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ANTIGO - Mike Matucheski still lives on the family farm in Antigo, the same place where as a boy he made farmer's cheese with his grandmother.

Today he's a master cheesemaker with 24 years of experience, and his Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano was named the top cheese at the 2017 U.S. Cheese Championships.

Maintaining a healthy sense of humor and endless curiosity for the alchemy of cheesemaking, Matucheski is an early bird at the plant, starting his days at 5 a.m. The 58-year-old skips lunch most days, but he never passes up a cheese tasting.

His food roots

I actually have a great-grandfather who was a cheesemaker, but he didn't make a lot of cheese. It was a better living being a tax assessor.

My dad's mom on the farm, she'd make cheese out of sour milk all the time. Just farmer's cheese, and I learned how to do that from her. On my mom's side, her mother had friends who had a little brick limburger factory in central Wisconsin.

She absolutely hated limburger, but she wouldn't be rude. Here, Mikey, try this. I always would.

As the wheel turns

The biggest thing I need personally is to pass on what I do. It is not even about passing on knowledge, for me it is about passing on my approach. There is a whole bunch of knowledge that goes with it, but what I want to pass on is curiosity and dedication.

For me, this whole thing has always been very emotional. How can it not be? I tell my boys there is no greater privilege than to provide somebody with food. I learned that growing up as a kid, that's what my grandmas taught me. There was always respect for the cooks.

A perfect pairing

I went to college in Madison, and what were we into? Beer and cheese, of course. It was not unusual to take a trip to Green County. I remember buying Swiss for $1.25 a pound. Cheese has always been a theme.

Back to the beginning

I really needed a real job in 1993. They were hiring here in Antigo, and at that time it was the Kraft plant. I was the last person Kraft hired, because two months later on my birthday, they walked in and said they were closing the doors and moving to California.

This is the point where cheesemaking changed in Wisconsin. We had the employees buy the Kraft plant and became Antigo Cheese.

We were still making essentially the same things we always made. We'd made a lot of cheese, but weren't good at selling it. We were either going to go under or find somebody to buy us. Sartori turned out to be the best thing.

Carving his own path

I went to UW-Madison, my interests were journalism and archaeology. I spent a long time in the school of education, thinking I was going to be a high school teacher. I left with a history degree. There is really no set path to becoming a cheesemaker.

The sniff test

My approach is to always taste and sniff. I'm one of those weird ones. When I eat things, I do sniff. Other people don't. They just eat.

Playing favorites

Pastorale Blend is my sweetheart, and any of the BellaVitanos, because I guided that. It is a fact of life here, no joke, our new plant was built on BellaVitano.

In the beginning

I was super insanely interested in brewing beer. I've got everything you possibly could, collections of books. I developed a reputation for that. I wanted to do that, but cheese became a natural extension of that.

First cheese he made

That would be some farmer's cheese with grandma. Both my grandmas got to see me become a cheesemaker. She was very proud, because her dad was a cheesemaker. We never made a big deal of it in the family, because he walked away from it, but he did get trained.

The cheesemaker's cheese

It's a tough one. I have like 30 kids here, as we call the cheese. How do you pick one? You know, if we go way back, SarVecchio, it has been made forever in this plant. It was called different things. That one is like candy.

Edible experiments

I think it was a little surprising that Espresso (BellaVitano) is as popular as it is. There is at least one other coffee rub cheese out there and I tasted it, and, well, it wasn't what I liked.

One of my friends, a cheese guru, said why don't you do your own version? It was figuring out what would work. Don't you just put milk in your coffee sometimes? Wouldn't that make sense?

Taste to try

What would be the first thing I'd put in front of somebody? Probably (Sartori's Reserve) Black Pepper BellaVitano, not because it won, but because it has always been a favorite of mine personally. I like the bite, the sweet, the crunchy and the fruity, all those things.

Trends and tastes

What's really hot right now? Turmeric and ginger. I've been playing, and at first wasn't too happy. The later stuff is rather interesting. Is it everybody's cup of tea? Ha. No. That becomes the great challenge.

He could never give up eating...

Cheese. I eat cheese every day. Everybody gives me a hard time because I don't eat lunch. What do I need to eat lunch for? I never say no to cheese, and my cholesterol is wonderful.

In his kitchen

I'll add it to most anything. I'm in a hurry and I like this soup out of a can. But it needs something, so of course I have some cheese.

Something I'm really guilty of is cheese and Parmesan fish crackers. I have to travel around the state, because they're not available in Antigo.

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