Happy American Cheese Month!!

October 4, 2012 at 12:26 pm

October is the 2nd annual American Cheese Month- when we celebrate American made cheese and the cheesemongers, farmers, retailers and cheesemakers who bring more cheese into your life.   Who doesn’t want to celebrate more cheese to more people?!  Sponsored by the American Cheese Society, this event strives to raise awareness and promote the actively growing artisan cheese movement throughout North America.  During the month I’ll be featuring a different Midwestern cheesemaker’s story in weekly tribute, as well as giving you the heads up about Chicago American Cheese Month events!

First up: Bleumont Dairy of Blue Mounds, WI.

Willi Lehner in his cheese cave

Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is quite the rockstar.  His house and cheese caves are powered by renewable energy- in fact, he collects so much solar energy on the property that he actually sells some back to the state!  His approach to cheese is a blend of experimentation and family tradition, taking the science of cheesemaking for a spin, and the results tend to be pretty phenomenal.  He credits his passion for artisan cheese to a childhood visit to Switzerland, his father’s birthplace, as well as his father’s passion for cheesemaking.  Not owning any animals or cheesemaking equipment, Willi gets high quality milk from local producers like Upland’s Cheese Company and relies on the cooperative aspect of the artisan cheesemaking community to produce his cheeses in other people’s facilities.  I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Willi last October and see the cheese aging cave which he has carved out of the side of a cliff on his property:

Outside the Cheese Cave

The cave is 1,600 sq. feet and offers 2 aging environments for Willie’s alpine, gouda and cheddar-style gems to age in comfort.  One of my favorites is his clothbound cheddar, aged anywhere from 1 to 3 years.  The paste is intense and nutty with allusions to a traditional aged gouda flavor profile.  His more recent batches tend to have a lot of strong earthen and vegetal qualities as well, which is no mistake.  The batch we tasted was a study in terroir (the idea that a product of the land tastes like the environment around it, affected by temperature, soil quality and make-up, and for cheese, the diet and lifestyle of the animals producing the milk).  Before bandage-wrapping, Willi dug deep into the soil on his property and took soil samples.  He added some water and made a slurry from the dirt, and used this to rub his cheeses during aging.  This produced some serious depth and grassy green flavors in the final product.  The rich moisture of the cheese is maintained through the aging process by wrapping in thick muslin and slicking down with lard, a traditional method.

Wheels of bandaged cheddars aging

Willi’s passion for exploration and cheese are infectious and inspiring.  I can’t say what will emerge next from the extraordinary caves of Mr Lehner, but I’m excited regardless.  Welcome to American Cheese Month!


Wednesday, October 10th: Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese visits Pastoral at the Chicago French Market for a demo from 4:30-6:30pm