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Field Trip: Cedar Grove Cheese Factory

I decided to sneak in one field trip before my upcoming conference and scouting mission to Las Vegas, since we'd been planning this one for a while and were excited to go. You may remember my intrepid friend Amy from our forays into abandoned houses! Here, she and her girls accompanied me to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wisconsin to see how artisan cheese is made. And also because we'd never been to Plain, so we were curious. Plain was an easy, scenic drive, and we thought they had a lot of amenities for a village with a population of 800. Namely, a pool and a library!

I needed a memory card for my new camera so I didn't get as many shots as I would have liked. I stole this photo from Cedar Grove's website. No, there was no snow on the ground when we visited mid-August!

Here's the view from the parking lot. You can tell it's Wisconsin rather than Indiana or Illinois because there's a hill in the background.

We were able to see the workroom without contaminating it through a glass wall. The scale of the operation is shown best from this picture. It was well over 90F in that room, and those guys were hustling. They can't have any cooling or ventilation because that would effect the enzyme process of the cheese. The milk is all local and growth-hormone free. They were working with cow's milk today, though sometimes they use sheep's milk, and sometimes bison milk--which doesn't sound all that weird, until you hear about the guy down the road who has to keep bison on his farm and milk them. They're big and scary, and they don't enjoy being milked all that much. Bison milk has double the amount of milk solids of cow, sheep or goat milk, so they can produce much more cheese from the tiny amounts they glean.

This is a big vat of milk that's been treated with enzymes and bacteria to form curds. The curds are being stirred by this metal blade, and the whey will drain off and be sold for use in other foods like formula, Cheetos, etc.

These orange curds are done draining and rinsing and they're ready to pack into these big metal boxes called "hoops." That's actual fabric in the boxes they wrap around the curd. The boxes weigh 40 lb each, and these guys were slinging 'em around like they were nothing. We couldn't believe how hard they needed to work. Also, we learned that a master cheesemaker must train for THIRTEEN YEARS. It's as specialized as being a doctor. Cedar Grove has TWO master cheesemakers on their crew. You're only certified for a particular type of cheese, too. So you might be a master in havarti or a master in cheddar.

The orange is an organic annatto colorant. All cheese is naturally white. They color the cheese, or not, depending on which market the cheese is headed for. Apparently Californians can handle white cheddar, but midwesterners can't.

This vat of milk way in back was at a much younger, pudding-consistency stage. This cheesemaker had to go around by hand and make sure nothing was sticking where it shouldn't. Yes, he's up to his shoulder in pre-cheese! We were surprised at all the things the cheesemakers had to do by hand, but the tour guide explained that that was the difference between artisan cheese and processed, factory-made cheese.

This pic is from their site since they weren't making cheddar that day, but to achieve the texture of cheddar, they have to take gallons and gallons and gallons of curds--that whole enormous vat-ful--and hand-knead them into these loaves. My back hurts just looking at this guy. After we left, we both admitted that we always used to think handmade cheese was pricey; now, we're baffled it's as affordable as it is. (The bison mozzarella was $13/lb. and I could get a ball of it for $5.)

The biggest waste product from cheesemaking is water. Cedar Grove has a special process for their wastewater called the Living Machine. It's a biological series of steps that renders the water safe enough to put back into the water table. It looks like a big, humid greenhouse with lots of plants in it, but you go in and see the water bubbling and churning through all these different vats. Many more pictures and an explanation of the process at their site.

To top it off, after we left the factory we pulled into a complete stranger's driveway to grab this picture, because I didn't think I could explain this local phenomena and have anyone believe it. This is just what it says. A money box. People put veggies outside with a money box and trust other people to drive up and pay for their produce on the honor system. YES, THEY LEAVE BOXES OF MONEY OUT AROUND HERE. That's why, sometimes when I think I might like to move, I feel drawn to stay. In Chicago, I was pickpocketed and burglarized. Now, I live in a part of the country where boxes of money sit on people's lawns. And the cheese here is friggin' amazing.



( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 28th, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)
I got the feeling it was highly specialized but not snobby, because cheesemakers in a way are like dairy farmers, or at least they work really closely with them. Both of the master cheesemakers had two specialties! Yowsa.

The bison farmer had actually been standing the bison next to an electrical source in metal milking collars and accidentally shocking them, so they really didn't like getting milked and needed to be retrained. Crazy!

They do start the cheese in the middle of the night...maybe it's more like an E.R. than we think!

And when they make Kosher cheese, a Rabbi has to come in and bless and add the enzymes. Where do they get a Rabbi out here???
Aug. 28th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
Sorry, I'm still stuck on the image of someone trying to milk a bison. O.O
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:10 am (UTC)
Me too!
Aug. 28th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
What an awesome trip. We have a chocolate factory on the outskirts of town that you can visit by appointment and peer through glass at the people making chocolate and making chocolate into eggs and other goodies. There's also a brewery closer to here that will give tours, too. But I heard that costs about $15 for the tour. I'll have to look into it. And many many wineries in the Barossa Valley... I really should do some of these things - although I have been wine tasting a few times ;)

People put veggies outside with a money box and trust other people to drive up and pay for their produce on the honor system.

Here, they'd take the veg, the money and the table.
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
I took a brewery tour a few years ago and it was fascinating! It was a small, commercial brewery that was the 2nd oldest in the country. Maybe I'll do another someday. Wisconsin's rife with beer and cheese.

Here, they'd take the veg, the money and the table.
No kidding. In Chicago they'd then pee on your house and spray paint a gang sign on your door.
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:26 am (UTC)
I'm so glad I live in the Adelaide suburbs.
Aug. 29th, 2010 10:07 am (UTC)
Ali, when we were in New Brunswick we went on a Gagnon chocolate factory tour and we got to go right next to the production line on the floor. (Can't believe they let us that close) but you had remove all jewellery even rings because some woman lost the diamond out of her ring once and they had to scrap a bunch of product that might have been contaminated. The thing that most interested me was when the cream filled chocolates get badly covered in chocolate (misses a spot or it gets squished) they put them in a big garbage bin and a local farmer would buy it and feed it to his cows. Lucky buggers. :-)

At the end of the tour they had a buffet table about 10 feet long with every kind of chocolate they produce and stuff like jelly beans and gummy candy and you had about 10-15 min. to gorge while watching ladies hand dip chocolates. You'd think that's not that long but 10 min. of eating nothing but chocolate actually makes you a bit queezy. The whole town smells like chocolate which probably also makes you feel queezy after awhile or you stop noticing it.
Aug. 29th, 2010 11:00 am (UTC)
That sounds wonderful. The factory here, very miserly, hand you a couple of chocolate samples. Nothing fantastic, though. No way you'd get close though. 'Occupational health and safety' would never allow that!

The people that work there actually say that after a while, they just don't want chocolate at all. I'm not sure I'd like that. I like liking chocolate.
Aug. 29th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
I had a friend who worked at the famous Frango Mint factory and he said the chocolate smell is great for about two days, and then after that it makes you sick.

I wonder if it gets that way with cheese? How can these master cheesemakers train for 13 years to make one kind of cheese and deal with the smell?
Aug. 29th, 2010 12:30 am (UTC)
Cool trip! Cheese making is so interesting. And we have money boxes here too. I bought some corn and an aloe plant that way today.
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
Money boxes make me so happy! I want there to be more decency in the world.
Aug. 29th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC)
What a fascinating field trip! You've inspired me to plan a day trip to Cheddar - I live pretty close to the place but have never quite managed to get it together to visit.

We have money boxes like that around here in rural Somerset. It was quite a shock when I first moved down here from the outskirts of London; especially when you see people leaving things like jars of honey out, which are pretty expensive.

Hooray for artisan cheese-makers and trusting gardeners!
Aug. 29th, 2010 08:18 am (UTC)
It probably has a lot to do with living in a city that makes us appreciate the money box. People who've lived in those rural parts all their lives probably don't find it unusual. Honey really is pricey. It's great they can leave it out.

I was teasing Amy because she has like 50 pumpkins growing in her yard and she has no idea what to do with them. Answer: money box and a sign that says "$3"!

You should totally do a day-trip! After I see a bunch of new stuff I didn't know about before, my brain feels really saturated; it's a great feeling.
Aug. 29th, 2010 10:02 am (UTC)
That is so cool. We have a cheese factory near us I always see the sign for, we should check it out sometime. I remember seeing how it's made on a special on TV once. Very cool. My Grandma always wanted to try it at home. You can buy rennet which I think is the enzyme and make yourself a squeeze box to get all the whey out. But we never did try it. I love cheese.

We also have a small town here who have a curd festival. They are famous for their cheese curds which are used on poutine (proper poutine, fake stuff just uses shredded cheese) and you can buy them for snacking. No clue what they do at the festival. Eat lots of cheese I guess. LOL

When we were in Amish country in Pennsylvania I saw some of those money boxes, just using the honour system. It's a different way of thinking for most of us.
Aug. 29th, 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
It's a big project to make cheese at home. You start out with all this milk and end up with a little disc of cheese. If you like really bland cheese you could always find a recipe for paneer (Indian cheese) which I think is basically milk and a bit of vinegar or lemon juice. I've made that. It's pretty messy!

Cheese curds are a big deal in Wisconsin. The curd at Cedar Grove was remarkable. The freshness is judged by how they squeak against your teeth, and I kid you not, these were the squeakiest curds any of us had ever eaten. Even the kids noticed. I think they were made only hours before.

We have a weiner and kraut fest near here...everyone eats hot dogs all day. (Not that near here...maybe an hour away.)

I love the money box. Maybe that will be my litmus test of places I'm willing to live.
Aug. 29th, 2010 11:29 am (UTC)
The cheese making looks fascinating. Did it smell much? I live in a small town in East Anglia and the money box idea seems to work here. I need to take a walk because I noticed that the house up the road is selling bunches of Asters, like they do every year. I missed getting any last year and they are prety flowers.
Aug. 29th, 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)
It did smell! We were all remarking on it because as we drove up I asked the older girl what she thought it was going to smell like, and she said milk. The new-cheese smell was wafting out of the shipping dock when we were walking up to the door! The Living Machine smelled, too, rich, green and funky like a pond.

I'm so happy you live in a town with money boxes, too.
Aug. 30th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
Awesome post! I adore cheese of all kinds, but never paid much attention to the actual production of it. Although I have to say, I'd definitely be skipping the whole milking-the-bison thing.
I completely understand what you mean about the kind of area where you can leave money boxes out. I live in a rural area in TN, and there are some produce/egg stands here that are still on the "honor system". After dealing with assholes with a mile wide sense of entitlement all day at work, it makes me happy that some people still trust their fellow man, and that there are still folks who are worthy of that trust.
Have a grand time in Vegas!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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