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Book Review: The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin by James Norton and Becca Dilley

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The legacy of cheese is neatly presented in The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin. So much a part of the soul and vitality of the state, Wisconsin cheese has an illustrious heritage of more than 160 years of quality, taste, and craftsmanship. In 1858, Wisconsin’s first commercial cheese factory was established in Sheboygan Falls. Today, the state is home to approximately 15,000 dairy farms, with over 1.2 million cows, each producing an average of 18,850 pounds of milk per year. The Badger State produces more than six hundred varieties of cheese, from bricks of, well, Brick and stinky Limburger, to such European favorites as Crescenza-Straccino (Italy) and Juustoleipa (Finland), to exotic specialties like cinnamon-ribbed butter jack and chipotle cheddar. The masterminds behind the glorious flavors coming from small-batch producers and the tiny artisanal studios alike are considered master cheesemakers. But where do these people come from, and who decides when someone is ready to become a master cheesemaker?

James Norton, a food editor and blogger, and freelance photographer Becca Dilley embarked on a project to explore the Master Cheesemaker Program run by the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. They listened to student stories and teacher techniques, hoping to gain a depth of knowledge about the tradition. Norton and Dilley set out to meet each master in person, touring cheese plants across the state. And, of course, they ate cheese.
Wisconsin also has more skilled and licensed cheesemakers than any other state, and Norton and Dilley were able to interview and photograph forty-three of the forty-four master cheesemakers active as of winter 2007–08. What they found were stories of innovation, passion, and perseverance along a path toward a certification that takes between thirteen and fifteen years to complete. The eminently engaging result of their research is the recently published, The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin, as it turns out, is the only state to offer a master cheesemaker program. The program is rigorous, patterned on exceptionally high European standards. To even get a foot in the door, an applicant must hold a cheese-making license for at least ten years and create one or two chosen varieties of cheese for at least five of those years. Once accepted, students take more than two years of university courses where they undergo constant testing of their cheeses, evaluation of their plant, and grueling oral and written exams. But, it is worth it: Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers currently produce more than thirty varieties of their own invention. They also captured twenty-seven of seventy-seven gold medals at the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest — more than any other state or country.

Masters cheesemakers can be found at 115 plants across the state. According to Norton and Dilley, while many are “tinkerers, constantly changing recipes and playing with the milk, culture, and rennet in search of some wonderful undiscovered or long-forgotten cheese,” all master cheesemakers are commited to their craft. Readers are introduced to Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, who puts in a full-day’s work even before dawn breaks, and Gianni Toffolon, who came to America from Italy in 1979 to help establish a U.S.-based Italian cheese business. Toffolon arrived in Wisconsin with the address of a cheese plant and a tiny stash of cash, and was soon helping a struggling plant reinvent its product. BelGioioso Cheese has since gone on to win a slew of awards for its mozzarella, provolone, mascarpone cheeses, even gaining recognition for its own special brand of aged Parmesan called, American Grana.

Readers are taken on a journey up and down and over and across the Wisconsin countryside, stopping along the way to peek into cheese vats, learn about unique methods, minds, and machinery, absorb the glossary of local expressions and terms, as well as note and thus appreciate the nuanced processes separating one master cheesemaker’s contribution from the other. The book is crammed with interesting nuggets, er, curds, of information. We learn that the northwestern part of the state is the birthplace of Colby, the venerable Wisconsin original cheese so named for its hometown, and that Green County’s Myron Olson and Jamie Fahrney of Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe are the only two remaining makers of limburger in the U.S.

It’s hard to generalize about cheesemakers, but it’s clear from the profiles included in The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin that each emphasizes quality over consistency. Their small volume production, often just a few thousand pounds a day, allows for experimentation with specialty milks — including goat, sheep, pasture-grazed cow — and the production of many different sorts of cheese. Dilley and Norton note some of the common traits found in the daily operations of these master cheesemakers, including their personal handling of the cheese — cutting the curd, turning the cheese as it ages — as well as many other facets of the business.

In the their fine treatment of the subject, Dilley and Norton give us more than just the history and industry statistics behind Wisconsin cheese. The book also contains a “cheese guide” of sorts, organized by region and with helpful maps, tasting notes, and visitor information. The storytelling, done through both words and pictures, is both fun and educational. By connecting us to the hands behind the wheels, this wonderful — and useful — book helps us appreciate those who create 35 percent of all specialty cheeses sold in the United States and help keep Wisconsin on the map.

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About Brian D'Ambrosio