In the last 72 hours, I have eaten umpteen kinds of cheese and visited seven cheesemakers around Wisconsin. My 3-day media tour was fascinating, and the thing that stands out at this moment – as I detox on my brother’s couch – is that cheese plants, like cheese itself, are imbued with a kind of terroir.
At Roth Kase in Monroe, I took away an impression of impeccable cleanliness and regime. It’s a place where high-tech robots pass through dimly lit aging rooms, flipping wheels of cheese. And each employee wears a pair of white Crocs that never leave the building. Thousands of cheeses are made here, including gorgeous Gruyere and Buttermilk Blue, thanks to immaculate systemization.
At Uplands, home to the nationally reknowned Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Mike Gingrich and Andy Hatch stand around in ballcaps, surrounded by blue ribbons. They make one cheese (a second will be released soon), and the vibe is mellow, the plant a single pole-barn building. Gingrich and Hatch are so finely attuned to their cheese, they can tell how the wheels are ripening just by smelling the air when they open the door of the aging room. No robots here. No white Crocs. The plant is as serene as the sloped hills surrounding it.
|Cheesemaker Mike Gingrich, giving a tour
But my favorite plant, the one that lives on in my mind, is Carr Valley in tiny LaValle. This 100-year old plant looks like a gas station in the middle of a corn field – it’s got a pop machine out front and a kitschy gift shop full of snow globes and bells. Walk into the “make room,” though, and you feel history. Sunlight streams through windows onto ancient-looking forms and presses, and the pasteurizer lingers in the corner like a giant squid haunting a bioluminescent reef.
Something about the light makes me think of a Hopper painting or a reading room, full of newspapers, turning color with age. If a cheese plant can convey a sense of place, or terroir, as the French call it, Carr Valley does just that. I will never eat their squeaky curds without feeling a pang of nostalgia.