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Archive for April, 2008

Transcription Hell

Some of you may be wondering why the flow of posts seems to have slowed to a crawl. The answer, in a nutshell, is that we’re now tackling the job of transcribing the 20-30 hours of interviews we’ve done so far. By the time we’re done, I hope that we’ll have a nice little oral history of the Wisconsin cheese industry on our hands. In the meantime, my hands are absolutely killing me. I don’t recommend the experience of typing 10,000 words a day.

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The folks as Sartori told us that their Bellavitano cheese, an original creation, was difficult to explain. This is undoubtedly true on one hand (the texture is unique), but it is also has some familiar flavors that help a taster get a handle on its essence.

Bellavitano has some of the flavor of an aged cheddar, but the texture is much softer, like a young cheddar with a slight crumble to it. It also has notes of aged parmesan that meld perfectly with the aged cheddar taste. This is a great all-around table cheese; it would please cheese gourmets and casual snackers alike.

Update, 05/13/08: A store in Cleveland, Ohio refers to Bellavitano as simply “the cheese.” It also calls it “the most fabulous cheese you will ever eat.” The page is worth checking out for the description alone.

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When we visited BelGioioso, Master Cheesemaker Gianni Tofolon explained how BelGioioso comes up with their original cheeses – when the bosses are away in Italy, the cheese makers take the opportunity to make something new. You might think that a company that makes such wonderful aged parmasean style cheeses wouldn’t keep innovating, but they do, and Crescenza-Stracchino is the beautiful outcome of one of these clandestine cheese making ventures.

Tofolon explained that Crescenza-Stracchino is based on a seasonal cheese from Northern Italy. The name Stracchino alludes to the tired (or “stracca”) cows after they travel up and down the mountains.

The taste is best explained as a cross between a fresh buttermilk and a mild brie. The buttermilk flavor is a key player, and the texture stays almost liquid, but the mild brie flavor mellows the acidity and makes for a very refreshing cheese.


This is a cheese that is a real table side winner. Put it on a cheese plate as a counterpoint to aged flavors, or just serve it on crackers as a snack. Or, sneak all that you can onto every piece of left-over baguette you can find.

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Kudos to The Capital Times for rounding up all the various cheese-related books pouring out of the gates over the next couple of years. In addition to our own upcoming contribution, Jeanette Hurt has written The Cheeses of Wisconsin: A Culinary Travel Guide (due in July), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Cheeses of the World (out this month, co-written by Steve Ehlers). This February, Globe Pequot Press published Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide to the Cheeses of Wisconsin by Martin Hintz and Pam Percy.

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It’s not clear that we’re going to visit every giant cheese mouse in the state of Wisconsin, but it seems likely we’ll get 90 or 95 percent of them. Here’s one from Kris’ Cheese to Please, a charming cheese shop in Plymouth, where we visited master cheesemaker Jeff Mattes.

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Return to the East

As previously detailed, our trip back to the eastern part of the state turned into an exercise in gluttonous abandon, featuring Antigo bacon, De Pere chocolate, Cedarburg cinnamon rolls, Sheboygan brats and ample cheese.

Our first stop was in Antigo, where we visited one of Sartori’s two masters, Larry Steckbauer. His story — of how his plant survived a near-closing at the hands of Kraft, struck out as an independent plant owned by its own workers and then found safe harbor with Sartori — was one of the most interesting we’ve yet heard. We also got some insight into the making of SarVecchio (which you may remember by its old Wisantigo name, Stravecchio). This was fascinating on its own merits, but doubly interesting because Becca is obsessed with the stuff.

Belgioioso’s Gianni Toffolon may take the prize for the sheer articulation of passion for cheese and cheesemaking. This may be an Italy vs. Wisconsin thing; having grown up in the state, I can vouch for “stoic” being one of the leading adjectives of my family’s mensfolk. Toffolon’s story — of falling in love with the art of cheesemaking, of immigrating to Wisconsin from Cremona with not much more than the address of a cheese plant in his pocket, and of helping to establish Belgioioso as one of the best-respected domestic producers of Italian-style cheeses — helped set the stage for a cheese-tasting that ranks among my all-time favorites. It’s one thing to try a lot of cheeses; it’s another, entirely, to try them with their critical master maker.

The combination of the gorgeously substantial Belgioioso cheese-testing stool and almost platonically perfectly arranged affinage room made for a great photo.

Sartori master Jeff Mattes works on product development, no small thing for a large but family-owned company that puts out unusual products such as a beer cheese for Rock Bottom Brewery and Bellavitano, a cheese we’ve come to really enjoy. After the interview, he showed us around town a bit; in addition to seeing the plant, we had a chance to shoot his picture with local celebrity Antoinette. Ultimately, however, I liked this picture a little better:

For John Moran, cheesemaking is a truly family affair; his father is still active in the business, and he’s certainly logged his own numerous years in the service of curds and whey. Moran’s bustling plant and shop reminded us a little of Kerry Henning’s operation: a great view from the big store into the plant, friends and family coming and going with great frequency, the feeling that this was more than a cheese plant — it was a community center for Rudolph, WI.

Vern Kind, of Land O’ Lakes, showed us cheesemaking on a scale we could barely fathom. Kind, a senior scientist for the company, travels around the country to various plants, working with resident workers and cheesemakers to improve and troubleshoot their cheese. We met with him at a Land O’ Lakes building in a Twin Cities suburb, marking the first time we’ve been able to meet a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker without leaving our adopted home city. Kind showed us around the Land O’ Lakes experimental plant, a set-up that was toy-sized for Land O’ Lakes, but was on par with some of the smaller plants we have visited.

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A somewhat more cheese-related roadside attraction: Antoinette, the Plymouth, WI, commemorative gigantic cow. Antoinette’s sign celebrates the National Cheese Exchange, established in 1882 in Plymouth. The cheese exchange later moved to Green Bay, before getting sucked into the whole Chicago commodity market scene.

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