Nestled amongst the rolling hills and lush pastures of central Wisconsin, Carr Valley cheese remains one of Wisconsin?s traditional cheese plants, famous for its cheddar varieties made the old-fashioned way. Owned and operated by the Cook family, Carr Valley will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.
While tourists, and locals alike, flock to stores in Sauk City, Mauston and La Valle for cheese curds and aged cheddar blocks, what sets the business apart are the specialty cheeses created and produced by Sid Cook.
?The general trend in cheese making is bigger, but here at Carr Valley we have just become more specialized...the cheeses and styles are those others aren?t making,? Sid says with pride.
Sid, certified as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, has concocted not quite a dozen of the 30 cheeses he makes. ?I call them designer cheeses. I designed them and invented them and named them. No one?s making them but me,? Sid says.
A specialty cheese is value-added being made from one or more unique qualities. The Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute says that qualities such as exotic origin, processing, design, limited supply extraordinary package or channel of sale can all qualify a cheese as ?specialty.? What remains constant with every specialty cheese is the immense quality of the product.
And, in today?s market-place, consumers seem willing and ready for quality. Many of Sid?s cheeses are small-batch mixed-milk cheeses, meaning they consist of cow?s milk and also sheep and/or goat milk. A cheese of this composition with its unique flavor profile can bring upwards of $8 to $10 per pound.
?Canaria is a mixed-milk cheese...We cure it in olive oil. The cheese is generally about a year old when we begin to sell it. It?s just very lovely.? Sid says the product has an earthy, sweet flavor and a texture similar to that of Parmesan.
Many of Carr Valley?s specialty cheeses are sold to upscale restaurants in Chicago and specialty food stores nationwide with help of a California distributor. Not to fear, Sid?s cheeses can also be found at the plant?s Wisconsin locations.
Sid relates creating a new cheese to cooking. ?You think about what you want to achieve, assess the variables and start mixing.? The cultures, species of milk, coagulants, other ingredients, cook temperatures, how you handle it, whether it?s pressed or allowed to rest, actual curing, temperature, bacteria ? all provide Sid with the opportunity to alter the flavor. ?If you don?t like the cheese a certain way, you can change it,? he says matter of factly.
But he contends that Wisconsin is the place for making specialty cheeses. ?We have the right forages here in Wisconsin for making good cheeses. We can do what other states can?t, as you can?t make the same flavor profiles elsewhere,? Sid explains. He continues by explaining that the weather, soils, forages and use of clover all make a difference in the milk flavor.
Sid?s isn?t the only one interested in specialty cheeses. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board there are more specialty cheeses than ever. More than 11 percent, or 234 million pounds, of the total cheeses produced in Wisconsin during 2001 were classified as ?specialty.? According to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service, 2001?s production is an increase of 6 percent from the previous year.
Cheesemaking has been a way of life for this fourth-generation cheesemaker. ?From the time I was real little I can remember being in the plant. My first job was to pick up can lids and keep the cans moving...I remember standing on a 5-gallon pail to stir the corners of the vats and even riding my tricycle around the vats,? Sid reminisces.
He continued working at the plant, earning this cheesemaker?s license at 16. After graduating from UW-Platteville, Sid planned to attend law school but wasn?t accepted on his first try. It was then that destiny intervened; Sid spent the year adjusting to married life and working as a cheesemaker. ? I liked it; I liked the life and what I was doing. I saw a lot of opportunity in the business,? Sid says.
Tulane University invited him to join its law program the following fall but Sid decided to pursue a career closer to home in the cheese business, and says he has never regretted the decision. It even appears that Sid?s son, Sam, may continue in the family business. A recent high school graduate, Sam has his cheesemaker?s license and has taken courses at UW-Madison to improve his technique.
It remains that old-fashioned cheddar made the family way is still one of Sid?s favorites. Why cheddar? ?Because you can enjoy the fresh, squeaky curds all the way through to the 5-year-old mature cheeses,? Sid says.
Carr Valley?s 23-pound daisy wheels are nationally known for their quality ? a quality that starts with milk produced by ?cows with names,? says Sid. Milk for the plant comes from local dairy producers, of which some have been shipping to the plant for 20 to 30 years.
Before entering the plant, the milk is pasteurized and filtered. Once in the cheese vat, the milk is held at 90 degrees. As the vat fills with milk a culture is added that produces a lactic acid to ripen the fresh milk. This begins turning the milk into cheese.
During these first steps, the cheesemakers add coloring to some cheese styles, Cheddar being one.
Once the milk has ripened, an enzyme is added to coagulate the milk. The coagulant turns the liquid milk into a jelly-like substance, aided by no longer stirring the product. After the cheese firms, large wire cutters are pushed by cheesemakers to cut the vat into thirds. At this time, the vat temperature is raised to 100 degrees to ?cook? the cheese for 30 minutes. ?Cooking? separates the curds from the whey. Some whey is drawn off the vat and goes to a cream separator before being stored. The cream is used in cream/whey butter. The separated whey ingredient is used in making breads and candy bars.
The curd firms as the whey is drained. The curd is hand cut into slabs which are then stacked and pressed together in a process known as ?cheddaring.? This helps the excess moisture drain and prepares the product for its transformation to cheese.
Once at the proper acidic level, approximately 60 minutes later, the slabs are milled ? shredding the large blocks into bit-sized morsels. Then the curds are salted to preserve the cheese and slow the active cheese culture.
Curds are then formed into 23-pound daisy wheels. These wheels are pressed for thwo to three hours before removing the form. The golden wheels are dried before being coated with wax.
The wax coating seals the cheese from air and mold. The finished wheels are then aged for as little as one week all the way to five years.
Sid produces Fontina and cheddar, both of which he is certified as a master cheesemaker, along with specialty products such as Canaria, Menage, Benedicine, Mobay and Marisa, named for his daughter.
At the La Valle plant, cheddar is made six days a week; the plant is closed on Sundays, Christmas Day and New Year?s Day. Besides the large selection of cheeses, the La Valle location offers plenty of free samples, and a conglomeration of Wisconsin products such as wild rice, ginseng, syrups, honey and pancake mix. The quaint store even includes viewing windows, with 8 a.m.-noon being the best time to observe the cheesemaking process.