Our group enjoyed our visit to Uplands Cheese Company so much that we were running late for our last cheesemaker stop of the day, Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis. So our time with Willi Lehner, affectionately known as the “mad scientist” of cheese in these parts for his constant tinkering of traditional recipes, was short but sweet. Especially sweet, I may add, because we got to see Lehner’s celebrated and sophisticated bandaged cheddar in its natural environment – the 1,600-sq.-ft. cave that Lehner dug out of a hillside on his farm.
No matter how blasé about cheese you may be, you have to admit that carving your own cheese cave out of the side of a hill is pretty bad-ass. It signifies not only a commitment to making cheese, but a dedication to making mind-blowing, truly artisanal cheese. A second-generation cheesemaker, Lehner credits his teenage trip to his father’s native Switzerland as the “a-ha” moment that led him to devote his life to cheese.
“That’s where I made the connection between what cows ate and the cheese that resulted [from their milk].” — Cheesemaker Willi Lehner
You may think that someone who builds his own cave leads a solitary, caveman-like existence, but Lehner’s cheese exemplifies the cooperative spirit shared among Wisconsin cheesemakers. He buys milk from his pal Andy Hatch’s pasture-grazed cows at Uplands and rents space at Cedar Grove Cheese Factory (or, depending on availability, another local cheesemaker’s facility) to craft his cheddars, goudas, havartis and Alpine-style cheeses from the spring through the fall. Lehner then brings his baby cheeses back to the cave, a capsule-shaped cocoon with a 12-ft.-high ceiling and two rooms with varying degrees of moisture. Though temperatures in southern Wisconsin can reach well below zero in the winter and close to 100º in the summer, Lehner’s cave design allows the interior temperature to fluctuate only within a 10-degree range throughout the year. The cave usually hits a low temperature of 48º in March and peaks at 58º in September.
Lehner’s signature cheese – bandaged cheddar – dominated the shelves of his cave when we visited. He wraps the heavy rounds in muslin bandages and smears the exterior with lard to keep the bandages from drying out too fast. The lard never penetrates the rind to mingle with the cheese paste, however – the mold that grows on the rinds in the cave consumes it within six months. Lehner chooses heavy muslin to prevent cheese mites (yes, they do exist!) from burrowing through the rind during the cheeses’ years in the yeasty-smelling cave. He sells the bandaged cheddar between the ages of 2 and 3, and the cliché is true – the best cheeses come to those who wait.
Lehner offered us samples of his 2-and-a-half-year-old “reserve” bandaged cheddar and Alpine Renegade, a nutty, creamy cheese that coated the mouth with its subtle flavor. The real stand-out, though, was the cheddar. Full of caramel notes and crunchy crystals, the cheddar leaves no doubts that it deserves its best-seller status. As I noted two years ago when I first tasted the cheddar, its sweetness is almost candy-like, making it a cheese to savor over a glass of wine rather than melting into a mac and cheese. Lehner sells it, along with his other cheeses and curds, at the Dane County Farmers Market, where I picked up his very potent garlic cheddar and a creamy havarti.
The cave is home to more than Lehner’s creations; he also ages cheeses for renowned Wisconsin cheesemakers such as Tom Torkelson and Katie Hedrich. And though it was only briefly home to our group’s curious minds, Lehner’s cave – as well as his cheeses – will be hard to forget.
Disclosure: The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board paid for our travel and expenses during the cheese tour. As always, all opinions, words and commentary are our own.