September 18th, 2006
Name: Bleu Mont Dairy
Owner: Willi Lehner and Quitas McKnight
Location: Blue Mounds, WI
Animals: Bleu Mont purchases cow milk from local, certified organic dairies practicing rotational grazing.
Cheeses/Products: Bandaged-wrapped cheddar, various styles of washed rind cheeses. Some are aged just 60 days and others are aged out over a couple years.
More info: Bleu Mont Dairy
We first met Willi at the Madison farmers’ market which is the largest market of its kind in the U.S. (it has the largest number of producers). There are many cheesemakers at the Madison market and Willi has a prime piece of real estate there. It is a priority for him as he only sells his cheese at the market- to both retail and restaurant customers alike. He is a natural salesman- at least in the cheese world- because he understand that the fastest way onto someone’s cheese plate is via their taste buds… he samples his cheese to you immediately when you approach the stand. I first heard about Bleu Mont Dairy from Mike Gingrich. Mike suggested that we visit Willi on our tour of Wisconsin because he is doing things differently than anyone else on our Cheese by Hand roster.
How is Bleu Mont different? Well, there are no animals at the dairy- not so unusual- and there is no cheesemaking room. There is a curing room (Willi’s term for a cave or maturing room) that he swears is the smallest one in the state of Wisconsin. There is also a skeletal structure in place for a curing room that is soon to become a reality and the envy of many cheesemakers around the country for sure. So how and why does he do it this way? Let me take a step back and tell you a little bit about Willi’s entire cheese career.
Willi’s mother and father are both first generation Swiss immigrants and his father is also a cheesemaker. His father made cheese in Wisconsin for decades, largely in his own facility, and Willi worked with him on and off for years. Armed with a Swiss passport Willi set out to travel in his early 20’s and managed to last for approximately ten years alternating between exploring and working. One of the things he mentioned doing that peaked my interest was the summer he spent with his brother making cheese in the alps. The two of them took a herd of dairy cows up into the mountains to graze on open pastures and turn their milk into cheese each day. This is a traditional practice in the valleys in and around the Alps. There is not enough pasture in the valleys for farmers to graze their animals year round and put up enough feed to take them through the winter months. Often a number of dairymen will pool their milkers together and send on or two delegates up the mountains for the summer months to make cheese. The beautiful word that encapsulates this entire concept is called transhumance. Regardless of how romantic and pastoral it sounds it amounts to a summer of awesome views and incredibly hard work.
I get the feeling that for Willi it makes sense to have each person to focus on what they do best- the farmer produces the milk and the cheesemaker selects the best milk and produces cheese from that milk. Although he had years of experience making cheese with his father and also with his brother in Switzerland, it wasn’t until 1988 that he made his first batch of cheese under his own name. Fortunately, because of his background in the Wisconsin cheese industry with his father, Willi found people who were willing to allow him to use their facilities to bring in milk and produce his own cheeses. He has done this in a number of cheesemaking facilities in the area near his home, most recently he used the facility at Uplands Cheese to experiment with different recipes using the Pleasant Ridge Reserve shaped forms for the resulting wheels.
In 2002 Willi and Quitas secured a grant from the Wisconsin Dairy Business Innovation Center to visit cheesemakers in the UK and learn the art of aging or maturing cheeses, specifically clothbound cheddar. Armed with this additional knowledge they installed a small cave on their property in 2003. Walking through his in-ground greenhouse and cheese cave is fascinating because in addition to getting information about his aging techniques you get to learn about Willi’s use of and commitment to alternative energy. He uses a great amount of solar energy for his home and his greenhouse and aging facilities and more recently he installed a wind generator that is currently the main source of energy on his property.
As amazing as this first facility is, it is kind of put to shame by the new curing room that is currently under construction. In all fairness, the existing curing room functions beautifully it is just space-challenged. We walked down a short dirt road over to the edge of the construction site. When you stand up at the edge of the rubble you are looking down onto the oblong web-like structure that will soon be covered with concrete and a layer of earth to help regulate temperature and even humidity. It is cool to look at and walk around in but even cooler to think about what it will allow Bleu Mont to do in terms of increasing their cheese production.
After hanging out with Willi and Quitas for the afternoon it makes sense that Bleu Mont Dairy is like no other- and it is clear that this is not done for the purpose of distinguishing themselves in the market as unique it is just the way of living and producing artisan cheese that makes sense to them. We ended our visit with the interview which was conducted over a pint of local Lake Louie beer and tastes of their curing room ripened cheeses- quite a way to spend an afternoon in the rolling hills of Blue Mounds Wisconsin.