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The Cheese Stands Alone by Terese Allen

A barrel-chested man with dark, receding hair and a no-nonsense but friendly style, Phil Vantatenhove looks a little like Tony Soprano (a good-guy Tony Soprano, that is). His office, the size of a mini-van, is across the hall from a broad window that overlooks white-coated cheese artisans and gleaming vats filled with works-in-progress. Like the small family farmers who supply his milk, Phil is a family cheesemaker, part of a community that thrives because of the fair prices and steady work that their relationship with Organic Valley supports.

Here's more from one of the little guys, on how he makes a very big cheese.

How and when did you and Organic Valley begin making cheese together?

It's been since '94, or maybe even earlier. Louise Hemstead [Organic Valley's chief operating officer] came to the area looking for a plant to make organic cheese-they weren't big, there wasn't as much organic going on then. We were, and are, small enough to work with the amounts of milk they had. When Louise checked us out, right away she said, "We want to get you certified organic. Are you interested?" She must have liked something she saw.

Or maybe it was something she tasted-your cheese, of course. Let's talk about the Raw Sharp Cheddar. What is raw cheese, anyway?

Raw cheese is unpasteurized cheese. Pasteurizing heats the milk and kills bad bacteria. But the hotter you make the milk, the more you damage it. With raw milk, you don't break down the fat and protein as much. Your chemistry is different. But raw is not completely raw-I heat it to 159 degrees. You need some warmth for the process to work. The difference between raw and pasteurized cheese is the initial amount of heating it gets; everything else is the same. Also, raw cheese must be aged at least 60 days.

I understand that the Raw Sharp Cheddar is aged eight to ten months. What about grading it? How does that work?

Cathy Pierce [from Organic Valley] does the grading. We send a sample block of cheese from each vat every week to her in La Farge. That's about twenty vats a week.

So what makes the Raw Sharp Cheddar-or any great cheese, for that matter-happen?

First, it's the milk itself. It's what you feed the animals and how you take care of them. That's the reason a certain cheese will taste one

way in one part of the country and different in another. And of course the freshest milk makes the best cheese for aging. Then it's your culture and how it grows, and it's also the cheese-making process. But it's more the milk than anything else.

Tell us more about the culture you use for making cheddar.

Organic Valley wants the unique, older-style flavor that my cheeses have, so when we started out we used pretty much the same culture, the same recipe as for [Gibbsville's] cheddar. It's my dad's recipe, probably goes back to my grandfather. But as the companies who make cultures consolidate, the cultures get more and more alike. Now Organic Valley works with a couple of culture houses to create their specific flavor profile. They don't want it to taste just like Kraft or Cracker Barrel or everyone else.

What's the process for making cheddar? And what is it that makes cheddar different than other types of cheese?

The process is this: you warm the milk, run it into the vat and add the culture. When it's full, you add the rennet--to make the curds form--and let the vat set, or thicken. Then you cut it and "cook" it, only to about 100 degrees, so it will harden, and you draw the whey off. Next you do the actual cheddaring-you turn the slabs of cheese and stack them, which squeezes out more moisture. Turning the slabs is why a cheddar is drier than a colby--they're very similar, except for the cheddaring.

That seems like a lot of work. Is there more?

Next you mill the cheese--which is how you get cheese curds, wash it and salt it. Then you press it into blocks and pack it for storage. The whole process, from vat to the end, takes about six hours.

You make it sound easy, but of course it's not. You must be a very busy man.

We're busy, but the same four guys are doing it every day. And because of Organic Valley, I don't have to go out and procure milk. I don't have to sell product.

In other words, you get to spend your time doing what you do best.

Yes, that frees you up. That cuts back on all the responsibilities. You're not fudging anything. All I have to do is turn milk into cheese.

And that seems to be in your genes. Tell us about your cheesemaking heritage--the factory, the family, etc.

My grandpa, who came from Holland, bought the factory in 1933. He got his cheesemaking license in '29 and he worked in Kewaskum for a while, then he bought the plant here. It burned down in 1945 and they rebuilt it. The current building is that same one. My parents took over from my grandparents in the '70s.

When did you enter the picture?

I was born in '61 and I started making cheese when I was 18 years old. I've been making it for 26 years now.

Are your parents still involved?

They're not involved officially anymore, but they still knock around here quite a bit. When it's busy, like at Christmas time, then everybody works.

Cheesemaking has changed a great deal from the old days to the present, hasn't it?

A lot has changed, but not everything. The milk still comes from local sources, for example. For Organic Valley cheese, I work with small farmers who belong to their co-op, CROPP, who all farm in eastern Wisconsin.

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Cheese to Please

Try Terese's recipes for
Gourmet Grilled Cheese
and Puffed Up Potatoes
made with Organic Valley Raw Sharp Cheddar!

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