608) 663-5005; www.potterscrackers.com.

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