The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin
January 3, 2010
By Katherine Keller
There’s a bill currently in the Wisconsin Legislature that, if passed, will place a new symbol, along with the badger, violet, and robin, in the state’s pantheon. The lucky little life form being looked at by the Legislature is Lactococcus lactis, the one that helps convert milk to cheese.
If you doubt the microbe’s merit, consider the alchemists who rely on it-hundreds of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers who produce more than 600 varieties of cheese.*
Forty-three of the state’s consummate cheese artisans are deftly and articulately profiled in a new UW Press release, The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.
Self-proclaimed cheese lover James Norton, a food writer, and Becca Dilley, a photographer, roamed the state to interview 43 master cheesemakers who create varieties ranging from “ordinary” cheddar, feta, Swiss, and Parmesan to the not-as-ordinary chèvre, Crescenza-stracchino, Finnish juustoleipa, SarVecchio, Gorgonzola, and Limburger.
In his introduction, Norton relates the genesis of the state’s master cheesemaker program. The impetus that drove its creation was threefold: the desire to collect, preserve, and transmit cheesemaking knowledge, to provide a research site and opportunities, and to develop a branding and marketing program to promote quality Wisconsin cheese, which would result in financial returns to the state.
Created in 1994 by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the two-year Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program was patterned principally after the rigorous Swiss model. Part of their mission was to recognize and preserve the talent and knowledge of the state’s cheesemakers. Establishing a certification program that would confer master status to program grads was a goal. Another was marketing the cheesemakers and their products via the program’s trademarked “Master’s Mark.”
Earning the program’s master cheesemaker credential entails meeting stringent standards. Before would-be masters can apply, they must have been in possession of Wisconsin cheesemaking licenses for 10 years and been making the cheese for which they seek certification for five years. Only after meeting those qualifications, are they permitted to take the strict oral exam conducted by program board members. Following admission, there are two years of courses, and “constant testing of [their] cheese and evaluation of [their] plant,” culminating in a written final exam.
Program participants choose one or two cheese varieties to “master” during their training, and upon completion of the program, receive their certificate and medal, the master title, and permission to use the Master’s Mark on labels of cheese they produce for which they’re certified. Norton notes the program has graduated only 50 masters to date (as of November 2009).
Folded into the main body of the text that’s comprised of the cheesemakers’ profiles are informative elements about the history of Wisconsin cheesemaking, and the art, science, and lore of the complex craft, often enlivened with entertaining anecdotes.
For example, in the profile about Jeff Wideman and Paul Reigle (Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe, Wis.), Wideman explains how the old Monroe dairy co-op, and many like it, operated. In 1922 there was a network of 3,000 small co-ops throughout the state that produced Wisconsin’s cheese, but which dramatically declined mid-20th century when mass production replaced the small, local producers. Wideman related how the co-op system operated, citing the Monroe dairy co-op. Milk was delivered to the cheese plant from local farmers, who like the cheesemakers, were co-op members. The milk was transformed to cheese, graded, and sold to a single buyer. The co-op invoiced the buyer, who sent payment to the co-op’s bank. Those proceeds were deposited, by percentage, into the respective farmers’ and the cheesemakers’ accounts.
Another example of what can be gleaned from the profiles is a description and photo of a fascinating water purification system developed by cheesemaster Robert Wills (Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis.). Wills’ system is comprised, in part, of 10-2,600 gallon water vats full of plants, leeches, frogs, blue gills, algae, and mosquitoes that clean the plant’s wastewater and significantly reduce water usage and overhead.
Sidebars embellish the main text. Some, entitled “flavor notes,” describe less well-known cheeses. There’s a history timeline that summarizes Wisconsin cheesemaking, another that describes the cheddaring process, and one that demystifies processed cheese.
The end matter includes an instructive glossary. The index is adequate but not perfect. (If you want to find all the chèvre or mozzarella producers referenced in the text, highlight them as you read because you won’t find them in the index.) A flaw that I encountered was not all instances of text relating to co-ops were cited in the index entry, “co-ops, dairy.”
Cheesemakers can also be used to construct a tour of the featured plants. It’s divided into five geographical regions, each with an excellent map indicating the location of the featured master cheesemakers.
The volume is beautifully designed with judicious, generous white space, engaging photographs, and lucid text, including those passages about cheese chemistry and production. One can read the entire work in a couple of hours but there’s so much information I would expect many will file it on the locavore shelf of their home library’s reference section.
*Not all varieties of cheese rely on Lactococcus lactis, but some that do are cheddar, Camembert, Edam, Gouda, Monterey Jack, Muenster, feta, and Gorgonzola.
The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin
James Norton and Becca Dilley (Madison, Wis. natives, currently Minnesota residents)
University of Wisconsin Press
Trade Paper $24.95
At local bookstores and uwpress.wisc.edu
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