American Cheese

There’s something special about this artisanal provolone, cheddar, gorgonzola…It’s made in Wisconsin.

By Rebecca Gray

Published on November 9, 2000

Mauro Rozzi is a professional cheesemaker, born in the northeastern Italian city of Cremona. Among his specialties is a rich, creamy, greenish-blue-veined gorgonzola sold under the BelGioioso label, and it is this cheese that he wants me to sample one autumn day when I visit the facility where he is production manager. A tall, robust man, whose shirt buttons strain ever so slightly across his chest, Rozzi leads the way past vats of coagulating cow's milk to one of his aging rooms, which he jokingly calls ''purgatory''. Inside the room are row after row of shelves stacked with plump wheels of his prize blue. ''Don't leave the doors open too long,'' warns Rozzi's young assistant—who is really more his protege—as we enter. ''It's not good for the cheese.''

Rozzi selects a gorgonzola for me to try, and then hefts it over to a nearby table. ''This is where I do my praying,'' he says as he cuts me a tiny slice of cheese with a long-bladed knife. ''I hope it is moldy, and I hope it is good.'' It is both, and it has a delicious aftertaste—which Rozzi believes is a hallmark of good cheese. His protege joins us, and Rozzi puts his arm around the ruddy-cheeked young man with paternal pride.

This scene might well be taking place in the Italian region of Lombardy, where most Italian gorgonzola is produced—but it is not. The young man with Rozzi is named Mark Ruttner, and the gorgonzola plant is located not in the vicinity of Milan but in the state of Wisconsin, the capital of the American cheesemaking industry.

The phrase ''American cheese'' is apt to make any true cheese lover cringe, of course. American cheese, after all, is that flavorless stuff that comes in individual plastic-wrapped square slices—only slightly more appealing than its cousin, the ''cheese food'' that oozes out of squirt bottles with the consistency of particularly gooey toothpaste. And those supermarket slabs of so-called cheddar, swiss, monterey jack, and such, with their rubbery textures and only slightly differentiated flavors, aren't much better. Everybody knows that America has been producing its own high-quality goat?s milk cheese for years now, and there are even a few folks now making artisanal sheep's milk cheese—but as for the big companies, as for cow's milk, as for Wisconsin, forget it. Right?

Wrong. Wisconsin not only makes the most cheese of any state in the nation—almost two billion pounds annually (including, it is said, enough mozzarella to top 900 million pizzas)—but also some of the best. A lot of what the state churns out is admittedly what Monty Python might have called ''cheesy comestibles'', of a kind that most connoisseurs would probably rather do without. But there are a number of master cheesemakers in Wisconsin—some of whom work for very large companies—who clearly care so much about cheese, and bring so much skill to bear on its manufacture, that the results of their labors can rival the traditional European cheeses which originally inspired them.

Cheesemaking was introduced to Wisconsin by Yankee farmers from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut in the 1830s. The state's first cheese factory was a noncommercial farmers' cooperative established in 1841 by one Anne Pickett. Many of the earliest Wisconsin cheeses were American versions of England's classic cheddar. The first new cheese invented in the state was developed in 1874 by cheesemaker Joseph Steinwand of Colby, Wisconsin, as a milder, more porous cheddar variation. It soon became known simply as colby. Another Wisconsin creation, dating from around 1875, was brick cheese, named not for its shape but because it was originally formed with actual bricks. Though comparatively mild, brick was a variation on a pungent cheese called limburger—and because of its moderated strength was sometimes referred to as ''the married man's limburger''.

In 1903, J.L. Kraft established a wholesale cheese business, not in Wisconsin but in Chicago; by 1924, this had become a major producer called the Kraft Cheese Company. In 1928, Kraft took out a patent on a processed cheese product called Velveeta, billed as being ''Digestible as milk itself!'' By the 1930s, nearly 40 percent of all the cheese produced in America was processed, and most of that was made by Kraft. The company had successfully industrialized cheese, and in so doing had made it big business. The effects on Wisconsin were dramatic. Kraft bought huge quantities of milk and cheese products for processing from the state—and technology developed by the cheesemaking giant helped Wisconsin expand its own cheese industry. Today the state is not only the largest cheese producer in the nation but the third largest in the world, after France and Italy.

Some of the best cheese producers in modern-day Wisconsin are offshoots of European companies. Auricchio, for instance, is one of Italy's largest cheese manufacturers. Convinced of the enormous potential of Wisconsin as a cheesemaking center, it decided to set up an American branch, sending family scion Errico Auricchio, as well as five other Italian cheesemakers—among them Mauro Rozzi—to the state in 1979. Auricchio now has three cheese plants in Wisconsin, making versions of many of the great Italian cheeses—including not just gorgonzola but also parmesan, asiago, fontina, mozzarella, mascarpone, and an excellent aged provolone, matured for at least seven months and made without the bleaching or artificial smoke flavoring used by some other producers. Errico Auricchio believes so strongly in his products that in 1993 he purchased the American operation from his cousins in Italy, and now runs it as an independent enterprise.

What's so attractive about Wisconsin for a European cheesemaker? ''The milk is better and cheaper here than back home,'' Auricchio says. Then he adds, as if it were evident,''If you want to make movies, you go to Hollywood. If you want to make cheese, you go to Wisconsin.''

In its early days, the Fond du Lac-based Park Cheese Company, Inc.—which can trace its origins to the late 19th century—specialized in brick cheese. Since 1950, however, when it was bought by brothers George and John Bizzio, Park has been a leading producer of Italian-style cheeses. Among its specialties are asiago, fontina, provolone, romano, pepato, scamorza, and an award-winning (though, frankly, not very Italian-tasting) parmesan. Park is now owned by the obviously non-Italian Liebetrau family, but the cheesemaker is still Armando Ferrari, whom the Bizzios brought over from Milan in 1960.

When I visit Park, Armando and his wife, Lina, take me through the production plant, which stands at a flat-country crossroads in what seems like the middle of nowhere. We walk past glistening-clean vats and tanks and processing machinery, then through aging rooms stacked with wheels of parmesan and romano, or hung with provolones. The provolones come in all sizes; some are round, some shaped like bells or little pigs, and there are gargantuan specimens hand-formed to resemble salamis and weighing as much as 600 pounds apiece.

Before we start tasting cheese, Armando takes me to the source, as it were—driving me to one of the dairy farms that supplies milk to Park. Here, with obvious pride, he directs my gaze across a field at clusters of black-and-white Holsteins—poster-perfect cows. They get good water and alfalfa and lead a stress-free life, Armando tells me, and in return they give great milk. ''They are the best,'' he adds.
When we return to the factory, Armando takes me to the house where he and Lina live. Connected to the cheesemaking plant itself, the place is similarly immaculate inside, and furnished in a style that looks more like suburban Milan than rural Wisconsin. In a surprisingly formal dining room with a lace tablecloth and delicate Italian china, Lina serves us a cheese-filled lunch: homemade tortelli stuffed with squash and parmesan, simply dressed in butter and more parmesan; a green salad; and then some of Armando's aged provolone with ripe pears. This is his favorite way to eat provolone, Lina tells us. The pasta is delicious, the salad perfect, and the provolone...Well, it certainly isn't that bland, rubbery supermarket stuff. This has a ripe, creamy flavor with a subtle bite and a little pleasant ''grit'' to the texture. It is sublime, and by the time we finish lunch with little cups of authoritative espresso, I feel as contented as those Holsteins I'd seen earlier.

Sid Cook, president and owner of Carr Valley Cheese, is a fourth-generation cheesemaker; he likes to say that his family, originally from upstate New York, has a thousand years of accumulated cheesemaking experience. Cook's factories (one in LaValle, another in Mauston) make gouda, edam, colby, monterey jack, havarti, and even cheese curds—a great local favorite consisting of lumps and clumps of yellow almost-cheese with a salty flavor and a bit of a squeak when you bite into them. But Cook's real pride is his cheddar, aged for as long as five years and sold in one-year increments. The year-old variety is full-flavored, with a pleasantly creamy texture; the two-year-old's taste has intensified; at three, the cheese acquires a wonderfully rounded, almost fruity character; at four, the fruitiness fades and the sharpness grows; the five-year-old is pungent, sourish, and deeply flavorful, with a long-lasting aftertaste (a sign of good cheese, remember) that even the best English farmhouse cheddars can fail to achieve.

''Cheeses are living things,'' says Cook. ''They constantly change. But five years is the optimum age for cheddar. After that, any imperfections become more apparent.'' Perhaps more than any other cheesemaker I've met, Cook seems to love cheese to the point of being almost sentimental about it. He eats it all day long, plain, rarely bothering even with crackers or bread. And when he tastes his favorite aged cheddar, his eyes water slightly and roll toward the ceiling. ''You should feel the tingle,'' he says dreamily. He clearly does.

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