Small-Batch Bandaged Cheddars of the Midwest

The long hot month of August can be a slow time in the world of specialty cheese retail, so we cheesemongers spend extra time thinking of clever ways to encourage customers to keep buying cheese. That’s why one day last week, the cheese counter at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale turned into an impromptu Battle of the Bandaged Cheddars, after a customer asked to try several to see which she liked best.

In an exquisite stroke of good timing, cheesemaker Willi Lehner had just that morning arrived with two wheels of his Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. The wheels were placed in the walk-in next to two new truckles of the elusive Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. And, because all good things come in threes, one of our favorite distributors the day before had delivered two long-awaited Flory’s Truckles from the same batch that in July won a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society competition.

The stars had aligned, creating a trifecta of Midwestern bandaged cheddar goodness. We started stripping wheels of their larded linen and cutting wedges to taste and sell.

From left: Flory’s Truckle, Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, Avondale Truckle.
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

 A quick break for a public service announcement on bandaged cheddars: while it is undisputed that cheddar was born in the middle ages in the town of Cheddar in Somerset, England, the origin of bandaged cheddar is a bit murkier. Read this column from Culture Magazine for the scoop. In any case, all cheddar, regardless of aging style, starts in the same way. After starter culture is added to the milk, and rennet separates curds from whey, the curd is cut and the whey drained off. The mass of curds left behind are then cheddared, milled, hooped and pressed into forms. After the cheese has set, wheels are coated in lard and wrapped in cotton cloth. Each cheesemaker generally has a signature way of wrapping his or her cheddar. Wheels are then placed in a cool, humidity-controlled aging room for six months to two years, depending on the desired flavor profile. By the time the aging process is complete, bacteria has completely consumed the lard coating, leaving a mottled, aromatic rind in its place once the cloth is removed. Bandaged cheddar has a drier, crumblier texture than a waxed or plastic-wrapped cheddar. But what it lacks in body, it makes up for with a more complex flavor profile of caramel, fruity and earthy notes, which trend toward grassy and earthy flavors closer to the rind.

In England, a handful of cheesemakers still make traditional, clothbound cheddar. You can read about three of them in these posts from my 2014 cheddar journey to Somerset County: Montgomery’s Cheddar, Quicke’s Cheddar, Westcombe Cheddar. In the U.S., some of the most awarded and well-known cheeses are bandaged cheddars, including Cabot Clothbound in Vermont and Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar in California.

But I digress. Back to our Battle of Bandaged Cheddars at the Metcalfe’s specialty cheese counter.

The undisputed winner (according to the customer, whom we all know is always right): Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar. Cheesemaker Willi Lehner gets a lot of good press, all of it deserved, and is considered by many to be a living legend when it comes to making artisan cheese. With no cheese factory of his own, he makes cheese at four different factories, and then ages it in an underground cheese cave he built on his farm near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, in 2007. In 2013, his Bandaged Cheddar took runner-up Best in Show at the American Cheese Society competition. The rind is delightfully musty and cave-y, and once cracked open, emits aromas of earth and pineapple. The cool thing about most bandaged cheddars is they taste nothing like how their rind smells – a good bandaged cheddar is nutty, with hints of fruit on the finish, with calcium lactate crystals dotting the paste. Blue Mont Bandaged Cheddar is one of the best. The wheel we tasted was about 18 months old and perfect.

Tied for first runner up: Fayette Creamery Avondale Truckle. The Avondale Truckle is absolutely a beautiful cheese. Fayette Creamery (also known as Brunkow Cheese) is owned by Karl and Mary Geissbuhler near Darlington, Wisconsin. In 2007, the pair, along with cheesemaker and marketer Joe Burns, worked with a world-renowned consultant to create the recipe and a special mold for this elegant, extra tall, drum-shaped cheese. The cloth-wrapped cheddar is aged in Brunkow’s hand-dug cellar for 6 to 18 months and is made from milk sourced from Lafayette County dairy farms. Round and buttery in its youth, Avondale Truckle develops a full, layered flavor and wild, earthy aromas as it matures. The bandage had been removed on the truckles we received, so it was hard to get a gauge of the cheese’s age, but I would guess it’s on the younger side, because fruity and floral notes shine through. Most Avondale Truckles are sold in the Chicago market, so we are super lucky to get a taste of this elusive cheese in Madison.

Tied for first runner up: Flory’s Truckle. At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: “what the hell is a truckle and why don’t I have one?” In old English, a truckle means cylinder shape. Flory’s version is shorter than Fayette Creamery’s truckle, and is produced on a dairy farm near Jamesport, Missouri by Tim and Jennifer Flory. The couple has ten children and 30 Jersey cows. After aging 60 days on the farm, Flory’s truckles move to Milton Creamery in Iowa, where they spend the next 10 months being turned three times a week. Similar to Bleu Mont’s Bandaged Cheddar, this cheese is exceptionally creamy and fruity with just-the-right-amount of earthy notes creeping in from the rind. This is another cheese that’s hard to find, so to have it on the shelf next to Avondale and Bleu Mont is a cheesemonger’s dream come true.

Cesar’s Bandaged Cheddar
Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Of course, no post on small-batch bandaged cheddars would be complete without mentioning Cesar’s new Bandaged Cheddar. You may be familiar with Cesar Luis’ World Champion hand-stretched Queso Oaxaca that he and wife Heydi cut into sticks for us Americans to eat as string cheese. The Wisconsin pair of licensed cheesemakers recently branched out to harder cheeses, including bandaged cheddar. Cesar’s creamy cheddar lacks the fruity and floral notes one might expect of a bandaged wheel, but replaces them with brothy, herbal and earthy notes, highlighting the aroma of the rind. We sampled it one day last week for a few hours at Metcalfe’s and promptly sold half of the 25-pound wheel. Only a few wheels of this unicorn cheese exist, but Cesar says he will be making more. Stay tuned.

Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

In his book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, California author Gordon Edgar argues Wisconsinites take cheese for granted. With hundreds of cheese factories, thousands of dairy farms, and daily proximity to fresh cheese curds, we are spoiled with an abundance of good cheese.

There’s no doubt he’s right. All one needs to do is listen to someone from Arizona complain about living in a “cheese desert” to make us natives better appreciate living in America’s Dairyland. Of Wisconsin’s 600 types, styles and varieties, no cheese better defines Wisconsin better than Cheddar. After all, of the 129 cheese factories in the state, almost half make Cheddar. That’s 561 million pounds of just one type of cheese every single year.

Not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers produce a boatload of cheddar, they make it in a variety of ways. Some mass-produce florescent orange 640-pound blocks and sell it to storage houses, where it is cured in mammoth wooden boxes from floor to ceiling, and then cut and shrink-wrapped into 8-oz bars and labeled for grocery store shelves as mild and medium Cheddar.

Others, such as Land O’ Lakes in Kiel, Wis., make award-winning Cheddar in 40-pound blocks, sell it to brokers and distributors, who contract the aging of the cheese, and at the right time, sell it to grocery stores under a variety of private companies as sharp cheddar.

And yet others, such as the folks at Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., craft 40-pound blocks of both orange and white Cheddar, age it in below-ground cold rooms for up to 20 years, and proudly sell it under their own name. Other artisans, like Willi Lehner, at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis., craft Cheddar in 12-pound wheels, and then bandage and lard each wheel before aging it a year in an underground cave.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner. Photo by Becca Dilley.

In short, Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size, shape and age imaginable. But the difference in the taste of that Cheddar can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you how Cheddar used to taste different from one factory to the next, in just a 10-mile radius. Today, thanks to modern science and curious minds, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region.

The soils in the Driftless region are ancient – dominated by red clays and thousands of years of prairie grass roots that have decomposed into a thick rich mass, with soil type names such as Fayette and Dubuque. Dr. Jerry Tyler, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in the 1800s, the first European settlers likely had between 20 and 30 years of “free” nitrogen built into the soil, resulting in decades of above-average wheat farming before fertilizer was even available. “It would have taken a pretty awful farmer to fail in those days,” says Tyler.

Compare this to the glaciated, eastern part of the state, which is dominated by flat plains, rolling hills, and a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins in east-central Wisconsin and ends at Niagara Falls. While the soils in the Driftless Region are millions of years old, the state’s eastern soils are only 12,000 years old and filled with till, left behind by debris-rich glacier ice. These soils carry names such as Miami, Dodge and Casco, and the soil’s chemistry is vastly different from the red clays to the west. Different soil chemistry results in different grasses grown in each region. And different grass produces different milk. Because, after all, in time, grass becomes milk. The only thing standing in between is the cow.

Photo courtesy of Bert Paris, PastueLand Cooperative

Bert Paris is a dairy farmer near Belleville, Wis., in the Driftless Region of the state. His cows are pasture grazed, and he spends much time cultivating his pastures so cows have the best grasses to eat, as his milk is made into yogurt, cheese and butter for PastureLand. He is convinced that the quality of grass is directly tied to the quality of milk, and that the quality of grass comes from the quality of the soil, groundwater and climate.

“I plant primarily orchard and brome grass with some red and white clover,” Paris says. “We plant these because they are persistent and manageable in our area. My pastures are old enough that we have native forages and grasses mixed in to create a salad bar of sorts. Cows enjoy this mixture more so than a monoculture of one or two grasses.”

Compare Paris’ pasture to the pastures at Saxon Homestead Farm, on the eastern part of the state near Cleveland, Wis. Brothers Robert and Karl Klessig pasture their herd, and their milk is made into cheese for Saxon Creamery. Like Paris, they plant orchard and brome grass, but also mix in perennial rye grass, timothy, reed canary, meadow fescue, and others.

Cows on pasture at Saxon Homestead Farm. Photo by Becca Dilley.

“Our pastures consist of a very diverse mix of both cool season grasses – both wild and improved, as well as legumes,” Robert says. “Lake Michigan plays a role in our environment. The summertime cool, east winds and morning dew have an impact on the vegetation and cattle.”

The different climates, soils and grasses from each region produce slightly different milk, farmers say, which in turn, cheesemakers argue, creates slightly different cheese. For example, Cheesemaker Tony Hook, who has made cheese in western Wisconsin since 1970, has had the same farmer patrons for 40 years. That means the same farmers – all of whom pasture their cows — have sent him milk for four decades. Grass-fed milk is literally all Tony has ever known.

“I’m a big believer that our sweet soils and limestone water make a difference in the pastures and the quality of the milk we get,” Hook says. In fact, Hook says his favorite months of the year to make cheese are in May and June, when cows are put on fresh grass for the first time, and then again in November, when cows are in the barn, but eating the best hay made from dried grass and legumes of the season.

Compare Hook’s experiences with Chris Gentine, owner of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wis., who hand selects 40-pound blocks made at Land O’ Lakes in Kiel for his Double AA Grade Cheddar program sold under his Deer Creek label.

“I’ve always liked cheddars made in the Kiel region,” Gentine says. “The micro climate of Lake Michigan, combined with the pastures between Port Washington and Kewaunee are something special. The soil is more rocky versus the black earth of southwest Wisconsin. I’m convinced that if you made Deer Creek Cheddar in Green County, it would be a different piece of cheese.”

More science is needed to identify specific flavor components of Cheddar made in eastern and western Wisconsin. For now, consumers have the distinct pleasure of trying to discern that difference for themselves.

If you’re interested in tasting the difference between a variety of cheddars made in Wisconsin, please join me for the first class in a new Spring series I’ll be teaching at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison. My special guest will be Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Bob’s been telling me for years there’s a difference in cheddar across the state. Here’s the class description:

April 19: Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different
Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

We’ll meet in the cafe at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Arrive at 6:45 pm to order your complimentary drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Class is limited to 20 attendees and costs $22. Purchase in advance at:

New Cheese Classes Announced in Madison

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Looking for a fun way to taste and learn about artisan cheese? Bummed because most of the Wisconsin Cheese Originals cheese classes at the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon are sold out for 2016? Fear not! I’ve just announced a new spring cheese class series at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison.

Each of the spring classes will be held on Tuesday nights and each revolves around a specific topic, including why Cheddar tastes different in Wisconsin, a look at the science and art of cheese rinds, and the terroir of Alpine style cheeses. You’ll enjoy a tasting and storytelling of four artisan cheeses, as well as a complimentary blended drink, coffee or beverage made by the fine folks at Metcalfe’s West Café.

We’ll meet in the spacious new cafe area at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Be sure to arrive at 6:45 pm to order your drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Classes are limited to 20 attendees. Each class costs $22 and seats must be reserved in advance at

Here’s the line-up: 

April 19
Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size and age imaginable. But the difference in taste can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

May 17
Relishing the Rind

To eat or not to eat? ‘Tis the age-old question of cheese rinds. In this class, we’ll explore different types of cheese rinds: from bloomy mold on Brie, to ash on surface ripened cheeses, to natural rinds on Alpine-style and washed rinds on stinky cheese. And of course, we’ll taste exquisite examples of each. Learn more about the science and art that cheesemakers must undertake to create a beautiful and edible rind.

June 21
Alpine Style Cheeses: The Taste of Terroir

Why do cheeses made in the mountains of France and Switzerland taste different than cheeses made elsewhere? Is it the alpage grasses, the techniques of making cheese, or hundreds of years of experience? We’ll taste two European Alpine cheeses and two Wisconsin Alpine-style cheeses and compare to see if cheesemakers in America’s Dairyland can match the terroir – or taste of place – of the Alps.

Thousands Descend Upon Festival of Cheese in Providence

With more than 1,400 cheeses to try at last night’s Festival of Cheese – the annual culmination of the American Cheese Society conference and competition – cheese lovers from around the world descended upon dozens of tables filled with cheeses sorted by category: flavored, fresh, farmstead, smoked, washed-rind, blues, international style, American originals, Italian-style, soft-ripened, cheddar and more, all in a quest to taste every cheese possible.

Some succeeded. Many failed. The rest of us are still in a cheese coma.

For me, one of the best parts of the annual Festival of Cheese is volunteering to prep the event. As usual, my husband and I were in charge of the cheddar table. Our mission: sort, cut, prep and tray 119 cheddar cheeses of every shape, color, variety and size, onto only seven tables. With one of the best volunteer crews ever assembled, we did it in just over six hours.

Here’s a look at the process:

8 AM: Uriah and I pose for a selfie to remember how energetic we looked before shepherding hundreds of cheeses from cooler truck to speed rack to cutting tables to plating:

9 AM: three of my awesome volunteers starting to cut and plate cheddar. I always encourage my team to get creative in cutting and traying the cheeses, because after all, how often are we encouraged to play with our food?

10 AM: beginning to sort where the cheeses will land:

NOON: Here’s a portion of our table, about halfway through the process. Time for lunch:

2:30 PM: We are almost done – just have to fluff up the tables with crackers, flowers and fruit. Time to take a team photo:

4 PM: And, it’s showtime. Here’s a glimpse of just a portion of our magnificent cheddar tables, with my hand-carved “cheddar mountains”. Gosh, playing with cheese is fun:

Of course, the main perk of attending the Festival of Cheese is getting to try all the winning cheeses, including the Best of Show winners. Here they are, in all their glory:

It’s also fun people-watching – here’s a shot of U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Cecylia Szewczyk taking a photo of one of her many award-winning cheeses before the crowds arrive. The girl just keeps racking up the cheese awards:

Every year, I try to find the most unusual cheese at the event, and this year was no exception. This creative cheesemaker decided to insert a lemon into the middle of his cheese. Not surprisingly, the cheese was lemony in flavor:

If you missed this year’s Festival of Cheese, fear not! The event will be repeated again next year, this time in Des Moines, Iowa. I look forward to seeing you there in 2016!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Hooks Donate $40,000 from 20-Year Cheddar

During the next few days, you’re going to hear a lot about Hook’s 20-year Cheddar.

You’re going to hear about how it debuted at a fancy dinner at L’Etoile in downtown Madison, where three James Beard award-winning chefs prepared a seven-course dinner for 70 people.

You’re going to hear about how expensive it is – $209 a pound – and how there’s very little to be had, because most of it is pre-sold or already reserved.

You’re going to hear about how surprisingly creamy it is for a 20-year piece of Cheddar, and how the calcium lactate crystals crunch in your mouth like pop rocks. And guess what? All of these things are true.

What you’re likely to hear less about, is that tonight, Tony and Julie Hook donated $40,000 – half of all proceeds from their 20-year cheddar — to the new Babcock Hall/Center for Dairy Research Building Fund at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I said when we started this, that if I got a cheddar to make it to 20 years, I’d donate half the money to the Center for Dairy Research,” Tony said. “Well, I meant it. We’re proud of the work they’re doing and looking forward to a new facility.”

Ground is expected to be broken this summer on the new Babcock Hall, which will be a state-of-the-art facility at UW-Madison with 20,000 square feet dedicated to a new Center for Dairy Research and dairy processing space with specialty ripening rooms to manufacture and experiment with mold and surface ripened cheeses. The building is expected to be finished in 2018.

Many, many thanks to the Hook’s team for making such an amazing cheese and for their generosity to the the industry. And a big thank you to chefs Tory Miller, Justin Aprahamian and Justin Carlisle for a fabulous dinner with seven courses featuring Hook’s Cheddar from young to old.

First off, all three chefs each created a cheese curd dish: top right with Kimchi by Miller, bottom with pesto and pickled rhubarb by Aprahamian, and left with truffles, Buddha’s hand and koshu from Carlisle.

Next, Miller created a 2-year Hook’s Cheddar “nacho” with chorizo, picled jalapeno and cilantro.

The first official course (the previous were bonus starter courses) was charred asparagus, rhubarb-hickory nut salumera and shaved 5-year Hook’s Cheddar from Miller.

Second course was one of my top 10 favorite dishes ever: Hook’s 10-Year Cheddar soup, with pepper, beer vinegar, popcorn wafers and chives by Carlisle.

Third course: 15-year Hook’s Cheddar with roasted veal breast, apricot and turnip by Aprahamian. One of our table mates had to stop mid-chew because he was “having a moment” and never wanted this dish to end.

Cheese course: Hook’s 20-year Cheddar. The dining room applauded after the first taste (and Wisconsin Foodie recorded our reactions).

Dessert: curd cheesecake with rhubarb, meringue, basil and delicious mystery pink ice by Carlisle.

Many, many thanks to all three chefs, L’Etoile, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Hook’s Cheese team for making tonight’s dinner happen. Wisconsin salutes you!

On Location: Fighting Cheese Mites at Quickes Dairy

Quickes Dairy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield demos the
Mite Buster for us. Tom is just
about the nicest, most efficient
and one of the youngest sales managers in the business. I kept
wanting to feed him a cookie.

Ever since hearing stories from Wisconsin cheesemaker Bruce Workman about the fun of shrink wrapping random objects in a cheese cryovac machine, my husband has always dreamed of having his very own. Here’s a typical conversation — Me: what do we need a cryovac machine for? Husband: Who doesn’t need a cryovac machine?

Well today, I’ve found a new random object to covet that would make anyone jealous: Mary Quicke’s Amazing Mite Buster.

What is a Mite Buster, you ask? Well, for those of you not in the cheese mite know, it is a handy dandy plastic hut big enough to hold a pallet of 50-pound wheels of bandaged cheddar. The cheddar is sprayed with a wand of high pressured air, blowing off pesky cheese mites, which tend to populate, settle in and eat the mold on bandaged cheeeses. The super duper hut is hooked up to a vacuum contraption, which sucks up the mites and leads to their untimely death. It’s genius. Sheer genius.

“Cheesemakers used to use a gas to get rid of the mites, but it was banned by the E.U. in 2009 because it was damaging the ozone layer,” Quickes Dariy Sales Manager Tom Chatfield told us. “We scrambled for a new solution until Mary came up with the Mite Buster. She even sent the schematics to all of the UK bandaged cheddar makers, but no one else adopted it.”

Why they didn’t is a really good question, because after watching employees vacuuming bandaged cheddars for hours at other cheese “stores” – I finally figured out this is the English term for a cheese aging facility; what we call a store in the US is called a shop in the UK – I find it fairly sad that it took me four days to get this straight – the Mite Buster seems pretty freaking efficient. It’s simply one example of the innovative Mary Quicke revolutionizing the cheddar community in England.

Mary Quicke with a salad she handpicked from her garden
this morning especially for us at lunch at her dairy. Yum!

We met Mary today at Quickes Traditional Artisan Cheddars in Devon County, England for a tour of the cheese plant and dairy farm. Mary is the 14th generation of Quickes to farm land that’s been in her family for 450 years. She oversees an operation that includes 1,200 acres and 450 milking cows.

Fifteen years ago, she made two controversial decisions for what was then basically the good old boys club of southwest England: she decided to develop the Quicke’s cow: a mixture of Kiwi Friesian, Swedish Red and Montbeliarde, because she believed the cross-breed would be hardy, fertile, long-lived, and produce the kind of milk she wanted for cheesemaking. She went a step further and put all of her cows out to pasture 10 months a year, using a method similar to the Wisconsin version of intensive managed grazing. Today, her freestall barns stand empty except for the harshest months of winter: January and February.

The result, says lead cheesemaker Malcolm Mitchell, has been dramatic. “We’ve always made good cheese,” he told us today. “But we haven’t always made good cheese consistently. The breeding and grazing practices Mary implemented has changed all that.”

The “cheese store” at Quickes Dairy. I’m slowly figuring out English lingo.

Malcolm would know. He’s worked as a cheesemaker at Quickes Dairy for 31 years. He and his staff, like most every other English bandaged cheddar maker, use bulk starter cultures and five different starter strains to avoid bacteriaphage, which can destroy the heritage starter cultures that have been collected, propagated and used in Somerset and Devon counties for more than a century.

All cheeses at Quickes Dairy are pasteurized. Cheesemakers uses four, 1,000 gallon vats and three cheddaring tables to make cheddar five days a week. The dairy is perhaps best known for its Quickes Mature Cheddar, which at one year old, is rich and buttery, much creamier than other English bandaged cheddars. Mary talks about her goal of creating what she calls a 10 mile cheddar: “Drive 10 miles and you can still taste it,” she says.

The cheddaring process at Quickes Dairy.

Quickes Dairy also makes several other cheddars, including its Quickes Buttery, a 3-month cheddar that’s twice taken Best Cheddar and beaten cheeses twice its age at the British Cheese Awards since 2009. There’s also Extra Mature cheddar, which is 18 months old, Vintage Cheddar – two years old, and Oak Smoked Cheddar, which is cold smoked for 18 hours. The Quickes also buy goat and sheep’s milk from local farmers, and make hard goat and sheep milk cheeses, as well as whey butter.

In good news, you may already be eating Quickes Cheddar without even knowing it. I’ll let you in on a little secret: if you’ve ever purchased Borough Market Cheddar at Whole Foods, you’re actually eating Quickes Cheddar, thanks to Neal’s Yard Dairy, who purchases it and then exports it to Whole Foods in the United States using the Borough Market label. You’ll also find it under the Quickes label at specialty cheese stores buying it direct from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

Thanks so much to Mary, Tom and niece Lucy Quicke – the 15th generation of Quicke farmers – for hosting us today and showing off your tremendous cheese operation. We can’t wait to eat it back in the U.S.!

The Cheese Geek demonstrates her strength by hoisting
a fake 50-pound wheel of Quickes Cheddar.

On Location: Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy

Westcombe Cheesemaker Tom Calver stands in the
doorway to the family’s underground Caerphilly aging
cellar in Somerset County, England.

Perhaps without even realizing it, a maverick, next generation cheesemaker at Westcombe Dairy is rapidly changing the face of Old World cheesemaking in Somerset, England, bringing a fresh perspective and energy to the region’s traditional cheeses.

While cheesemaker Tom Calver may be best known for making Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar – one of only three unpasteruized farmhouse cheddars left in England – today, he also crafts the amazing Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly. The cheese is named for the late cheesemaker Chris Duckett, who taught Calver how to make the cheese before passing away in 2009. Just a year before, Calver, a trained chef, had fulfilled the role of prodigal son and returned to his family’s dairy after an apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy. He’s since become the dairy’s well-known lead cheesemaker, changing up the family’s signature cheeses and creating new traditions.

While Duckett’s Aged Caerphilly was always good, Tom’s taken what is historically a Welsh cheese to a new level by converting one of the historic family home’s cellars into a dedicated Caerphilly aging room and diverting a spring through it to create the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation.

Contrary to much of the horrible plastic Caerphilly cheese that we get in the United States, this real deal Caerphilly is rich with a clean lactic tang and flavors of fresh mushroom and citrus. Tasting it here in England has made me finally understand what all the fuss is about with this English cheese. The folks at Neal’s Yard Dairy know this, too: “It’s a tricky cheese to get right, but when everything comes together in concert, the result is magnificent, and this cheese stands among the finest in the world.”

Duckett’s Caerphilly, perfected by Tom Calver.

Of course when you point out this high praise to Tom, he generally looks fairly sheepish, shrugs his shoulders and contests he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. He’d rather spend time thinking up new ways to make old recipes better than take credit for what he’s already done right.

Case in point: while few would argue it’s hard to improve upon the family’s traditional Westcombe Cheddar, a bandaged 50-pound drum of pure beauty, Calver is executing steps to take the cheese to the next level. He’s using less starter culture and slowing down the make time, letting the milk and curd speak to him, rather than following a strict timing schedule that traditional Cheddar makers have adhered to for years.

During our visit today, he also unveiled a complicated scheme to change the way the curd for Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar is cheddared, which involves a series of wooden plates and cheese cloths somehow pressed down on the slabs of curd. After attempting to demonstrate this new technique, he was basically greeted with a general look of WTF? from his American visitors. Of course, Calver was not phased by our skepticism even a tiny bit.

“My number one goal is to create a better texture, which will lead to a better flavor,” he said. “My perfect texture is one that is al dente and a bit bitey. I’m going to do whatever it takes to get the cheese just right.”

The current aging cellars for Westcombe Traditional
Farmhouse Cheddar.

Getting cheese just right is something Westcombe Dairy has been succeeding with for years. The company was launched in 1890 by Edith Cannon, whose traditional Cheddar was legendary in the region. In the early 1900s, records show a “Mr. and Mrs. Brickell” took over the farm and dairy, continuing to make cheddar. The second generation of Brickells grew the business in the 20th Century to include several neighboring farms and ramped up production.

Even the World Wars could not stop Westcombe Cheddar. The cheese not only survived the wars, it flourished in the decades of austerity that followed. During the 1960s, Richard Calver, Tom’s father, joined the business as a partner, and to compete in the rapidly expanding industrial age, transitioned the company into making block cheddar and modernized the cheese factory. It wasn’t until the artisan cheese renaissance of the late 1990s that the family reverted back to traditional bandaged big wheels. Today, Tom Calver continues the family quest to make superb, unpasteurized, bandaged cheddar wheels rivaled only by his counterparts, Jamie Montgomery and Keen’s Farmhouse Cheddar. I would say he is succeeding.

And in further news, father and son Calver are contemplating expanding the dairy by building a 100-foot tunnel into the hill behind their cheesrie that will house an American “Jasper Hill-esque” type of aging facility. The expansion would allow the family to produce more cheese and expand further into the American export market.

“The excitement of the Americans towards cheese is infectious,” Tom told us today. “You’re looking for more flavor and more aged cheese, and we want to send more of that type of cheese your way.” 

Bring it on, Tom!

The Evolution of Wisconsin Cheddar

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If the state of Wisconsin were to have one signature identifying symbol, it would likely be a chunk of cheddar. Crafted in blocks, barrels and wheels, and then cut, wrapped and stamped, millions of pounds of construction-orange Wisconsin cheddar are sold every year to American consumers.

Most Wisconsin cheddar gets shipped to the coasts for city folk to enjoy, but thousands of pounds are still bought by Midwest locals at roadside cheese shops and cheese factories, with many a Wisconsin farm family still putting the requisite piece of sliced cheddar on apple pie at Sunday dinner.

In a quest to learn more about how the cheddar industry evolved in Wisconsin, I’ve been doing a little research. Did you know that cheddar was just about the only cheese produced in the entire United States prior to 1850? By 1880, in a foreshadowing of our future dairy dominance, Wisconsin had taken the lead in producing more cheddar than any other state in the nation. And by 1929, back when there were 2,499 cheese factories and creameries, each supplied by a dozen or so farmers, with each farmer milking about a dozen cows, nearly all of those cheese factories made cheddar.*

That’s right, baby. Cheddar was king.
While it continued its dominance in driving the state dairy economic engine, by the late 1950s, however, the state of cheddar had changed. Almost every cheese factory now sold their cheddar to big distribution companies such as Kraft, Borden or Armour, marking the beginning of an era when distributors, not cheesemakers, set the price for their product. To quote Wisconsin cheesemaker Sam Cook in 1957, (you may recognize Sam Cook’s name, as he’s the father of Sid Cook who today owns Carr Valley Cheese): “You took what they gave you. We was lucky to sell what we had.”**
The relationship between big distributors and cheesemakers changed the face of cheddar.  Back in the 1930s and 40s, cheesemakers had taken pride in their cheddar being different or “better” than the cheese factory 4 miles down the road. Those were the days when each factory had its own self-propagating cheese culture and resident molds in its walls and aging planks. Those were the days when cheddar had what you might call “character”.
Now, with the coming of the big distribution companies, cheddar instead became a commodity. The new buzzwords became: “consistency” and “long shelf life” and “mild flavor.” These were the traits that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map and made it such a huge success in national markets. As author Ed Janus puts it: “This was the great achievement of the Age of Cheddar.”***
Success is all well and good, but it comes at a price. With Kraft, Borden and Armour demanding consistency, many small factories went out of business, being either unable or unwilling to modernize. Many of the old cheesemakers, born of the craftsmen era, didn’t know scientific cheesemaking. The way they determined when the curd was ready to mill wasn’t to check the ph of the whey; it was to put a hot iron to the curd mass, and when it strung out a certain distance, the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.
By the 1980s, Wisconsin had lost many of its smaller cheese factories in the name of progress. Equipment was sold and doors were shut. Some were turned into machine sheds or homes. Most were left to just fall down. And with the loss of the smaller plants, Wisconsin began to lose the character of its cheddar. The cheddar from one factory now tasted much like the cheddar from the factory down the road. In essence, Wisconsin’s cheddar industry traded “character” in exchange for “consistency.”
Remaining cheddar plants got bigger and more efficient. The mass market clamored for lower prices. Now cheesemakers had to make more and more cheese just to continue to make a living. Everything became based on volume. Many a cheesemaker who got out of the business in the 1990s will tell you that by the end, they were making only a profit of one penny per pound of cheese sold. That’s not enough to live on, much less to send your kids to college or re-invest in your business.

By 2000, however, a handful of cheesemakers were getting off the commodity cheddar wagon and changing to specialty and artisan production. Cheesemakers such as Sid Cook in LaValle and Tony and Julie Hook in Mineral Point started making small batch cheddar and setting it aside to age. This was cheddar that didn’t get sold to Kraft for a penny on the pound. This was cheddar that the cheesemaker could put his own label on, and set his or her own price.

Now the old time cheesemakers will tell you that aging cheddar isn’t anything new. They all did it, even back in the day. It was just called Cheesemaker’s Cheddar. It was the cheese hidden in the cellar that each cheesemaker’s family ate at night with dinner. They’d sell a block or two on occasion to people who today I suppose we’d call “foodies” who would stop by a cheddar factory and say, “What’s the oldest cheddar you’ve got? Will you sell me some?”**** So even back then, aging cheddar was not a new concept. What was a new concept was selling it to the public at a price the cheesemaker set.
The real key, however, to the renaissance of Wisconsin cheddar, was chefs. Cheesemaker Sid Cook says that by the mid 1990s, chefs started seeking him out. They would buy cheese and take it back to their restaurants, cook with it, and diners loved it. So the chefs would order more. Diners would ask where the cheese came from, and then visit the factory to watch cheese being made, usually – if Sid had anything to do with it – buying some on the way out.

“There’s a certain element with cheese that almost is addictive,” Sid says. “You can tell when people are sampling. They’ll take one. And it will be a little while. Then their hand just goes out. It’s just automatic. They can’t help it. They don’t think about it … That’s how you know it’s really good. What we really like to do is get their hand past their hip so they get their wallet out.”*****

Today, Wisconsin cheesemakers still make plenty of commodity cheddar, and cheddar is still sold on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the current price is $1.62/pound). But most often, those blocks and barrels are serving as cash flow and are the backbone of a cheesemaking operation. Those same cheesemakers today are selling more specialty cheddar under their own brand, and using the proceeds to develop new artisan cheeses such as American Originals. This turnaround in the process – the cheesemaker setting the price – is what is largely responsible for the current artisan cheese renaissance we’re currently experiencing in Wisconsin.

Interested in trying a good aged Wisconsin cheddar? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Four-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.
  • Six-Year Cheddar by Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wis.
  • Ten-Year Cheddar by Hook’s Cheese, Mineral Point, Wis.

Interested in a good specialty cheddar? Then try:

  • Peppercorn Cheddar, Henning’s Cheese, Kiel
  • English Hollow Cheddar, Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe
  • Heritage Weis Old-World Style White Cheddar, Red Barn Family Farms, Appleton

And if you’re looking for some amazing bandaged cheddar made by Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, I’d recommend:

  • Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds
  • Kinsley, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg
  • Eagle Cave Reserve, Meister Cheese, Muscoda

*Facts and figures courtesy of Harva Hachten and Terese Allen’s book: The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State, 2009.
**Sam Cook quote courtesy of interview in the book Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.
***Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 100.
****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 103.
*****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 104.

Deer Creek Cheddar

When a pair of never-heard-of-before “Deer Creek” cheeses nearly swept the highly-coveted Aged Cheddar category at the American Cheese Society awards this month, the audience grew a bit quiet as Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange climbed the stage to collect his ribbons.

“I felt like I could hear crickets chirping in the background as I walked up there,” said Gentine, who in the past decade has developed one of the nation’s most successful marketing and export companies for American cheesemakers looking to expand abroad.

“First off, I am not a cheesemaker and would never claim to be,” added Gentine, whose business is based in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin. “So Cabot Creamery and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (the cheesemakers who have dominated the category for the past three years) — I really respect them. They are crafting some truly amazing American Originals.”

While Gentine may not be a cheesemaker, he is a cheese geek. A licensed cheese grader for the past 15 years, his palate is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a Grade A and Grade AA cheddar. His new line of Deer Creek specialty Cheddars are believed to be the only Grade AA Cheddars on the retail market, and that’s no accident. No cheesemaker really wants to go through the hoops to meet the higher standard, as each batch must be personally inspected by one of a handful of official State of Wisconsin certified cheese graders.

But Gentine’s got the ambition, passion and geektoidness to make it happen. That’s why he’s spent the past three years working with Wisconsin cheesemakers, affineurs and cheese graders to develop a specialty, three-year Cheddar called Deer Creek Reserve, and that is why Deer Creek Reserve is now considered to be the best Aged Cheddar (between 2-4 years) in the nation.

Both the Deer Creek and Deer Creek Reserve are made in 40-pound blocks at the Land O’ Lakes cheese plant in Kiel, long considered to produce some of the best Cheddar in the nation. The cheese is then aged and graded by Wisconsin Aging & Grading (aptly named), specifically for Gentine.

“We pull some samples from every vat, and then the team evaluates each sample,” Gentine said. “We usually narrow it down to a smaller group, and then submit it to DATCP (WI Dept of Agriculture) for their official cheese grader to analyze. From that group, he might say only two or three meet the Grade AA standard. So those are the samples we age out. This is a process we have to go through every time to meet the Grade AA standard.”

Gentine also oversees the production of two more cheeses: 1) Deer Creek The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Hennig at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel (this cheese took a second in its category at this year’s ACS competition), and 2) Deer Creek Vat 17, a cocktail culture Cheddar that was originally made specifically for a customer whose business model changed and could not purchase it (this cheese took second in the Aged Cheddar category).

“The Deer Creek Vat 17 is a really unique cheese,” Gentine said. “It’s got a cocktail of cultures in it that represent some of the best global Cheddars from the United Kingdom to Canada to New Zealand. It’s an amazing cheese to watch and taste, as one culture dies off, another comes to the front and the taste completely changes. We’re lucky it peaked at the right time to win at ACS.”

So now that he has these amazing, award-winning Cheddars that heretofore no one had ever seen, how can the average person buy it? That’s a good question, Gentine says. Because the wins at ACS were a surprise, he didn’t have any of the cheese yet placed in the retail market. He’s now working with distributors and specialty stores to make it available to the public, as calls are coming in from the publicity garnered from ACS.

As for future awards and accolades for the Deer Creek cheeses, don’t expect too many. Gentine says he probably won’t enter them into the American Cheese Society competition again, because he felt awkward competing against Wisconsin cheesemakers, many of whom are his clients.

“We’ll continue to make it, sell it at retail, and I’m sure we’ll be exporting the heck out of it,” Gentine said. “But I think my time on the awards stand is done. I’ll leave those honors to the cheesemakers. They’re the ones who deserve it.”

Culture Cocktails: A Cheesemaker’s Best Kept Secret

When 21 staff members of Cook’s Illustrated recently sampled 10 American artisanal cheddars, proceeded to rate each on flavor, texture, and sharpness, and then published the results, I’m pretty sure they had no idea they were about to expose what is one of the best kept secrets in the cheesemaking world: the rise of using “culture cocktails” to enhance Old World favorites and create New World originals.

The “Artisanal Cheddar Taste Test” in the soon-to-be-published July 2012 issue of Cook’s Illustrated  (read an online version here) starts out innocently enough. Much like its previous taste comparisons of balsamic vinegar, whole bean coffee, and even potato chip brands, the staff selects 10 varieties of American cheddar cheese from among top sellers at cheese markets and recent winners of American Cheese Society awards.

They then proceed to compare them on flavor and texture, thinking, I suppose, that a cheddar is a cheddar, right? How different can these cheeses really be?

But then it gets interesting. After a minor error where they don’t realize that it’s rennet, not culture, that causes milk to separate into curds and whey, the panel opens one of my favorite cheeses: Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery in Iowa, made by two of my all time favorite cheesemakers, Galen Musser, and his father, Rufus (alas, if we could only get these guys to move to Wisconsin). It’s at this point the panel realizes that perhaps a cheddar is not always a cheddar.

In a copy block titled “Culture Shock,” the article wonders why Prairie Breeze – ultimately dubbed as the magazine’s favorite cheddar in its taste-testing exercise, can taste so different from similarly packaged cheeses also labeled as cheddars:

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? According to (Dean) Sommer, (a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research), the moisture level of the cheeses could play a role, but so could each maker’s specific blend of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial culture in our favorite cheddar (Prairie Breeze) likely had a big influence on its flavor. This cheese maker takes the culturing process to another level by adding a second round of bacterial cultures to its cheese. We learned from Sommer that it’s not just a repeat of the first culture cocktail; these secondary bacteria are strains more typically found in Parmesan and Emmentaler than in cheddar, lending the cheese the subtle “butterscotch-y” and “gamy” undertones that earned tasters’ highest praise.

This discovery prompts the tasting team to then go back and check the culturing details of every other cheddar they had tasted:

As it turned out, the particularly “toasty,” “earthy,” “complex” flavors of two other cheddars, including our close runner-up (Cabot Cellars at Jasper Hill Clothbound Cheddar), are also the result of that second dose of alternative bacteria. So much for plain-Jane American cheddar. 

And so much for an American cheesemaker’s best-kept secret.

In the past few years, I’ve watched a growing number of American cheesemakers begin using “adjunct cultures” in their cheeses. Some even have specific “culture cocktails” they commission from culture houses made especially – and only – for them. And that’s fine. Adding cultures to the milk to make cheese has always been part of the process.

But two weeks ago, I inadvertently walked into an industry meeting where a new culture house, having just opened up shop in the U.S. a few weeks before, boasted its ability to translate every customer’s need or demand into a “just right” culture.

I listened with a mixture of shock and awe as the saleswoman touted the company she worked for had developed cultures to mask bitterness, speed up the aging process, and “achieve refined flavor distinction without any drastic changes to the production process or yield.”

Need an adjunct culture to achieve the same fruity, sweet note as a Gouda? Check.

Want to replicate the raw-milk, “farmhouse” taste in a cheese without the raw milk or farmhouse? Check.

Need to develop a smear-ripened flavor without ever actually smear-ripening your cheese? Check.

The presentation got more interesting. We then proceeded to try samples of every cheese the company had made with each of these different cultures. Some were very good and some were so bad I inadvertently spit them out into a napkin before catching myself.

After much oohing and ahhing from the audience, I raised my hand. I told the sales lady that here in the United States, we preach the “art and science” of cheesemaking to consumers – telling them, and rightfully so in my opinion – that a cheese develops its taste because of how carefully the milk is handled, how well the cows, goats or sheep are cared for, and that good milk, paired with fine craftsmanship and affinage skills of a cheesemaker, are the true determinants of a cheese’s flavor profile.

The sales lady blinked at me, tilted her head, and spoke to me in a tone of voice that one might expect from a disapproving teacher toward an unruly student: “But why wouldn’t you want to use these cultures if they were available to you? These flavors are what the consumer wants. We’re only giving cheesemakers the tools they need to sell more cheese.”

Perhaps. But I would argue (and hope) that true American artisanal cheesemakers will use adjunct cultures and culture cocktails only to make good cheese better. Because in the marketplace, good cheese will sell. But a good cheese, made by a good cheesemaker, that carries an authentic story, will sell better.

P.S. If you’re wondering how Wisconsin cheddars stacked up in the Cook’s Illustrated article, only one cheddar from our state – Widmer’s Two-Year Aged Cheddar – was chosen for taste-testing. Deemed as “mild” and “lackluster” in comparison with others in the lineup, as it did not contain adjunct cultures, the magazine staffers took a pass, recommending readers “not go out of your way to mail-order it.”

No worries, Joe. I, right along with thousands of others of customers, will keep ordering and eating your good, old fashioned cheddar. And then we’ll order some more.