Ever wonder how heavy a slab of cheddar curd is? Thanks to Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, 15 more people now understand the art, science and muscles required to make a vat of Cheddar.

On Saturday, Chris and his crew at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg were kind enough to host 15 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals for a rare Cheesemaker for a Day event. We spent the morning helping Chris make a vat of Cheddar, and then, after lunch in the upstairs former cheesemaker living quarters, had an amazing tasting of six of Chris’ current and brand new cheeses, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, here’s what our day looked like:

1. Members arrived just in time to see Chris pour in the annatto to make sure our curds were bright Wisconsin orange.

2. A little more heating, rennet added, more heating, time to set, and it was time to check and cut the curd. We learned Chris likes a “clean cut” — meaning when he places the knife in the curd mass, it should break quickly and cleanly – no globs allowed.

3. While the curd healed, and then stirred, Chris gave members the backstory of how he became a fourth generation Wisconsin cheesemaker. It all started with his great grandfather, who had made cheese in both France and Switzerland in the early 1900s. He was looking to make a better living for his family making cheese, and had decided to either emigrate to Russia or the United States. When his cousin, who had already arrived in Russia, sent him a letter saying if he was coming to join him, he should bring a gun, Chris’ great grandfather chose to sail to the United States instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Finally, it was time to drain the whey from the curd! As we found out, cheesemaking is a lot of hurrying up and waiting. And while you’re waiting, you clean. And then clean some more. But since Chris was nice, he didn’t make us do the dishes – his helper Mark did all the work. We just got to do the fun stuff.

5. After raking the curd to one end of the vat to allow the whey to drain off, the “cheddaring” process started in earnest. Chris cut the mass in to half, dividing it into two loaves, separated them further, and then started stacking slabs to push the whey out. The slabs were then cut again, and stacked another four or five times. On the fourth time, we all got a turn at “cheddaring”. This is the Old World style of making Cheddar cheese and Chris makes it this way every day.

6. Then it was time to mill the curd. Chris uses a milling machine dating back to the 1950s. We stood back and let Chris and Mark handle the milling, as its knives are sharp enough to take a finger with it.

7. Last steps: wash the curd, stir and then salt!

8. It was then time to eat warm, squeaky and fresh curds right out of the vat.

After our curd snack, we helped Chris put curd into bandaged cheddar forms and put them in the press.

Then it was time to clean up, head upstairs for lunch, as the best part was about to be revealed. Chris cut up six cheeses for us, three of which are on the market, one that will hit the market in another month, and another two still under development that will likely be ready in time for the holidays. Is this, or is this not, an amazing table of fine-looking cheeses????

Roelli Cheese fans will recognize the front left square red cheese — that’s Red Rock, a creamy cheddar blue that’s taking specialty cheese shops by storm. And in the back, third from right is his Gravity Hill with Sea Salt and next to it, the flagship Dunbarton Blue, both currently on the market. The cheese at far right is a brand new creation hitting the market next month that is a goat/cow mix and partnership with LaClare Farms. The cheese to the far left was our absolute favorite and will be hitting the stores in a few months. It’s called Marigold, and this is a cheese to watch my friends. Front right is Chris’ new Bandaged Cheddar, which will also be on sale around the holidays. Yum.

Many, many thanks to Chris Roelli and his crew for putting up with an extra 15 people in his make room on a Saturday. We adore you!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2012.

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