Setting Up Cheese in the Dark: Hook’s Cheese

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A bit of the backstory:

A few weeks ago, I called cheesemaker Tony Hook in Mineral Point with the idea of doing a story on what it was like to sell cheese at the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the nation. Every Saturday morning from April to November, about 170 stands pop up on the capital square in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the items for sale are grown, raised, and produced by the person behind each table.

Tony told me he usually arrives by 4:45 a.m., so I told him I’d see him there. I’m not entirely sure he believed me, so as he navigated the orange construction barrels on Pinckney Street in his Chevy Tahoe and trailer at 4:40 am, he shook his head in disbelief as I greeted him at the curb.

“Well, you told me you’d be here early, but I didn’t think you meant this early,” he said. As I helped him unload the trailer in the pitch dark under the light of a street lamp, it occurred to me how very quiet a city can be before dawn. Hell, even the swarms of squirrels that usually dot the capital grounds looking for leftovers weren’t even up yet. And to think, in just a couple of hours, the market would be so crowded that customers three-deep would be vying to buy cheddar, blue and American original cheeses from the Hook’s Cheese team.

Tony and his wife, Julie Hook, have been selling their cheeses at the Dane County Farmer’s Market since 1994, and they have it down to a science. Tony is generally in charge of setting up the booth, and Julie is in charge of prep work – cubing cheeses, setting up everything on the tables, and making sure toothpicks are in the right spot.

But this week, Julie is missing, because she’s getting a new knee in a few weeks, and standing on the cement aggravates the pain. So, Tony is happy to see another family member arrive – someone who actually knows what she’s doing (unlike me) – and that’s his sister, also named Julie. When he’s talking about his wife and sister, he keeps his Julies straight this way: Julie Ann is his wife, and Julie Marie is his sister. Because they all work together in the same cheese plant, middle names are key when calling for a Julie.

Now that Julie Marie is here, the set-up really begins to click along. We unload the Tahoe, which is filled to the absolute brim with more than a dozen giant square blue coolers, filled with dozens of varieties of cheeses, and each cooler is meticulously labeled with the contents. I get tasked with emptying little cubes of cheese from plastic baggies into individual sample containers, so that in another hour, customers can try each cheese before they buy it.

Before long, we look at our watches and it’s already 6 a.m. The market officially opens at 6:15 a.m., so we snag Tony for a few minutes to talk cheese before the crowds descend, and Julie Marie promises to hold down the fort.

I ask Tony why he’s been selling cheese at the Dane County Farmer’s market (which celebrates its 45th year this summer), since the early 1990s. “This is the best market in the country,” he says. “About 6 percent of our overall sales comes from this market. We’re selling cheese in 37 states, and we attribute an awful lot of our artisan cheese growth to this market.”

Up until about 2001, the Hooks were making big vats of commodity cheeses – Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack – and selling that cheese to “the big guys”, who then sold it under a third-party label. “In 2001, we cut back on making cheese, and said: ‘Alright, everything’s going to go under our label. It’s going to have Hook’s on it, no matter where it goes,’” Tony said. “That’s when we started dealing with small specialty retailers, grocery stores and distributors that were willing to pay a little bit better. We attribute a lot of getting our name out there to the chefs buying our cheese here at the market.”

Back in 1994, the Hooks sold at 10 different varieties of cheese. In 1997, they started making blue cheese. Today, they make 70 different varieties of cheese, including dozens of different ages of Cheddar and Swiss. They also specialize in making mixed milk cheeses, and are making more sheep and goat’s milk cheeses every year. They purchase their sheep and goat milk each from one farm, while all the cow’s milk cheeses come from three small farms, the largest of which milks 50 cows. These are the same three farms that have shipped milk to the Hooks since they started making cheese in Mineral Point in 1976. “We’re trying to keep the little guys in business,” Tony says.

We walk with Tony back to his cheese stand, and by now, it’s already starting to get busy. People in this town love their Saturday morning farmer’s market, and many come early to get the best selection. We walk past stands of apples, popcorn, organic vegetables and beautiful bouquets of flowers.

Once we’re back at the Hook’s booth, it doesn’t take long for customers to start sampling and buying cheese. One customer wants to know the difference between different ages of cheddars, and Tony does a remarkable job of explaining in detail how acid plays a huge part in the flavor of cheese. His cheddars aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 years will be more acidic, while the cheddars aged 10 and 12 years are much smoother, sweeter and full of calcium lactate crystals. The customer purchases the 10-year cheddar. By the way, that’s the same age cheddar Tony says he keeps in his fridge. Every day.

By this time, I am in serious need of coffee, so we say our goodbyes to Tony and Julie and head across the street for caffeine. And this being Wisconsin, there is of course a guy standing on the corner of the farmer’s market, playing an accordion for tips. We put a dollar in his bucket and walk away, humming “On Wisconsin.”

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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.

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