A Cheese Maker’s Tour

A Cheese Maker’s Tour

by: Beth Rotto, Cheesemonger

I’ve just been on a Cheesemaker’s Tour, lavishly wined and dined by members of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Classic Provisions, one of our distributors in Plymouth, MN. There were two dozen co-op cheese buyers, demo coordinators and deli managers on the trip, so we had a lot in common, but especially the love and appreciation of good cheese. For three days we visited with cheesemakers, touring their factories and stores, and sampling their wares. Yes, I ate my fill of cheese, and that means a lot of cheese!

There were so many things to learn. One designation I hadn’t understood is that of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers. This isn’t just a puffed up title. To be called a Master Cheesemaker and to label cheese with the Master’s Mark, a candidate must have 10 years experience in quality assured plants before applying, then they must declare one or two cheese varieties they would like to seek certification in. They must then take required classes and participate in a 3 year program before taking a rigorous Ph.D.-level final written examination as well as submitting samples of cheese for evaluation. There are just 49 Masters at this time. Some of our Wisconsin cheese comes from these Masters, including the Buholzer brothers – Ron, Dave and Steve who make our Klondike Feta Cheese, Sid Cook and Tom Jenny who makes cheese under the Carr Valley label, Myron Olson who makes Limburger at the only cheese factory in the United States producing that cheese and Robert Wills of Cedar Grove is a master for Cheddar and Butterkase varieties.

Of course there are many other talented, licensed cheesemakers in the state. In many cases, the art of cheesemaking has passed from generation to generation for more than 150 years in Wisconsin. We visited the Brunkow Cheese Company where a small plant sits at the crossroads in a rural area and Joe Burns makes cheese like his father and grandfather. The company started as a co-op in 1899. We have carried Brunkow’s Raw Milk Mild Cheddar cheese for as long as I can remember and currently we are carrying their newest variety, Brun-uusto, a baked cheese.

We visited Emmi-Roth Kase, a company specializing in traditional Gruyere cheese.  Originally a Swiss cheesemaking family, the Roth’s who left Switzerland founded Otto Roth & Co. and became an importer of European specialty cheeses. In 1991, Fermo Jaeckle, a fourth generation member of the family business joined with his cousins in Switzerland to found Roth Kase USA, Ltd. to craft European-style cheeses here. The factory uses copper vats and Scotch Pine boards from Switzerland for crafting and aging their traditional Gruyere cheese which we sell under the name Grand Cru Gruyere.

We visited with members of an Amish co-operative who deliver milk to the creamery in old-fashioned milk cans, the only plant left picking up milk with this method. The cheese is sold under various labels, including Pasture Pride. Look for the new Organic Provolone cheese in our case from this company.

We visited other very interesting factories, but I’d like to tell you about a most special visit to Faribault Dairy, in my hometown of Faribault, MN. This was the only factory that we visited outside of Wisconsin and we were lucky to get inside since they do not offer tours. They make award winning St. Pete’s Select and Amablu Blue cheese. The factory is unique because of its St. Peter sandstone caves, uniquely suited for creating a world-class blue cheese for several reasons.

First, the caves maintain a very stable temperature – the finicky P. rocquefortii mold grows best in a stable environment. The sandstone is also self supporting when dug out in a Gothic Arch, so the experience is like walking through ancient, whitewashed catacombs.

Second, St. Peter sandstone is unique in that moisture can migrate both vertically and horizontally in the rock. This allows the interior cave wall to maintain a fresh, sandy smell. The undesirable ammonia compounds given off during ripening are transported back to the outside air. That means that this was the freshest smelling cheese factory that we visited.

Finally, the caves maintain a relative humidity in excess of 90% without mechanical humidification. This ensures natural ripening conditions in a uniquely hygienic environment. No dripping!

I’ve come home more committed than ever to offering you delicious cheese from our locality and region. Watch for some new offerings and features of some of our tried and true cheeses. Please try something new, and let me know what you think.