Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rush Creek Reserve: It's What's for Dinner

Ahh, Christmas. That magical time of the year when I drown out the sound of my neighbor's holiday yard light show by cranking Weird Al on the wireless speakers and eating Rush Creek Reserve for dinner. I'm sure I'm not alone - with either Weird Al or Rush Creek -  as cheese lovers everywhere are currently eating the results of a long season of hard work for one Wisconsin company.

That's because between September and November, the cows in the dairy barn at Uplands Cheese near Dodgeville got more sleep than their owner, Andy Hatch, maker of two of the most famous cheeses in America: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve. In the morning, Andy and company made Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the farmstead cheese that put Wisconsin on the map, and then from late afternoon until long past sunset, they crafted my favorite soft, bark-wrapped cheese: Rush Creek Reserve. I heartily thank Andy and his crew for making cheese 17 hours a day this fall - I am truly consuming the love of their labor.



In case you don't know the backstory of Uplands Cheese, as co-owner and lead cheesemaker, Andy is the dutiful caretaker of the company, founded in 1994 by Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude. More than 20 years ago, the farming couples joined their herds and transitioned to a seasonal, pasture-based system. Three years ago, Andy and business partner Scott Mericka purchased the operation. Scott oversees 244 acres of grass and is the herdsman for 150 milking cows. Cows eat the farm’s grasses and produce milk that Andy makes into seasonal cheeses.

For a city boy who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Andy is a born farmer who didn’t realize it until arriving at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. While studying anthropology and environmental science, he became engrossed with the science of agriculture, working on area vegetable farms, starting a community garden, and writing a thesis on urban agriculture.

“I found I really liked working on farms,” Andy says. “If I could have figured out a way to start a farm, that’s what I would have done. But unless you grow up on or inherit a farm, it’s virtually impossible to hurdle the capital investment that starting a farm takes.”

With farming still in the back of his mind, Andy returned to Wisconsin to work at the Michael Fields Institute in East Troy. For one year, he assisted famed Dr. Walter Goldstein on a ground-breaking corn breeding program. While the work satisfied Andy’s scientific side, it didn’t get his hands outside and in the soil. He regretfully gave his notice. Instead of accepting his resignation, Dr. Goldstein sent him to live with his mother-in-law in Norway.

“Working with Dr. Goldstein was an incredible experience, but I what I really wanted to do was farm. He knew that. So he sent me to Norway to stay with his recently widowed mother-in-law and help her get the family farm in shape to sell. I really had no idea what was in store for me,” Andy says.

He had traveled to Europe twice before with his parents, both wine enthusiasts, but he had never been to Norway. Immediately, the remoteness of staying with a 70-year-old woman named Unni on a fifth-generation goat dairy with no car, no computer, and no phone in the fjords of west Norway cleared his mind. He spent mornings hand milking 14 goats, never having milked an animal before. “For the first week, the muscles in my forearms were so sore I couldn’t grip a fork at supper,” Andy says.

After morning milking, Andy helped make cheese in a tiny, but surprisingly modern stainless steel vat in a small building 300 yards from the ocean. The routine of milking and making cheese suited him. Andy learned how to make cheese via sight, smell, and touch. He made hard, aged goat’s milk cheeses, which Unni sold to tourists at the ferry landing. After the daily dose of cheesemaking, Andy spent the afternoon in a hut stirring the day’s whey in a pot over a fire to make geitost. By evening, it was time to milk the goats again, eat a simple supper, and collapse into bed on a mattress stuffed with straw.

He stayed three months, long enough to help Unni settle affairs to sell the farm and make him a pair of socks from the hair of the farm dog, a Norwegian reindeer-herding pup named Knatchean. “It took me a month to learn how to say the dog’s name,” Andy says. He still has the socks.

From Norway, instead of going home, Andy headed to southern Europe. He had caught the cheesemaking bug. He roamed two years, making mountain cheeses in Austria, sheep cheeses in Tuscany, and goat cheeses in Ireland. He stayed a season or two in each location, earning his keep during the day with his cheesemaking labor, and earning a few coins at night by playing mandolin and fiddle in local taverns. For two years, he couldn’t decide which path to take: musician or cheesemaker. And then came a call from home.

“My mother called with the news that my dad was very ill, so I got on the first plane home and spent the summer with him in the hospital,” Andy says. That fall, his parents spent time recuperating at the family cottage in Door County. Andy followed and met Caitlin, an artist who became his wife. He took an agricultural short course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, milked cows on area dairies, and apprenticed with cheesemakers to earn his Wisconsin cheesemakers license. He accepted a cheesemaking job at Uplands in 2007, married Caitlin in 2009, and, with her, copurchased Uplands Cheese three years ago, moving into a house on the Uplands farm. It’s where they are now raising their two children.

“Cheesemaking is the vehicle that allows me to stay on the farm,” Andy says. “It also satisfies my creative impulses, which is one of the reasons I spend so much time working on Rush Creek Reserve.”

Inspired by his experience of making Mont d’Or in the Jura region of France, Rush Creek Reserve is a serious, all-consuming labor of love. Andy cuts and stirs large curd by hand to protect its soft and delicate nature, and hand ladles curd into forms. It is then flipped, and drains overnight. The next morning, wheels are brined and handwrapped by spruce bark that’s been boiled and soaked in yeast and molds. As a raw milk cheese, Rush Creek is aged 60 days and then immediately shipped to retailers. It’s the type of cheese that, when eaten, is designed to be warmed with the top removed, and enjoyed with a spoon or bit of bread.

In Madison, Rush Creek Reserve is available right now at several outlets, although obviously I'm a bit partial to Metcalfe's Markets. I even put bows on every wheel we sell at our Hilldale store.

As Andy and Caitlin look to the future, I'm sure they wonder if either of their children will want to be cheesemakers. In any case, Andy is planning on teaching them to play the violin and mandolin, his second great love to cheesemaking. His band, Point Five—a local group of musicians playing traditional, acoustic Americana music—plays numerous gigs in the region. “We’ve got enough instruments in this house that the kids will be able to play whatever they want to,” Caitlin says. “And if they’re lucky,” Andy adds, “I’ll even sing along.”

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