Juan Velasquez's week at cheese maker Willi Schmid
Städtlichäsi in Lichtensteig
with Willi Schmid
The week spent with Willi was a great opportunity to see first hand the attention to detail and pride taken in the making of the different varieties of cheeses he produces in his lab.
Willi speaks very little english and that was a real barrier specially when there was opportunity to pick his brain. He was, nevertheless, extremely open and patiently answered every question without hesitation.
Days at the cheese lab start early, Willi may get there anytime between 4 and 5:30 am, to receive the milk and set up the production plan for the day. Besides himself there are three more assistants in the lab and two lovely ladies (with whom I communicated perfectly fine though smiles everyday) who help out preparing the orders and receiving clients in the shop.
As in the kitchen, working in a cheese making operation is physically demanding, when the production is at its peak we are literally at full steam, particularly when making Bergfichte (one of his most popular cheeses) the spruce used to shape and flavour the cheese is heated in a steam machine, plenty of hot wáter is used to wash the molds for the other cheeses, the enormous cheese tubs containing the milk are heated to specific temperatures depending on what it will be turned into, when all this is happening at the same time the whole environment gets very steamy, like a milky sprucey sauna. In the middle of it all is Willy, in a low voice indicating his collaborators what to do, mixing cultures in the tubs, adding rennets, operating the machinerie, taking temperatures, molding, de-molding, cuting the curds, checking the maturation rooms, brushing the cheeses and from time to time heading out for a quick cigarette break.
What I liked the most of the time spent with Willi was the fact that I could get acquainted with a super professional person and a real master of this craft who decided to do his very own and original thing. He has been making cheese for over 30 years and after having mastered the classics he set himself apart by going to the source of it all, the animals, the food they eat and the flavour the grass imparts to the milk. And from that “bouquet” he succesfully creates what today is close to 24 different cheeses of his authorship. He also produces a super clean and elegant tasting butter from jersey raw cream by the way.
In my opinión his cheeses are deliciously fine works of art made with tons of care, passion, discipline and personality. Even the labels for each cheese are drawings from either his son or daugthers, his wife Beatrice or himself.
Jersey cow at one of the only three farms from which Willi gets his milk. He pays almost double for each liter so the farmers can strive to keep the standards at their highest.
Willi takes a few minutes during production time to cut himself the Jersey Blue, one of his bestsellers, for us to taste. (That cheese has won “Worlds best jersey cheese” award several times”)
Another champion cheese, The Bergfichte maturing at this stage. Many times imitated but this one right here is the original one. Willi is actually cool when he learns someone is using this same technique of molding the cheese. I am sure is because only he can get the perfect milk for this particular cheese made with raw jersey cow milk, besides the know how of the making.
Part of the lab where the magic happens. Sometimes this tubs are filled to the rim with fresh milk that is kept in the big cylinder at the back and that is operated through a computarized touch screen (on the right) that controls the flow and temperatures of the milk. (The tubs are Italian made, same as the cultures used in the cheeses.)
Willy straining and almost huging the curds that later will turn into the beautiful “Jersey Blue”.
The brushing process of the maturing cheeses is taking place, the machine was acquired only six months ago. Before, it was all done by Hand.
I helped doing the brushing by hand and it takes nearly 30 min long to go through only one column of those cheeses. With the machine is less than a third that time IF Willi is behind it. This process has to be done three times a week and is done to every single cheese. Smaller cheeses still have to be done by hand.
Just to Illustrate: sometimes we did manage to comunícate in easy english, clear example when I pointed out that he seemed to be a DJ playing his best records while operating that machine, to which he laughed. For other matters, I have to say I wished I spoke German!
The time with Willy was super interesting and more importantly gave me a unique insight into his world and definitely pictured the value of doing your best to make your own self shine through your work. I didn’t need a translation to understand that part. Willi has definitely mastered the nuances of cheese making. So this quote seemed appropriate to conclude this week´s Report:
“Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that bull*** and just play”