Ever wonder why Wisconsin’s motto is “America’s Dairyland” and the state’s residents call themselves “cheeseheads?” One factor could be the 2.6 billion pounds of cheese that are produced annually in the state. This represents one quarter of all the cheese produced in the United States. Wisconsin is home to the Cheese & Burger Society whose members believe Wisconsin cheese is the Grand Poo-bah of every cheeseburger. This outfit has a great website at www.cheeseandburger.com.
Colby cheese (along with cranberry pie) is the state food.
Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin congressman, recently told voters in his home state that his “blood runs with cheese, bratwurst, a little Spotted Cow (a Wisconsin brew), and some Millers.” The potential VP is obviously a cheesehead. You get the picture; Wisconsin is all about cheese.
Wisconsin where Cheese is King
The major reason so much cheese is produced in Wisconsin harks back to the last Ice Age when the state was covered with glaciers. Rich soil left in the wake of the receding glaciers resulted in land that was desirable for the cultivation of wheat, hops, and other grains; then dairy farms started appearing with grazing cows that produced large quantities of high-quality milk. Early dairymen used excess milk to make cheese for their own dinner tables. This served as the foundation for small commercial enterprises that followed.
European emigrants to America with experience in dairy farming and cheese making frequently headed to the Wisconsin area where they brought along recipes for specialized dairy products: Limburger and Muenster from Germany, Brie and Camembert from France, Mozzarella and Provolone from Italy, Gouda from the Netherlands, Cheddar from England, and Swiss from Switzerland.
The first Wisconsin cheese factory was constructed in the mid-1880s and by 1922 the state had more than 2,800 factories. Through the years, many new flavors and styles of cheese were created in Wisconsin. For example, Brick cheese, processed in a brick shape using real bricks to press moisture from the cheese, was invented in 1875. Wisconsin currently boasts approximately 130 cheese plants of varying size that produce more than 600 varieties of cheese.
Learning about Cheese
Being retired with time on our hands plus an interest in what is going on wherever we happen to be, the two of us decided it was time to learn more about cheese. After all, we were in Wisconsin where cheese is king. What better way to learn than visit with some of Wisconsin’s professional cheese makers. Thus, we came to tour two plants, one large and the other small.
The larger of the two, award-winning Bel Gioioso Cheese, Inc., has five plants, each of which manufactures, ages, finishes, packages, and ships specific cheeses. Controlling the process from beginning to end allows the firm to retain full quality control for over 21 different types of cheese, some with multiple varieties. Bel Gioioso owner Errico Auricchio and two cheese makers manufacture cheeses utilizing recipes brought from Italy when they immigrated in 1979. Mr. Auricchio followed in the family tradition as his great-grandfather started a cheese company in Italy more than 100 years ago; and now Mr. Auricchio’s daughter and son are each involved in the business.
Vice President of Marketing Francis Wall explained that all Bel Gioioso cheeses are made from cow’s milk trucked in daily from dairy farms within a 30-mile radius of each plant. The Denmark, Wis., plant we visited uses more than a million pounds of milk a day to produce Mozzarella and several unique cheeses. One interesting variety is the Fresh Mozzarella, Prosciutto & Basil Roll, which, when sliced, will cause guests to believe you are a creative genius.
Another trademarked product, Unwrap & Roll, is a sheet of fresh Mozzarella designed for a creative person who wishes to choose appropriate “stuffing” ingredients. The creamery’s Crescenza-Stracchino is so soft, creamy, and tasty we ate it right off the spoon, no cracker needed. Bel Gioioso cheese is sold nationwide and can be found in most Walmart and Sam’s stores. It can also be purchased from the firm’s website (www.belgioioso.com).
Visit to a Small Creamery
Our second investigation into the cheese business involved a visit to Saxon Creamery in the small town of Cleveland. As you might guess, ancestors of the owners immigrated in 1848 from Saxony, Germany. When asked how he would classify the size of the creamery in relation to the state’s other cheese plants, part-owner Kenn Buelow replied, “Small. No, tiny would be a better description.”
Saxon makes about 900 pounds of cheese per day. Interestingly, Mr. Buelow is a veterinarian with an undergraduate degree in math and physics. Cheese making has become a high-tech business.
For years, Saxon limited its production to four types of cheese, a number that has recently expanded to five with the introduction of its new Glacial Lakes variety. The Saxon operation may be tiny, but three of the firm’s five cheeses have won awards. The firm’s advertising stresses “one herd and one farm,” as all the milk consumed at the plant comes from its own dairy farm.
The creamery prides itself on the fact that the dairy herd is pasture fed in season. The cows graze in a paddock and are moved to a fresh paddock every 12 hours. During the winter months, the cows’ diet is comprised of home-grown hay, grass, and silage.
Saxon Creamery cheese is sold within the state of Wisconsin and may also be purchased on its website (www.Saxoncreamery.com).
Cheese Shops are a Common Sight
With all the cheese factories, you can imagine the large number of cheese shops scattered about the Wisconsin countryside. Nearly all of the many farmers markets include cheese stands. The Green Bay airport has a large cheese shop where customers can also purchase hats and caps that appear to be made Swiss cheese.
One of our stops was at Nala’s Fromagerie, a Green Bay cheese shop.
The store sells more than 100 varieties of Wisconsin and European cheeses made from cow, goat, sheep, or mixed milk. Most cheese stores offer tasting. In Nala’s, we sampled 29-year-old cheddar that retails for $79 a pound. Cheese has become big business and it is estimated the average American eats more than 31 pounds of cheese annually. Mama Mia, bring on the pizza.
Kay and David Scott are the authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot). They reside in Valdosta.
Curds and Whey: Steps In Making Cheese
Step 1: Milk is tested for quality. (Ten pounds of milk are required to make one pound of cheese.) A variety of factors including time of year and type of cow affect the consistency of milk and the type of cheese being made.
Step 2: Milk is standardized by being weighed and pasteurized or heat treated to ensure product safety and uniformity.
Step 3: A starter culture and a coagulant are added to the milk. These ingredients will determine the ultimate flavor and texture of the cheese being made.
Step 4: Once the mixture thickens, solids (curds) are cut in chunks while much of the liquid (whey) is drained off. Warm water is then added.
Step 5: The mixture is stirred and heated. Softer cheese is made by cooking large curds at low temperatures. Hard cheese results from cooking small curds at high temperatures. Once the desired temperature and firmness of the curd are achieved, the whey is drained off.
Step 6: At this point, different handling techniques affect how the curd is transformed into the many cheese varieties. Salt is added to virtually all cheeses; sometimes to the curd, sometimes rubbed into the rind; sometimes by soaking the cheeses in a brine. When and how much salt is added is dependent on the type of cheese being processed.
Step 7: The curds are placed into molds and pressed to produce the desired shape.
Step 8: Aged cheese varieties are cured to fully develop the flavor and texture. During this process, the temperature and humidity of the curing room is closely monitored. Ever wonder why Swiss cheese has holes? They result from carbon dioxide bubbles caused by bacteria when the cheese mixture is warmed.