If you think that Wisconsin loves cheese, you should try going to Switzerland. Or better yet, bring some of the Swiss affinity for cheese over to the States. That's exactly what Willi Lehner's parents did in the early 1950s, when they brought their passion for great Swiss-made cheese to Wisconsin.
As a second-generation Swiss immigrant and dual-national, Lehner has continued the family tradition of bringing quality cheeses to Wisconsin in the form of Bleu Mont Dairy, his own organic cheese farm located near Blue Mounds. Lehner does not own any cows, but instead purchases milk from organic dairy farmers and then makes the cheese at one of several different facilities, depending on the type of cheese. He makes sure to buy milk from only one farmer at a time in order to maintain quality, as mixing milk can lead to poor cheese.
Lehner learned many techniques for making cheese from his parents, such as how to use a wood-fired copper kettle. He also spent time living in Switzerland, where he was taught many other aspects of the process, such as the benefits of using only grass-fed cows. He attributes much of his success to the fact that the milk he uses comes only from certified organic, grass-fed cows. Lehner explains that cows did not evolve to eat silage -- essentially chopped corn or alfalfa that goes through a fermentation -- which a majority of commercial cows are now fed. Rather, they evolved to eat grass, which he notes gives their milk a much better flavor.
Lehner also notes that another major difference between commercial cheese and the cheese that Bleu Mont Dairy offers is that commercial cheese comes from pasteurized milk, which destroys some of the flavor nuances.
Bleu Mont Dairy has been at the Dane County Farmers' Market for 25 years and can be found on North Carroll Street on Saturdays, as well as at the Wednesday market. He sells a variety of cheeses, including Goudas, bleus, and cheddars, one of which is the highly-regarded Bandaged Cheddar Reserve. His cheese can also be found at several Madison restaurants, including Harvest, The Old Fashioned, and L'Etoile.
The Daily Page: What's your most popular cheese?
Willi Lehner: I would say my Cave Aged Bandaged Cheddar, which won first place from the American Cheese Society.
What cheese do you wish you made, but don't?
Sbrinz. It's a hard cheese from Switzerland that requires special equipment to make. It's considered the "Grandfather of Parmesan."
Do you have recipe to share?
No specific recipe, but I've been told that my cheeses make a great macaroni and cheese.