Our first stop during our return trip to Green County (our second of three planned) was Chalet Cheese, a longstanding maker that’s home to two masters, Myron Olson and Jamie Fahrney. Olson is famous (notorious?) as the last remaining maker of Limburger cheese.
I won’t get into all the details here (see our tasting notes for more information), but it turns out that Limburger has an awful lot more pleasant subtlety to it than you could possibly imagine.
Also: the stuff is perfectly benign when it’s in the bacteria-smear wash phase of its creation. Watching each tiny block of cheese receive its hand washing was one of the most charming parts of a charming visit.
At Chalet, we enjoyed one of the gastronomic highlights of our trip to date: tasting a still-warm and tender plug of baby swiss taken right from the block. Never before had we tried such a subtle, sweet, delicate piece of swiss cheese; like the curds straight from Bruce Workman’s vat, it’s hard not to wish there was some way to have this kind of experience on a regular basis.
Steve Stettler, biker (in the motorcycle sense of the word) and cheesemaker got into the topic of rBGH with us; his company, Decatur Dairy, is largely rBGH-free and thinking of going entirely so and making it into a selling point. The degree to which controversy over rBGH has shaped the business decisions of cheesemakers isn’t something we’ve delved into in details, but after talking to the business-savvy Stettler and Bob Wills (see below), it’s becoming a slightly larger blip on our radar screen.
Becca and I talked to Foremost Farms purchaser and master cheesemaker Carie Wagner for well over an hour, the longest interview we’ve done to date. (We’ve done longer visits — we spent almost four hours with Bruce Workman.)
Wagner’s story — of her initial mentorship at the UW River Falls student dairy, of bouncing around major companies in a variety of R&D and cheese-related positions, of her camaraderie with the otherwise all-male brotherhood of master cheesemakers — could almost be made into a book unto itself.
Bob Wills, at Cedar Grove, turned out to be one of the most fascinating interviews of the trip to date. A lawyer and doctor of economics, Wills married into the business, and has applied his skills of analysis and reason to the job of making tons of high-quality cheese.
Although Cedar Grove is principally notable for making a varied array of ambitious cheeses, it’s hard not to get charged up about the place’s “living machine,” a 10-vat greenhouse / biosystem that turns the plant’s wash-water from an unsavory mix of soapy impurities into a clear final product clean enough to discharge into a nearby stream.
Back in Madison after all our Green County goings-on, Becca and I met up with Jeanne Carpenter , the co-creator and big wheel of the Cheese Underground. The site had caught my eye as a preternaturally well-informed source of information about Wisconsin cheese, and it turns out that through a former job at the WI Agriculture Department and a host of dairy-related consultancies, Carpenter stands athwart the very nexus of the Wisconsin cheese universe.
At this point, Becca and I are starting to get a fuzzy sense of some of the major players in the Wisconsin cheese scene. Carpenter has been living the life for years, and was able to talk us through the state of Wisconsin dairy with an expert’s confidence. In terms of “big picture” guidance, interviewing her was right up there with talking to Jim Path in terms of how much information we were able to obtain.
While tooling around Green County on an extremely foggy day (freezing rain had been predicted, so fog was far preferable) Becca got a couple shots of cows and the countryside that I’m very fond of.
Oh, and we’re continuing to track down cheese mice with startling regularity. This one’s in Plain, Wisconsin, in the state’s charming unglaciated region. I love Madison, and have long enjoyed vacationing in Door County, but the Baraboo/Plain area may take the cake for single most unspoiled and gorgeous part of the state.