I’ve eaten my fair share of cheese curds during my lifetime, but I’ve never had a chance to make fresh, squeaky curds from beginning to end. So when Bill, the head cheese buyer at Fromagination, asked me if I wanted to tag along and make cheese with Tony Hook in Mineral Point last Friday, I cleared my calendar and off we went.
Tony starts making cheese at 3:45 a.m. Big sigh. I like to think I’m pretty dedicated to cheese, but frankly, I’m not dedicated enough to get up at 1:30 in the morning, drive 25 minutes to Madison to pick up Bill, and then drive another hour to Mineral Point. So I slacked off, got up at 3:45 a.m., picked up Bill in Madison, and got to Mineral Point by 5:30 a.m. It was perfect timing, as all the action was just starting — Tony was just about to cut the curd.
While the curd was cooking, Tony gave us a tour of the plant. I’d been there before, but it had been about two years, and I was surprised at all the new stuff Tony and his wife, Julie, are doing. One of the most exciting developments is the construction of a small aging room they’re using to age their new sheep’s milk cheese, a joint project with Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery.
Tony and Brenda make cheese a couple times a month, and then each takes half the production home. Brenda ages her wheels in her cheese cave near Westby. She just started selling it as Bohemian Blue. Tony, meanwhile, ages his in his new cooler and is going to add another 45-60 days before he starts selling his as Little Boy Blue. Though made at the same time in the same manner, I predict these cheeses will both be amazing and slightly different, as they are being aged in different environments and sold at different ages.
After touring the new sheep’s blue aging room, Tony took us to his original cow’s milk blue aging room, where he ages out his perennial favorites, Original Blue, Paradise Blue and Tilston Point. I noticed a funky looking, thinner wheel aging in cryovac on top and asked what it was. Turns out it’s a brand new cheese Tony just started selling – called “Bloomin’ Idiot”
Bloomin’ Idiot is a brand new way of making blue cheese for Tony, as he inoculates the milk with blue spores as usual during the make process, but in a different twist, never actually pierces the wheels to encourage the blue to grow in the paste of the cheese. Instead, he lets the blue mold ripen naturally around the outside. The end result is almost a brie-like blue, soft and creamy and mild on the inside, and as you get closer to the rind, more pungent and bitter. It’s pretty awesome.
After a quick check on the cooking curd, Tony then led us into his cavernous cheddar aging room, where pallets (notice the correct spelling, Jane) of cheddars ranging in age from just a few days to 14 years — yes, 14 YEARS — were sitting and aging gracefully. In exciting news, Tony will release his oldest cheddar next year as a 15-year cheddar. Whoo-hoo!
After the tour, it was back to the work of making cheese. Tony pushed the curd to each side of the vat and then began draining the whey. Then it was time to start the cheddaring process — here’s a video of the first flipping:
The cheese is actually flipped a total of four times. Here’s a video of the third flipping — notice how easy Tony does it. It’s actually much harder than it looks. That’s why we don’t have a video of me flipping the cheddar – way too embarrassing. 🙂
After flipping the cheddar curds a total of four times, it was time to mill them. Tony wheeled over the milling machine and we threw the slabs of cheese into the mouth of the milling machine. Voila — instant cheese curds!
After stirring them a bit more and salting the curd, it was down to more work. We hand scooped about 400 pounds of cheese curd out of the vat and then began to bag it by hand in individual 1-pound baggies. Customers starting arriving at 9:45 a.m. to buy their weekly bag of curd — Tony makes cheddar curd every Friday — and soon a steady stream of locals and tourists were wandering through the front door to buy their little bags of squeaky heaven. Bill and I begged off after bagging a paltry 75 bags, and were on our way. All in all, an awesome day! Thanks, Tony & Julie!!