Posts filed under 'Travel'

What do these words actually mean? [Update]

Steve Ehlers from Larry’s Market in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sent me an email with some info I did not find yesterday when I was trolling the internet looking for specific definitions for all of our terms. These are from the ACS website- shameful that I missed them I suppose- such is my life with the web.

ACS definitions
Cheese Definitions

 

Specialty Cheese
Specialty cheese is defined as a cheese of limited production, with particular attention paid to natural flavor and texture profiles.  Specialty cheeses may be made from all types of milk (cow, sheep, goat) and may include flavorings, such as herbs, spices, fruits and nuts.

 

Artisan or Artisanal Cheese
The word “artisan” or “artisanal” implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese.  Artisan, or artisanal, cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.

 

Farmstead Cheese
In order for a cheese to be classified as “farmstead,” as defined by the American Cheese Society, the cheese must be made with milk from the farmer’s own herd, or flock, on the farm where the animals are raised.  Milk used in the production of farmstead cheeses may not be obtained from any outside source.  Farmstead cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.

Add comment October 24th, 2006

Stop-action is fun!

Now I know that animated gifs are not the “hottest” thing on the web (unless it is 1996 again?) but after taking so many photos - we decided to build a few flip books:
(click on the image to load the animated gif)

This is the extruder at Vermont Butter & Cheese - it pushes the goat cheese curd into a plastic mold to form the cheese they call Coupole. His knee controls the extruder, once the Coupole form is filled with curd he salts the bottom and pops it out onto the rack.
Vermont Butter & Cheese

At the Mozzarella Company the entire staff helps make the mozzarella. Here they are forming the stretched curd into balls of various sizes and dropping them into cold water to help the cheese maintain its new shape.

Mozzarella Company

At Rogue Creamery the team fills the metal forms with curd and then transfers them to draining racks, flipping the newly formed cheeses them as they go.

Rogue

At Crave Brothers they use a mozzarella maker that stretches the curd and forces it into the proper size and shape. The stream of water is used to encourage the newly formed cheeses to plop out onto the table to be collected up and packaged.
Crave Brothers

At Oakvale Farm Dale scoops curd out of the vat and packs the forms before placing them on the hydraulic press.

Oakvale

Mariano at Fiscalini Cheese takes slabs of recently cheddared cheese and runs it through a mill leaving a pile of neat rectangle-shaped pieces of curd that will be salted and eventually scooped into large forms.

Fiscalini Cheese

At Haystack Mountain Peter flips and wraps the freshly formed cheese in cheese cloth.
Haystack Mt

At Goat Lady Dairy they wrap each and every cheese by hand.

Goat Lady Dairy

Here are the sheep at Shepherd’s Way at dusk.

Shepherds Way

Finally at the end of our trip we stopped just south of the Fingerlakes of NY and took a walk into the gorge at Watkins Glen…

Waterfall

2 comments October 10th, 2006

Cato Corner Farm

Cow friends Name: Cato Corner Farm
Owners: Elizabeth McAllister and Mark Gillman
Location: Colchester, CT
Animals: Milking 18-25 Jersey cows
Cheeses/Products: Dutch Farmstead, Hooligan, Brigid’s Abbey, Black Ledge Blue, Bloomsday, Vivace, Vivace Bambino, Womanchego. These are their most regularly produced cheeses- to see the list of seasonal or less frequently made cheeses check their website.
More info: www.catocornerfarm.com

Elizabeth began farming in the late 70’s when she bought the land that Cato Corner Farm stands on today. She started out raising sheep and goats for meat. This was a largely seasonal business cycle- the animals were born, raised and then slaughtered in the spring and summer. Seasonal is not ideal economically and unfortunately it doesn’t mean that once your season is over you get to take the rest of the year off as there are always things to be done on the farm and the ewes, does, rams and bucks have to be fed throughout the winter. So after a decade of producing meat Elizabeth began thinking about other ways of farming. In the early days she was working with 150 sheep and 40 some odd goats who produced lamb and kids each year. She talked to us about her meat farming days while she was waiting for their vet to show up to do some routine checks on their herd. A neighbor who has goats pulled into the drive to wait for the vet as well and Elizabeth couldn’t resist asking them to tell Mark (who was at the hardware store when everyone arrived) that these were goats that Elizabeth had bought for them to begin milking. None of us could hold a straight face longer than about 20 seconds when Mark showed up and restrained from freaking out about the goat kids in their driveway.

Cato Corner Cheese House

After this introduction Mark took us on a tour of all the cheese areas. It is very common on our visits for us to go through all the cheese areas before taking a step out into the field with the animals- simply for sanitation reasons. Mark started us out in the cheesemaking room- a space that seemed small when I thought about the volumes of cheese Cato sells at NYC Greenmarkets and various regional retailers. But clearly it is getting the job done. Mark and his cheese crew are making cheese four days a week now (up from 3) and batches are typically around 1250 lbs of milk. Its not that the cheesemaking and maturing rooms are shiny and new but they are satisfyingly clean and organized. Maybe I was preparing myself for the return to New York sized spaces but there was a certain efficiency to both the make and maturing rooms. The cellar was fascinating to me because it is one large room that holds all of the styles they produce from rough-edged tommes to washed rinds and blues. There is enough space to separate cheese types “geographically” if you will but they are still all sharing the same air. You can imagine that with the range of cheeses the aroma in the cellar is complex- the heavy air reminds you of milk and a damp basement at the same time.

Bloomsday shelves in caves

Although Mark grew up on this farm, he didn’t stay here all the way through the evolution from meat to cheesemaking. Elizabeth was manning the meat production when she found out about a value-add incentive program being offered by the state of Connecticut and she sought more information. Interested by what she had heard, began the transition from meat to milk producer in the mid-90’s. She sold her livestock, purchased cows, and invested some capital to add on a cheesemaking room, an aging and cold storage area, and an updated milk parlor. Her cheesemaking officially began in 1997. The switch to cows was both for personal taste reasons (she isn’t wild about some varieties of goat cheeses) and for the versatility of cow milk. The decision to make raw milk cheeses was an easy one for Elizabeth because she grew up eating fine cheeses- her father was a food enthusiast with a passion for cheese- many of them raw. You can see the influence of her cheese-infused childhood in the variety she chose to produce. The in-ground cellar that we toured with Mark was an expansion they did a few years ago as their production and variety increased beyond what they could do in the small space allocated for maturing upstairs. The former “cave” upstairs now serves as greenmarket cold storage- it is lined with the standard, gigantic coolers that many producers to haul their goods to market.

Mark down in the cellarElizabeth basically ran the farm on her own for a few years; she moved the cows around in their 40 acres of pasture, milked, made and aged the cheeses. Meanwhile Mark was working as a schoolteacher across the country. He found that his interest in farming was increasing and that although he enjoyed teaching he was feeling a pull to return home and reacquaint himself with the land he knew as a boy. It was 1999 when Mark came home and partnered with Elizabeth in her ambitious operation. Through a series of events, Mark and Elizabeth’s roles on the farm became more defined. Mark had a natural interest in the cheesemaking and gradually began spending more of his time on that than out with the animals. Elizabeth focused her energy on the herd.

A couple years ago I had the pleasure of hearing Elizabeth speak at an event in New York and the one thing I distinctly remember her saying was, “we make the cheese because it allows us to keep the cows.” I know for a fact that, although she is a big fan of her cows, she also enjoys making and eating Cato Corner cheeses. Their operation illustrates the miracle of cheesemaking- through the same basic process milk can be transformed into so many different tastes and textures. Beyond their cheeses, something I appreciated about Mark and Elizabeth was the bold moves they each made to get to their current positions. Elizabeth took her farm in a totally new and yet sustainable direction and Mark allowed himself to follow his gut which was pulling him back to the farm. Their farm feels like family- the good part of family that his close enough to make you feel comfortable and still loose enough to give you room to grow.

Elizabeth walking cows in for milking

I’m looking forward to stinking up my tiny New York city apartment refrigerator with a wedge of Hooligan.

1 comment October 5th, 2006

3 Corner Field Farm

Lambs out browsingName: 3 Corner Field Farm
Owners: Karen Weinberg and Paul Borghard
Location: Shushan, NY
Animals: Milking 120 ewes and raising hundreds of lambs each year for meat and some for replacement milkers.
Cheeses/Products: Brebis Blanc, Shushan Snow, Feta, Ricotta, milk, yogurt, grass-fed lamb meat, sheep skins
More info: www.dairysheepfarm.com

Karen Weinberg has always known that she wanted to be a farmer. She didn’t grow up on a farm, she didn’t spend time working on a farm- yet somehow she just knew that farming was in the cards for her. Being the ambitious woman that she is she lobbied hard for her dream with her husband Paul and yet she was humble enough to take his coaching. He explained to her that in order to be a successful farmer she needed to have capital and an education. Once she had her PhD, her first baby , and the couple owned a small apartment in Brooklyn they began looking for farmland in New York state.

They settled on the farm they own now after renovating and selling another property in Washington County. Shortly after purchasing their farm Paul took advantage of an offer to work in Paris and they moved to France with their two young daughters. During their years in France Karen fell in love with cheese and began to dream about making cheese herself someday. When they returned to New York she hit the ground running to transform their property into a sheep dairy; rennovating existing farm structures and evaluating the pastures. Their initial plan was to milk sheep and sell all of the milk wholesale, they had an outlet for this nearby- Old Chatham Sheepherding Company. This plan got them started milking sheep and eventually they transitioned to making yogurt and cheese on their own. In recent years they expanded their offering by raising their annual crop of lambs on pasture to add meat to their list of products.

3 Corner Field Farm is approximately 100 acres with about 40 acres of grazable pasture. Karen has worked with neighbors over the past 5 years to expand their grazing land to 120 acres through leases. Many people in their community were doubtful when they began, they said that running sheep on the land would destroy the pastures (this is the reputation of sheep). 3 Corner’s pastures are luscious, verdant- teeming with variety and life. Karen explained that after a couple seasons neighbors noticed the transformation in the pastures that had been grazed by the sheep and began to approach her to offer up their fields for grazing.

Karen with lambs

As we strolled around the farm before dinner, Karen talked about he meat side of her operation. All 3 Corner lambs get milk from their mothers for a few weeks and then they are transitioned carefully onto pasture. Lambing is the only part of the year when the animals (ewes and lambs) spend time in the barn. Male and female lambs are separated and rotated through different pastures- each of these paddocks is protected by a guard dog. Beginning in September, groups of lambs are selected (by size) every few weeks to go to slaughter. Either Karen or Paul drives the lambs to the meat processor (who has been carefully selected)- they do this in large part because they are committed to knowing that their animals are handled well throughout their entire lives, right through to the end.

Sheep at 3 Corner Field Farm are out on pasture their entire lives except when they are first born and then when they give birth. During the winter months their long coats protect them from the cold and the frozen ground provides them with a dry and solid surface which is good for their hooves. Bales of feed are strewn about in different sections of the pastures so that the sheep’s manure is spread across the land and not overly concentrated in one area. The pastures are hayed periodically throughout the growing season, in between the times they are grazed by the ewes. There is a great, detailed explanation of the cyclical/seasonal progression of the ewes and the farm on the 3 Corner website.

Ewes lining up for milking. Paul milking

The next morning we headed out to the milking parlor. Paul is the designated milker and is enjoying the arrival of fall because it means they have recently dropped to one milking per day. When the sheep come through the parlor they get a bit of grain to supplement the forage which makes up most of their diet. We were visiting the farm during a damp weather spell so while Paul milked he was also closely examining the ewes’ feet for soft spots. This is something that happens to their hooves when they don’t dry out completely- little irritated spots crop up in the crevices of their hooves. It is something he can treat quite easily when the ewes are all in the stanchion.

After milking the ewes are walked out to pasture; they are put on a new section every day. We followed them with Karen and their trusty sheep dog Sweep. The pasture was amazing- the alfalfa was at least knee high and there were numerous other species growing up around it. While we watched the sheep wade into the green that touched their bellies Karen debunked myths about sheep destroying pasture. She explained that sheep love the most tender parts of the plants they eat evidenced by the previous day’s pasture where we could see that all that remained were stalky, woody shoots of grasses and legumes. Sheep who are turned out on meager pastures will get close down to the earth and nip at the tender, fresh beginnings of grass thus their reputation as pasture ruiners. Like any other ruminant sheep will overgraze an area if they are not managed properly and given enough pasture to eat.

Blue sky and good eating for the milking ewes

In the afternoon we made Feta. Karen takes immense pleasure in the cheesemaking part of her day. Often she makes on her own although these days she gets some help from her eldest daughter Emily. Her vat is small and she does everything completely by hand includingKaren making cheese cutting the curd with a knife and stirring it for about 20 minutes with her hands and arms. She likes the direct, tactile interaction with the curd and feels it has helped her learn more quickly because she is working with all of her senses.

3 Corner Field Farm is made up of four small businesses: a sheep dairy (not to mention a haying operation- they put up a lot of their own feed for winter), a creamery, pastured-lamb production, and also sheep skin processing. The latter two bring in additional income and they honor the tradition of respecting the animals in that the farm provides them with the best life possible and then does not waste any parts of the animals once they are slaughtered.

During our trip I’ve thought a great deal about the lack of connection in the way that we think about dairy products and the animals it takes to produce them. There is not much to remind us of that connection in our day to day lives and at 3 Corner Field Farm the connection is completely visible. This farm reminded me to be thankful to the sheep for providing us with food and also to be thankful that people like Karen Weinberg and her farmily become farmers.

Knee deep in alfalfa

Add comment September 30th, 2006

Oakvale Farmstead Cheese

driving up to OakvaleName: Oakvale Farmstead Cheese
Owners: Dale & Jean King, Elizabeth and Randy Finke
Location: London, OH
Animals: Milking a herd of 70 cows- primarily Holstein with some Brown Swiss
Cheeses/Products: Farmstead Gouda- original and flavored
More info: www.oakvalecheese.com

Oakvale Farm is a beautiful example of a dairy farm and farmstead cheese operation involving multiple generations of one family. Dale King grew up on a dairy farm in Hilliard, now a bustling suburb of Columbus, OH. Until about 10 years ago, he and his brother had a successful 100 cow dairy and grain farm in Hilliard on a piece of land that had been in their family since 1853. When they decided to give up that farm they were milking their 100 cows in a parlor that was 100 yards away from a subdivision. Dale says that he and his brother could see the writing on the wall- urban creep was not abating any time soon. So they sold and Dale and Jean started over in a new community just 20 miles west of Columbus.

When they settled in London, OH to create a new dairy and grain farm their daughter Elizabeth and her husband Randy joined them. They farm approximately 600 acres- some owned by them, some leased from neighbors, and they milk 70 cows. The cows are fed a combination of feed grown on their own land including corn silage, timothy and alfalfa, and hay mix and grain. During good weather the cows are allowed out on pasture and when the weather is wet and the ground is muddy they are generally not allowed out in the interest of maintaining good pasture conditions and keeping the animals out of thick mud. Randy, who comes from a long line of dairy farmers in Southern Indiana, is the herdsman. In our conversations with him about their herd management decisions it was clear that he is committed both to milk quality and longevity in his animals. He does a lot of research and work on the genetics of his herd and because of his capabilities in this area he has been able to bring in a bit of extra money to the farm by producing and selling some desirable stock. While he is a firm believer that while genetics and breed are important, management and feed are the way that one influences milk production and quality.

Initially, the families were farming grain and selling fluid milk as they had done for years in their former location. Milk prices have not been doing well for quite a few years now and they were finding that the farm was not effectively supporting two families. When Jean read an article in 2001 about a family of dairy farmers in Georgia (Sweet Grass Dairy) who began making artisan cheese, she saw a possibility for her own family. Elizabeth began doing research on cheesemaking. She took a short-course at the University of Wisconsin and visited a number of artisan cheesemakers to get an understanding of what it would take for Oakvale Farm to produce cheese.

cheese cave

They built a cheesemaking facility that will be able to handle all the milk produced by their herd. Three years into it they are making cheese one day a week, usually the vat has about 2500-3000 lbs of milk in it. The day that we observed they were working with the production from just one milking- about 1600 lbs of milk which will yield approximately 160 lbs of cheese. Originally the plan was for Dale and Elizabeth to focus on cheesemaking while Randy would tend the cows and assist Jean with cheese sales. After a short time the families realized that the cows required more attention so Elizabeth has shifted her focus to working with Randy. Dale is now the head cheesemaker so we spent a good part of our day with him in the cheese room learning about the Oakvale Gouda process.

oakvale pressI’ve never seen a vat like theirs. It is shaped like the number 8 and it is amazingly quiet for a piece of equipment with some motorized pieces. Dale had come over to the cheese plant earlier in the morning (while we were drinking coffee with Jean) to culture and rennet the milk. By the time we arrived Dale and his assistant were attaching the cheese harps to the vat to begin cutting the curd. While the cheese harps sliced through the curds we looked out the cheese room windows to watch the latest set of Holstein and Brown Swiss calves stretching and feeding near their pens. After cutting and some stirring, the curd is washed, which means that about 1/3 of the whey is drained off and hot water is added back into the vat to raise the temperature and to reduce the acidity. While the water is being added the curds are stirred. At a certain point the stirring stops and the curds need to sit until they hit the target pH and have the proper texture. During this “sitting” time we checked out the brine tank and aging room. Once the curds were ready, Dale and his assistant corralled them at one end of the vat so they could scoop curds easily into the molds. Over the next 24 hours the wheels will be pressed with increasing pressure and flipped on a regular schedule. Oakvale has a large pneumatic press that allows them to control the pressing stage with precision.

Dale is experimenting with a coating on some wheels to see if it prevents spots of blue and green mold from growing on the Gouda’s straw-colored surface. Although the mold doesn’t influence flavor in the cheese, some retailers would rather not see anything on the surface of the wheels. Oakvale sells their cheese to a number of local stores and also in key locations around the country. Even though they are looking at some larger scale clients they continue to go to the farmer’s market in Columbus on Saturdays. It feels like growth has not happened as quickly as the folks at Oakvale expected when they started making cheese but even they admit that this has given them time to tinker with their cheese recipe and aging techniques which will help them set their best foot forward when the doors of the cheese world blow all the way open for them. For the moment, it is nice to know that while their cheese works its way to retailers around the country, it is also available directly from the farm. Like I said early on- cheese by mail is a miracle of the modern world.

Dale packing the curd

Add comment September 27th, 2006

Sufjan Stevens should make a song about The Avon…

AvonThe Avon Theater is back! And it is better than ever…. As a kid the Avon Theater was the place I saw movies. Muppets. ET. Orca (my older sister took me and I ended up turning around in my seat during the scary parts). It’s in downtown Decatur, IL (which was “town” for us country kids out in Niantic) and once the mall opened, the Avon dried up along with the rest of downtown.

Well, the Avon reopened. Just as I remember: old theater stage, orchestra pit, balcony seating. Not only do they have $4.50 matinee shows but cartoons before the show (I know?! it’s like the ‘50 in there), no ads (what a concept) and the owner calls out over the loudspeaker about coming attractions and concessions. After a preview for a movie he yelled, “That looks great… I’m going to be the first in line for that!”

If you happen to be stranded in Decatur, IL - we highly recommend a stop at the Avon…

www.theavon.com

Add comment September 26th, 2006

Crave Brothers

crave.jpgName: Crave Brothers Dairy Farm
Owners: Charles, George, Thomas, and Mark Crave
Location: Waterloo, WI
Animals: 550 milking Holsteins with additional replacements
Cheeses/Products: Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella, Farmer’s Rope, Les Freres, Oaxaca
More info: www.cravecheese.com

We hit the ground running when we arrived at Crave Brothers. Debbie and I had met briefly in July at the ACS conference. George was part of a panel about the terroir of the dairy cow. It was definitely one of the more interesting things I attended at the conference because it covered the areas that are not usually discussed by cheese retailers and enthusiasts but are integral to the production of cheese: animal and land management. Crave Brothers is run by four brothers: Charles, Thomas, Mark and George. They grew up on a 40 cow, family-size farm in Wisconsin. In the current operation each brother has an area of responsibility best suited to their interests and skills. Charles manages crops and equipment upkeep, Thomas monitors animal health and compiles the feed, Mark is responsible for milking operations, and George runs the cheese operation.

Crave HolsteinGeorge and his brothers rented a farm in Southern Wisconsin, Mt. Hoereb, where they milked just under 60 cows. The landscape was largely rolling hills and they were finding it challenging to farm the land efficiently. So in the early 80’s they bought land in Waterloo, WI- a flat expanse of 300 acres that was appropriate for their plan to operate a larger scale, modern dairy operation and farm most of their own feed. They sold fluid milk for years until they got the notion to get into the cheese business. In 2001 the Craves broke ground on their cheese facility which is directly across the road from the free-stall barns and milking parlor. The pipes that move milk from the parlor to the cheese room were laid under the road that separates the two buildings. George produced his first vats of cheese in the spring of 2002.

Talking to George during a short break he took from morning cheesemaking, we realized that he and his brothers are interested in taking advantage of the development of new technologies to improve their farm. For example, they are planning to install a manure digester which will take in the manure from their 600+ cows and separate it into three usable materials: liquids, solids, and methane gas. The liquids will be used to irrigate Crave Farm fields, the solids will be used as fertilizer on the farm’s fields (excess can be sold to other farmers), and the methane gas will be converted to fuel which will be sold back to the local power grid.

George returned to the cheese room and we tasted cheese with Debbie, learning about the production schedule and volume that Crave produces. For a farm milking over 550 Holsteins and putting almost all of it into their cheese facility, Crave Brothers is nimble. Their cheese production schedule is determined by orders for that week. When we were there it was the beginning of the late summer tomato craze so the primary make was fresh mozzarella. Debbie commented that when the first freeze hits in October they see a dramatic shift in orders for mozzarella and an increase in demand for their other products.

Crave cheeses done up for sampling

The cheese room has three vats, two of them hold 26,000 lbs of milk and are used for the production of the fresh cheeses and dairy products. the smaller vat holds 5,000 lbs and is used to produce Les Freres. When we walked through the production room with George the team was in full mozzarella swing. The milk is cultured and set in the large vats, cut and then the hot curds are pumped with the whey over to a trough-like table where they are kept warm. The hot curds are drawn out of the water by hand with buckets and then put into a machine that stretches curd for all styles of pasta filata (stretched curd) cheeses. It does this through a series of internal augurs. This allows the Craves to switch easily between various sizes of mozzarella and also to produce the more intensely stretched Farmer’s Rope and Oaxaca.

Perfectly formed mozzarella balls

Les Freres is the most involved cheese make at Crave, the curds are ladeled by hand and also the cheese is the only one they produce that requires aging. Debbie has been managing the construction of a new in-ground cheese cave and tasting room beneath the cheesemaking facility. The cave will allow the Craves to produce more Les Freres and the tasting room will enable them to host events and to have a more spacious gathering place for the numerous groups who come to the farm for tours. It is wonderful to know that a facility like Crave will be open to visitors regularly so that people can not only taste their product but that they will also be able to see the farm that is the heart of this business.

1 comment September 24th, 2006

Carr Valley Cheese Company

Sid outside the Lavalle plantName: Carr Valley Cheese, Inc.
Owner: Sid Cook
Location: LaValle, WI
Animals: Carr Valley gets cow milk from 40 farms (within 20 miles) each milking no more than 70 cows, sheep milk comes largely from one dairy that sells to CVC through the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Coop, and goat milk from a group of 8 farms in the Green Bay area.
Cheeses/Products: Are you ready? CVC makes over 65 different cheeses. Look at them all on the Carr Valley website. But essentially if you can think of a style of cheese, Sid has probably made it.
More info: www.carrvalleycheese.com

I am wondering if anyone else out there in cheeseland is wondering how Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese pumps out over 65 varieties of cheese in what seems to be a sizable volume… I have been thinking about this for three years at least and could only imagine that he was like the Willy Wonka of cheese. Of course, the less optimistic part of my mind was wondering if it was going to feel like a big factory… my first instinct was definitely closer to what I actually saw.

We met Sid at the facility in Mauston, Wisconsin. Greg O’Neil, one of the owners of the Chicago retailer Pastoral was also in town and joined us on the Carr Valley Cheese tour. There are three cheese plants at Carr Valley, all relatively close together, each with a buzzing retail shop that sells all of the Carr Valley cheeses. The Mauston plant also had a viewing window where you can watch milk being transformed into cheese in any of the three large vats and also large areas for pressing, brining, waxing, storing and packing.

Gigantic brine tanks filled to the brim Preparation for pressing at the Mauston facility

Sid is a fourth generation cheesemaker. He drove us through the valley where he grew up- often called Irish Valley- and past the farm and home/cheese house where he was raised. Cheese might as well be in his blood. He described his relationship with cheese as a kid perfectly when he said, “you opened up the door on the side of the kitchen and there was the vat.” The first cheese plant that his father operated was in a valley called Carr Valley which is the name Sid still uses today. Sid worked with his father for years before taking over the business in the mid 70’s. He and his brother made Wisconsin-style cheddar in that plant for 10 years. Eventually in 1991 he purchased another cheesemaking facility with a layout that would allow for more flexibility and the development of more styles of cheese.

There are three “plants” in use today of which we visited two. The Mauston location is largely used for European style cheeses and a number of Sid’s American Originals. Whereas the LaValle plant is used largely for cheddar production. Sounds like a gigantic operation right? Let me break down my impression in the most basic terms: Carr Valley is bigger than many in the artisan cheese market. However, while handling a large amount of milk day in and day out the milk purchasing model looks much more like one you might find in Europe. The cow milk comes from approximately 40 dairies (all within a radius of 15-17 miles of the plant they supply) each milking no more than 70 cows. The sheep and goat milk that he buys are also from smaller farms that pool their milk together. Also Carr Valley didn’t build brand new facilities, rather they found plants that were closed or on their way out of business and modified the interior to meet their needs. Sid has been able to build up Carr Valley like this at least partly because of the years he has spent in the Wisconsin dairy industry, not to mention the generations of cheesemakers in his family that came before him. He understands milk quality inside and out and also has probably worked with more cultures than most people in the artisan cheese business. He also learned how to make his own cultures from his father and grandfather.

Sid distinguishes artisan production (volume of 100,000 lbs or less) from specialty cheese production (over 100,000 lbs but not at commodity level). He makes a number of cheese styles in both of those categories. His smallest productions on some of his artisan cheeses are around a few thousand pounds per year. Although Sid has the ability (read: volume and consistent product) to serve a wide range of customers, individuals to restaurants to specialty supermarket chains, he does a large part of his sales in his own retail stores. Currently he has 5 retail stores and in the two that we visited (they were connected to the plants), visitors flowed through steadily all day long.

Sid talks us through cheeses on his retail board in Mauston

Carr Valley employs 70 people total including retail sales people, cheesemakers, packaging and even the drivers of the milk trucks. Man of his employees have been with Sid for well over a decade and in some cases there are multiple generations of families working for CVC. Based on his years of experience and the exposure he has had to various cheesemakers and cheeses, Sid Cook is likely one of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers in the country. He has the kind of confidence that only comes with having lived something.

Cheddar pressing at the Lavalle location
While Sid remains fairly detached from perceptions others in the cheese industry have about Carr Valley Cheese, he is always game for a healthy competition (like ACS). Like Willi Lehner, Sid is not being arrogant when he tells me that it would be incredibly hard for someone to build a business like his, he is simply being realistic. He started in the game with a definite advantage and has been mindful to always stay in touch with his heritage. This is why he continues to produce the cheeses that the cheesemaking generations before him established in the state and around the country. Among the volumes of Carr Valley originals you will always find bandage-wrapped Mammoth Cheddar done in the traditional Wisconsin style- with pride.

4 comments September 21st, 2006

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