A couple of weeks back I was asked by the good folks at Sartori if I might visit* their plant in north-central Wisconsin’s small town of Antigo. I’d visited a couple of small farmstead operations around the country in the past but never one on the larger scale of Sartori… and when they said “come up for a cheese make” I jumped at the chance to get my hands in the curds!
Sartori may a larger operation, but they start like any fine cheese, wih small, local farmers
I arrived Thursday night for a small-town roadhouse dinner of beef and New Glarus beers with several of the staff. I came away impressed by the pride of place and ownership that all clearly have in the work of the Antigo plant. They told me the story of Antigo’s earliest cheese making history: a plant that was once Kraft; that pulled up stakes and was bought by the employees, run as the Antigo Cheese Company. How it was purchased by Sartori in 2006, and how that wasn’t a typical “corporate takeover” but rather a chance to grow at making smaller batches of cheese, reserve cheeses, experiment and try. The culture in Antigo is one where there is no fear of failure, where they are encouraged to play around with it and get it right.
Now just seven years later the cheeses coming out of Sartori in Antigo are rather special. There are many to choose from ranging from the bedrock of their success, their SarVecchio Reserve Parmesan, winner of more than a dozen awards including WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP CHEESE CONTEST FIRST PLACE (BEST OF CLASS) in 2012, to their BellaVitano Gold, the foundation for a number of their washed and flavored cheeses, and FIRST PLACE from the AMERICAN CHEESE SOCIETY in 2010.
Friday, 5AM – Cheesemakers get up early in Antigo.
I arrived at the plant with the dawn patrol and the makers were already setting curd, pressing and packing and brining.
I connected once again with Sartori’s mad scientist, court jester, prankster and Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski:
Mike took me for a tour of the plant and then offered me the wardrobe and the gear to make SarVecchio Parmesan. The staff were welcoming, patient and clearly proud of what they do. The entire plant smells of dairy – fresh, clean, bright… milk – sourced from area small farms, most with less than 75 head of cattle, mineral water, the aromas of Merlot and tea and coffee beans, of farm and grass.
One of the first things you’ll learn about making cheese is that once you start, there is no stopping. You cannot press pause, take a break. When you first combine the milk, the starter, the salt, everything moves of a pace and you don’t challenge that. And everything matters from ingredients to temperature in the room. While Sartori utilizes a bit more machinery to aid the process, it is still a very hands-on, human cheese make.
Just minutes after filling the table with milk, starter added… fresh warm milk is curdled and is cut. The cheese at this stage is bright and clean.
The curds are then salted, a critical early step in control.
Like my hairnet? Getting a lesson in lining the mold…
…and adding the fresh curds.
The curds get a quick press to pack them together and expel excess whey. At this stage you have the 20lb round that is a yet-to-be-aged cheese. From table to mold and out in just minutes. Removing the initial wrap under Jerome’s expert guidance.
Trimming the wheels…
and dropping them in the brining vats. Much like “mother” for making sourdough bread, this brine has been going for decades, Sartori pasteurizes the salt brine so that they can keep it in use. Between curds, brining and constantly washing your hands, making cheese is a very wet way to spend your day!
Off to flavoring and aging…
After the wheels get a bit of age on them, some, like this BellaVitano are taken further by soaking in red wine, cognac (!) or Balsamic vinegar… Others get rubbed down in a variety of herbs and spics. Here I’m rubbing a wheel with chai tea. This room smells GREAT! I’m generally not a fan of “stuff in/on my cheese” but something about Sartori’s approaches more deeply affect the finished cheese flavor. It’s not just superficial.
Curing. The penultimate step that takes young cheese and sets it on the path to long-term aging. SarVecchio ages for almost two years. There’s a rare very small amount that ages for 42 months! (It’s delicious!)
This room is a warehouse-sized walk-in refrigerator. The shelves are at least twice as high above what’s pictured and go on for many rows. A cavern of cheese! Again the smells are clean and fresh: dairy, farmland and grasses. Sweet.
I came away thoroughly impressed by the team in Antigo, their passion and dedication and their spirit of fun. I also came away with eyes opened about how hands-on the process is here. The cheesemakers, many young, are expert and enthusiastic. They should be proud of what they accomplish.
Thanks for the great tour and the lessons, Mike, and thanks to Rachel and Susan for making this adventure possible!