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ANTIGO – Mike Matucheski plunges his hand through a thick layer of frothy bubbles into the milky whey of a shallow stainless steel tank and brings forth what could arguably be Wisconsin's most favored cheese item: curds.

Before getting too excited, you should know these squishy globs of dairy goodness are infants destined for at least 20 months of maturing to become Sartori SarVecchio Parmesan.

Even at this tender age, Matucheski knows by taste and touch if a batch will mature properly.

"I know what this is supposed to be like. Tomorrow morning when they're taking the cheese out of the form, what it's supposed to be like, what it tastes like, if it's too acid or whatever,” Matucheski said. “I know that because I've done this way too long."

Too long is nearly 20 years as a licensed cheesemaker (you can't make cheese in Wisconsin without a license, really). Matucheski is one of about 50 active cheesemakers to earn master designation. Earned, as in taking classes, field work and passing exams in a nearly 3-year long program administered by the Center for Dairy Research through the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

RELATED STORIES: Sartori cheese starts with happy cows

Finding true (cheese) love in Plymouth

Squeak, regardless of a cheese’s destiny, is a good thing at the curd stage.

“You could make cheese curds out of Parmesan all day long and it's wonderful tasting stuff. It just is,” Matucheski said. “We don't do that.”

What Sartori has been doing since 1939, originally S&R Cheese Corp., is churn out Parmesan and other hard Italian-style cheeses. Most of its history was solely as a commodity producer with its cheese used in other food products. The Plymouth-based company's cheese didn’t hit retail and deli markets until 2007.

That was just one year after Sartori purchased the Antigo Cheese Co., where the likes of SarVecchio, BellaVitano, and MontAmore are now crafted. Transitioning from Antigo Cheese products to Sartori was a big part of Matucheski’s duties.

So far it's worked, his name is stamped on many of the award-winning cheeses. Now he's leading a second transition.

NEW ERA

Following a massive expansion in 2014, the Antigo team began the transition to the new equipment in August 2015. Production is still split between the old and new gear.

When the cheese being made has racked up hundreds of state, national and international awards, upgrading from the known comes with caution — even when the known is cobbled together with a 1970s-NASA-mission-control-room-looking Texas Instruments computer operating 1980s-era milk vats.

"We all get old," Matucheski said. "It's harder to take care of it."

Aging equipment, low ceilings, cramped space and brine tanks where workers bend over to lift and rotate hundreds of 20-pound wheels of cheese during a shift were all enough reasons to upgrade.

High ceilings, constant air temperature in the low 80s, permanently fixed equipment and plenty of elbow room are built into the new facility.

Now a touchscreen control panel for the milk vats is higher than the ceilings in the old section and part of a steel grid walkway that allows cheesemakers to check the vats without climbing up and down stairs.

The new acidification room, where cheese rests before slipping into a brine bath, comes with heat and humidity set to exact specs for each cheese style.

"We can make it really nasty in here," Matucheski said. "Like 90 (degrees) and 90 (percent humidity), and that would really suck."

But, can he make it rain in there? Yup, though I'm assured he wouldn't do such a thing.

Cheese will meet water, just not from a man-made rain shower, in a 60- to 66-hour brine bath in one of six stainless steel tanks in the next room. Capable of holding some 14,000 wheels of cheese at a time, the massive tanks are divided into vats where salt water is kept at a balmy 50 degrees.

"This was a building project like you couldn't imagine,” Matucheski said of the brining tanks. "I think everybody underestimated how complex it was. We had to build much bigger than the engineer thought we needed. We need it. Every bit of it."

On our way to the aging room, an alarm is sounding accompanied by a flashing blue light. I take it as a good sign that workers aren’t shoving each other out of the way in a panic-stricken dash for the exits. Matucheski calmly said the alarm sounds when a starter — a bacteria culture that starts the cheesemaking process — needs to be added to a vat of milk.

Sartori uses live starters, adding the extra work of managing its environment.

"I love our starters, I know what they're going to do," Matucheski said.

MASTERING THE ART  

Upon entering the aging room, Matucheski announced: "I can smell it today, most days I can't."

Usually the scents he picks up during the aging process, 8 months to 2 years depending on the cheese, are the ones that are out of place. Detecting odd odors is part of that blend of art and science of cheesemaking.

The science includes testing in a lab for salt, pH, moisture and fat.

The art of tasting and knowing: It's ready.

Going from starter to store with every batch isn't as simple as copying and pasting text.

"Everyday it's different," Sartori master cheesemaker Larry Steckbauer said. "You can make one batch of cheese one day and do the same thing that you did that day the next day and you make it just a little bit different flavor."

Though adjustments to replicate the end flavor, said another Sartori master cheesemaker Pam Hodgson, are more akin to piloting a big ship.

"Milk is our main ingredient, yet everyday it's a little bit different. Seasonally, milk will change," Hodgson said.

True enough. During my visit to Smilaire Registered Holsteins in Plymouth, a farm that supplies milk to Sartori, owner Paulette Ditter told me that come each spring their cows load up on fresh pasture grass.

"The first week it's hard, because they'd rather eat the grass because it's sweet and it's yummy, and then they don't eat much hay," Ditter said. "Once they get the pastures pretty much eaten off, then they eat their hay."

THE FINAL TOUCH 

A portion of the Antigo plant may have been a beer company at one time, but duck into the room where finishing touches are applied, by hand mind you, and wine smacks you in the nose. Wheels of cheese bathe in plastic bins of Merlot, bourbon and other flavors.

In the next room workers hand rub cheese wheels with cracked black pepper. On any given day the ingredients rubbed on could be basil or Rosemary or a grind of espresso beans. Each shift, a crew of three hand rub ingredients onto to as many as a 1,000 cheese wheels.

New flavor ideas are bountiful. Some (Mt. Dew) from customers, some (Swedish Fish) from employees. It's unlikely that Red Bull will make it to testing. Some get tested and rejected, beer hasn't worked — yet. Some get tested and surprise Matucheski, namely espresso grounds. Any flavor that makes it to retail coolers, such as the recently released Chipotle BellaVitano, has spent at least a year in development that includes tasting panels and in some cases small market tests.

New flavors are an obvious push beyond the status quo for Sartori but so is the new equipment.

"It wasn't about maintaining what we had, it was about making it better,” Matucheski said. “You're never good enough."

Chipotle BellaVitano Potato Salad

1 wedge Chipotle BellaVitano

2 pounds baby potatoes

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon chipotle spice blend

¾ cup celery, chopped

¼ cup Greek yogurt

Salt & pepper

Heat oven to 400 F. Line a sheet tray with parchment paper.

Clean and quarter potatoes, leaving the skin on.

Combine olive oil and chipotle spice blend in a large bowl. Toss the potatoes in mixture until all are well coated. Season to taste.

In an even layer, place potatoes on sheet tray. Roast for 15 minutes, flip the potatoes to ensure even browning. Continue roasting about 10 additional minutes or until fork-tender.

Allow potatoes to cool completely.

In a large bowl, gently combine potatoes with celery and yogurt. Finish with ¼-inch chunks of Chipotle BellaVitano.

(Recipe courtesy of Sartori)

MORE SARTORI

This is the final installment in a three-part series that goes from cows to cheesemakers. 

Part 1: Finding true (cheese) love in Plymouth
Part 2: Sartori cheese starts with happy cows

Daniel Higgins writes about food and drink for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin  
Email: daniel.higgins@gannettwisconsin.com,  
Twitter and Instagram @HigginsEats, facebook.com/gwmdanhiggins.

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