Sid Cook holds the enviable title of “Most Award-Winning Cheesemaker in the World”, having won hundreds of awards, worldwide, with his “American Originals” since 2001. In 2010, The Lady visited Wisconsin and met Beth Wyttenbach, Marketing Head at Carr Valley Cheese. That meeting began a love affair between me and the cheeses created by Sid Cook.
Spaulding Gray: Sid, I want to thank you for taking the time to sit down with me and answer a few questions for our readers.
Sid Cook: Let me start by telling you a quick story. I hate to admit it to you especially, but I’ve never particularly cared for cats and never owned one until about a month ago. One morning, I came out of our hose on the way to the cheese plant and heard a strange noise that I couldn’t identify. Sort of like a painful moan of some sort. I heard it a second time and followed it to find a kitten in distress. One leg had been eaten off and his belly was ripped open with his intestines in plain view. Obviously the little guy had been attacked and was in bad shape. I called for my wife and we decided to take him to the vet. At first he hissed; fearing he would be hurt again. But he finally allowed me to gather him up and off we went to the vet.
The vet cautioned us that to get him well was going to be expensive and not an easy road neither for the little guy nor for us. My wife remarked that he wasn’t really our cat to which the vet just laughed and said that actually he was because we brought him in. He needed to have the rest of the one leg removed so that it wouldn’t drag when he began to walk again, causing further problems for him.
Now a month later, he’s tripled his weight and living the good life with us. The vet suggested we name his Tripod, but we went with “D. Lucky”; the “D” standing for Damn. He has taken possession of the laundry room, claiming it as his own, but some nights he ventures out and decides to sit on Lisa, my wife, while she sleeps, staring into her face with these big eyes until she awakens and takes care of his needs. Lisa is convinced he’s an alien; those huge eyes boring into her brain to control her while she sleeps…
I’ve read on your website, Spaulding, that The Man has speculated that you might be an alien… care to comment???
Spaulding: Sid, I have no comment although I’ll add that your wife and The Man indeed have active imaginations when it comes to those of us of the feline persuasion… but we digress…
You are a fourth generation cheesemaker and became a certified cheesemaker at the age of 16. When did you start working in the factory and what was the first cheese you made?
Sid: I did receive my first cheesemaker’s license at the age of 16 but I remember as early as 3 or 4 riding my toy tractor around the cheese factory, trying to help out with cleaning and probably getting in the way. But I loved being there and by the age of 12 I was making cheese boxes and cleaning vats.
The first cheese I made was a cheddar and the second was a Monterey Jack. By 16, I was making 4 or 5 cheeses on a regular basis
SG: You are a Master Cheesemaker. Tell us about your journey to reach that honored degree. Also, how many cheeses are you a “Master” at making?
SC: When I was a young boy and asked what I wanted to be, I always answered that I wanted to be an engineer, referring to the kind that run trains. I loved trains and that was my boyhood dream. In college I majored in Political Science and planned to become a lawyer. As law school drew nearer, I knew I had to make a decision and choose between sitting at a desk, which didn’t sound very appealing, or in the factory making and creating new cheeses.
In became an easy decision. When I graduated college at the age of 22, my dad was in his sixties and ready to retire. My older brother and I bought him out and became the owners of Irish Valley Cheese. Ten years later, I bought out my brother and became the sole owner. At about the same time, Carr Valley Cheese became available for sale. The Irish Valley plant was located too close to the highway and couldn’t be expanded. I closed it down and moved everything and everyone to the Carr Valley facility and assumed its name.
(Editor’s note: Sid holds Master licenses in making Cheddar, Monterey Jack and Gran Carnia, another of his American Originals.)
Spaulding: You have created more original cheeses than most cheese factories. What was your first original creation? What are your inspirations in creating originals? Do you have a favorite? If so, which one and why?
Sid: When I bought Carr Valley, it had two cheese shops that sold the cheddars we made. I realized that I could sell more cheese to our visitors if I offered more styles of cheese. In Wisconsin, we get lots of visitors who come to tour the cheese factories and buy our cheese to take home. They wanted to experience more than just cheddar.
We Americans had created Colby and Brick and those had become icons of American cheeses. I wanted to create more cheeses that could become symbols of American Artisan Cheese. Also, I felt that our visitors, especially those from Europe, wanted to experience more than just Americanized versions of the great cheeses they had at home.
At first I began experimenting with mixed milk cheeses, which up until that time was an almost untapped market. My first original was Menage, a mixture of cow, goat and sheep milks.
SG: You have won more awards than any other cheesemaker in the world. Elvis Presley had so many gold and platinum records and trophies/awards that he built a separate building at Graceland called the “Trophy Room”. How do you display your trophies and awards? What was your first award?
SC: About ten years ago, I decided to get my feet wet and enter a cheese contest in Washington D.C. I knew the judges shared their notes with the cheesemaker and I felt the feedback could only help me improve my craft. To my delight and the amazement of the cheese community, we won 13 awards including 2 of the top 4 awards that were given. Keep in mind that in 2001, there were a lot fewer categories and fewer cheeses competing. It was considered quite a coup and I think had my fellow cheesemakers wondering who the heck was Sid Cook? And was he a one hit wonder? Later that same year I entered a few of my cheeses in another contest in San Francisco and walked away with 17 more awards.
Janet Fletcher, Cheese Expert and Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that my Mobay missed winning Best of Show because the judges consensus was they just weren’t sure about a cheese layered with two different milk cheeses (Mobay, while it looks like Morbier, is actually a layer of goat milk cheese and a layer of sheep milk cheese, separated by a layer of grape vine ash.) Janet flattered me by speaking highly of Mobay in her article.
My American Originals raised the bar and helped encourage other cheesemakers to experiment and think outside the cheese box. I am pleased to believe that my originals became inspirations for others. They also encourage me to experiment more; obviously the cheese world was ready for something new and unique.
I know there are some who would like to limit the number of entries one cheese producer can enter into contests. Obviously I disagree. If you make good cheese, then enter it into as many contests as possible. You’ll get great feedback from the judges and that tool, in turn, will make you a better cheesemaker and help you create the next great cheese.
Spaulding: What is the oldest cheddar you have aged? Do you market it or is it in your private stash of cheeses?
Sid: We have 5 or 6 blocks of white cheddar that is fourteen (14) years old and if someone specifically asks I can sell them some of it. But ten (10) years is about it for aging cheddar; there’s not really any improvement beyond that point. We charge about $22.50 a pound for it and we’re losing money when you factor in warehousing cheese for a decade.
(Editor’s note: Get ready… I’ll bet one of our loyal readers will be contacting you…)
SG: What is your favorite grilled cheese sammy?
SC: Tough question; but I’d keep it simple: lots of my Wildflower Cheddar; making it gooey and filled with the floral tones of what the cows are eating in late spring. It’s aged 60 to 90 days and I consider it an extraordinary value.
Spaulding: Which of your cheeses would you pair with Peromyscus leucopus?
Sid: That’s easy. Snow White. My cave-aged goat has lots of earthy flavor that would pair nicely with your peromyscus leucopus.
Spaulding Gray: Sid, thanks again for taking the time and let us know when your next American Original is ready for the marketplace. The Lady and I hope to see you in Madison next August for the ACS Conference.