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Archive for January, 2008

Hal McGee on Cheese

Cover of On Food and CookingMcGee’s seminal work contains this thought which we’ll surely quote while writing Master Cheesemakers:

“Cheese is one of the great achievements of humankind. Not any cheese in particular, but cheese in its astonishing multiplicity, created anew every day in the dairies of the world. Cheese began as a simple way of concentrating and preserving the bounty of the milking season. Then the attentiveness and ingenuity of its makers slowly transformed it into something more than mere nourishment: into an intense, concentrated expression of pastures and animals, of microbes and time.”

Hard to watch a master such as Bruce Workman rush from vat to vat, making subtle adjustments and creating great Swiss cheese without thinking of  “attentiveness and ingenuity.”

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Feta can sometimes be overly astringent and hide all more subtle flavors beneath an acidic wash of taste, but this feta maintains a tangy flavor without overpowering the cheese base. It has a nice lemon aftertaste, and is firm and chalky in texture but easy to crumble.

Klondike Feta

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I thought I had already experienced “fresh curds” by eating cheddar cheese curds a few hours after they were made (when they are still affectionately called “squeakers” by those in the know), but they are nothing like actual curds plucked from the whey moments after curdling. I tried both a bell paese (a semi-soft italian cheese) and a Swiss curd straight from the whey.

Fresh curds and whey

The bell paese was almost custard-like, smooth and a little rubbery. It was also suprisingly sweet. I could immediately imagine it as a high-end dessert with a nice fresh berry compote. Also, the Little Miss Muffet nursery rhyme finally makes sense, as this could be a nice mild snack.

The Swiss had a very different texture – a little more rubbery and firm, almost like rice pudding. It was also mildly sweet. Because the curds are so young, the cheese cultures (which give cheese their distinct tastes) have not really set to work yet, and all you taste are the sweet milk solids. It was very pleasurable.

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We were fortunate enough to be given a bit of Butterkase right before packaging. It is a semi-soft mild cheese of German origin. The main taste is a mellow sweet butter flavor, which pairs well with the smooth soft texture. It apparently melts wonderfully. I should also mention that we ate this cheese around 4:30 in the morning — I think it speaks highly of its mild and pleasant taste that it made a wonderful breakfast cheese.

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Queso blanco is usually described generically as a “Hispanic melting cheese” and the Chihuahua brand has been created exactly to fit this description. It tastes like a mix between a young cheddar and a mozzarella combining the mild acidic flavor of cheddar with a soft smooth texture. It grates and melts superbly without crumbling and is my new favorite cheese for breakfast — try roasting potatoes with rosemary and topping with shredded Chihuahua and a fried egg.

Chihuahua cheese

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Green County

Becca and I have mounted our first major research foray for the book, and we have returned to Minneapolis fully laden with photos, mp3s of interviews, pages of notes, cheese, sausage and one bottle of Blumers black cherry soda. Some general thoughts, and brief thumbnail impressions of the masters we’ve met so far.

Southern Wisconsin looks absolutely gorgeous at the moment. A light covering of snow graces the fields like icing, covering all the square footage without obscuring little details like broken stalks of corn and gnarled stumps. Our second day on the road, we were able to pull over a few times and snap some shots of Green County in the winter, like this stark little number:

Green County

I’m also rather fond of this snow scene (with church). It didn’t look like much when we snapped it (I remember the bridge looking particularly unsightly) but then, through the magic of image capture and regurgitation, we get this:

Green County church

Our first meeting was with the fabulous Buholzer brothers of the sprawling Klondike plant. Between their impish senses of humor and impeccably organized and Willy-Wonkaesque factory, we left entirely charmed. Klondike puts out a number of different cheeses, but feta — sometimes up to 95,000 pounds a day — is the mainstay. It’s hard to express the massive scope of their plant, but this photo reaches toward the appropriate scale:

Klondike factory

That (and a very productive meeting with Jim Path, a retired Center for Dairy Research honcho who helped set up the master program) was Monday. Tuesday, we went to Chula Vista and met with master Jim Meives:

Jim Meives

He was kind enough to send us home with some of his Chihuahua (a trade name for a sort of queso blanco) melting cheese, which Becca will be reviewing in our next tasting notes update.

The next (and final) day of our trip, we got to shadow master Bruce Workman and his assistant Matt as they put out a batch of his rightfully famous Swiss. The interview started at 4am and ran until about 7:30, and mostly consisted of us trying to stay out of Bruce’s way as he raced from milk vat to curd vat to garage to office to milk vat to … etc. The guy was a blur of motion. Moreover, he was just about as gracious as he could have been — despite it being 4 in the morning — and the factory being loud, in parts — humid and hot, in parts, and cold in parts — we had a blast.

Bruce Workman

All in all, the trip was tremendously rewarding. And while we were in Monroe, we got to stop by and visit Baumgartner’s tavern, a legendary establishment.

Baumgartner's

To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only place in the world with sufficient yarbles to serve a limburger and onion sandwich. Note the mint.

limburger sandwich

It’s the only sandwich that requires not just the brushing of one’s teeth, but the taking of a hot shower. Good times. For the record, not only did I finish my sandwich, I liked the thing.

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