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A bit of the backstory:
In just a couple of months, Sid Cook, owner of Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of earning his Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license. You might think that because he’s spent a lifetime over a cheese vat, he might be ready to retire. But you’d be wrong.
When I sat down with Sid last week to talk cheese and mentioned that he was coming up on a half century of cheesemaking, at first he didn’t believe me. He took a second to do the math. And before he concluded that I was right, he revealed he’d actually been making cheese for several years with his dad before he ever got his license. “I was making my own vats when I was 12 years old,” Sid says. “I always really enjoyed being in the factory, and back then, you opened the kitchen door, and the vats were there.”
Here’s the thing about Sid Cook: he never stops working long enough to think about how long he’s been working. He may get a little good-natured teasing from his peers for no longer being in the cheese room every day, but that’s because his time is now more valuable thinking about what new cheeses to make. And just to be clear, he’s already made enough cheese in his lifetime for two or three people.
Before he became a professional cheesemaker, Sid earned a degree in political science and considered going to law school. But when he realized that meant he’d be sitting at a desk for a good part of the day, making cheese started to sound better. So after college, he worked for his dad for a year, and then prepared to purchase the business. After that, he made cheese seven days a week at two different cheese factories.
“I made cheese at the factory in Mauston, and once the cheese was in the forms or in the pre-press, then I would do down to the LaValle factory and make cheese there, too,” Sid said. “Then I’d do accounts receivable and accounts payable. I’d take a little nap under my desk until the phone rang, and then I’d wake up, finish up, and start over the next day. I did that from 1975 to 2003.”
Sid has made 40 or 50 different kinds of cheese and has developed recipes for dozens of American originals. Many of them are made from mixed milks – cow, sheep and goat. “You can make a different spaghetti sauce every day,” he said. “It’s the same way with cheese. You can develop a recipe, make that type of cheese, and then take it in the direction you want it to go through affinage and what temperatures you’re curing it at.” He says making cheese is like a working on a blank slate: anything is possible.
He’s been working on a new cheese for two or three years that will debut later this year: Fontina de Provence – it’s Fontina coated with Herbs de Provence. “We’ve sold it experimentally for a little while out of our retail stores, and it’s been selling well, so we’re going to roll it out,” he says.
Also new: Carr Valley Cheese Stix, the debut of artisan cheese single-serving snack packages. They’re available in Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar, Goat Cheddar, Native Sheep Cheddar, Smoked Cheddar, as well as long, slender sticks of Carr Valley Bread Cheese that are unbelievably warm and squeaky once you microwave them in the package for 10 seconds. He’s also preparing to roll out specialty butters with sheep cream, goat cream, cow cream, and a mix of the three that will be packaged in colored foils in quarter-pound three-inch squares.
“I don’t like to do things that other people are doing,” he says.
Over the years, while he was busy making cheese, he was also concentrating on building a business dynasty. Today, he owns and oversees four cheese factories, eight retail stores and a large mail-order business, in addition to a robust wholesale and foodservice distribution line.
It’s a dramatically different business model than his parents and grandparents operated under. As cheesemakers, they crafted 60-pound commodity cheese blocks and sold them green, or not aged, to a large distributor. They’d deliver the cheese on Friday and have a check by Tuesday. In this day and age, Sid Cook is a cheesemaker, a cheese ager, a distributor, a packager and a retailer. He sometimes waits 10 years to get paid for his aged cheddar. I asked him what he thought the generations of cheesemakers who came before him in his family might think of where he’s taken the company.
“My dad was very proud. When people would ask him about me getting into the cheese business, he’d say, ‘He just doesn’t know any better.’ And he always said it with a big smile. My parents made cheese their whole lives. I think they were just thrilled someone was doing what they had done.”
While Sid does not have an obvious heir apparent to take over Carr Valley Cheese, he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. He and his wife, Lisa, have talked through several scenarios where he stays involved in the business but perhaps brings in a full-time day-to-day CEO and board of directors. In the meantime, when newer folks to the industry come to Sid for advice, he’s honest to the point of being downright blunt. He wants to make sure people know how much work there really is in making and selling cheese. And most people respect that.
One person who has always respected Sid is George Crave, owner of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wisconsin. “I was just dreaming about making cheese, and Debbie, my wife, and I went into the Center for Dairy Research to discuss the possibilities and research cheese,” George said. “We met Sid there – he was no doubt qualifying for another master’s certificate. We explained what we were thinking about doing: making cheese on our own farm, from our own milk, and Sid was very congenial and wished us luck, saying it would take us a few years, but if we were serious, he wished us nothing but well. Realizing all of his accomplishments, he could have said: ‘Go home, keep milking your cows and leave cheesemaking to the masters.’ But he didn’t, and I’ve always remembered that.”
Today’s Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Dairy Connection Incorporated, supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheesemaking supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheesemakers nationwide. To learn more, visit dairyconnection.com.