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Archive for February, 2008

John Steinbeck on Highways

Travels with Charley coverWe’re doing a lot of driving to research this book, and it’s really driven home just how much nicer it can be to tool around on county highways and country roads. There’s just something soulful about seeing where people live, rather than just hurtling at 71 miles per hour down a fast-food studded artery of commerce. In “Travels With Charlie,” John Steinbeck offered his perspective on the coming of the interstates:

These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.

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We returned from our first major foray to eastern Wisconsin late last week, just ahead of one of the year’s seemingly incessant bouts of nasty weather. Green Bay (within sight of Lambeau Field) was our home base; from there, we roamed east, west and south as needed.

Our most rustic foray brought us to the tiny town of Zittau, where we met master cheesemaker David Metzig. Despite having a chic and credible Web presence, Metzig operates in a manner best described as old school — cheese plant downstairs, antique-bedecked living quarters upstairs. There’s a sense of intimacy to an operation like this; the storefront, cold storage, vats, and home are all there under one modestly sized roof.

David Metzig

Metzig was as charming and funny as anyone we’ve talked to; there may be a comfort level associated with being interviewed in your own dining room.

On our way out, David snapped a terrific shot of Becca and I wearing official Zittau Institute of Moo-Juice souvenir hats.

The bulk of our Green Bay-area time was spent at a much larger operation, that of Trega Foods. Trega’s cheesemaking operation encompasses three plants — one in Weyauwega overseen by Daniel Stearns (cheddar) and Jim Demeter (feta), one in Little Chute overseen by Terry Lensmire (cheddar, monterey jack, mozzarella and provolone), and one in Luxemburg overseen by Roger Krohn (mozzarella, provolone).

The contrast in scale between Metzig’s little in-house operation and, for example, Stearns’s 250,000 pound per day cheddar making set up couldn’t be more dramatic.

Metzig’s set-up is small, almost intimate; the screens for cutting the whey are pulled by hand, and the daily output is around 1,000 pounds. At the Weyauwega plant, massive 640-pound wooden crates of cheddar are pulled along a sprawling line, manhandled by robots that would look at home on a Detroit auto line.


Despite the sheer size of the Trega operation (which was recently sold to a Canadian concern called Agropur), the cheesemakers we met with couldn’t be nicer or more informative; while I wouldn’t describe myself as a cheese expert at the end of this trip, the sheer repetition of detail and physical experience of being in 13 different plants is beginning to make an impact. There’s no question that the Trega guys know their cheese, and there’s something awe-inspiring about seeing it made on such a massive (or, to use their accurate terminolgy, “medium-sized”) scale.

Duane Peterson, a master cheesemaker at the mostly edam and gouda-centered Arla Foods plant, gave us another look at large-scale production. His plant is European-owned operation and hearing about the difference between American and Continental management styles (often individualistic to the point of disorganized versus hierarchal and position-description-driven) was fascinating… as was the sprawling and beautiful array of machinery used to keep the plant in motion.

Overall, the Green Bay area was a little more developed (and developing) than the Euro-cute countryside of Green County, but we certainly can’t complain about the cheese or the locals.

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On our way out of the charmingly old-school Union Star cheese plant, we couldn’t help but pick up some of master cheesemaker David Metzig‘s sharp cheddar and string mozzarella cheese. Becca’s a string cheese fiend, so we were looking forward to trying a different incarnation of the American snack favorite. We were in no way disappointed.

string cheese
In contrast to the stiff, dry, relatively flavorless experience of conventional string cheese, Union Star’s product was moist and flavorful, like milk made solid and edible. Each fat, spaghetti-like cord was a tube of pure dairy essence, satisfyingly salty and tender.

Upon returning to Minneapolis, we threw some of this stuff on top of a mediocre frozen pizza, and greatly improved the experience. Is there no problem that Union Star String Mozzarella Cheese can’t solve?

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Kroll’s East of Green Bay

Becca and I are in the Green Bay/Fox Valley area to interview an ambitious slate of seven master cheesemakers. Today we talked to half of Trega’s four masters — Jim Demeter and Daniel Stearns — and toured their massive feta and cheddar-making plants. If memory serves, Demeter presides over a daily production of 80,000 pounds of feta, while Sterns oversees the making of [drumroll] 250,000 pounds of cheddar. More on these guys (and the rest of this trip) once we’re back in Minneapolis on Thursday.

The short summary of the non-cheese related part of the trip: We visited an old-school diner called Kroll’s East … not to be confused with the dudded-up Lambeau Field-area Kroll’s West. There, I had what might have been one of the best malts of my life, a surprisingly multi-dimensional mix of vanilla ice cream and hot fudge. The hamburgers we ordered were similarly excellent, served on hard rolls and slathered in ketchup, mustard, chopped onions and, uh, a pat of butter each. Ambiance? Thick as the stuff our burgers were covered in. You order by hitting a red button on the wall of your numbered booth, which, in turn, lights up a number on the wall, thereby summoning a waitress. You pay when your food arrives… and it eat off of the waxed paper it’s wrapped in.

Tomorrow:  Terry Lensmire from Trega, and David Metzig from Union Star. Should be fun.

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bread cheese

Carr Valley has recently started making Bread Cheese, a firm cheese based on the Finnish cheese Juustoleipa. The thing that sets this cheese apart is that like a halloumi or paneer, it doesn’t melt when heated. You can throw it on the grill or microwave it and have little squares of delicious warm cheese.

When warm, it is salty and close to a mozzarella. The texture is wonderful, and is really like a chunk of bread that has been soaked in cheese. The outside, which is a little browned from its production, is nutty and delicious. This is a cheese that will be a big crowd pleaser, particularly if the reaction of customers trying free samples of bread cheese at Whole Foods is anything to go by.

The cheese is created by baking or broiling the cheese after it is set into molds. As I understand it, this process basically gets rid of a lot of the moisture left in the cheese and keeps it from melting easily. If over microwaved, it will start to spread a little (Haloumi will do this too, eventually), but don’t worry, the taste doesn’t change.

Some Internet research suggests that the cheese is often served in Finland with coffee. Like, maybe even in coffee (where it melts and you eat it post coffee with a spoon). I have not been brave enough to try it this way yet, but it is fabulous with a little bit of jam or honey as a higher-end appetizer.

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This past weekend, Becca and I took a drive down to Carr Valley‘s Mauston plant, where we met with Tom Jenny, one of the company’s two master cheesemakers.

If you know Carr Valley, you know that they’re a company on the cutting edge of cheese innovation — multiple milk cheeses, cocoa-rubbed cheeses, cheeses impregnated with all manner of savory morsels — there is little that this company doesn’t do, whether as part of some kind of deliberate master plan or as the result of a happy accident.

We interviewed Carr Valley frontman and master cheesemaker Sid Cook in order to assemble the proposal for this book, so we walked through the doors of the Mauston plant knowing a little bit about what we were getting into.

Jenny was a guy who didn’t fear spinning a yarn, and I think we got a really great stack of stories from him — plus a guided tour of the plant.

Thomas Jenny at the Mauston plant

Becca snapped some nice shots of cheese in progress, and some swell environmental details such as this collection of labels:

labels from Carr Valley

We’ll have tasting notes for a number of Carr Valley cheeses (including their delicious bread cheese and Tom’s own Swiss) coming up later this week. In the meantime, a couple more of our favorite images from the trip.

If you’ve been down 90/94 from Minneapolis to Madison as often as we have, you know the Mauston Kwik Trip truck:

Kwik Trip truck

Gotta love it. It’s easy to ignore — (it kind of just looks like yet another sign) — until you realize the sheer three dimensional ambition of turning a semi into a massive, impaled advertisement.

And, of course, we found another highway cheese mouse. Can’t promise we’ll find one every trip, but I realize we’re two for two now.

Black River Falls cheese mouse

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