When I recently got invited to join a tour visiting some of my favorite Wisconsin cheesemakers this October with 2015’s top ten Cheesemonger Invitational competitors, I did two things. First, I thought about how it would be an amazing way to celebrate American Cheese Month. Second, I packed my bags on the spot, all the way from the east coast. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board had an extra spot on the tour for a media person/writer, and since Heritage Radio was on board from the east coast, maybe I’d like to join them from California. They told this Bay Area girl that the leaves would be changing into beautiful midwest oranges and reds, the crew on the bus would be fun cheese geeks from all over the country, and the cheesemakers would be Uplands, Chalet Cheese Limburger, Roelli, Roth, and Hooks. So, you know, I said yes.
I started prepping my cheese curd game immediately, packed my bags another time for emphasis, and hoped the CMI competitors wouldn’t test my cheese wrapping skills before allowing me on the tour bus, because then I would not be allowed on the tour bus.
This is a photo tour of our trip.
First place we hit up was Roelli’s Cheese, where Chris Roelli (below) makes Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock. The sign above is where the Roelli family announces when they have “fresh and squeaky” cheese curds ready. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, folks.
One of the cool things about cheese curds, besides how awesome they taste fried, is that selling them can provide a little financial cushion for cheesemakers like Chris so they focus on creating and maintaining artisan wheels that require a lot of time and labor without worry.
Dunbarton Blue is the only blue-cheddar in the country (world?). It is amazing and I sneakily slipped it into the Cheddar chapter of my book. I think…
After Roelli’s we hit up Hooks, who makes such blue cheese faves as Tilston Point, Hook’s, and Ewe-Calve-to-be-Kidding-Me. Though this blue cheese maven didn’t start using Penicillium roqueforti (the blue cheese mold) until 97, he was making cheddars, swiss and colby since the seventies. This is also the man who makes THE twenty year-old cheddar (and donates much of the earnings to a local non-profit).
Ever wonder how blue cheese gets blue? The blue mold is added to the milk in the beginning of the process. After the wheels are formed, they’re set on the platform of this delicate device, that looks a little like a cheese torture, and pierced, allowing oxygen to circulate within the wheel. Oxygen + Penicillium roqueforti = Blue color. More veining? More piercing.
So you don’t feel like I’m being unfair to my traveling group, here is a photo of me in a hair net, too (in the Jura, drinking raw whey cream).
Next we headed to Uplands, where cheesemaker Andy Hatch charmed the hell out of us, took us into the fields, and sampled us with different ages of Pleasant Ridge and the new batch of Rush Creek. Yes, my friends, Rush Creek is back.
Myron Olson earned the last given Master Limburger Cheesemaker award in 1976. He manages the Chalet Cheese Co-op. Rosy cheeked, kind, and full of sweet jokes, he’s exactly who you want making your Limburger. He serves it to guests of the plant with Ritz, mustard, and strawberry jam, and it’s awesome.
Limburger is what Limburger Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson calls a smear-ripened cheese (anywhere else but Wisconsin calls this style washed-rind). As the soft cheese ages, it’s rubbed down with a salt-water brine that contains healthy microflora bacteria from the plant’s inception in the 1900’s. It’s what gives Limburger strong, funky scent, but sweet flavor.
I came home from the tour with a deliciously full stomach (otherwise known as a cheese baby) and heart that was pleased with making amazing new friends and reconnecting with old ones- It would be hard to imagine being with stuck on a bus all day with such an awesome group of near strangers. And cheesemakers, thank you for so warmly welcoming us to your make rooms and farms. WMMB, thank you for sharing so much.