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Archive for March, 2008

Though we have visited a number of cheesemakers who cheddar their cheese (notably Bob Wills, Sid Cook, and David Metzig), we have not been around to witness it before this most recent trip to southeastern Wisconsin. Joe Widmer (of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars) was kind enough to let us tromp around his operation for hours as he and his team banged out some cheddar… the old-fashioned way.

It starts much the same as most cheese making: Add culture and rennet to pasteurized milk and allow it to set. Then the set curd is cut and the whey is drained off. This is the point when curds are usually placed into forms their own weight will press out remaining whey. But for cheddar, this is where the interesting part begins.

Water is added to the curd and heated under constant stirring. The cuds are heated to around 100 degrees, which helps the curds start to melt together a little.

The water is then drained off and the curds are pushed together to drain off even more water and whey.

At this point, the curds are starting to knit together, and resemble “Floam,” a modern spin on the Play-Doh concept.

After the warmed curd has a little time to sit, it is cut into loaves and stacked up to press out more liquid.

It is then flipped over multiple times until the layers are each a thick mass.

At this point, they are cut into smaller pieces and put through a mill like a wood chipper to make them into small curds again.

This is when they are “cheese curds” like true Wisconsinites know and love — a little dry, squeaky, and flavorful.

The curds are then put into molds to further drain and age. A lot of work, most definitely — but the process helps make for a mellower, less sour cheese as it ages.

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Alto Dairy is probably best known for having the largest cheese plant this side of the Mississippi (and it is large!), making mostly “commodity”-style American-style cheeses, mozzarella, and provolone, but they have also occasionally made smaller batches of more specialized cheeses. One of these is their pasture-grazed cheddar, aged one year. A number of cheesemakers have told us that you can tell the difference between cheese made from cows fed grass (as opposed to silage), but the obstacles to using all grass-fed milk are many. As you can see from this photo, the cheese is more yellow than other un-colored cheddars; it is apparently common for cheese made from grass-fed milk to have this richer color.

The flavor was very buttery and smooth for cheddar with no acid flavor at all. It has a soft and creamy texture as well.

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We just got back from a trip to Henning’s Cheese in Kiel. Kerry Henning was a very gracious host and wonderful to talk to. After hearing about the 14-year history of his peppercorn cheddar, we had to buy some! Kerry seems to get most of his new ideas by seeing another cheese and then wondering “Can I do that with cheddar?” While this seems like a simple task, he actually embarks on a complicated development process until he makes a product that he is proud to put his label on. I can’t imagine the number of vats of cheese that went into this project, but the result is a dry and peppery cheddar.

Apparently, Kerry found the final key to the cheese by learning about some other aging methods to achieve the dry texture of this cheese. It is almost like an Italian aged cheese — a little towards the crumbly side but still very slice-able. The peppercorns almost merge into the taste of the aged cheddar, so it is less like getting little fireworks of pepper and more like one consistent flavor — not too peppery, but with a nice edge.

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Though we visited Cedar Grove cheese a few weeks ago, I have only finally been able to post tasting notes about the aged cheeses we got while we were there. Luckily, a few more weeks of aging shouldn’t change their flavor!

The cheddar we got is aged 6 years. This means it is quite strong and more acidic than younger cheddars and is probably best enjoyed with some crackers and moderation! It has a nice dry texture and starts to crumble when it is cut. Bob Wills always cheddars his cheddar (more about this process in posts to come), and many are also un-colored (as is this white cheddar).

We also purchased one of his “originals” — aged faarko, a Danish style cheese made from cow and sheep’s milk. Bob warned us that the aged had a bit of a bite to it, but I actually found it to be a nice straight-up eating cheese. It is a smooth softer cheese, and is buttery and almost fruity. Jim detected a hint of cherry.

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Becca and I loved the string cheese at Union Star (courtesy of master David Metzig), but it turns out there’s more than one way to make a great version of the snack.

Cedar Valley string cheese is saltier and far stringier than Metzig’s version (which is closer to milk made solid). It’s similarly fresh tasting but closer to mozzarella in flavor, for better or worse.

Note the intense fraying that makes for textural entertainment and a great deal of strand size options while you’re peeling apart each individual column of cheese.

While visiting southeastern Wisconsin for this trip, we stayed with a friend with Milwaukee roots. Apparently (and this must be a Milwaukee thing, because we never did this in Madison) it’s possible to whip up something called “string cheese sauce,” which consists of ketchup and horseradish mixed together in roughly equal proportions. It’s very tasty and zestily delicious, but it also had the tendency to override the pleasant natural sweetness of the Cedar Valley string cheese. On an older, less exquisite string cheese — and/or a smoked variety — the power of the string cheese sauce would in fact go a long way to improve the eating experience.

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We were lucky enough to be writing this book during the biennial World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, WI. This is one of the few international cheese competitions, and features 3 days of judging by a host of experts from every corner of the cheesemaking globe. Cheesemakers send in their samples to be judged on on appearance and taste.

We were also lucky enough to be invited to several events around the contest, including a tour of some local cheese factories and several sessions on how to judge cheese and pair cheese with other foods, leading to several days of talking about fantastic wines and inspired blue cheese pairings.

The contest takes over the Monona Terrace (a Frank Lloyd Wright designed building in downtown Madison).

Visitors can watch judges grade cheese in a variety of categories (including goats milk cheeses – flavored , cheddar – mild, and packaging).

Several of the judges and contestants are master cheesemakers, and it was a great opportunity to see people talk about the history and future of cheesemaking in Wisconsin.

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The Map

For your entertainment: Here’s the map + map-pin system we’re using to keep our travels organized. Blue pins are masters we’ve visited; red are masters we’ve yet to visit. The four “sectors” (plus the sector for Green County) each represent planned sections of the book.

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