Archive for May, 2008

The kind and worldly folks at Saveur.com have published a piece illustrated by Becca and written by yours truly. The theme? Five Wisconsin cheeses you’ve never heard of, plus Limburger.


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We’ve had so many tremendous visits with cheesemakers that it would be unfair to play favorites and single anyone out in terms of providing a particularly good tour. And yet, it’s hard to get around the fact that not only did newly graduated master cheesemaker Tom Torkelson show us around his plant, canned milk loading dock and warehouse, he also got us access to two of the Amish farms that supply his milk. The result is one of the most engaging photo collections we’ve obtained since following Bruce Workman around at four in the morning.

Here’s Torkelson with a make procedure for cheese (I believe it’s the Cowbilly, but I don’t recall):

He tweaks the recipe often enough that he often just writes out new versions by hand.

And here he is standing in one of the cellars in his warehouse, cradling a wheel of mixed cow/goat washed-rind cheese called Cowbilly. These things have been flying off the shelf since its Best in Class win at the 2008 World Cheese Championship. It’s a mixed blessing, because the cheese is labor intensive — Torkelson handles each wheel about 50 times before it’s shipped to the customer.

A few of the cans that carry Torkelson’s milk:

The plant is located the heart of an Amish area, so it’s not unusual to see a buggy cruise past:

Here’s the milking parlor of one of the two Amish farms we visited:

And here’s one of the barn’s residents:

Over on the goat farm, we received a lot of curious attention. This goat tried to eat the sleeve of my sweater.

Finally, here’s Torkelson chatting with one of his milk producers:

This is just day-to-day life out in Cashton, WI. But for city folk such as Becca and myself, Torkelson’s farm and plant tour was a horizon-demolishing experience made all the nicer by perfect weather.

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It’s been nearly a month since we visited the Center for Dairy Research in Madison and interviewed a number of the key players in the Master Cheesemaker program. So — with regrets on the delay — here are a few of the most interesting quotes we gathered from their staffers:

Dean Sommer, Cheese & Food Technologist: Cheesemaking is like driving a car — when you first start, there is so much to watch, you are watching all the gauges, what is my temperature, what is this… You know the rules, and you can get down the road, but you don’t have the feel and the comfort level. That is the artistry, the comfort level. With cheesemaking, you don’t have to watch the pH meter constantly, you can look and see and feel and know how it is going.

Mark Johnson, Senior Scientist: I gave a presentation on cheese, and people asked where the cheese came from. I said: “These are all from Wisconsin” and people thought I was joking. They thought they were imported. Every cheese you see imported we can make in Wisconsin. And make just as good, if not better because we have control over everything. The cheeses you get in Europe are great when they are made, but then you have to transport them.

John Jaeggi, Associate Researcher: We like to stay in the background, we don’t want to be in the foreground because we strongly believe that the focus should be on those guys — the cheesemakers, the cheese companies are the ones in
the trenches. So most people won’t hear of us, but a lot of the award winners in cheese contests are a result of work done here.

Marianne Smukowski, Dairy Safety & Quality Coordinator: We’ve tightened up some requirements [for the master cheesemaker certification]. Some of those guys who graduated early are now sitting on the board — it’s an honor, and it’s very prestigious, and they want it to be earned.

Joanne Gauthier, Associate Marketing Specialist and Program Administrator: It has always been something that I was really proud to be involved with. I have met all of the master cheesemakers and really gotten to know most of them. They are all great people, their stories are wonderful from the 1st generation cheesemaker to the 4th generation cheesemaker.

We have gotten a chance to meet not only the master cheesemakers, but
their mentors and the people that they looked to for guidance. It is
not just a few people, it is a huge network.

Bill Wendorff, Professor, Food Science: It’s kind of like being a country doctor, who delivers babies and watches them grow up and go through high school — you take a look at some of these guys and you see what they’ve done and you just feel good about how what you’re doing in the program is really contributing toward that.

Rusty Bishop, CDR Director: We will lose a lot of knowledge when these guys retire — in 15, 20 years a lot of these guys are going to be gone. This new group, they’re still deciding what they want to do with their life. We have to convince them why they want to be in the cheese plant. They’re not going to work for $20,000 a year — we need to pay them a competitive salary.

And, finally, a quote from Jim Path (retired), who may the single person most responsible for the Wisconsin master cheesemaker program:

In our first graduating classes we had large and we had small cheesemakers, and it had a lot of credibility. I think the thing that really touched my heart a lot was that we now see generational applicants, where’s there’s been a master whose son is coming into the program. When you see generations, you say: “Wow, that’s really something.” And the other thing that sort of touched me a little bit was that you can go back for a second mastership. There was a guy who was in his 60s who came to the university… he had been a cheesemaker all of his life. Excellent, outstanding cheesemaker.

The question became: Is it fair to take someone who works at the university, and enter him into the program? It was a legitimate debate, and the board decided that he should because he was outstanding. He had heart problems, and he died about a year ago, he died in his seventies. It was so touching to see, and it meant so much to him… You know, maybe you’ve done a little good. It’s nice to see a program that you’ve developed touches the hearts of people, and it touches their lives.

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I’m punch drunk after days of writing, as hard as I can, to get this book done by the end of the month. It’s entirely possible that the cold light of reason will make this analogy seem ridiculous down the road, but here goes. Writing a book or article is not unlike making fine cheese. You start with your raw material, be it milk, or, in this case, interviews and research. You go through your make procedure, which creates an unfinished but mostly whole product — fresh cheese, or a raw, unedited, profile of a master cheesemaker, as the case may be. Then, you do your affinage, refining, shaping, correcting and improving your cheese or your profile, through aging, brining, bandaging, or — in the literary world — re-reading, polishing, fact-checking and editing.

Clearly, I need more sleep or more coffee. Probably the latter.

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If you have had brie in the US, chances are you have had President Brie, the flagship product made at Lactalis in southwestern Wisconsin.

The brie is mild and buttery and wonderful when warmed slightly and spread on toast. The texture is also smooth and soft, and the mold-rind is subtle enough for even finicky eaters to enjoy. It doesn’t have the challenging flavor of European soft cheeses; it’s a deliberately easygoing cheese.

If you are used to buying your cheese in the round, go ahead and enjoy the wedge-shaped version. It is made the same way as the circles, but is shaped into a wedge before the mold works its magic, so the rind is all over the sides as well. It is perfect for slicing!

Jim adds: To celebrate the completion of my transcription of our interview with Jake Niffenegger, I walked over to the supermarket and bought some President brand Rondele garlic and herbs spreadable cheese. I used to love this stuff when I was growing up. Turns out it’s still really good — a little strong on the garlic but otherwise a great herb / creamy cheese / garlic balance. And, frankly, sometimes too much garlic is just the right amount.

Also, when you think of processed cheese spread, you probably think of dozens of unpronounceable ingredients being packed into the stuff. Rondele has nine listed on the back, and the somewhat more exotic ones (sorbic acid, guar gum) are actually explained in parenthesis.

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Through a random accident of scheduling, our last interview happened to be with David Lindgren, whose plant is near Neillsville on Highway 10. Neillsville, as it turns out, is home to Chatty Belle, the world’s largest talking cow. She’s about 16 feet high by 20 feet long, which is plenty big.

Now, it should be understood that we didn’t PLAN for our last interview to be with an enormous talking cow, but we were fairly pleased with how it all worked out.

Here’s the lady herself, in all her grandeur:

Here’s the strange cheese shop / radio station combo that Chatty Belle oversees. It was originally the Wisconsin Pavilion, which promoted the state in the ’64/65 World’s Fair in New York:

A somewhat more awe-inspiring shot of the cow:

Unfortunately, the World’s Largest Replica Cheese (commemorating a 17-ton hunk of cheddar from the World’s Fair) is no longer on site. Quoth the Journal-Sentinel:

The original cheese was cut and eaten in 1965, but for years after this only-in-Wisconsin replica was displayed in a Cheesemobile parked adjacent to Chatty Belle and the original pavilion, which was brought to Neillsville to house a radio station. However, because of deterioration over the years, the Cheesemobile and replica cheddar were recently removed.

Finally, you might ask: “Talking? Talking HOW?”

All you need to do is insert a quarter, and you’ll hear Chatty Belle’s monologue.

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This was our last week of frantic road-tripping, and it’s been bittersweet. On one hand, we’ve driven more than 7,500 miles, and we’re tired. On the other hand, we’ve met some wonderful people and tasted some amazing cheeses, and it’s kind of hard to think we won’t be going out to any more plants… at least not anytime soon.

We started the week by heading up to the remarkable Burnett Dairy in Alpha, WI. (Cheese Underground has a great post about their artisan Alpha’s Morning Sun, a block of which is now in our fridge waiting for a taste test.)

We met with the successful co-op’s two master cheesemakers, the avuncular Steve Tollers and the dryly charming Bruce Willis. (Not that Bruce Willis, no.)

Here’s Tollers:

And Willis:

The Burnett shop was as interesting as the plant — it was just thronged with patrons and seemed to be a community gathering point of some significance.

We also visited with Richard Glick, a semi-retired (but still consulting) master cheesemaker whose skill with blue and gorgonzola cheeses is legendary. He regaled us with stories about tweaking and improving recipes for blue and gorgonzola and the “what if?” impulse that drives hands-on cheesemakers.

Here’s Glick wearing his master’s ring:

And here are some of the old process cheese crates that he’s collected:

We stopped by to visit John Moran again; on our previous visit, he wasn’t making cheese, so we caught up with him and a vat of Colby.

Unfortunately, we managed to turn up right in the middle of an emergency power outage drill, meaning that the photo session was a little shorter than we’d hoped.

Finally, this Friday, we met up with David Lindgren of Lynn Dairy. The trip was fantastic — it was perfect weather, Lindgren was a gracious host, and we got some good quotes and photos. It doesn’t hurt that Lynn Dairy still uses some Amish milk and is located in is one of the most beautiful parts of the state that we’ve seen.

Next and finally: Tom Torkelson. Normally we’d work him into this roundup-style post, but we got so much great stuff we’re breaking him off into his own writeup.

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