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CHICAGO—At a farmer’s market on Chicago’s north side, Mike Stumm hands out cheese samples.
He stands before a table filled with various blocks and wheel portions, entertaining potential buyers with cheese trivia and providing pieces to try. Next up: an Asiago cured in a raspberry ale.
“That sounds oh so novelty. Until you taste it, and you realize that somebody actually made a really shrewd decision here,” Stumm said. “Taste it.”
Stumm works for Stamper Cheese, an organization that selects and sells the products of about a dozen high-quality cheese makers who are almost all from Wisconsin. The products (some of which are also sold at Whole Foods for nearly twice as much) incorporate the finest ingredients, time-honored methods, and regional character.
“I’m not really selling anything. I’m curating,” Stumm said.
In a society that worships the new, the trend in cheese is defiantly old school. Over the past 20 years, a number of cheese makers have emerged in California, Vermont, Wisconsin, and other states focusing on small batches and artisan methods. Consumers who grew up on Kraft Singles and aerosol cans, now seek an experience with more personality and pedigree.
There are about 30 cheeses on Stumm’s table, including five Goudas, two Swiss, two Brie (one layered with bleu and the other with apricot preserves), a Monterey Jack with dill, a soft mascarpone log rolled in crushed pistachios, and many more. They run two to three times what you would pay for a conventional cheese, but Stumm’s customers think it’s worth it.
“The thing about quality is that we’re so used to degraded stuff. When people sit down to make a quality thing they know that they can price it commensurably,” he said.
Cheese buyer Justin Schubert is one of Stumm’s regular customers. He shops here for the quality and variety. “The first thing I ever tried was the Nettle Gouda,” he said. “I never had anything quite like that before.”
Stumm explains that this cheese is made by Marieke Penterman, a Holland native who moved to Wisconsin 20 years ago. She picks the stinging nettles herself, which grow right near her driveway.
“All of these cheeses are a story unto themselves. They are from small farms. There are not many cows, not many goats,” Stumm said.
Stumm’s cheeses offer more flavor than mass-produced Colby and cheddar, but they may be much healthier too.
It starts with the main ingredient.
A study by Washington University researchers in 2013 found that pasture-raised milk was far more nutritious in protein and vitamins than the milk of conventional corn-fed cattle. In addition to being of free of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, and chemicals, organic and pasture-raised milk also had more health promoting fatty acids. The fat profile of conventional milk was found more likely to cause inflammation.
Cheese provides essential minerals (calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus), as well as vitamins A and B12, but it’s the bacteria that makes it so special.
Cheese making was born of necessity and predates recorded history. Fresh milk sours quickly, so any civilization that fed on dairy would also develop methods to preserve it.
Cheese making involves a process called lacto-fermentation. Unlike modern methods for extending shelf life, the lacto-fermentation process also imparts probiotic properties similar to those found in fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and pickles. These food-preserving micro-organisms also increase vitamins, help us digest our food, and strengthen our immunity.
From kimchi to pickled turnip slices, all cultures fed on lacto-fermented foods. For dairy people, it was yogurt, cheese, and other milk ferments. Health professionals suggest that the rise of many modern diseases come from a diet that lacks beneficial bacteria. So especially for people with ancestors of a dairy heritage, good quality cheese can improve the quality of gut flora.
Basic cheese making requires rennet (an enzyme-rich curdling agent), salt (for flavor and to inhibit putrefying bacteria), and time (to allow beneficial bacteria to develop). Stumm’s cheeses range in age from an extra sharp eight-year cheddar to fresh curds, which are not fermented at all.
“Curds are almost not cheese. It’s milk and rennet stirred together. This is what’s at the bottom of the drum after 15 or 20 minutes,” says Stumm, handing out pieces. “Initially, they were cheese factory novelty items in Vermont and Wisconsin.”
“If they’re good, they squeak on your teeth,” one curd buyer said.
The Place Makes the Cheese
A smart cheese maker knows different locales produce different cheeses.
Stumm explains that the first Stilton was made in England—the unintended result of washing a bleu cheese in a river with a unique mineral content. As he tells the history, he distributes samples of a rich Wisconsin-made Stilton—Tilston Point Blue, by Hook’s Cheese Company.
“You need a sour water to make this. The farm that makes this discovered that it was sitting on such a stream. They were uniquely suited to making a Stilton,” Stumm said. “That sort of entrepreneurial spirit appeals to me: We’ve got a sour water, let’s make a sour water cheese.”
“You could, I suppose, engineer that sour water, but then it wouldn’t be as much fun, and then you’d be able to do it anywhere.”
Other factors to consider when making cheese are gauging the proper variations in temperature and humidity and the diet of the animals making the milk (the cows that make one of Stumm’s products feed exclusively on spring clover).
Element of Chance
Cheese makers strive for a consistent product. But when working with micro-organisms, unexpected yet pleasant results can emerge.
Stumm remembers a particular cheddar that was a customer favorite for the last two years. Despite repeated requests, it’s no longer available. The cheese was born of a series of accidents: Cheddar was injected with a bleu mold and stuck in a forgotten corner for an undetermined length of time. Stumm says the cheese maker tried to recreate it. He can’t.
“There’s a certain poetry to the notion that he made something by accident. Poetry is larger than the sum of its parts. That’s exactly what that cheese was. It took several things, put them together, and suddenly you get this,” Stumm said, for the first time lacking a sample for context.
“Recently a woman came looking for it. I had to explain what had happened to her and she was that close to weeping,” he said.