Posted by: trevormeers | November 7, 2011

The Cheese Monologues, Part I

Thoughts from a tour of the Wisconsin dairyland.

Among the more frustrating things a person can say is, “I’m bored.” Unless you’re marking time in solitary confinement, declaring boredom is simply announcing that you’re not curious enough. There is always a new skill to learn, a new world to uncover if you simply start looking with a willingness to absorb the details. And once you’ve done a bit of homework, there’s hardly a thing in sight that doesn’t present a compelling storyline.

Several thousand pounds of milk begin their journey into curds and whey.

Today’s example of this phenomenon: cheese. Cheese has been with us since ancient times as a means of turning perishable milk into a food that’s easier to transport and can last decades, in some cases. In the minds of most Americans, cheese probably comes from the same place as fireworks and chewing gum since they all arrive in our stores wrapped in cellophane. The cheese we generally know has two forms: a squishy rectangle slapped onto cheeseburgers and the rubbery layer that makes pizza so tasty. (Mozzarella, incidentally, is the #1 cheese in America, in terms of pounds produced.)

But with only a few minutes of education, you’ll find that cheese presents enough material for a Ken Burns series. I know this more clearly than I used to because I spent part of last week touring cheesemaking operations in the rolling landscape of southern Wisconsin. The night before our tour kicked off, a local foodie TV host declared, “The journey you’re about to take is like choosing the blue pill or the red pill in The Matrix. You will never be the same.”

As we sat in a hotel dining room, the words sounded to me just as they do to you now. Hype spoken by someone who may be a little too buzzed on cheese. But by sunset the next day, I could no longer look at a block of cheese as simple cheddar any more than I see a book as merely a stack of paper.

Bruce the all-world cheesemaker with 200 pounds of Emmentaler Swiss.

Start at the beginning with the subject of milk, for example. (One cheese-shop owner said you’d be surprised at how many tourists don’t know cheese comes from milk. “Especially people from Alabama, for some reason,” he said.) Milk’s simple enough to most of us. It’s all white, and some is creamier tasting, depending on the color of the jug’s plastic cap. But a cheesemaker considers all milk equal about as much as a skier considers all snow the same. One Master Cheesemaker (certified in a program that takes years to complete) told us he can smell the grass when his hands are in a vat of fresh milk, checking its transformation into curd. One young artisan who trained in the Swiss Alps makes cheese for only a few months of the year. He wants only milk his herd produces while grazing lush summer grass. If the cows eat an overgrazed pasture, the milk lacks the proper quality. If the cows eat an undergrazed pasture, they’re eating fibrous grass that’s putting too much energy into seed production. That’s not “a good chew,” as its known, and that’s not good for cheesemaking.

This cheesemaker even draws a distinction based on time of day. In the afternoons, the cows give a different milk than in the mornings. Different milk, different taste toolbox, different flavor profile in the cheese.

Once the cheese is made, it goes into storage for anywhere from two months to 22 years (the ongoing streak one cheddar-maker is working on with a batch that keeps holding up when he tests it every six months). But cheese storage is far from a stack-it-and-forget-it operation. “Cheesemaking is like having your first baby,” a cheesemaker named Andy said. “You’re constantly staring at it, saying ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’” In their first year, every wheel of cheese must be turned, brushed and brined several times each week, depending on its type. One high-school science teacher I met sidelights as a cheesemaker, and his turning and brushing regimen requires 15 hours each week.

Imported cedar bands impart their flavor to soft cheese during its stay in the aging room.

One maker named Willi, whom I liked immediately because he had the tanned, tight face of a mountain climber, showed us the cave he built into the side of a hill and lined with limestock blocks. It took him a year, but it was a smart investment in achieving the perfect year-round temperature and humidity for aging his bandaged cheddar.

Clearly, you don’t spend years pampering cheese only to sell it at a bargain price in a cooler case under fluorescent lights. Several aged cheddars I tried go for $60 per pound.

Willi sets up a tour of his custom-built aging cave.

But the beauty is, you don’t need to buy a pound to get the effect. On my last day in Wisconsin, I stopped into a cheese shop in Madison and started poking around. I found Willi’s cave-aged bandaged cheddar. I found the Alpine-style cheese Andy dotes over like his child. I found postcards of Bruce with his hands in the milk vat, presumably drinking in the grassy scent. And for about three bucks each, I bought a small slice of each of their cheeses and packed it away for tasting at home. Three bucks for a trip back to the make room, the pastures and the rolling hills sparkling with stainless steel tanker trucks headed for the creameries. If you get bored eating that, don’t blame the cows.

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Responses

  1. Another well-written article! I will not look at cheese in the same way again. You are a wonderful teacher and wordsmith!


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