Now I was going to have some firsthand experience with something that I had only read about.
If you ask any cheesemonger at Pastoral about any cheese in the case, you can get anything from a bare bones description like “English clothbound cheddar” to a more prosaic description: “This is made at Kaserei Stufel by a father and son who own a small dairy in the beautiful Swiss Alps…” and suddenly you’re an expert in the history of the Stadelmann family. Usually, we absorb these priceless nuggets of information by reading and communing with our fellow turophiles (that's a fancy word for a cheese connoisseur). In December, however, I had the privilege of visiting Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin where we get two wonderful cheeses: The award winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve and the amazing, highly seasonal Rush Creek Reserve.
Young cows at Uplands - These future Rush Creek makers will be pasture fed all summer long.
I’d talked about Uplands Cheese and Andy Hatch (the head cheese maker) countless times; I've sold dozens of wheels of Rush Creek and who knows how many pounds of Pleasant Ridge Reserve in my few years as a cheesemonger. I knew about how their cows are pasture fed in the summer, the spruce bark banding around the wheels of Rush Creek, the merits of unpasteurized milk – all things I’d learned in my time at various cheese shops. Now I was going to have some firsthand experience with something that I had only read about. On the long bus ride up there, I immersed myself in Paul Kindstedt's American Farmstead Cheese to try to buff up my knowledge on the more scientific aspect of cheese making. I met Andy in Madison and we drove to Dodgeville where we began making Rush Creek the next morning.
"Anytime you touch anything," Andy told me "Rinse your hands in the saniwash."
I met most of the staff in the flurry of pleasantries, cut short by the early hour. Cows, I now know first-hand, are early risers and so are cheese makers. The factory was a shockingly sterile environment. Sanitizing solution was everywhere. Hats, boots, and aprons were required. "Any time you touch anything," Andy told me "Rinse your hands in the saniwash." It was fascinating to see that for as long as Rush Creek ages (two months), the initial steps take only a few hours to go from milk, to curd, to wheels.
Cows, I now know first-hand, are early risers and so are cheese makers.
I won't trouble you, dear reader, with an exhaustive account of every step of the process, but I will share one particular step that I found interesting. It’s called flocculation. Rennet is added to the milk to form the curd and it takes a little time for it to work. Andy added the rennet to the milk and when enough time had passed he told me we were going to see if flocculation had happened yet. I was expecting a high tech device like a pH reader but he simply grabbed a clear pitcher and filled it with water. I watched as he dripped a few drops of milk into the water and watched, unsure what he was seeing. The milk swirled and spun around like smoke as I was expecting but then the tiniest little solid flakes of white fell out of the swirling milk and floated silently to the bottom of the pitcher. The solids in the milk were beginning to clump together as the rennet did its work. No longer was this milk, but curd and whey, the beginnings of cheese.
That may sound dramatic, but after talking about cheese for so long, seeing it forming before my eyes was pretty amazing. After we made that day’s batch of Rush Creek, there was plenty more to do. Dozens of batches of cheese were at various stages of aging. We flipped wheels, bound some with spruce bark to help them keep their shape, patted down older wheels whose rinds were beginning to grow. Then there were the hundreds of boxes that needed to be built to ship all this cheese!
I found a little box in a shipment to Pastoral with my name on it.
After two incredible days I had to come back to Chicago. Rush Creek ages for two months so I had to wait a long time to taste the batch I worked on. (At least we weren’t making five year gouda!) Finally, a few weeks ago, I found a little box in a shipment to Pastoral with my name on it. My batch was ready to eat! The wheel was white and orange and springy to the touch. The inside was gooey and smooth with a delicious grittiness on the rind. The paste is savory with just enough funk to make me wonder how long this wheel is going to last in my fridge. In addition to this just being a great cheese there was the extra level of enjoyment from the knowledge that I'd helped make it. I had scooped some of the curd into the forms, I had stirred the vat of milk while the starter cultures worked their particular brand of molecular magic. I'd seen this cheese at (most) of the steps on the way and it only made it more delicious to me. Cheese from start to finish.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go eat some Rush Creek.
Alex Eberle is a Cheesemonger at Pastoral Broadway who recently moved to Chicago from Washington State. When he's not geeking out over casein micelle matrices, he's embarrassing himself at stand up open mics or karaoke.