Friday, September 29, 2006

Cheese Personalities

In an article about Wisconsin specialty cheeses in this month's issue of Zingerman's News, Ari Weinzweig writes about six of his favorite Wisconsin cheeses. Number five is Hook's cheddar by Tony and Julie Hook in Mineral Point, Wis. Ari writes: "Tony and Julie are two of the nicest folks I've ever met and their cheese reflects their personalities - it's considerate, but high in character, lively but not out of control, well matured but not over the top."

That got me to thinking - does the cheese from a Wisconsin cheesemaker reflect his or her personality? Ari could really be on to something here. I've heard that couples who have been married a long time start to resemble each other. Maybe cheesemakers unconsciously craft cheeses that resemble their personal style??

Let's take Joe Widmer. Joe is a third generation Master Cheesemaker who consistently crafts award-winning, small-batch specialty cheeses at his historic
Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis. Joe is probably best known for mild, flavored and aged brick cheeses - he still uses the original bricks his grandfather used before him to press the curd. If you asked Joe to describe his brick cheese - and I have - he would tell you it's sweet and earthy. Funny - that's exactly how I would describe Joe. Just don't get him started on talking about politics.

And then there's Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese. I've written about Sid before and almost everybody who's familiar with Wisconsin cheese knows his story: he's invented dozens of American Original cheeses and always wins big at the American Cheese Society competition (they should really just give him a chair near the front at the awards ceremony - it would be so much easier). If you've ever met Sid, you know he can be a quiet yet colorful person who can tell a good story. But put him in the make room and he becomes a serious cheesemaker who crafts cheese with a passion you don't often see elsewhere. And that's exactly how I would describe his cheese - colorful and passionate.

See, this is working! Are you still with me? Here's one more ...

Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese -- his Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society in 2001 and 2005 and was named U.S. Champion in 2003. This cheese unequivocally sets the artisanal cheese standard in Wisconsin. Yet Mike has no formal marketing campaign and no PR staff. When you call Uplands Cheese, Mike and his wife Carol answer the phone and take your order. A rather quiet and humble guy, Mike packs a powerful punch of knowledge and passion into his craft (he's a former high tech exec from California). And that's exactly the way his cheese tastes - it starts out rather quiet and humble but then the flavor profiles hit you and explode. There's a reason this cheese keeps winning awards.

Does this work for all Wisconsin cheeses? Probably not. But my guess is that our cheesemakers carry their own color, passion and science into their craft. And that makes all the difference.