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.