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It’s Sunday Morning: Time to Talk Cheeses – Interview with Jim Sartori of Sartori Cheeses

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The Lady with Jim and Maria Sartori

Sartori Cheese began in 1939 when Paolo Sartori  began making Italian-style cheeses in Plymouth, Wisconsin. He was also an inventor and received many patents for Cheesemaking equipment including his first in 1942 for a cheese curd machine. His son, Joe would take over the reins in 1956 and also co-found Sargento (he later sold his interest in that company). In 1986, Jim accepts the leadership role in Sartori and begins transforming Sartori into the company it is today.

In 1999, Sartori introduced BellaVitano and in 2006 bought the Antigo plant. Also that same year, SarVecchio was featured in an article about “Products that rival Europe’s best”. In 2010, Sartori won its 100th Award.

FYI, SarVecchio is the most-decorated Parmesan made in the United States.

Spaulding: First of all, Jim, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. The Lady and I are huge fans of your cheeses.

 The Lady visited your Plymouth facility in 2010 and came home in love with your Raspberry Bellavitano cheesecake, which she has made a couple of times, which me and made The Man swoon.

Sartori Kitchen Plymouth, Wisconsin

Spaulding Gray: Was cheese always a passion or did one specific event kindle your passion to follow the family tradition of cheesemaking?

Jim Sartori: The family has been in the cheese business for 75 years starting with my grandfather. Cheesemaking was the heart and soul of our lives growing up. I began working in the factory as a kid and there was never a question about whether I would follow my father into the company. I guess you could say he “ordered” me to do it, but I never thought about doing anything else. Cheese is indigenous to my family; it is who we are and it is what we do.

I didn’t take the same tactic with Bert and Maria who are now a part of the company but when they decided to join us, I welcomed them and have been very supportive of their decisions.

Bert is in Denver working in sales, and Maria was here in sales and marketing, now finishing up her Graduate Degree at Marquette University.

SG: There is a “mystique” about Antigo… what can you share about this particular dairy and cheesemaking area of Wisconsin? (There’s a great video on the Sartori website that talks about Antigo.)

JS: Antigo is indeed unique. Perhaps it is the flora and fauna of the area that have permeated the plant but I think it also starts in the soil around the plant. The area is called “The Flats” and the soil is rich and supports the crops that feed the Holstein herds that provide the milk we use there.

The plant was originally the Antigo Brewery; established there because of the water supply which is, of course, necessary to make beer. Our Plymouth plant was also a brewery “back in the day”. Then Prohibition came a long and both breweries went out of business and the plants were shut down. The plants found new life making cheese.

I’ve often wondered if the flora, fauna and even the hops have continued to find life in the plant and that contributes to the unique flavors and quality of the world-class cheeses we make there.

We have taken the same milk, the same recipes and the same processes and duplicated them in our other plants but the finished cheeses just aren’t the same as when they are made at Antigo. So that’s where we make cheeses like BellaVitano and SarVecchio.

One of our cheeses, the BellaVitano Espresso, which is made at Antigo, was recently named ‘Best Cheese in the World’ at the Dairy Innovation Awards in Oslo, Norway.

Spaulding: Did you learn cheesemaking on-the-job or did you also study culinary or dairy sciences in school?

Jim: I took the short Dairy course in cheesemaking and at age 14 I began working in the Plymouth plant. I literally grew up in the cheese plant.  We had so much talent at Sartori in cheese making – so I focused more on the business side to help the family business in that way.  I love the cheesemaking side of the business and the face to face interaction with our customers.  Nothing better than to see someone try BellaVitano for the first time and see their eyes light up.  But my interests and focus were more in the business side of cheese.

SG: How many Certified Master Cheesemakers create cheese at Sartori? Tell us briefly about them.

Jim: Currently we have three Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers and by the end of 2012 we will have a fourth, Pam Hodgson a woman, who will become a Master Cheesemaker. Each of them are certified in two varieties of cheesemaking and as you know from your interview with Kerry Henning, to become certified you must make the specific cheese for 10 years and then spend 3 additional years on-the-job becoming certified. To be certified in two cheeses, you go through the process twice.

When our fourth is certified, we will be the only cheese factory in Wisconsin with four Master Cheesemakers.

Our other three Master Cheesemakers are:

Mike Matucheski: In 2011, Mike became the latest Sartori cheesemaker to earn certification as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker. A licensed cheesemaker since 1997, he is now a Master in the production of Asiago and Parmesan. Over the years, he’s won many top awards at both the state and national levels for traditional varieties, as well as for unique new artisan products. 

Larry Steckbauer: Larry has continued to refine his cheesemaking skills during a career that spans more than 38 years. Once he learned about the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program, he decided it was an opportunity he wanted to investigate for himself and his company. Larry is certified as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker for Parmesan and Romano cheeses.

Mark Gustafson: Mark began working in cheese plants immediately out of high school in 1995 and by the time he got his cheesemaker’s license two years later, he knew one day he wanted to enter the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program. He holds certification as a Master in Asiago and Parmesan, two signature products for Italian cheese specialist Sartori.

Pam Hodgson will be certified by the end of this year in both Fontina and Open Hard Cheeses. I am particularly proud to have a woman joining our illustrious group of Masters.

We also have our Master Cheesemakers “Sign” the cheeses they make and their signatures appear on the label with the actual number of the wheel in the production batch such as “#9 of 31 wheels produced”.

Sartori “Signature” Cheese

Spaulding: If you were making a grilled cheese using Cervus Canadensis, which of your cheeses would you use?

Jim: For pairing with Cervus canadensis, I would choose our MontAmore. Like a new romance, this sweet, creamy and fruity cheese begins with a deliciously inviting appearance and finishes with a playful, tangy bite. It also melts beautifully and the buttery richness would pair well with the elk. MontAmore is from the same family of cheeses as one of your Sartori favorites, Bellavitano Gold.

A bit of trivia, MontAmore is named after the Dolomite Mountains that tower above the Sartori hometown of Valdastico, Italy.

Dolcino Gorgonzola might also pair well with the elk, but I’d have to try it before endorsing the marriage.

Sartori Dolcino

SG: The Lady and I tasted your MontAmore yesterday as part of the “Sartori Cheese Plate” reviewed yesterday. I concur that MontAmore is an excellent choice to pair with Cervus canadensis on a grilled cheese and will include it in our April 2013 line-up of grilled cheese recipes (when we celebrate National Grilled Cheese Month).

SG: My last question is one I like to ask cheesemakers: Have you ever eaten Velveeta? 

JS: No, growing up in a cheesemaking family, my parents and grandparents never served Velveeta. We ate the cheeses we made.

Spaulding: Jim, thanks for taking the time to sit with me and tell us about Sartori cheeses. We really appreciate it.

To my loyal readers, you can buy Sartori cheeses in most specialty cheese shops across the US, including the Murray’s Cheese Shops located in Kroger Store, King Soopers and City Markets in Colorado, QFC in Seattle and Fred Meyer Stores in Portland.

I have reviewed many of Sartori’s fine cheeses and you can read my reviews by clicking here and then scrolling down to “Sartori”.

Next week, we will be interviewing the lovely Mary Quicke, Owner and Cheesemaker at the Award-Winning Quickes Traditional Cheeses located in Exeter, England.

Due to the overwhelmingly positive response to my requests for interviews, The Lady and I have decided to run our interviews every Sunday for the next several weeks.

Coming soon: Interviews with John Fiscalini of Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese (7/15); Kurt Dammeier of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (7/22); Mat Willey, Head of marketing at Sweet Grass Dairy (7/29); Burke Brandon of Red Hill Cheese (8/5); Stephen Hueffed of Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese (8/12); Mike Hatch of Uplands Cheese (8/19); Vicky Brown of little Brown Farm (8/25) and Craig Gile, Master Cheese Grader at Cabot Creamery (9/2).

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