Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar
When Science Friday told us there was a “mad scientist” in rural Wisconsin making a bandaged cheddar described as “an American treasure,” we were intrigued. It took several calls and emails to convince said mad scientist, who goes by Willi Lehner, to sell us some of his limited quantity cheese, but boy were we happy persevered once we tasted it.
As far as we are concerned, his Blue Mont cheddar is one of the best (if not the best) cheddars we’ve ever had. It’s complex with a great balance of fruitiness, sweetness and earthiness. It’s not surprising that Willi is turning out to be one of the best cheesemakers in America. It’s practically in his genes. His father was a Swiss immigrant who managed a Wisconsin cheese factory.
Willi’s had his hand in cheese vats since he was a young boy. He spent most of his 20s in Switzerland, where he learned cheesemaking firsthand. He also spent time in England learning the traditional art of making bandaged (or clothbound) cheddars. Back in Wisconsin, he started experimenting with cheesemaking, tweaking recipes to adapt to his local environment. He’s a bit of an itinerant cheesemaker though, since he doesn’t own any of his own animals or cheesemaking equipment.
Instead, he purchases organic, grassfed milk from neighboring farms and rents time in the vats from nearby creameries. What he does have, though, is probably the most important ingredient for bandaged cheddar — an underground cave he spent a year building into a hillside on his land. The cave allows him to control the humidity and temperature during the aging process.
Aging is particularly important for bandaged cheddars. Unlike cheddars sealed in wax or plastic, clothbound cheddars absorb the flavors around them – good or bad, which makes them much more labor intensive and harder to get right. Bleu Mont Cheddar gets its complex and earthy flavors from the 12 to 18 months it spends in Willi’s cave, being meticulously turned, brushed and cared for. It’s Willi’s care and his cave that make Blue Mont Cheddar a cheese that truly tastes of the place it was made. In addition to being dedicated to creating superior American cheeses, Willi’s operation, in the scenic “driftless” region of Wisconsin, is committed to sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.
Pairings. These pairings come from Willi himself. He suggests pairing his Bandaged Cheddar with Belgian beer, IPA, lager, Pilsner, or red wines such as Merlot or Pinot Noir that don’t have a lot of tannins, or with an American cider.