Monday, February 06, 2006

Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese – La Valle, WI

One of the greatest pleasures Sid Cook gets from his life long journey as a cheesemaker is the personal freedom it affords him: the freedom to travel, to discover delicious cheeses from around the world and to bring them back to Wisconsin as inspirations for his own unique creations. A proponent of specialty cheeses long before they became the current rage among American gourmands, Cook is best known for producing high-quality, artisanal aged Cheddars. He now takes particular delight in trying new things, however, and in coming up with new varieties that he hopes will become as well-known "Wisconsin originals" as Colby and Brick.

The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program has helped him in this quest. "Jim Path, at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, urged me to get involved in the program," Cook says. "I resisted, thinking I really didn't need it, but once I got started I found it to be extremely valuable. Most of my cheesemaking experience has been hands-on. But I now better understand the technical side and the theoretical side. That's what's allowing me to make the new cheese varieties. It's opened my knowledge base so I can do new things."

Among the varieties Cook produces at Carr Valley's plant in La Valle and a second plant in Mauston are Fontina and Cheddar, in which he is certified as a Master Cheesemaker and specialty proprietary cheeses such as Canaria, Me'nage, Benedictine, Mobay and Marisa, named for his 14 year old daughter. Many of his new creations are small batch mixed-milk cheeses that he's had success selling to high-end restaurants and to specialty food stores nationwide, as well as to customers at Carr Valley's own retail stores.

A fourth generation cheesemaker, Cook grew up in a cheese plant and has been involved in making cheese for nearly 40 years. "My family lived at the cheese plant," he says. "When you opened the kitchen door, there was the plant. I started helping out a lot before I was 12 and got my cheesemaking license when I was 16. After high school, I went off to college and got my B.A., in political science, but I came back and got involved in the family business."

Carr Valley in La Valle has been in business for more than 100th years. "My mom's family started one of the first cheese plants in Vernon County in the 1890's," Cook says. "And Carr Valley Cheese dates back to 1902. So our roots run deep here."

Cook says his father, Sam Cook, has been his biggest mentor in life and in cheesemaking. He also credits his uncle, Floyd Burt, for teaching his father the art and business of cheesemaking, and he points with pride to the fact that his 18 year old son, Sam Jr., just got his cheesemaking license.

Lucky for Wisconsin specialty cheese fans, the Cook family tradition is stronger than ever. Sid hopes to start working soon on getting Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification in two varieties of his own creation.