Foodservice professionals are trained to recognize a distinction between the words “clean” and “sanitary,” the former being essentially a colloquialism and the latter a clinically verifiable state of affairs. In the cheese room at Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, WI, where Cesar Luis and his wife Heydi practice their trade, the distinction is not a visible one. Everything from floor to ceiling is as new and stainless steel shines at a high buff throughout. There is no odor of bleach or other chemicals, as you sometimes find in environments where sanitation is at a premium. In fact, there’s no identifiable odor at all. Seasoned cooks know this as a precious achievement and a symptom of a workspace watched over with care.
During the half-hour I was with Cesar in his cheese room, that care was apparent in his words, expression and action. He’s not a tense man, but while speaking with me, was clearly on watch. A batch of cheddar curds whirled slowly before us in a warm water tank, being agitated by metal arms—the only part of the process that isn’t done by hand. As we talked, he excused himself to step to the tank and pick up a few curds, testing them for water content by squeezing them together in his palm. They did gather a little, but not eagerly enough—not ready.
Back to the cheese
The path from Oaxaca to Columbus, WI, took him away from cheesemaking for a number of years and into restaurants, auto body work and dairy farming. It was in Port Washington, while working at the Pleasant View Dairy that he made the decision to take up the craft again. “In my mind, you know, it was going to be easy, very simple,” he explained, smirking slightly. He was soon to find that the knowledge alone, which he had gained from his grandmother as a boy in Mexico, wasn’t sufficient grounds to hang out his shingle here in Wisconsin. Three years of certification training at the UW-Madison later, he had his license to begin production of both cheeses he’d learned from the Oaxacan tradition and those he’d picked up here. He has limited his production of traditional Oaxacan cheeses to queso fresco and queso Oaxaca, which is now sold in the string shape familiar to Wisconsinites. “We tried making it and selling it in a ball, like we do in Oaxaca,” he said, “but no one knew what to do with it.”
Learning by hand & eye
Six years on, his cheeses and his knowledge are much in demand. He estimates that it takes about a year for someone serious about learning cheese to get a handle on the fundamentals, though he says, “everyone learns differently.” Of primary importance; relying not on machinery or books to interpret the cheese for you, but rather learning the language of it by hand and eye. Referring to a young apprentice from Michigan in the shop for a few days, he said, “I could give him a book, like one of the ones I used getting my license. He’d have a million questions, and wouldn’t yet have the ability to make even a simple cheese. It would be a distraction—it would mess up his mind.” Even now, he says, he eschews adding new technologies or machinery in the shop unless it’s absolutely crucial in continuing to make or improve the cheese.
Wisconsinites are fortunate that this steward of skill and quality wasn’t lost to the obscurity of a job disconnected from his early training. You’ll find Cesar’s cheeses in the Co-op stores, at the Sassy Cow Creamery Store, and in markets around the city. Pick some up soon and taste tradition.