Instructor Vicki Mendham describes her all-expense paid immersive cheese externship she won from CAFÉ, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Emmi Roth USA.
By Vicki Mendham, Nicolet Area Technical College instructor
Three sets of extremely fortunate instructor/students from across the country won a culinary trip of a lifetime that immersed us in cheese and Wisconsin culture in the heart of America’s Dairyland.
The Cheese Immersion Tour started with the group being picked up in Madison by Vanessa from Wisconsin’s Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) for our trip across Green County to Monroe, WI. Green County is not named that by accident. The beautiful, lush, green countryside is filled with corn fields, hop vines—and every aspect of the dairy industry. Recent Nicolet College graduate Dan Resch and I came from Rhinelander, WI and we got to enjoy this amazing opportunity with Sam Rodriguez and Pam Mazor from the University of Antelope in Lancaster, CA, and Chef Michael Kuefner and Erika Pierce from Brightwater: The Center for the Study of Foods in Bentonville, AK. We all quickly became friends as we spent the next five days immersed in cheese.
The first stop was Emmi Roth USA to see their Culinary Education Center and meet with Corporate Chef Clare Menck. She gave us a warm welcome with an introduction to the cheese industry, the Emmi Roth company and some delicious cheese samples. Chef Claire offered us a variety of Wisconsin beers and wines to pair with the cheese and to welcome us to the Wisconsin Way. After an introduction to the world of cheese, Vanessa took us to a local favorite for dinner before dropping us at our home away from home for the first several nights.
The second morning came early as we all met at the Emmi Roth cheese plant bright and early to delve deeper into the world of cheese. We toured the plant, as well as got to dig in and help make some Swiss Lace cheese in our Cheesemaking 101 class. We toured through all the rooms from the milk separation room to the packaging area and ended up back in the Education Center to taste some of the award-winning Emmi Roth cheeses. The cheese is aged in a controlled environment where it is flipped and washed on red spruce boards. We quickly found out that as the cheese ages, it omits a strong natural ammonia (peptide) smell.
After a fondue lunch the three teams set up for a mystery basket culinary competition using the cheese we learned about during the day. Teams used cheese such as Grand Cru, GranQueso, Havarti, Siracha, Three Chili Pepper Gouda and Roth’s Private Reserve. We learned that less-aged cheese typically melts better than longer-aged cheese.
After a long day filled with a lot of new knowledge, we were off to try some local favorite establishments. There is a historical town square where we tried places from a local brewery to a long standing traditional restaurant that specialized in limburger and braunschweiger sandwiches.
The third day started with a warm welcome from Sara Hill from the WMMB. We boarded the bus and were treated to cheese facts and tidbits (such as the fact that it takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese) from Sara. As we toured more of Green County, we headed toward Klondike Cheese Company, a business that makes feta cheese, Greek yogurt, Munster, brick and havarti cheese under the brand name Odyssey. This company is operated by fourth generation cheesemakers and features a continuous coagulation system. They have several master cheesemakers, which takes 10 years of work experience followed by about three years of education before applying for this advanced certification.
On the road again, we were transported to Mineral Point Wisconsin where we were shown how Hook’s Cheese Company uses generations of cheesemaking knowledge to hand-make and cave-age their award-winning cheese. Owner Tony Hook described the process of “cheddaring” or hand feeding it though a cutting machine that forms the famous squeaky cheese curds. He also shared that the price of annatto seeds has double in the past year. (That’s the magic coloring that turns the rinds of his famous brick cheese orange).
After a pub lunch at Brewery Creek and a short bus ride we found ourselves at the dairy of second generation Swiss cheesemaker, Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy. Willi showed us his beautiful, sustainable property complete with a working windmill for solar power where he makes his bandaged cheddar cheese that is aged in his underground affinage cave. The flavors of his cheese are unbelievable and I have to say he has mastered his cheese making. You can find his cheese at the Madison Farmers Market on any given Saturday throughout the market season.
Next stop—New Glarus at the iconic New Glarus Brewery Company. While they make many wonderful Wisconsin brews, Spotted Cow is the most famous of them all. If you want to try this famous beer, you have to come to Wisconsin because their beer can only be sold in the dairy state.
Sara treated us to a beer and cheese pairing in the “Music Room” at Quivey’s Grove restaurant. This establishment has many local favorites on the menu to choose - from duck and wild rice to trout. You can dine in either the Stone House or the Stable Grill and both are connected by an underground stone walkway.
The next morning, after a bus ride we were greeted by third-generation Swiss cheesemaker Joe Widmer in Theresa, WI. Joe specializes in brick and colby cheese and showed us the bricks that his family bought and has been using since 1922 to make the brick cheese. His specialty is a washed rind brick cheese which uses annatto to color the rind.
Our next tour was a little different. The Sassy Cow Creamery has over 500 cows that they milk several times a day in their brand new rotary milk parlor. They yield approximately 40,000 pounds of milk a day. They have an organic farm and a traditional farm where they make cream, milk and ice cream. It has been family run by the Baerwolf family since 1999. We also had an opportunity to pet the calves and visit with the cows that produce milk for ice cream that is out of this world great.
On the way to our next stop, Sara shared some more cheese trivia such as raw milk can be used in cheeses as long as it is aged a minimum of 60 days, ricotta cheese is made from whey, in some cheese you can find tyrosine crystals which add a delightful crunch to it, and that high heat is the enemy of cheese.
Carr Valley Cheese Company was the final stop of the day. Founded in 1883, they make over 100 types of cheese in four separate locations. They have won over 550 national and international awards for their cheese. Some of the cheese we tried were bread cheese, mixed milk cheeses which feature various combinations of goat, sheep and cows milk, cave-aged cheddar, apple smoked cheddar, pepper jack, Penta Cream Blue, Wildfire Blue and Cocoa Cardona. It was rapid fire tasting of a wide variety of flavors and textures.
After a short afternoon break at our beautiful hotel, The AC which overlooks the state capital building, we were treated to Sardine’s for dinner to cap off our day.
Saturday morning we explored the famous Madison Farmer’s Market which is billed as the largest producer market in the country. We explored products around the streets surrounding the capitol. Seeing the family tradition and history that goes into this region made the trip even greater.
This cheese immersion trip was all expenses paid by the WMMB and sponsored by Emmi Roth USA and the Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education (CAFÉ). Last spring they held a national recipe contest that students could enter a recipe using cheese under the coaching of one of their instructor.
I can’t put a price tag on this trip. I urge any culinary instructors to share the contest information with their students when it comes out next spring. I know every one of us had an awesome experience and fell a little more in love with Wisconsin. One thing we learned along the way is that Wisconsin dairy and cheese makers are passionate about their craft and willing to share some of their knowledge with complete strangers partly because of pride in their industry and because they are gracious hosts that ooze “Wisconsin Nice.”
Photos courtesy of Vicki Mendham