It’s a busy night per usual at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, MI and I am having my first taste of the highly sought after Rush Creek Reserve, the new soft rind cheese from the makers of the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Carlos, the cheese monger, has a wheel hidden behind the counter and hands me a tiny plastic spoonful of the pale yellow paste. Soft and creamy with a tiny hint of mushroom, bold and beefy yet still delicate on the tongue, this bloomy raw-milk cheese seems to have it all. So why is this gooey goodness being hidden behind the counter? Demand for this cheese has been so high that Zingerman’s only has this one sample and the wheel I am taking home on hand. They are expecting delivery of a few more wheels next weekend, but how many is unknown.
I am not only here for the cheese, but to meet the innovative cheese maker who created it: Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Company of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Andy is a quiet, unassuming guy with a friendly smile and looks more like college student than a master cheese maker. We sit down at an outside table to talk about his latest cheese creation.
HM: There’s been some big buzz over your new cheese, Rush Creek Reserve. After ten years of only producing Pleasant Ridge Reserve, what made you decide to branch out into making a cheese that is young and soft?
AH: There were a couple of reasons. I think first of all we feel like we have a handle on Pleasant Ridge after ten years. We’ve done enough problem solving where we’re comfortable in what we’re doing enough to turn our attention to something else. And also, I wanted to do something new. I spent so much of my time focusing on the tiniest details of Pleasant Ridge that it was exciting; invigorating to be back at the drawing board. This is a style of cheese that is totally different, so the learning curve is steep. It’s like learning a new musical instrument or new language. You learn so quickly, it’s exciting. Personally and as a company, we wanted to have a new challenge.
So those are very important reasons. Also, this is milk that we don’t use for Pleasant Ridge and is otherwise milk we would sell to different cheese makers, so this fit into a space in our seasonal calendar that made sense.
HM: So, when you say this isn’t a kind of milk you would normally use in Pleasant Ridge Reserve, what does that mean? What kind of milk is it, exactly?
AH: It’s beautiful milk, but it’s the autumn milk. With Pleasant Ridge, we use only grass-fed milk. We begin making cheese in May when pastures come up and we finish by mid-October. As we come in to the autumn months and the cows stop eating pasture and start eating hay, it changes milk. It isn’t milk that is less good, it’s less ideal for Pleasant Ridge, which as an aged cheese can really express the flavor complexity inherent in grass-fed milk.
With a young cheese like Rush Creek Reserve, which is sold at sixty days, it doesn’t have time to express all that complexity. It relies more on the sweetness, the texture of the milk and the heaviness of it in the fall and the delicacy of the cheese maker’s touch. It’s perfect milk for Rush Creek. As the milk comes in to the autumn months, fat goes up, protein goes up, and it gets to be a bit rich for a hard cheese, but it’s perfect for a soft cheese. This type of seasonal calendar has existed for hundreds of years in parts of Europe.
HM: We are seeing more of the soft bloomy rind cheeses that have that have a runny, creamy paste. I just tasted both cheeses inside Zingerman’s Deli and I found the Pleasant Ridge Reserve to be grassy and earthy and tangy, while the Rush Creek Reserve was more meaty and beefy and more unctuous. Is that the flavor you were going for with the Rush Creek?
AH: I think this style of cheese, in my mind, is about a balance through restraint. It’s a difficult thing to achieve when you have to ripen it for sixty days. These cheeses are ideally or at least traditionally consumed at twenty-five to thirty days when you can ripen it aggressively for three weeks and have it soft and sweet, but not yet barny or animally. To take a cheese with this much moisture going out sixty days and still retain a sweet youthfulness was a real challenge. That’s what a lot of my recipe development centered around, trying to take a tradition of young cheese and age it out sixty days without letting the b-linens (a bacteria used to ferment cheese and add flavor) turn it into a stink bomb. That sometimes can be great, but wasn’t our aim as we wanted to create a cheese that was young and fresh.
HM: Even though it is a soft bloomy rind, it has a distinct coloring to it that almost looks like bark. What is the process in creating that unique rind?
AH: This is what lies behind what I was saying about striking a balance and monitoring the ripening of the cheese. The first things to grow on it are yeasts, obviously, and those bring the pH back up to the point where b-linens will start growing. These are the orange smear bacteria that run rampant in our building because they grow on Pleasant Ridge and we encourage them on it. What I’m saying by not letting the cheese get away from me, a cheese with this much moisture, b-linens will just take it and run. What I’m doing to control that is I will get the b-linens going and I’ll slow them down by growing some of these white molds, candidum. This is the white mold you would see on Brie or Camembert and it tempers the b-linens, dries the rind out, slows it down a little. I’m really trying to balance that the cheese comes ripe at sixty days and has a flavor balance. It doesn’t get too mushroomy from the candidum or too beefy from the b-linens.
HM: The flavors seem balanced and wonderful to me. Since Rush Creek Reserve is so new do you still consider it a work-in-progress?
AH: It is a work-in-progress and I’m not afraid to admit that. I still consider Pleasant Ridge a work-in-progress. Cheese making is all about problem solving, the conditions are always changing so if you relax enough and tell yourself your product is static, you’ve created it, now all you can do is knock it out, you’ll fail. We’re always working on our cheese and we’ve come a long way in these past years through trial and error and I think we’ve identified the flavor and texture characteristics that we want. We’ll continue to refine that.
HM: It took ten years for Rush Creek Reserve to come out from Uplands Cheese. Do you see any other cheeses coming, like maybe a blue?
AH: It’s been so exciting to learn about soft-cheese making and if we do decide to make Pleasant Ridge on a larger scale and buy the equipment then I’ll be able to make different types of soft cheese. I could be tempted into a Camembert or something else young and fresh. We are limited by the size of our farm, the number of cows we have, we aren’t a company that’s going to double our production.
HM: So this is a very limited run of Rush Creek and if you get it, you’re lucky. I’ve heard of a man in California paying Murray’s Cheese $68.00 shipping for a $24.00 wheel of wheel of cheese. Has the attention been a bit overwhelming?
AH: It has – and I’m not so naïve to think we would be able to sneak this into the market quietly. The demand has been flattering, but certainly more than we expected and certainly overwhelming.
HM: I read that this was sort of a test run, and I would say it’s been a success.
AH: It is a cheese that doesn’t commonly exist in the United States so it’s an education for our customers on how to serve it. I make it at night with evening milk because I want it warm from the cow and in very small batches. If we do decide to scale up next year, we’ll buy some more equipment and be able to make it in larger quantity.
HM: You mention education in serving. How would you suggest is the best way to serve Rush Creek Reserve?
AH: To lift off the top rind, take a knife and saw around the edge of it and peel it back so the cheese creates its own bowl and then spoon the paste out.
HM: As the cheese maker, what would you pair it with?
AH: It’s a young cheese and it’s delicate, so anything too robust could push it over. I eat it on boiled potatoes a lot. It’s spectacular. Or even roasted or baked potatoes. We eat it with dried fruits and nuts pretty often and I tend to have a sweet white wine like Gewürztraminer or a Riesling. For beer, something malty and sweet and some hops. Probably not porters or Scotch ales.
HM: With the holidays coming and people traveling, what would be the best way to transport Rush Creek Reserve?
AH: My hope is that next year, if we make this, we’ll put it in a box and that will solve a lot of problems. Part of the appeal of this cheese is its custardy texture, so it’s very soft and needs some sort of protection. You can’t just plop this in your grocery bag and pile stuff on top of it. Just use common sense and handle like any other soft cheese and keep it cold. When ready to eat, you should let it sit out for at least an hour or more because it needs that long time to warm up and really express itself.
HM: So, one last question. Where do you see the farm in ten years? I say ‘ten years’ because it took a decade to get to Rush Creek… so where do you see it ten years from now?
AH: The size of the farm now really dictates the production of our Pleasant Ridge schedule. If we continue to use only grass-fed milk, which we will, then I think we’re at maximum production, which is about ninety thousand pounds. If we expand Rush Creek to use the autumn milk until Christmas, which is when we dry the cows up, then I see significant growth for us. Beyond that, we’ve been dabbling in the meat production. We raise and fatten hogs with whey from cheese making and finish them on apples and that’s been really popular with chefs.
HM: That sounds incredible. Would that be available to the public as well?
AH: It is at certain restaurants in Wisconsin and Chicago and it is possible we might expand that. We also raise some veal calves and this year we’re going to be interested in expanding that.
Rush Creek Reserve is hard to find, but not impossible. Zingerman’s Deli is expecting a shipment this weekend where it sells for $26.00 and Murray’s Cheese has it for $19.00. If other shops have it in stock, let The House Mouse readers know!