Cesar’s Cheese, began their local cheese company in 2008 by introducing their hand-made, traditional Queso Oaxaca (Wah-HA-ka), a cheese similar to mozzarella. Cesar and Heydi Luis were happy to find that customers at area farmers’ markets were wowed by the flavor and, almost five years later, they have begun to produce more varieties, including Manchego, Queso Fresco and more.
Between the tropical mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the State of Oaxaca, Mexico is where Cesar’s grandmother nurtured his passion and skill for preparing good food and making cheese. Given the productive soils for cultivating cool- and warm-weather crops, the rural area where Cesar was raised sustains an abundant number of fresh markets to serve households and restaurants that rely on them for fresh ingredients.
A love of cheesemaking
Working in car repair and milking cows since being in Wisconsin, Cesar’s love of cheesemaking gave him the determination and motivation to do whatever it would take to begin creating his own cheeses. After graduating from the UW’s Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker’s Program, Cesar’s first cheeses were originally produced in a rented space at a Shullsburg, Wisconsin creamery. This made for a very long commute (3+ hours one way) from their Random Lake home, until they found their new space at the Sassy Cow Creamery, near Columbus. As the parents of two children, Cesar and Heydi are enjoying the shorter commute, which has been a big relief, and the shorter drive gives them more time and energy for performing every step of the cheesemaking and packaging process.
How it’s made
Cesar and Heydi are producing their hand-made cheeses four days a week in 600-pound batches, using rBGH-free milk from Sassy Cow farms.
After pumping hundreds of gallons of Sassy Cow milk from the Creamery’s bulk tank, Cesar and Heydi begin their day. Queso Oaxaca is in the category of “fresh” cheeses, which are not aged. To maintain a consistent flavor profile while capturing the fresh flavors of the milk, Cesar must be aware of any subtle, seasonal changes in the milk. During this time of year (spring), Cesar says, “When I put the rennet in, then I notice that it takes less time to coagulate. This time of the year is really good for milk, whereas on a really hot day, it takes longer to coagulate because there are less solids in the milk.”
Once the milk reaches the correct level of coagulation, the cheese begins to take shape and is then repeatedly pressed to remove the watery whey. During the final stages of production, the technique for creating Queso Oaxaca requires Cesar to follow a very physical regimen of pulling the cheese, which is over 100 degrees, into small ropes. Forming the traditional-style Queso Oaxaca, Heydi winds the rope into a ball, which can later be sliced for use in recipes, or melted on top of foods. However, the majority of the ropes Heydi finishes are then cut into sticks, or cheese sticks. Cesar explains, “In Oaxaca we don’t make it in sticks. When I first tried to sell my cheese in Wisconsin, we sent them to the stores and we found that people didn’t want to buy it. They didn’t know what to do with it. One day, someone told me—this cheese is good, but I want you to cut it in sticks.” After modifying the shape of the cheese to a more familiar form for Wisconsinites, there was an immediate burst of new sales, after which Cesar noticed that more fans were also picking up the traditionally shaped balls if/when the stores were out of the sticks.
Visitors to Sassy Cow are able to watch the cheese being made, and Cesar has attracted a good following of local people who come specifically to buy and taste the cheese immediately after it’s removed from the brine, because, he says, “When it first comes out, it still has more of the salt on it, and the next day it’s really good, but it’s even better when it comes right out of the brine.”
The variations in milk composition from Oaxaca and Wisconsin were evident to Cesar. In Mexico, he says, “The milk is usually 50 percent more acidic than Wisconsin-grown milk.” Milk from the area of Mexico Cesar is from produces cheeses that are generally more tangy in taste and Cesar admits he’s had to play around a bit with the recipe to account for this but that it’s something he enjoys doing.
In noting more of the differences in producing cheese in Wisconsin, Cesar remembers having to stoke a wood stove to heat the milk in Mexico, which has given him a deep appreciation for access to the new and state-of-the-art cheesemaking equipment at Sassy Cow Creamery.
Currently, Cesar has started to focus on his Manchego cheese, which is traditionally made entirely with cow’s milk in Mexico. Although Manchego cheese’s origins can be traced back to Mexico, the Spanish Manchego is more common and contains both cow’s and sheep’s milk. Cesar recently brought samples of the Manchego to a meeting with Willy Street Co-op Cheese Buyers because he says, “Since Stuart [Mammel, our Cheese Coordinator] knows about cheese, if Stuart doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you right away, which is great. I like it; you gotta tell people the truth right away.” Already available in the stores, Stuart, Patrick, and all of our cheese-mongers are excited to be offering this locally made classic.
They are perhaps even more excited about Cesar’s Queso Fresco (a minimally processed, fresh, creamy white cheese with hints of feta and ricotta). Queso Fresco has a salty/sweet profile that is a good choice for melting over foods, stuffing into grilled chilies or as a cooling accompaniment to spicy foods. And to have a locally made option for this cheese is a big plus for the Co-op.
passion and drive
The subject of no less than a dozen articles and blogs in the years since introducing their traditional Oaxacan-style string cheese, Cesar and Heydi’s passion and drive to produce their cheeses is a common theme. But, as Cesar adds, “Sometimes people don’t understand how hard it is to make the cheese and that we use all-natural products to give people the best.” for a visit
If you’d like to visit the Sassy Cow Creamery to watch Cesar and Heydi making their cheese, you can watch them on weekdays from 10:00am until about 2:00pm. Find them at W4192 Bristol Rd. Columbus, WI 53925 or give them a call at 608-837-7766 / 608-445-2010 to find out more.