Wisconsin Cheese Tour – Day 3 – Salemville – Get Down Cheesemaking in the Amish Country
Sometimes in life a moment comes and you just know it’s something special… the visit to Salemville Co-op Cheesehouse was one of those moments…
After BelGioioso, we traveled south to Cambria, home of the Amish Community that makes Salemville Blue and Gorgonzola cheeses.
In route we stopped at Ted’s Piggly Wiggly to buy Mountain Dew as a gift for the young people working in the cheese factory. Evidently, Mountain Dew is a favorite of theirs. We continued on our way and right before arriving at the factory discovered we had one member of the group missing; left behind at the Piggly Wiggly. Sounds like a punch line to a silly joke… but it wasn’t…
Robert, the tour guide, dropped the group off and he and Robert, the bus driver, returned to fetch our wayward member and happily made it back in time for the second tour group.
This Amish Community consists of about 350 families with members of 50 families involved in the milk production and the cheesemaking. Salemville cheese is a true co-op and let me tell you, this is also a true handcrafted cheese.
The building is unpretentious and so are the people. Laverne was our guide, filling in for Nelson who usually handles the tours. Two DCI reps were also on hand to assist. Because the facility is compact, Laverne divided us into two groups. While the first group took the tour, the second group sampled the blue cheese and the gorgonzola.
While sampling, we learned that the basic difference between the two cheeses is simply 30-days of aging. Blue is aged 60 and 90 for the gorgonzola. With age the cheese becomes stronger.
When it was time for our tour, Laverne took us downstairs and to the back of the factory where the milk comes in, is pasteurized and the cheesemaking begins.
Back in the day, they handled 9K pounds of milk daily; now they are up to 31K. Laverne credits DCI and its marketing skills with the success of the cheese. After sampling the cheeses, The Lady and I can tell you that the cheese has a lot to do with their success.
After going into several state-of-the-art cheese factories, it was amazing to see how this co-op was making cheese. Everything was clean and no health department would find violations; but the equipment was not the newest and the workers were minimal (in number) and doing things the “old-fashioned” way. And I don’t mean that in a negative way… it’s just the way they do it… and it works for them.
From the making room, we went into the room where the hooped cheese is left for 36 hours for more drainage. The hoops are all hand-flipped periodically. The cheese is not pressed; the weight of the cheese does that job. From there the cheese is put into brine vats (90% salt), salted on top and allowed to brine for another forty-eight hours. BTW, The Lady counted the wheels and there were 220 wheels from one vat of cheese, each weighing about 5 pounds when all is said and done.
Then the wheels are bagged and each wheel is pierced to allow the oxygen in to start the blue mold developing. BTW, the mold is added back in the making room before the curd and whey is separated.
And this is the point (pardon the pun) where The Lady began to really grasp the importance of what was going on. The facility has two piercing machines; two to pierce every wheel of cheese and it’s all done by hand; it is NOT automated. 220 wheels per vat and some days they make 6 vats.
The Lady marveled at this and Laverne explained that back when they started he pierced each wheel with an ice pick. After a time, he figured out he could use two ice picks, one in each hand, and get finished twice as fast.
Amazingly simple, hands-on technology.
Each batch has a vat date/number and then sent into the aging room where they are periodically checked for quality. Along the way, decisions are made as to which wheels will continue on to become gorgonzola.
From there they go up to the finishing room where they are cut into wedges, crumbled or wrapped as whole wheels; packaged and shipped out. The crumbles are on a small assembly line of young women who scoop the cheese into cups, weigh it, put it into a machine that vacuum seals the container, add the lid, label it, box it and labels the outside. There were less than a dozen women and they had it down to a science. On the other side of the room, a small group was wrapping the wheels with the same simple efficiency.
Now that she knows how lovingly a cheese can be made, The Lady had to fight the tears; she hates to appear that she might be a softie…