Two weeks ago, photographer Becca Dilley and I hit the road for a five-day field trip, shooting photographs of 12 cheesemakers in five days. Over 1,000 miles later, we finished with an amazing array of cheesemaker portraits, each stunning and different. (That’s us, above, being eaten by friendly goats at Diana Murphy’s farm).
Becca will have the final shots to me in a couple of weeks, and then graphic designer Mauro Magellan will work his magic on putting together the actual pages. The end result will be a Wisconsin Cheese Originals calendar available in September, retailing at $19.95 at select gourmet specialty food and cheese shops, as well as online, and at the Second Annual Wisconsin Original Cheese Festival in Madison this November.
Here’s a sneak preview of the 12 cheesemakers and the text I just finished writing for each:
January – Joe Widmer
Entering Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in the tiny town of Theresa, Wis., is like stepping back in time. “Very little has changed in the 80-plus years that my family has been making cheese here,” says Joe Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker. Joe prides himself in combining modern science with Old World art to hand-craft two of the best-known cheeses invented in Wisconsin: Brick and Colby. He’s the only cheesemaker still making Brick cheese with bricks, and one of a handful still crafting Authentic Colby with an open curd texture. His award-winning cheeses are evidence of his “take no shortcuts” motto.
February – Willi Lehner
He’s been called an “off-the-grid rock star cheesemaker” by the New York Times, profiled as a “local hero” in Saveur Magazine, and captured on film yodeling in his underground cheese cave, but Willi Lehner doesn’t let such accolades go to his head. A cheesemaker in the truest sense of the word, Willi relies on intuition and innovation to make some of the best hand-made cheese in America. You’ll find him every Saturday, rain or shine, at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison, selling the fruits of his labor: the science and art we call cheese.
March – Chris Roelli
It took nearly a year for fourth generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli to perfect the recipe of Dunbarton Blue, one of the best and newest Wisconsin Original cheeses. One bite of this open-air cured, earthy cheddared-blue will make you glad he took his time. Imparting the feel of an English cheddar, but spiked with the delicate, subtle flavor of a fine blue, Dunbarton Blue is named after a neighboring local township between Shullsburg and Darlington, Wis. The cheese is handcrafted in small batches and aged in the family’s historic aging cellar, where it ripens to perfection surrounded by a rock wall foundation.
April – Katie Hedrich
Ever wonder what an aspiring cheesemaker looks like? Look no further. As the face of the next generation of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, Katie Hedrich was the 2010 recipient of Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ annual $2,500 cheesemaker scholarship. Katie and her family plan to build a farmstead cheese plant on their home goat dairy farm near Chilton, Wis., and in 10 years, she hopes to be the first female Master Goat Milk Cheesemaker in Wisconsin. You go, girl.
May – Andy Hatch
If what Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch says is true — that half of the secret to making Pleasant Ridge Reserve is simply getting out of the way of the milk and letting its unique properties and flavor profile shine through – then many would argue the other half to the secret of this near-perfect cheese is Andy Hatch himself. Andy joined the Uplands Cheese team near Dodgeville, Wis., in 2007, and with Mike Gingrich, continues to craft the one farmstead cheese that first put the Wisconsin artisan cheese community on the map. Made only from milk when the farm’s dairy cows are grazing on fresh grass, Pleasant Ridge Reserve can be found in nearly every specialty cheese shop and four-star restaurant in the country.
June – Gerald Heimerl
One family, one herd, one farm. The cheeses that come from Saxon Homestead Creamery in Cleveland, Wis., all start with the milk of one herd of cows who graze on fresh grass in the summer, and eat preserved grass and hay in the winter. Gerald (Jerry) Heimerl, his wife, Elise, along with her brothers and their families, today manage the Saxon homestead farm and nearby creamery, a tribute to their ancestors who emigrated from Germany in the 1840s. Saxon cheeses, such as Big Ed’s, Green Fields, Saxony and Pastures, reflect the different seasons in the herd’s diet. Jerry calls it “flavor by nature.” We call it “really good cheese.”
July – Diana Murphy
Diana Murphy and her family started with just a few goats. But, as goats will do, two goats became four goats, which became eight goats, and soon, a “herd” was producing more milk than the family could use on their small farm near Cross Plains, Wis. Diana began experimenting with making different goat’s milk cheeses and found that fresh goat cheeses complimented her skills and the milk. She set out to get licensed as a cheesemaker and completed the two-year process in 2004. Today, Dreamfarm supplies goat’s milk cheeses for Vermont Valley Community Farm, a CSA supplying fresh fruits, vegetables, and now fresh goat’s milk cheese to families across Wisconsin.
August – Brenda Jensen
Brenda Jensen never planned on being a cheesemaker. Sure, she could blame her husband, Dean, for bringing home the first 50 sheep (or as she calls them, “the ladies”) five years ago to their farm near Westby, Wis. But once she got her hands on the milk, she wanted to make cheese. Today, Brenda is recognized as one of the best sheep’s milk cheesemakers in the nation. Her hand-made Driftless cheese, named for the farm’s location in the “Driftless” part of the state – is soft and creamy and crafted in a variety of seasonal flavors with ingredients sourced locally. Her hard sheep’s milk cheeses, including Ocooch Mountain, is a mountain-style, raw-milk cheese aged 3-4 months.
September – Bruce Workman
Bruce Workman has the distinction of being the only cheesemaker in North America making “Big Wheel Swiss. “ His Edelweiss Emmentaler, crafted in a historic cheese plant near Monticello, Wis., is made using raw milk and a traditional Swiss copper vat. Each wheels weighs about 180 pounds and ages peacefully in the company’s cellars in Monroe. Edelweiss partners with a cooperative of dairy farmers dedicated to pasturing cows to bring a pure but complex flavor profile to a line of cheeses made from pastured milk. Soon, his Edelweiss Emmentaler will be made only from the milk of these grass-fed cows, earning Bruce yet another distinction: grass-based cheesemaker.
October – Sid Cook
If Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook at Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., was required to wear every medal, carry every trophy and don every ribbon he’s ever won for making specialty cheeses, he wouldn’t be able to move under all the weight. Clocking in at more than 200 national and international awards in the past five years alone, the man officially is a cheese genius. As the inventor of at least 50 American Original cheeses — meaning he simply made them up – it’s sometimes challenging to keep up with all the new cheeses Sid dreams up. But we keep trying.
November – Myron Olson
In its heyday, cheese factories in Green County, Wisconsin, produced nearly 3.8 million pounds of Limburger a year. Today, one factory is left: Chalet Cheese Cooperative, home to the last remaining American manufacturer of the granddaddy of stinky cheese. And nobody knows Limburger better than Myron Olson, who’s been making it for 40 years at Chalet. While production is down to about 700,000 pounds a year, demand remains steady. There’s even talk of a stinky cheese comeback. Just last year, Olson resurrected Liederkranz, a long-lost cousin of Limburger, and orders for the new stinky cheese are strong. Looks like this is one Wisconsin tradition not ending anytime soon.
December – Gianni Toffolon
Surrounded by thousands of wheels of American Grana in the aging rooms of BelGioioso Cheese near Pulaski, Wis., cheesemaker Gianni Toffolon says he never gets tired of breathing in the deep, nutty aroma of aged Italian cheeses. Gianni came to America in 1979 with BelGioioso founder Errico Auricchio to start making authentic Italian cheeses in Wisconsin. More than 30 years later, he’s helped the company win nearly every major national and international award for the company’s line of specialty and artisan cheeses and has set a standard of excellence in the industry.
Stay tuned for details on when and where you can get your copy!