We headed to southeastern and central Wisconsin in mid-March for what may have been the biggest trip of our entire book — seven cheesemakers in four days. We started with Joe Widmer, who is one of the most mediagenic master cheesemakers we’ve been lucky enough to meet. The only cheesemaker (to my knowledge) with his own documentary DVD, Widmer presides over a cheese plant that is a warren of partially underground rooms in Theresa, Wisconsin. Up front, there’s a shop (thronged by locals when we visited) that opens right up onto the make room, where Widmer and his team work old-school magic. The only guy to still use bricks to make his Brick cheese, and one of a few masters who cheddars his cheddar (see Becca’s cheddaring post for a little more about this process), Widmer and his guys bring a militantly traditional and hands-on approach to their product. The whole experience was a little like watching a choreographed ballet, between the bricking, the cheddaring, and the cleaning processes that unfolded while we were at the Cellars.
Here’s Widmer and one of his colleagues filling Brick forms:
And here are the nearly century-old bricks themselves. Glorious, aren’t they?
I really enjoyed this shot of Joe Widmer’s front door, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s that it makes the heat of a cheese plant visible and almost palpable…
Kurt Heitmann of Alto Farms is one of three masters working for the large-scale manufacturer; his plant, in Waupun, is the largest east of the Mississippi. Despite the size of his employer, he and his fellow masters Ken DeMaa and Gregg Palubicki were as gracious and down-to-earth as small-scale artisans. Heitmann, in particular, leant us some insight into the joys and frustrations of working with the microscopic critters that make cheese happen. It’s hard to get cheesemakers to open up about bacterial starter culture, as it doesn’t translate well to nonspecialists like ourselves, but Heitmann was downright professorial.
Here he is grading a 640-pound block of young Colby (if memory serves) for us:
He also showed us the interior of one of his vats; it’s like an alien world in there. More beauty than I could’ve possibly imagined.
And here’s Ken DeMaa, striding among some of the giants of the cheese world:
Here’s Gregg Palubicki, very much in his element:
Down in southeastern Wisconsin, Ken Nett works side-by-side with his son Jeff at Cedar Valley Cheese, bringing nearly a half century of experience to bear on his craft. Becca and I found Nett to be salty, plainspoken, hilarious and deeply knowledgeable.
Around the corner from the plant, we also found a couple great old Wisconsin tavern signs. My favorite was for Fox Head beer:
Cheesemakers — as a rule, really — are vigorous, alert, and acutely active people. This isn’t just relative to their years; this is absolute terms, measured against however many 20 or 25-year-olds you want to throw at them. Sure, young people are young, but they haven’t been wrangling wheels, blocks and crates of cheese for decades; schlepping cheese makes for powerful dudes.
So when I write that Kerry Henning is one of the most high-energy and intense cheesemakers we’ve met with, that’s not an idly tossed-off statement. He’s a guy of sweeping gestures, enthusiastic storytelling and a bunch of very exciting ideas, particularly vis-a-vis making flavored cheddars that honor the cheese while showing off the flavor of choice.
Oh, and he’s presided over the creation of some 12,000-pound mammoth cheddars. Sadly, when we were there, I don’t think we saw any cheeses bigger than a ton. Barely cheese curd sized, really.
Our last stop brought us to the Foremost Farms’ Appleton plant, managed by master cheesemaker Tom Blauert. A truly modest guy (despite being plant manager for a burgeoning operation), Blauert opened up when we got him going on the hand-made furniture he crafts from his own oak trees as holiday gifts for the plant’s office ladies. Speaking personally, I can count on zero hands how many times one of my bosses has made me a rolltop breadbox or Amish-style wastebasket for a Christmas gift.