Reader contributor Anne Spiselman reports:
Anyone who’s seen the film Living on the Wedge or just follows the goings on in the world of cheese knows that Willi Lehner is one of Wisconsin’s quirkiest cheesemakers. Renowned for his experimentation with washed-rind and mold-ripened Alpine-style cheeses–he’s even cured some with a “tea” made from dirt–the Swiss-trained owner of Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds actually makes his dozen cheeses at his fellow cheesemakers‘ factories, using mostly organic milk only from pastured cows. Then he ages the cheese in a tiny room that passes for a cave, controlling temperature and humidity with solar power and other ecofriendly methods.
At least that’s always been the case. Now, though, Willi has just about finished building himself an actual cave, digging out a mound down the road from his house. The entrance is aboveground but has four feet of dirt on top of it. The two cave areas inside–with different aging conditions–should be big enough to age the 30,000 pounds of cheese Willi produces a year, though he’s thinking about increasing that to 40,000 pounds. He’s also aging some award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve for his friend Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, where Willi really likes to make cheese because the rotational grazing (on grasses, herbs, and wildflowers) for the single herd of 140-160 cattle produces really delicious milk.
Because Willi prefers to sell his cheeses directly to consumers, about the only place you can get them is at nearby farmers’ markets, such as the weekly Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. However, on a recent trip Scott Harney and Brian Reed, the guys behind Eno, the wine, cheese, and chocolate lounge in the InterContinental hotel on Michigan Avenue, bought a few wheels of “Little Willi’s Big Cheese,” and it’s being featured on the menu until it runs out. Since Willi gives that name to whatever cheese he feels like, it’s unlikely that this one–which was made last year with milk from the Uplands herd–will ever be duplicated.