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: www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com

Saxon Creamery Reinvents Green Fields Into True Monastery-Style Cheese

I have a soft spot for monastery-style cheeses. Their pungent aromas and savory, meaty flavors are dangerously addictive to this farm girl raised on meat and potatoes.

One of my all time favorites is Oka, originally manufactured by the Trappist monks in Oka, Quebec, Canada, and now owned by Agropur (but still aged 35 days in the original cellars of the Cistercian Abbey). At the American Cheese Society Festival of Cheese two weeks ago in Sacramento, I stood next to the Washed Rind table noshing on Oka so long that Keith Adams from Alemar Creamery in Minnesota told me I was going to get kicked out.

So you can imagine my extreme delight when Saxon Creamery in Cleveland, Wisconsin, retooled their Green Fields earlier this year into a true monastary-type cheese. First of all, don’t let the pinkish rind scare you. Those are just harmless pink yeast molds taking over, and you’re not going to eat the rind anyway. The paste is creamy, savory and surprisingly similar to Oka.

Green Fields has come a long way. For the past few years, it was merely a “meh” cheese, mild and spongy. But today, it actually fits its description  of a “Semi-Soft, Washed Rind, Aromatic Monastery Style Cheese.”

The cheese is aged twice as long as Oka, at about 70 days. The affinage process begins with surface ripening and hand washing of the cheese for the first five weeks. Its flavor development is enhanced as the cheese wheels rotate through two aging rooms.

Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes is doing an outstanding job of retooling all the Saxon cheeses, improving the quality of each and every one. In fact, three of their cheeses won ribbons at the 2014 ACS, and Saxony won its class just this past week at the Wisconsin State Fair. Congratulations to the Saxon team on remastering Green Fields – this one is a treasure to savor.

Italy vs Wisconsin Cheeses: Can the New World Compete?

With the growth in quality and quantity of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses in the past decade, I am often asked: “Can Wisconsin cheeses today rival the great European imports?”

Well, yes and no. While there are scores of amazing European cheeses that simply don’t have an equal in America, there are perhaps an equal amount of American Original cheeses that don’t have a rival in Europe. That’s because the traditions that often make classic European cheeses so amazing also limits innovation in crafting new ones.

Here in America, we’ve got no lack of innovation. With less than 300 years of tradition to our name, we’ve got no PDO, DOC or AOC cheeses. Virtually anything goes. Some might even argue American cheesemakers have cheesemaking freedom that many European cheesemakers might envy.

But that doesn’t mean American, and especially Wisconsin cheesemakers, don’t still look to their European counterparts for inspiration. Perhaps no country knows this better than Italy. Wisconsin cheesemakers have been studying Italian cheeses for more than 100 years, trying to duplicate the Italian greats.

Here’s a look at three different categories of Italian cheeses and three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are striving to equal, or might I dare say rival, their Italian counterparts.

Round 1: Asiago Fresco 
Agriform of Italy vs Saxon Creamery of Wisconsin

A younger version (aged only 20-40 days) of its more famous big brother, Asiago Fresco is a mild, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, and until about 15 years ago, not readily available for export to the United States.

In Italy, Asiago Fresco is made in the Veneto region, located in the far northwest quadrant of the country. It’s named after the village of Asiago, one of seven villages situated on a high plateau in the Italian Alps. The region has a colorful history. The locals, most of whom have German roots, as the region was populated in the 1200’s by Bavarians, still speak their own language, a German/Italian mix. Because the area was originally so isolated, the residents of the seven villages banded together in the 1300’s to receive protection from three powerful families – the Ezzelini, Scaligeri and Visconti families. The region had its own political and administrative autonomy until Napoleon invaded in 1807. Then the territory came under Austrian rule until it was annexed to Italy through an international accord in 1866.

Today, two traditional Asiago cheeses are made: Asiago Pressato, made with whole milk and pressed, is aged only a matter of days. It is mild and buttery. The second, Asiago d’Allevo, is made from partially skimmed milk and and is sold in three stages of ripeness: mezzano, aged 3 to 8 months; vecchio, aged 9 to 18 months; and stravecchio, aged up to 2 years. All types are found in the U.S. market.

Asiago Fresco, meanwhile, seems to be a newer hybrid. It is made from whole milk, pasteurized, and aged 20-40 days. It much more citrusy in flavor. The most common Italian version found in the U.S. is made by Agri-form, one of the larger producers in the Veneto region, and distributed by Atalanta Foods. It is an excellent table cheese and melts well on a panini.

The Wisconsin version of Asiago Fresco is made by Saxon Creamery of Cleveland. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the Saxon cheeses are made from the milk of pastured cows. Originally owned by the Karl Klessig and Jerry Heimerl families, last year, Wisconsin dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Kenn Buelow invested in the company. Cheeses are now made by Master Cheesemaker Jeff Mattes, who is rapidly branching out into some different styles, including the little known Asiago Fresco.

Mattes delivers. The Saxon version is equally citrusy and fresh tasting, with no off flavors and a clean finish. The texture is almost the same as the Italian version, and the cheeses are nearly identical. Find Saxon Creamery Asiago Fresco at Glorioso’s in Milwaukee.

Round 2: Fontina 
Fontina D’Aosta DOP of Italy vs BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin

Dating back to the Middle Ages, Fontina originated in Italy’s mountainous Val d’Aosta region near the Swiss border. History isn’t clear on whether it took its name from the village of Fontinaz or nearby Mont Fontin, but two things are clear: Fontina is a) considered one of the most versatile cheeses in the world, and 2) it has often been copied.

Today, versions of Fontina are made in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and of course, the United States. The Danish and Swedish versions are typically covered in red paraffin wax, made from pasteurized milk, and are mild in taste. The Italian version, however, is made twice a day from the unpasteurized milk of Valdostana cows that graze on Alpine grasses, and is a washed-rind cheese. Aged three months, it is bathed with a mixture of brine and brevibacterium linens, which leaves it with an orangish-brown rind and smelly aroma.

Fontina D’Aosta is an Italian DOP cheese, meaning it is name-protected and may only be made in the Val d’Aosta region. It is elastic and supple, with a rich, sweet, buttery flavor and mushroomy aroma.

The Wisconsin version of Italian Fontina is made by BelGioioso Cheese. Aged more than 60 days, this is a very appealing, semi-soft mild cheese with a silky texture and a sweet, buttery flavor. It does not, however have the Fontina D’Aosta’s washed-rind, so is instead much milder in flavor and smell.  Whereas the Italian version has small irregular holes, BelGioioso Fontina is smooth and creamy. That’s probably because it is intended for an American market, which, as a rule, does not overly care for stinky cheeses.

BelGioioso is no stranger to Italian cheese. In 1979, a man by the name of Errico Auricchio moved his family from Italy to America to start his own cheese company. A hundred years before, his great-grandfather had started an Italian cheese company named Auricchio. Today, it is the largest producer of Provolone in Italy.

But because Errico wanted to do his own thing, he moved to Wisconsin and brought along a couple Master Euoprean cheesemakers with him. He began making authentic Italian cheeses, and today, has built a cheese empire, building seven factories, all in the Fox Valley, each specializing in a different style of Italian cheese, from Burrata to Provolone to Gorgonzola and beyond. Each is made using Wisconsin milk from surrounding farms. BelGioioso does Wisconsin Italian cheeses proud, and their Fontina is no exception. You can find it in most specialty cheese departments.

Round 3: Parmesan
Academia Barilla Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP vs Sartori of Wisconsin

Known as the King of Cheeses, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano is a Italian DOP cheese managed by The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a non-profit organization, founded in 1934, and comprised of Parmigiano cheese producers from the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantova and Bologna.

The mammoth cheese, considered by some to be worth its weight in gold, is made in large copper cauldrons and formed into 85-pound drums. Quality is based on five factors that have been maintained throughout centuries to make this cheese one of the most famous in the world.

First and foremost is quality of pastures and quality of milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano is produced with  milk from two milkings – evening and morning – with milk from the morning partially skimmed. The milk itself comes from cows raised on selected pastures only in the five approved regions.

Second: artisanal production methods have been unchanged for seven centuries. The Consortium is made up of a group of 650 small, artisanal cheese producers located in a specific zone of production and are subject by law to preserve the centuries old production methods and quality of the product.

Third is the natural aging process, which can last up to three years. By the end, wheels have developed a compact, grainy texture and strong, but not spicy, flavor. Parmigiano falls into the category of hard Italian cheeses generally referred to as grana, based on their granular texture.

Fourth: Complete absence of preservatives, additives or colorings in the milk and cheese. Period.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is the strict control of the Consortium. It defends and protects the production of Parmigiano-Reggiano, overseeing how it is used and where it is produced. The Consortium is also responsible for building the brand and monitoring the standards of production.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano I enjoy is produced only in the Reggio Emilia region by Academia Barilla. This particular company uses milk exclusively from small hillside dairies and ages wheels to 18 months. It is brittle and hard, with a pale yellow rind. Inside, the cheese is golden with a crystalline texture and sweet, fruity, tangy flavor, like fresh pineapple. It boasts a salty finish, having been brined for about 30 days before being transferred to an aging room.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin version is Sartori SarVecchio, one of the best Parmesans made in the United States. Aged at least 20 months, it is made from pasteurized milk in 30 pound wheels with a natural rind.

Sartori Cheese’s headquarters are in Plymouth, but the cheese is made in Antigo. Started in 1939 by Paolo Sartori and Louis Rossini, when they founded S&R Cheese Corp in Plymouth, the company changed its name to Sartori Foods in 1996. Today, they employ three master cheesemakers who not only create Old World classics but new American Originals.

Aged, crystalline, nutty, and grate-able, SarVecchio is a worthy rival to Old World Parmigiano-Reggiano, and routinely places first or second in national and international contests. You can find it in most any store where fine cheese is sold.

And there you have it: three Old World favorites vs. New World upstarts. I’d argue with a contest like this, there really are no losers. Only we – the consumers – win.