In a move that will further distinguish himself from the growing pack of Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy, has done it again. This past week marked the opening of Willi's new underground cave on his farm near Blue Mounds, where he plans to age up to 40,000 pounds of artisan cheeses.
The entrance - pictured above right -- is above ground but is covered with four feet of dirt and surrounded by rock. Inside, the dome-shaped cave is split into two sections, with different aging conditions. He moved in the first wheels of his cheese a couple weeks ago and is now making some cheese down the road at Mike Gingrich's farmstead set-up, famous for its award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Willi plans to age this grass-based cheese as well in his cave.
In short, Willi is the type of quirky American cheesemaker with whom the media has fallen in love. Why?
1. He learned his cheesemaking craft from his father, who mastered the art of cheesemaking in Switzerland. Willi has traveled extensively, learning different cheesemaking techniques from different European masters.
2. Willi does not own a cheese plant. He partners with area cheesemakers, using their facilities on weekends and nights, making his original cheeses when the vats would otherwise be empty.
3. With no particular inkling to be either rich or famous, Willi lives his life in a way that does Wisconsin proud. He is passionate about making cheese. He is passionate about finding new ways to craft Willi Originals. And he is passionate about telling the story of his cheese to those who buy them every week at the Dane County Farmer's Market in Madison, Wis.
I like stopping by his farmer's market booth on Saturdays to learn about the new cheeses he's currently crafting. Last week, he shared a cheese wedge he's been making at Mike Gingrich's cheesrie -- with an earthy, nutty flavor, it was immediately a hit with my friends.
But I know better than to go back next week and expect to be able to buy it again - with Willi, it's all about originality, not about mass production. Next week, he'll have something different, but just as good.
That's why we like him. He's truly a Wisconsin original.