A trip to Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, oh boy oh boy oh boy!
By Sheryl Popp
After all these years, you can probably imagine I've duplicated types of events and businesses in articles any number of times. I'm then challenged to find a new angle, and give both subject and readers their due. But send me out to a cheese factory, and I'll go every other week. I have a great friend named Dave, who says he would never have to diet if he could give up cheese. Alas, silly man, c'est impossible. Really, is there any other food as versatile as cheese? Sauces, sandwich component, snack, dessert tray with fruit, grated and melted, cheese simply makes everything better.
We are so lucky in this state, to have as many family owned cheese factories still in business as we do. I visited with Joe Widmer, owner of Widmer's Cheese in Theresa, for this week's story. His family history is intertwined with Wisconsin cheese making, and he has many facts at hand. "At one time, there were a lot more cheese makers in the state," he said. "There were 140 in Dodge County alone and over 2,000 in the state. Now, there are about 130 in the state and five or six in Dodge County." Widmer Cheese was founded by Joe's grandfather. "The Germans came to Wisconsin first, and the climate here was similar to Germany's, and good for dairy production," Joe began. "Other immigrant cheese makers followed them here, which is why you have so many third and fourth generations making cheese." Joe's grandfather was Swiss, and he left home in 1905 when he was very young, only 17 or 18. "In those days," said Joe, "you had to have not only a visa, but a job lined up, and also three job references from your home country. My grandfather's job was only 10 miles away from here." Joe's grandfather John had a girlfriend back home, who wanted to visit him and the United States. In 1911, John traveled to New York to pick her up, only to find that she had no visa, and the authorities intended to send her back to Switzerland. "My grandfather asked if there was anything he could do to keep her here, and they told him he could marry her then and there," said Joe. "So he did. They honeymooned in New York, then returned to Wisconsin. This factory became available in 1922. They bought it and raised four children here." Joe explained that in those days, most cheese factory owners lived above their business. He was raised there, one of six children. "My wife and I lived here with our children too, until we built a home 10 years ago," he said.
Joe's the youngest in his family, and when he got out of high school, his father asked him if he wanted to continue his education or go into the family business. "I told him neither," said Joe. "I was sick of cheese and sick of school." Joe went to work on the railroad for several years. Whenever he came home, his dad talked up the idea that a food sciences degree in dairy was available at Fond du Lac Technical College. Joe decided to go, and graduated in 1978. He's gone to the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison twice, to obtain master cheese maker status for cheddar, brick and Colby cheese. Joe's father retired in 1980, and he ran the business with two uncles until 1997, when he was able to purchase their shares. Things have gone well, and Joe is happy with his career, but says it was a bit daunting to make the decision to enlarge the factory in 2004, when he added new offices, warehouse space and mail order capability.
Here is the greatest thing about Widmer's. What Joe decided not to do is automate. His cheeses are hand made, and they use the vats his grandfather John purchased in 1922, and the very same bricks to press the whey out of the cheese. More of an explanation is needed here, and it really fits in with my idea of valuing significant flavor in cheese. (My feelings were hurt a bit when I read in Widmer's info that one of the reasons for this is that aging baby boomers have aging taste buds and therefore seek more full flavors!) Widmer makes the same three cheeses that Joe obtained master status in. Within those three types, a number of variations are made possible by either adding flavorings (ie. caraway brick) or by varying the amount of time the cheese ages. Widmer's is perhaps most well known for their mild brick, but as most foodies know, that's not how brick began. It was invented in Wisconsin in 1877 by another Swiss born cheese maker, John Jossi. It's a derivative of Limburger, and uses lower levels of the bacterium rubbed on the outer rind of the cheese. Rubbing the rind is what develops the aroma, outer coloring and flavor. Jossi also had the idea of pressing the cheese with bricks, ergo its name. Although not as strong as Limburger, brick is still a heady cheese. Brick aficionados love the original version. But many people have more conservative tastes. Widmer developed its mild brick by rubbing the rind less, and wrapping it air tight, which stops the aroma from developing. "The primary reason we make cheese the same way as my grandfather is taste," said Joe. "It's like the difference between eating your grandmother's doughnuts and buying pre-packaged doughnuts at the grocery store. But there is secondary bonus. Using the same vats, the same bricks and the same rubbing methods makes for a great tour." Widmer offers guided tours Monday through Friday, at 9:30am, by reservation.
Joe's grandfather chose to produce Colby because it was another Wisconsin original, and cheddar because it was a popular, flavorful cheese. Widmer's ages cheddar from one to 10 years, and I sampled the eight, which was to die for. I inquired about the other items sold in the factory store. "All cheese factories will sell a greater variety of cheese than they manufacture on sight," said Joe. "You want people to be able to purchase everything they need from you. But, although we have some imports, most of our products are made in Wisconsin." More recently, Widmer's created an aged brick spread, which is mixed with cheddar. This too, is a super tasty, must try item. There's a lot more to learn by going to www.widmerscheese.com, plus all their great cheese can be ordered off the website. The factory is located at 214 W. Henni St. in Theresa, just off Hwy. 175, which is the main street. The phone number is 920-488-2503. The store is open from 7am-5pm Mon.-Sat., and 10am-4pm on Sun., June through Oct.
If you like to cook with cheese, one of the super features on the Widmer website is a collection of recipes. Here's one I think would really impress your guests.
SKILLET GRATIN OF SMOKED TURKEY
1 lb. potatoes, cooked, skin on, cooled
6 Tbls. olive oil, divided
2 tsps. minced garlic
2 Tbls. basil leaves, shredded
2/3 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 lbs. smoked turkey, shredded
1-1/2 tsps. salt, divided
1-1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided
8 ozs. leeks trimmed, rinsed, sliced (4 cups)
12 ozs. Wisconsin Brick cheese, shredded (3 cups)
Peel potatoes, slice into thin round slices. Reserve. Heat 2 Tbls. olive oil in cast iron skillet; add garlic and saute' 1 minute. Add basil & stock and cook until reduced to form syrupy glaze. Remove from heat, add turkey, season with half the salt and pepper. Reserve mixture in skillet. In 10-inch nonstick skillet, heat remaining 5 Tbls. olive oil over med. heat, add leeks and saute' until limp, about 2 mins. Add reserved potato slices and press down into pan to form a cake. Season with remaining salt and pepper. Continue cooking undisturbed over med. to low heat several minutes or until well-browned on bottom.
To Serve: Sprinkle Brick cheese evenly over turkey mixture in skillet. Flip the potato cake over and place on top of cheese and turkey. Bake gratin in skillet in 350º oven 10 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted. Cut into wedges and serve with crisp green salad and sliced tomatoes.
Makes 6 servings or wedges of gratin.