Five Things I Learned About Wisconsin Cheese

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

I love cheese. I grew up in Wisconsin. But apparently, my knowledge about Wisconsin cheese could fill just one hole in a 200-pound wheel of emmentaler. That was one of the many things I learned during my recent three-day, all-cheese-all-the-time tour of southern Wisconsin, courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, with a group of food and cheese journalists, bloggers, authors, and mongers. The tour coincided with the third annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival in Madison, where we had access to 40+ Wisconsin cheesemakers eager to share their expertise — and samples, of course. If you’re interested in a blow-by-blow review of the weekend, come to my house and be prepared to stay for the better part of the day. For those of you with less time, I present my top five takeaways from the trip, excluding the various wedges I smuggled across the border, of course.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

1. Cheese mites are real

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

We visited the cheese cave of Willi Lehner (right), a second-generation cheesemaker whose Bleu Mont Dairy turns out an amazing bandaged cheddar. When Lehner was walking us through his cave in Blue Mounds, he showed a sample of the muslin bandage he uses and mentioned that his is heavier than the kind other cheesemakers use. Why? someone inquired. To keep out the cheese mites.

Yes, apparently, mites are everywhere, including the rind of many cheeses. Some cheeses, like the French mimolette, rely on the cheese mites to burrow holes in the rind while the cheese ages, allowing it to breathe. But Lehner doesn’t want the mites near his precious cheddar, so he uses a thicker bandage and smears it with lard. The lard helps the bandages from drying out too fast — that’s key when the cheese will age for two to three years in a 1,600-square-foot cave with a 12-foot ceiling. Though Lehner has a good handle on the cave’s temperature (it ranges from 48ºF to 58°F year-round) and humidity, he uses time-tested techniques like bandaging to ensure his cheeses age well. We got to sample some two-and-a-half-year cheddar, and its crystallized, caramelly, mite-free bite demonstrated that it’s worth the extra cloth and effort.

2. Cheese prime-time is right now

You might think spring, when cows give birth, would be the best season for milk yields, but look to the opposite side of the year for cows to produce the best milk for cheesemaking, according to Jeff Wideman, a master of cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses who heads Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative in Monroe. In the warm spring and summer months, cows drink more and eat less, which results in fewer solids (fats and proteins) in their milk. But in October and November, the cooler weather gives the cows a better appetite, and it shows in their milk. Whereas this summer Wideman got 9.4 pounds of cheddar per 100 pounds of milk, this fall he’s getting a pound more cheese from the same quantity of milk. Wisconsinites have another reason besides the start of football season to welcome fall — more cheese for game-day treats.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

3. Super-aged cheeses are worth every penny

In the time it takes for Tony Hook, owner of Hook’s Cheese, to produce his coveted 15-year cheddar, he could make anywhere from 60 to 90 batches of your typical mild cheddar. Instead, he chooses to take up valuable space in his facility to test his cheesemaking skills over the course of a decade and a half, softly shepherding a young cheddar to the creamy, almost candy-like confection that retails for up to $60 / pound. If one thing goes wrong along the way — the cheese dries too fast or the flavors go in the wrong direction — that’s years worth of work gone down the drain.

“You can salvage cheese, but you can’t bring it back to age. You can sell it as mild. If worst comes to worst, you can sell it to make processed cheese,” Hook said. “You can insure against fire and recalls, but not aging.”

So while you may initially balk at the price tag, the 15-year cheddar almost seems like a bargain when you consider the gamble it took for Hook to bring it to market. Luckily, such a rich, flavor-filled cheese is one to savor in small doses, so you don’t need to buy an entire pound to be satisfied. Drop your daily latte habit for a week to purchase your chunk of cheddar. It’s the best dairy trade-off you’ll ever experience.

4. Cheese + Scotch = all kinds of awesome

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

I am not a Scotch drinker in the slightest. My preferences lean toward wine and the girly drinks, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and signed up for the cheese and Scotch pairings seminar offered at the Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival. Gregory Long, a spirits master at Vom Fass and a cheesemonger at Fromagination in Madison, lent his pairing expertise to four Scotches and four Wisconsin cheeses — and proved a few skeptics at my table wrong. Rather than overpowering the cheese, the Scotches provided a complementary tipple when matched with the right slice. The smoother, sherry-aged whiskys, like an 11-year-old Blair Athol, echoed the sweet nuttiness of the Emmi Roth Gran Queso, while Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue, with its earthy, salty bite, stood up to the smoky, tobacco-infused, 12-year Caol Ila.

The relevation, though, belonged to the marriage of a 7-year-old Ardmore with Bleu Mont’s bandaged cheddar (right). The herbal, semi-peated Scotch went head to head with the sharper aged flavor of the cheese, making me want more to drink and to nibble. No Scotch resides in my liquor cabinet now, but if I add a bottle, Ardmore it will be. The cheddar, of course, is a mainstay.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

5. Pigs eat better cheese than most people do

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

At Uplands Cheese Company, where wunderkind cheesemaker Andy Hatch turns out his award-winning Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, we got the season’s first taste of Rush Creek Reserve. The cheese, modeled after the French Vacherin d’Or, develops such a luxurious, liquidy paste that it must be eaten with a spoon. As we rushed to sample of dollop of the young Rush Creek, Hatch took his own taste and deemed it a work in progress. “This batch will be for the pigs,” he noted.

Are you kidding me? Deliver this sumptuous, smoke-tinged cheese to a bunch of pigs? I don’t think they appreciate the craft and care that went into such a prized wheel. Andy, I don’t care if the Rush Creek isn’t top-notch — send it to my newly created Asylum for Wayward Cheeses, where I will lovingly tend to the needs (aka eat them with relish).

It turns out that less-than-perfect cheese is not the only product the pigs at Uplands get to enjoy. The leftover whey also makes it into their troughs, and you can find Uplands’ whey-fed prosciutto at Madison restaurants like L’Etoile. I can’t vouch for it personally, but my best friend / co-blogger Colleen thought it was stellar enough to convince her pork-loving husband to move to Wisconsin from Washington, D.C.

Note: The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board covered all travel, accommodations, and dining expenses for the three-day tour, but all opinions are the writer’s own.

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Jill Lewis

The great-granddaughter of an Eastern European Jewish baker, Jill Lewis cannot escape her genetic predisposition to carbs. Her love of baked goods, wine, cheese and chocolate may not come in handy for her day job as a Twin Cities PR professional, but it proves infinitely helpful for her gigs as a contributing writer for The Heavy Table and the co-author of the Cheese and Champagne blog. A former resident of Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin and suburban Washington, D.C., Jill now lives with her husband, two young sons and cat in St. Louis Park.

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3 Comments

  1. Oh wow that part about the prosciutto is so cool! I must try it!

  2. That pork was so.damn.good.

  3. Paul 11/18/2011

    About 25 years ago, in eastern Wisconsin, I discovered a little cheese shop that had excellent aged cheddar with the price per pound the same as the age in years. The owner claimed to be 80, but apparently working with cheese for much of his life kept him looking quite a bit younger.