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American Cheese Corner
Welcome to the debut of the American Cheese Corner. This is where I’ll be shining the spotlight on all things American cheese including cheesemakers, cheese news, and, of course, cheese itself. First up is my first-hand account of making cheese with the folks at Sartori Cheese in Antigo, Wisconsin. Talk about a newfound respect for the cheesemaking process!
In November, I was lucky enough to be invited to don cheesemaking clothes, which are not unlike surgical scrubs, and work side by side with the enthusiastic cheesemaking team at Sartori Cheese in Antigo, Wisconsin. Located in the northern part of the state, Antigo is pretty much like any other town in Middle America, Wal-Mart and all. But once I arrived at Sartori, along with Cheese Connoisseur magazine editor-in-chief Lee Smith and Cheese Impresario Barrie Lynn Krich, the Antigo landscape instantly changed.
Once suited up, we were ushered underground into a beehive of activity as cheesemakers flipped flimsy water-laden wheels of nascent cheese, machines stirred, transported, funneled, and released curds like rushing waterfalls into vats, spider-like metal arms stirred the curds some more, and whey whooshed out while the shiny curds got scooped up and packed into their wheel-shaped hoops.
We continued exploring this veritable underground city, walking through a maze of steamy, humid rooms then through cold rooms; we passed through a room full of huge closed vats and into one with open vats. We then left the presence of heavy metal and stood at the altar of cheese.
Open sesame. A two-story tall door slid aside to reveal row upon row, column upon column, of wheels of cheese, each wheel making its way toward a distinct set of flavors and textures, a flavor palette pinpointed by the Sartori Master Cheesemakers with a complexity elusive to the rest of us. Just what is it that makes this company’s cheeses at once sweet and savory, delicate and yet sturdy, multi-layered in its flavors, so simple to love? We were about to find out.
Well, sort of. Never will we know the secrets that distinguish this company’s cheese or any other’s for that matter, but we did get a hands-on opportunity to learn how their cheese goes from milk to wheel. My first lesson above all was that you have to be in top physical shape to make it. I ended up summoning just about every muscle in my body to keep up with the production schedule, not to mention the work being done by the cheesemaking team. As if it were ever in question, cheesemaking ain’t for sissies.
Guided by Master Cheesemaker, Mike Matucheski,, I learned right away that I was pretty pathetic when it came to turning a wheel of slippery wet cheese. All I want to say before you call me a weakling is YOU try it. It was hard enough to get a grip on the thing, let alone get it turned in the space of time that it needed to be before the next wheel appeared and the next one and the next one (about two seconds in between each one). The guy I’d been assigned to did his best to be patient, and I commend him for that. I’m sure it was no small challenge working side by side with the likes of Lucy Ricardo. And for me? I’m pretty sure that wheel was the world’s largest piece of humble pie.
After turning wheels, stuffing curds into their forms, stacking wheels, pushing them down the line and along the way getting tacit confirmation that this was definitely the hardest thing I’d done in a long time (but hey, it was also one of the best workouts I’d ever had), it was time to continue our tour of this former brewery. Next stop was the brining room.
All the cheeses made at the Antigo plant are brined, which means they get a good soak in a saltwater solution for some period of time. My muscles may have been sore, but that wasn’t enough to get me or my fellow cheesemakers off the hook. Each of us lifted a wheel into the tank to begin its flavor immersion. All I could think about was the folks there that do that job every day. And most of them seemed so happy about it too!
Mike then led us into the finishing room. This is where the Sartori cheeses part ways from the rest. That is, unless you’ve seen other cheeses that are, say, soaked in Raspberry Tart beer from New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin. Or one soaked in Cognac and sold for $60 - 75 bucks a pound.
It all starts with their cheese called Bellavitano, which is a little like the love child between Asiago and parmesan painted with brown butter and dusted with sugar. Bellavitano serves as the base cheese upon which the other flavors are built. Starting with a superior cheese is crucial to ending up with great-tasting flavored ones.
The day we were there, they were making their Espresso Bellavitano, which happens to be a personal favorite. I’ll tell you right now, it’s messy work.
To make it, we combined water with espresso grounds and got to work rubbing the (heavy) wheels with this sandy solution. I quickly caught on that my hand needed to be steady but deft. I really had to work at spreading the espresso-water mixture evenly, thick enough to taste but not so thick as to end up creating a mouth full of sandy grounds. Easier said than done. Thank goodness for the instruction from the rub-room gals!
That pretty much wrapped up our underground tour, so we hiked upstairs, took off our espresso-flecked clothes and got our reward – the cheese.
We walked down the line of cheeses set up for tasting, starting with Bellavitano Gold (where it all begins), Black Pepper Bellavitano (another of my favorites), Merlot Bellavitano, Raspberry Bellavitano, and several other cheeses including Rosemary and Olive Oil Asiago, Extra-Aged Fontina, their signature Sarvecchio (indisputably one of the country’s best parmesan-like cheeses), and the combined sheep and cow’s milk Pastorale.
And then, the encore. Mike unveiled a piece of his Cognac-rubbed Bellavitano that he’d been aging at least 18 months. All of a sudden that $75.00/pound price tag made sense. Never mind that was the auction price and all proceeds went to charity (the auction was in November). With its salted caramel, slightly winey, and lightly toasted almond-like flavors, the cheese was truly worth its weight in gold. They only made 20 wheels of the stuff (Mike personally signed each wheel), and it’s already sold out for this year. But get your bid in early next year. It’s worth every penny.
What I knew before this visit is that I don’t expect to become a cheesemaker now or ever, but the breathtaking experience of entering the inner sanctum of Sartori Cheese has left an indelible impression on me. The back-breaking nature of the work (all cheesemaking, not just here), the team work, and, of course, the end product were totally inspiring. Blessed are the cheesemakers indeed.