If what Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch says is true -- that half of the secret to making Pleasant Ridge Reserve is simply getting out of the way of the milk and letting its unique properties and flavor profile shine through -- then I'd say the other half to the secret of this near-perfect cheese is Andy Hatch himself.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve - arguably the most famous farmstead cheese to come out of America in the 2000s (it captured twin Best of Show awards at the American Cheese Society in 2001 & 2005, and was named the U.S. Championship Cheese in 2003), is a true Wisconsin Original.
Created by Mike Gingrich and the team at the Center for Dairy Research, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a seasonal Beaufort-style cheese, made only from the milk of cows when they are grazing on fresh grass. Today, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is crafted primarily by cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who joined the Uplands team in 2007, and who with Mike Gingrich (who has by all means, earned the right to slow down a bit), continues to craft the one and only Wisconsin artisan cheese that can be found at nearly every specialty cheese shop and on five-star menus across the country.
While I've been a fan of Pleasant Ridge Reserve since I came onto the cheese scene in 2003, I've never had the opportunity to actually help craft it until today. My friend Maggie Fitzsimmons
and I talked Andy into letting us crash his 19th day of the season's cheese make. We arrived just in time to watch him put in the rennet, and then waited for the milk to heat until it was ready to cut.
Then we learned about the process for healing/heating/stirring for creating the perfect curd that makes Pleasant Ridge Reserve. While we were waiting on this process, Andy gave us a tour of the four aging caves, and we got to meet Eric, Maria and Bob - the folks at Uplands who age PRR to perfection. We tasted several ages of this perfect cheese - everything from a sweet 7-month old wheel made last fall, to a nutty, complex 12-month wheel made a year ago, to a 2-year aged wheel that boasted a meaty, earthy flavor.
You can find different ages of PRR at different shops around the country - every cheesemonger prefers a different age. But it's not just all about age - every batch matures at its own pace, and some batches peak before others. One wheel from each batch is plugged six to eight times to determine the perfect time to ship.
Just as we were starting to learn about a new cheese Andy is working on (more about that later in the week), it was time to head back to the make room. After a bit more heating/stirring, we pumped the curds & whey to the press table, which is actually an old cheddaring table for Kraft, cut in half and customized to fit Uplands' needs.
Maggie and I were in charge of keeping the curd away from the whey drainage slots, until enough whey was drained to ready the curd mass for pressing. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is pressed under its own whey, one of the steps that makes this Alpine cheese special.
After a period of pressing, it was time to lift the lid and cut the mass - a process Andy and Maria have down to a science. The vat was cut into 72 squares - one square for each cheese form. Andy showed us the proper method for placing the curd squares into each form, using a metaphor that I really can't repeat here (it was quite effective however), and then we wrapped the cheese cloth around each block, put on the lids, and placed the forms on the press.
Afterward, Andy said it was time to clean and graciously let Maggie & I off the hook, so we could go outside and take a much-needed breather. As if we hadn't already taken up enough of Andy's time, he then offered us a tour of the farm.
Mike & Carol Gingrich own the operation as a partnership with Dan & Jean Patenaude. They farm 300 acres, all of which are split into rotational grazing paddocks for their 150 dairy cows. The herd is a unique blend of nine different breeds, resulting in a regular rainbow of bovines. Quiet, friendly and healthy, the Uplands cows are happy cows, producing milk that results in happy cheese. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is definitely a happy cheese, and it's about to get a sibling - but more on that later this week.