But not just any tour, a tour of Wisconsin Cheese!
A group of Wisconsin-based bloggers packed up on a luxury coach bus – complete with delicious pork belly bagel sandwich lunches and afternoon gin cocktails served in water bottles – and spent hours driving through the picturesque rolling green hills of Southern Wisconsin learning all about the cheesemaking process. Wisconsin wins more awards for its cheese than any state OR country, so this is probably the place you want to learn how cheese is made, no?
Three factories. Two days. One awesome group of people.
Oh yeah…and A LOT of cheese.
And hairnets too! Can’t be having any frizzy wisps of hair caught in a gorgeous block of cheddar blue cheese even if Mama Everythingtarian maintains hair is just protein (a.k.a. totally fine to eat).
Anyways…some people think the first step in cheesemaking begins with quality milk.
You need clean feet in the factory to ensure any potential bacteria trudged in the plant doesn’t taint the cheese. Once you’re sanitized on the feet front, then you need high-quality milk. About 10 pounds of it for every pound of cheese you make. The cheesemakers we visited get their milk right from family farms in their area – one even from right across the street.
Then the milk is weighed and since some cheesemakers get their milk from multiple farms, pasteurized or heat-treated to ensure its uniformity. However, because of the growing popularity of raw milk cheeses and the fact many cheesemakers know exactly what farm they’re milk is coming from, not all milk is pasteurized or heat-treated. To each cheesemaker his own, me thinks.
Giant stainless steel vats are filled with the fresh milk and a starter culture is added.
This is where the magic happens.
Starter cultures are essentially good bacteria. They directly determine the taste, flavor, color and texture of the cheese you’re eating. They make manchego cheese taste all buttery and rich. Feta cheese taste tangy and salty. And my personal favorite, gruyere cheese taste nutty and smooth! Let’s all take a moment to thank the starter culture.
From there, rennet, a milk-clotting enzyme, is added to coagulate the milk.
Once the milk thickens and resembles a thick, custard-like mass, the cheese is cut inside the vats by cheesemaking elves (usually the cheesemaker’s assistants). However large or small they cut the curd also has a direct correlation to what cheese will result – softer cheeses require larger curds while hard, more granular cheese require smaller curds.
Strain off the liquid whey and – voila! – you’ve got squeaky delicious curds.
While fresh cheese curds are delicious to eat, we still want cheese!
That’s why the curd is salted and then pressed into metal containers. Variations in the salting and pressing process plays a significant part in determining which one of the more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese made in Wisconsin it will become. It also determines the size as well as the shape of the cheese (wheel or block?). Seriously, way more complicated than you think!
This is stinky, smelly limburger cheese, freshly-pressed and hanging out in a cool room.
Then you wait (cue Jeopardy theme song).
For up to 20 years! Yes, Hook’s Cheese has a 20-YEAR AGED CHEDDAR. I am sure it costs more dollars than my life is worth, which is to say, a very large sum of money. What can I say, I don’t come cheap and neither does the cheese.
Swiss cheese…you have to wait at least 60 days.
Blue cheese…maybe a couple of months or a year, perhaps two.
And Pleasant Ridge Reserve (one of my all-time favorite cheeses)…around a year.
Finally…it’s SAMPLE TIME!!!
Honestly, as much as I loved Cheesemaker Myron and the Chalet Cheese Coop (the ONLY makers of limburger cheese in the United States!), I did not love limburger. Even balanced out with the sweetness of the strawberry jelly! It was still a bit musty and pungent for my taste. Otherwise, I happily devoured every last crumble, curd and slice of cheese set before me that day.
The work of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers is truly amazing. I had NO idea so much work went into making one of my favorite foods. Thank you to Heather, Kristen, Myron, Tony, Andy, Lori, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the rest of the blogging gang for a bang-up time!
Nothing like hanging out with fellow Wisconsinites, eating cheese and drinking beer on the bus.
I totally don’t blame you if you really want to come visit me now.
In fact, I encourage it.
*Last photo courtesy of Joe Laedtke