DENMARK, WIS. -- This town of 1,500 people, originally settled by Scandinavians some 150 years ago, may seem a strange place for an Italian cheese factory. But on one of Denmark's back roads, amid the rolling green farmland that is speckled with cows, lies the American headquarters of Aurrichio Cheese Inc.
Once a cheddar cheese factory, the Aurrichio plant is crowded now with millions of pounds of provolone, hanging on floor-to-ceiling racks like sausages as the cheese ages for a year or more.
The sprawling plant with the pungent smell of cheese in almost every corner is one of two Wisconsin factories set up by Italy's largest provolone producer in response to America's growing quest for more ethnic, stronger-tasting cheese.
Just a half hour away on the other side of Green Bay, in the town of Pulaski, is another Aurrichio plant churning out such Italian specialties as Parmesan, fontina, asiago and mascarpone. In total, five Italian cheese makers oversee the two plants that together process more than 250,000 pounds of milk a day. The result: some 25,000 pounds of cheese.
While small compared to some of America's largest cheese makers such as Kraft USA, Sargento Cheese Co., Tillamook Country Creamery Association or Land O'Lakes Inc., Aurrichio's operations are a good illustration of the nation's changing taste.
Long considered a bastion of cheddar, colby, brick and even those rubbery processed American cheese slices, the United States is slowly but steadily acquiring a taste for fuller flavored, creamier cheeses. Macaroni and cheese, ham sandwiches topped with Velveeta and spaghetti casseroles sprinkled with cheddar or jack are fast giving way to more refined and spicy fare -- from fried mozzarella and pizza topped with goat cheese to the creamy Italian dessert tiramisu.
It is thus no surprise that former cheddar, brick and colby plants now are being used to produce brie, Parmesan, chevre and soft creamy blue cheeses. Bresse Bleu Inc., for instance, imported French equipment to Watertown, Wis., to convert what was once a brick and muenster operation to the production of double cream blue cheeses, brie and goat cheese.
With import quotas and a short shelf-life imposing too many constraints on the French dairy cooperative, Bress Bleu decided "it made more sense to make the product here," says the company's general manager Bruno Bardet whose cheese experience prior to coming to the United States was "eating it two times a day for 20 years."
At first glance, there is little to tip off visitors that this cheese factory is any different from the 350 other plants in Wisconsin, the nation's number one cheese-producing state. As in other cheese factories, workers wear white coats and hair nets as they process milk in 25-foot-long stainless steel tubs. The employees -- all American -- begin their work at 5 a.m.; by mid-afternoon the production area is nearly deserted. The only sign that work has been done rests quietly in the corner: three narrow whey-draining tables stacked high with stainless steel molds containing brie. The molds, filled only hours before, will be flipped every two to three hours to guarantee even draining.
It is, however, the 50-degree curing room where the brie ends up -- after being dipped into a brine solution for two hours -- that sets the plant apart from its American counterparts. The smell of brie is pervasive and there is a slight white fog that permeates the room. This mist contains the bacterium penicillium, which eventually settles on the exterior of the cheese to create the creamy white rind.
About 90 miles away, in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, brie is also being made by Besnier, one of France's largest cheese makers. Besnier's product, sold under the "Tradition de Belmont" label, has become one of the best selling bries in the United States. In fact, business has been so brisk that the company has opened two other plants in California and plans more expansion as demand grows, either through buying American companies or by opening new plants.
As foreigners move in, American firms also are expanding their traditional lines. Kraft, for instance, has added havarti, baby Swiss and Gouda to its popular Cracker Barrel line. Meanwhile Land O'Lakes' Wisconsin cheese subsidiary, Lake to Lake, is considering adding Edam, Gouda and havarti to its production line.
One of the most highly automated plants in the country, Lake to Lake's factory in Kiel, Wis., churns out about 164,000 pounds of cheese a day (primarily cheddar) with only eight workers tending the assembly line -- the same number of employees at considerably smaller companies produce one-fifth as much cheese daily. At Lake to Lake, the arduous chore of manually flipping the cumbersome slabs of cheddar cheese curds every 10 minutes to create a dry, solid and dense mass of cheese has been replaced by an elaborate stainless steel processing line, reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine with its crisscrossing pipes, mammoth vats, invisible stirrers, suction tubes and compressors.
For every Lake to Lake, however, there are scores of smaller companies around the country manually producing one-of-a-kind cheeses, from fresh mozzarella to goat and sheep cheeses. While these cheeses may not account for a large percentage of the industry's production, their sales are growing at a considerably faster rate than cheddar, brick and other so-called American cheeses.
"The cheese business is changing quite a bit," says John May, director of purchasing for dairy and deli at Giant Food Inc. "We're not selling as many processed cheeses such as American cheese. That business is basically flat or even declining a bit ... . The whole specialty cheese area is where a good amount of growth is coming from." And much of that, May adds, is being made by domestic companies. "The imported business is declining," May notes, largely because the strong value of the dollar has sharply increased the price of foreign cheese.
As is the case with many current trends, the aging baby boomers are behind the surge in specialty cheeses. For one thing, many have traveled extensively and tasted the wide variety of sharp-flavored cheeses made on the other side of the Atlantic.
Then there's the fact of their changing taste buds. "The same thing is happening to cheese that happens to wine," notes Jim Tillison, the former director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. "When you're 20 years old, you like simple wines but when you hit 40, you get into California cabernets ... . Children enjoy American cheese, but as they get older they want cheese with more snap."
A quick glance at America's restaurants confirms the notion that Americans want more flavor, comments Laura Chenel, a highly acclaimed California goat cheese maker who is credited as being one of nation's pioneers in the cheese revolution.
"You can look at the fast food level and there are so many more Mexican and Chinese restaurants now, especially compared to 10 to 12 years ago. Then look up a culinary level or two and you'll find at least one or two American regional restaurants in every city across the country where some young chef is trying new food combinations using American ingredients but in a different way. All of that indicates people are more adventurous in their eating," says Chenel, who adds that when she first sold her chevre in 1979, there were only "two or three companies experimenting with goat cheese. Now there are over 60."
Cheese makers also attribute cheese's growing popularity to America's increasingly time-pressed lifestyle. Despite its relatively high fat content, its high calcium content makes most consumers regard cheese as a healthful and convenient snack food. It's no wonder then that cheeses of all flavors and forms are being packaged for on-the-go consumers. As Floyd Gaibler, executive director of the National Cheese Institute, notes, "When I first came here in 1988, there was very little string cheese being sold. Now its mushroomed so that almost everybody is making mozzarella and Italian-type cheeses and marketing them as snack items."
The use of the microwave has also spurred cheese sales, particularly processed cheese. Kraft, for instance, took its Cheez Whiz -- a product from the 1950s -- and started a few years ago to promote it as a microwaveable cheese sauce, especially good on vegetables and nachos. The result has been double-digit sales increases every year, says Bob Eckert, Kraft's executive vice president and general manager for the retail cheese division.
Then there's the nation's most popular carry-out food -- pizza. Thanks to the sharp rise in its consumption, mozzarella use has risen more than 164 percent in the last 15 years; cheddar cheese on the other hand, has seen per capita consumption climb by only 75 percent. As a result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that mozzarella now makes up more than 25 percent of U.S. cheese production; cheddar, which in 1983 accounted for almost half of all domestic cheese production, now comprises only 40 percent of the cheese made in the U.S.
Overall, however, the United States is increasing its cheese consumption at the fastest rate in the world, according to Dan Carter Inc., a specialty-food marketing firm that advises a large number of cheese companies. In 1954, per capita consumption was 7.5 pounds; 20 years later it was 14.4 pounds. In 1988, it had grown to 25 pounds. Even so, America has a long way to go before it catches up with France, where consumption averaged 47 pounds per person in 1984, according to a report by the Manhattan marketing and research firm Find/SVP.
Ironically, the growth in American cheese consumption comes amid concerns about the healthfulness of foods high in fat. While dietitians caution consumers to limit the amount of fat they eat to 30 percent of their daily calories, most natural cheeses, such as cheddar, blue, Gouda, brie and provolone typically derive between 66 and 75 percent of their calories from fat.
Concerned that health-conscious consumers will turn away from cheese, domestic cheese makers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop low-fat cheeses. Each year, dozens of new low-fat cheeses are produced, but to date, they have gained only a fraction of the market, probably no more than 1 percent, Gaibler estimates. The reason is simple: with less fat and usually less salt as well, the cheese also has considerably less taste. (See related story on Page E1.)
Whether low or high in fat, cheese produced in America will not be as strong tasting as that found abroad. Repeatedly, European cheese makers note that they have considerably toned down the taste of the American versions.
"When we first came, we made provolone a lot more like the Italian one -- very, very dry and hard," says Errico Aurrichio, president of the U.S. operations. "We found out that the people here didn't like it that way. They wanted something more soft. So we changed it. We also don't age it as long as we do in Italy. We could, but the market doesn't want that kind of strong flavor."
The same is true of American brie and the creamy blue-veined cheeses, says Paul Bensabat, executive vice president of Besnier USA Inc. "The French like strong-smelling and strong-tasting cheeses. Americans usually like milder cheeses so we try in all of our cheeses not to make them too sharp." And now, Besnier has just introduced a new version of brie that doesn't have the rind that many Americans find offensive. Called "Wee Brie," the cheese is a blend of cheddar and brie.
In many ways, today's rise in specialty cheese production harks back to the beginnings of the American cheese industry in the 19th century when immigrants set up factories to recreate the cheeses they had eaten in their native lands. The Swiss, for instance, were one of the first foreign groups in Wisconsin to develop their well-known cheese. From the French came American blue, while the Dutch developed Edam and Gouda. The Germans brought Muenster and Limburger, and cheddar came from the English.
Gradually, however, as American demand for cheese increased and as the immigrants' offspring lost touch with their homelands, the distinct regional characteristics began to get lost and people began producing cheese in high volume, says Andrea Neu, director of consumer and trade relations for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The result, was mass production of cheeses like cheddar, which could be made easily and quickly and in high enough volume to meet demand.
"Now, as Americans have the luxury to go back to look for special tastes, there is an opportunity for cheese makers to go back to making and marketing those cheeses that set them apart from the high volume cheeses," Neu says.
APPLE, WATERCRESS AND BLUE CHEESE SALAD (6 servings)
Bright, crunchy and simple, this salad will catch your attention with its combination of sweet, salty and peppery flavors.
2 large dessert apples (such as Delicious), cored
4 ounces blue cheese
2 cups watercress leaves, washed and loosely packed
1 cup cashews, toasted
1/4 cup walnut oil
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
Cut the apples into eight wedges and then cut the wedges in quarters. Crumble the cheese into large pieces. Place the watercress, apples, cashews and cheese in a serving bowl. Mix the oil and vinegar, pour over the other ingredients, mix lightly and serve immediately.
Per serving: 301 calories, 8 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 276 mg sodium.
From "American Country Cheese" by Laura Chenel and Linda Siegfried (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1989, $18.95) FIVE-CHEESE PASTA BAKE (12 servings)
This is a fancy version of macaroni and cheese. It is very rich, so a little goes a long way.
1 pound macaroni or other pasta shape as desired
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded provolone cheese
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 to 2 cloves garlic, mashed
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Salt to taste
Prepare pasta according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, combine in large bowl Swiss, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Reserve 3/4 cup of this cheese mixture. Add noodles to remaining cheese in bowl. Combine remaining ingredients in small bowl and add to noodle mixture and gently stir. Pour evenly into greased 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan. Sprinkle with reserved cheese. Broil 10 minutes on middle rack.
Per serving: 202 calories, 11 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 7 gm saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 183 mg sodium.
Adapted from "Cheese Lover's Recipes from Wisconsin" published by the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board WELSH RAREBIT (3 servings)
For Regi Hise, national sales and marketing manager of Simon's Specialty Cheese in Little Chute, Wis., there is perhaps no better way to show off a well-aged cheddar than a Welsh Rarebit. This is his version.
8 ounces very sharp cheddar, preferably aged at least 2 years
1/2 cup dark ale, dark beer or red ale
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Dash cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 egg yolks
Grate the cheese and set aside.
In bottom of a double boiler, bring water to a healthy simmer; the water should not boil. Meanwhile, combine the beer, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper and butter in top of double boiler and place on top of water. Let sauce get good and hot. Remove the top section of the double boiler and add egg yolks and a small handful of grated cheese. Whisk quickly to cool sauce so the eggs won't become cooked. Put sauce back in water and add cheese a little sprinkle at a time. Always stir in the same direction. You are adding so much cheese to so little liquid that if you reverse directions, the cheese will collide with the cheese and the sauce will turn into rubber bands.
Serve immediately -- when all the cheese is stirred in and well mixed. Serve with toast points, pour over English muffins that have been topped with poached eggs or use the rarebit as a dipping sauce for fresh vegetables.
Per serving: 434 calories, 21 gm protein, 3 gm carbohydrates, 37 gm fat, 22 gm saturated fat, 281 mg cholesterol, 588 mg sodium.
TIRAMISU (6 servings)
This is a favorite recipe of Patrizia Auricchio, wife of Errico Auricchio who is president of the American branch of the Italian cheese company Aurrichio Cheese.
3 large eggs,* separated
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup espresso or strong coffee
2 tablespoons cognac
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
16 to 24 lightly toasted ladyfingers
2 tablespoons cocoa
Prepare mascarpone mixture by combining egg yolks, sugar, 1 tablespoon espresso and cognac in a large mixing bowl. Beat with rotary beater for 2 to 3 minutes. Add mascarpone and continue to beat for another 3 to 5 minutes, until consistency is smooth. Set aside.
Combine 3 egg whites and a pinch of sugar in another bowl and beat until mixture forms stiff peaks. Gently fold egg whites into mascarpone mixture.
Pour remaining espresso or coffee into a flat dish and gently dip one side of a ladyfinger in coffee. Dip lightly or the ladyfingers will become too soggy. Place the ladyfinger on bottom of a flat serving dish, about 12-by-7 inches with sides at least 2 inches high. Repeat with half of the remaining ladyfingers, making a single layer. Do not overlap. Add half of the mascarpone mixture and sift half of the cocoa over that. Repeat process with remaining ladyfingers, mascarpone and cocoa. Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.
* Uncooked egg yolks may be contaminated with salmonella and should be avoided by young children, the elderly and anyone with immune system deficiencies.
Per serving: 295 calories, 4 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 77 mg cholesterol, 146 mg sodium.
SALTED BRIOCHESTART NOTE optional END NOTE (10 servings)
2 1/2 cups flour
1 ounce yeast
6 tablespoons warm milk
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 1/2 ounces ham, cut into cubes
1 1/4 cups mild provolone, cut into cubes
Combine a scant cup of flour, yeast and 4 tablespoons milk to make dough and let rise for 1 hour. Incorporate the remaining flour into the risen dough. Stir in eggs, Parmesan, butter, salt and pepper and remaining milk to make dough softer (elastic). With electric mixer, knead dough for about 7 to 8 minutes until smooth. This can be done by hand too; it is an easy dough to work with. Mix until dough no longer sticks to the side and can be removed easily from bowl. It should be elastic. At this point, add the ham and provolone by hand. Mix well together.
Grease the bottom of a fluted, 12-cup bundt pan with butter. Arrange dough in pan so dough is half the height of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until dough rises to twice its original size.
Bake at 325 to 350 degrees for roughly 45 minutes, until golden. Cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pan, turn upside down on serving dish and slice.
Per serving: 345 calories, 17 gm protein, 26 gm carbohydrates, 19 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 132 mg cholesterol, 580 mg sodium.