The Lady is in Wisconsin this week, hanging out with all the Cheese Swells at the American Cheese Society Conference in Madison. Before the conference started The Lady got in her rental car and headed due north up Interstate 39 and drove and drove and drove… the scenery was gorgeous; she crossed the Wisconsin River at least six times and three hours later she found herself in Antigo. (By the way, it does not rhyme with Montego… just sayin’…)
She checked into the Holiday Inn Express; her third in six days and then walked over to the local Copps where she bought some grapes, walnuts and bananas. Copps had a respectable cheese table that included several flavors from Sartori, which was the reason she was in Antigo.
You might recall the interview with Jim Sartori and his thoughts on what makes the Antigo Plant so special; if not, you can click here and read my interview with him.
She met the Cheese Swells from Sartori for dinner at The Refuge which featured many dishes incorporating Wisconsin Cheeses. She chose a Baked Rigatoni made with Sartori Sarvecchio… what… how could she not choose that dish, which she pronounced delish… In addition to Master Cheesemakers, Larry Steckbauer and Mike Matucheski**, Jon Gougar, Sue Merckx and Rachel Birschbach also joined The Lady and they all treated her like a queen… almost like a queen of cheese… well, maybe not.
The next morning started early at the Antigo plant with a tour of the cheese facility and the opportunity to “make” cheese… which means Cheesemaster Mike let her do things that had not a chance in Antigo of messing up the cheese. But, for The Lady it became a very special day…
Sonny Eckardt, the Dairy Facilitator started the tour with an explanation about the process of collecting the milk from their local farmers, the testing process and then answered some questions The Lady had about the differences between Grade A and Grade B milks. They also discussed regulations and interfacing with the USDA and the FDA, in order to maintain clean milk standards to make their award-winning cheeses; many of which are made exclusively in the Antigo plant.
After Sonny returned to his facilitating duties, Sue and Rachel treated The Lady to several videos about Sartori, the farms and the cheeses.
Then it was time to “suit up”… Boots, lab coats, goggles and the ever-flattering blue hairnet.
Every doorway in the cheese has a shoe bath and every room a handwashing and sanitizing station; all the while, Mike was stressing cleanliness and how important avoiding any kind of cross-contamination is. There have been a few recent recalls in the cheese industry putting this issue even more in the forefront of all their minds… The Lady recently completed the Food Handler tests for Washington State, Oregon and California. Most of the rules are common sense, but it’s always good to be reminded. Cleanliness is indeed right up there with… wait for it… cleanliness. But I digress…
They entered the plant several minutes before the 8am “make” and while they waited, Mike gave The Lady a mini-tour of the various steps that go into turning milk into cheese.
Sartori starts with premium milk from their farmers; it is tested for cleanliness, antibiotics and other issues that might create an “off” cheese.
Though this was not her first time in a cheese plant, she was once again humbled by how much goes into making artisan cheese. Even in a world filled with every time-saving gadget you can imagine, still so much of cheesemaking requires hands-on (with gloves, of course) work. With only seventy employees at the plant, it is amazing how many wheels roll out of the plant daily. The hooping of the curds is done by hand; the brining and salting is done by hand; the adding of the rubs is done by hands… everyone smiling, laughing and working hard and efficiently.
When word came down that the milk was ready, Mike and The Lady climbed the pasteurizer to take a peek inside and watch the milk which had been treated with starter cultures (Sartori makes their own) and rennet, which causes the coagulation. From there, they traveled downstairs to watch the curds and whey being sprayed into the stirring vat where the whey would drain off and the curds would be heated and begin to knit together into larger groups of curds. As the whey drained, Mike played with the curd; feeling it for its elasticity and finally tasting it for subtleties that only the palate of an expert can discern. To The Lady it tasted like bland,milky curds. Salt was added and they tasted it again… this time The Lady could taste the beginning of cheese.
After draining, the curds were piped into a chute where the hand hooping began. The hoops are lined with a special medical-grade material to protect the curds and allow more drainage; filled with the curds; then pressed to expel more whey. They are sent up to a drying room and then headed into the brine where they were also hand-salted with coarse grains. The salt pulls more moisture out while helping the cheese begin developing its flavor profiles. The Lady asked Mike when the wheels would be removed from the brine and his simple reply was, “When they are ready”. He did narrow it down to days as opposed to weeks or months. In other words, when Mike and Larry say the cheese is ready for the next step in its journey; it will move on.
They headed into the room where smaller vats held Bellavitano wheels soaking in merlot. When The Lady asked Mike how long they would remain in the wine, he replied, “Until they are ready”… In addition to soaking Bellavitano in merlot (which comes from California), they also soak wheels in Raspberry ale from New Glarus and for their Award-Winning Cognac Bellavitano, they use Remy Martin.
Sartori is also known for their special rubs and The Lady got to rub wheels with Chai tea leaves, a Mike creation for Sue, who loves Chai lattes. It seems that many of their creations come from conversations in the plant and suggestions from the employees, many based on personal preferences. Mike shared that sometimes the suggestions sound perfect but aren’t and other times they sound dubious and turn out to be winners… this time The Lady didn’t ask when they would be ready to move on… she knew the answer.
From these steps the wheels are packaged and sent to age for up to twelve months and sometimes even longer.
After spending the morning with Mike and the Sartori team, The Lady was once again reminded of how much easier it is to sell cheese than it is to make it and with all the hand work that goes into its making, she wonders why it isn’t more expensive.
A special thanks to everyone at Sartori who made the day special for The Lady… but, of course, that begs the question… why wasn’t I invited??? Sheesh…
Last night at the ACS Awards, Sartori won five awards for their Extra-Aged Fontina, Extra-Aged Asiago, Bellavitano Espresso, Limited Cannella Bellavitano and their seasonal Extra-Aged Goat Cheddar – woohoo!!!
**Larry Steckbauer was born in Antigo and has been making cheese for more than forty years. He is a Certified Master Cheesemaker in Parmesan and Romano cheeses. Mike, previously a Brewmaster, has been making cheese since 1997 and has his Master certification for Parmesan and Asiago.
For more information about the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, the only one of its kind in the US, please visit their site.