It’s well known that Wisconsin is a cheesemaker’s paradise, and those who have more than a bit of gastronomic sense are aware that it has become an artisan stronghold, boasting more concentrated cheesemaking knowledge and award-winning varieties than any other plot of land on God’s green earth. Residents of Minneapolis / St. Paul might not, however, be aware that a certified Wisconsin master cheesemaker lies right over the St. Croix River, just past Hudson: Scott Erickson labors daily in Somerset, WI, turning out a beautiful local goat cheese and a number of other types, including classics such as cheddar, remarkable novelty cheeses such as truffle jack, salsa jack, habañero gouda, and several others.
Among those who care — mostly folks of Finnish extraction — Bass Lake Cheese Factory‘s juustoleipa (bread cheese — “HOO-stoh-lee-pah or “HOO-stoh” for short) is rightfully famous. A mellow cheese that won’t melt when grilled, juusto has become one of Wisconsin’s most unusual new specialty hits. The type that Erickson makes at Bass Lake is a bit sweet and wonderful in the morning when immersed in a cup of hot coffee, where it releases some of its creamy flavor. “Because of the high pH, the cheese itself won’t melt and dissipate,” says Erickson. “The butterfat will melt and dissipate, so it’s almost like adding cream. At the same time, it’ll warm the cheese up and juustoleipa is best when it’s warmed up. It’s awesome with sugar and cinnamon on it, too.”
While Erickson is a wizard with experimentation (much like his famous master cheesemaker colleague, Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese), his finest work may be his plain chevre, made from fresh local goat milk.
“We ripen the cheese at a lower temperature, at least 15 degrees lower than cow milk,” says Erickson of his goat curd, which sits in nylon bags suspended in mid-air in his plant. “We want the lactic acid to develop slowly so it isn’t so tart, and so the texture is smooth and silky, not grainy.”
By working with the freshest milk he can acquire and handling his curd with care, Erickson delivers a product that lacks any of the off-flavors — the “goatiness” that can make chevre unpleasant — and is instead smooth and almost sweet.
Erickson, an artist by training, likens the work he does with cheese to the instinctual process that goes into any act of creation.
“It’s all the senses that you use — you use your sense of sight, and smell, and touch, and taste,” he says. “It’s almost gotten to the point where I don’t have to run pHs, or titratable acidities — I can pretty much tell using my senses how the bacteria is doing, if it’s developing too fast or too slow. Through experience you learn how you can make adjustments in your recipe, to overcome things that may be happening.”
BEST BET: Buy as much chevre as you can imagine using, consider an aged cheddar, and roll the dice on one of the more unusual cheeses Bass Lake produces — the truffle jack, in particular, is nationally coveted.
James Norton and Becca Dilley are co-authors of The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin Press, Nov. 2009).
Cheese Plant in Somerset, WI
598 Valley View Tr.
Somerset, WI 54025
OWNERS: Scott and Julie Erickson