Saturday, May 30, 2009

Making Cheese with Willi Lehner

After spending eight hours with Wisconsin cheesemakers Willi Lehner and Chris Roelli last week, it occurred to me that making cheese is a lot like doing dishes after a long and fulfilling Thanksgiving dinner.

You've been standing at the sink for what seems forever, washing every last plate, glass and piece of silver your family owns, and just about the time you think you're done and ready to pull the plug to let out the wash water, somebody unceremoniously plops yet ANOTHER dirty pan in your sink. You sigh, resign yourself to scrubbing it clean, and get back to work.

Multiply this experience by 100 and you'll get a good sense of what cheesemaking is all about. It's not just about making cheese - it's about washing, rinsing and sanitizing every last piece of stainless steel in a cheese factory. Over and over. And then once more to just to make sure.

I've got to admit, the few times cheesemakers have let me in their make rooms to watch the cheesemaking process, my apron and boots have pretty much just been for looks. I'm usually busy taking photos, asking questions, and writing notes.

That all changed last Wednesday when the head cheese buyer at Fromagination invited me to tag along and make cheese with him and Willi Lehner, of Bleu Mont Dairy near Blue Mounds. Willi owns his own cheese cave on his farm, but doesn't own his own cheese factory, so he takes turns renting out different cheese vats and time at neighboring cheese plants. Last week, he was off to Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg to make a batch of his Earth Schmier and a new type of blue cheese he's going to call Bleu Mont Bleu. And I got to ride along.

We arrived at Willi's house at 5 a.m., jumped in his pick-up, and were at Roelli Cheese by 6 a.m. I had brought along my boots, so I put them on, and got out my notebook and camera to start taking pictures. And then I promptly put them away when Willi told me to find an apron because I was going to hold the hopper to fill the cheese forms.

Alrighty then.

Chris graciously loaned me an apron, and being the eternal optimist I am, I stuffed my camera in my pocket, thinking I could take photos and told whatever a hopper was at the same time. Turns out, not so much. Because holding a hopper while Willi dumps pail after pail of very wet curd and whey to fill 50 forms of cheese is a full-time job. And messy. And really wet. By the time we were done, I was pretty much covered in cheese goo and had no photos. But I did get one shot of Willi smoothing over the curd when were done (above). Whoo-hoo!

Holding the hopper to fill the cheese forms was the beginning of a long, tiring and extremely fun and fulfilling day. After we filled the forms for the Earth Schmier, it was time to make the Bleu Mont Bleu. I got my hands dirty. And washed them. And sanitized them. Again and again. I lifted curd out of the vat, squished it into forms, carried it to the press table and assembled the presses. All in between washing dishes. Over and over. Every time you touch anything in a cheese plant, you have to wash it. And your hands. And then once more, just to make sure.

By 1:30 p.m., I have to admit, I pretty much thought I was going to die. I hadn't worked this hard since I was a kid on the farm. And that's when I was young and in shape. I'm now middle-aged and very much out of shape. I also very much now know why every cheesemaker I've ever met has some serious muscles. I'm thinking I've found a new exercise regimen ... only the curd I eat while making cheese will probably zero out the calories I'm burning.

Oh well, it's worth it! Thanks to Willi and Chris for a cheesemaking education and I'm looking forward to eating Earth Schmier and Bleu Mont Bleu in a couple of months. Look for it at the Dane County Farmer's Market, where Willi sells his cheese every Saturday between April and November.

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