Sunday, July 18, 2010

Making Cheese with Cesar Luis

It's not often one gets the chance to see hand-stretched mozzarella being made, so when Cesar Luis called me last week and asked me if I was interested in helping him make string cheese, I cleared my calendar, threw my boots in the car, and told my daughter we were going to make cheese.

Whoo-hoo! Road trip!

We arrived at Sassy Cow Creamery, a a farmstead dairy between Columbus and Sun Prairie, about 10:30 a.m., just in time to suit up and help Cesar cut the curd of his vat of fresh mozzarella cheese. We used stainless steel knives that Cesar made himself, a sign of things to come during the day.

You see, Cesar and his lovely wife, Heydi (who at five feet tall, and no more than 100 pounds, can seriously kick my ass when it comes to lifting cheese), recently purchased and installed a 2,500 gallon cheese vat at Sassy Cow. A couple days a week, they make fresh cheese curds for Sassy Cow to sell. The rest of the time, they make authentic Hispanic cheeses.

And when I say they make cheese, I mean they actually make it -- by hand. They cut the curd by hand with their own stainless steel knives, they mill the curd by hand (as in cutting up big slabs of curd with cutting knife on cutting boards), pile the curd in tubs by hand to cool, stretch it by hand into 15-pound, 50-foot ropes of mozzarella cheese (one batch at a time), and then cut and package each batch by hand to sell.

In short, they do a lot of work that involves a lot of bending, huffing, puffing and lifting cheese in a room that's hot enough to make sweat drip off the end of your nose. And they seem to really, really enjoy it.

Cesar's been making cheese since he was seven years old, when he learned the art from his grandmother in Mexico. Today, he makes the same cheese in very much the same way, only he does it with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment and electricity.

One thing that hasn't changed is the stretching of the mozzarella. Once the curd is milled and put into tubs, Cesar fills up the cheese vat with about 4 inches of hot water that is 180 degrees F. He dons three pairs of gloves, and then proceeds to put his hands into this water, hand-rolling, molding, forming, and finally stretching mozzarella cheese into long ropes.

Let me just say that this process is a) very hot and b) a helluva lot harder than it looks. I watched Cesar do the first batch with what I thought was little effort, and then got up the courage to don my three pairs of gloves and tackle the next batch.

What happened next is pretty aptly pictured to the right: me trying to lift a really heavy rope of cheese, stretch it at the same time, and watching Cesar try very hard not to laugh.

This is why I write about cheese, not make it. And if nothing else, I serve as comic relief to cheesemakers. It's all good.

While Avery and I only spent about six hours making cheese with Cesar & Heydi, they spent a total of 12 hours making 250 pounds of hand-stretched mozzarella. We left around 4:30 p.m., and walked out of the make room to a standing-only sized crowd of people waiting to buy their string cheese.

Word had gotten out that Cesar & Heydi were at Sassy Cow that day, and p
eople were going to wait as long as it took to buy their cheese, because yes, it really is that good.

That afternoon, we ate hand-stretched mozzarella that we had helped make, and it tasted even better than usual. Food has a way of meaning more when you know where it comes from, and when you know the sweat and soul the maker puts into it, it's pretty special. So the next time you see a package of string cheese with the label, Cesar Cheese, snatch it up. It may cost a little more, but it's worth its weight in gold.