Nothing Compares to Home
Jeff Wideman has been to the underground caves of Roquefort to taste French blue cheese. He’s experienced the smear-ripened cheeses of Austria. He’s even eaten Parmigiano Reggiano in the Italian valley it’s named for.
But for this Wisconsin cheesemaker, nothing compares to what he’s got back home.
“Wisconsin takes a backseat to nobody,” says Jeff, a Master Cheesemaker at Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, Wisconsin.
Growing up on a dairy farm down the road from Maple Leaf, Jeff was raised with a deep reverence for the cheesemakers who turned his family’s milk into some of the world’s best cheese. He remembers that in those days in Wisconsin, being called a good cheesemaker “was the best notoriety that that man could get.”
It Was Destiny
But as for how Jeff ended up in the cheese life – that was something bigger than notoriety.
“It was destiny,” Jeff says.
His journey began at the local dairy cooperative, where he met two expert Swiss cheesemakers: Hans and Sep Jaeggi.
“I learned early on that there were three ways to do something,” remembers Jeff. “The right way, the wrong way, and the Swiss way. And the Swiss way was definitely always the hardest.”
Jeff credits the Jaeggis with instilling the passion for cheesemaking in him from the start, and since then he’s had too many mentors to count.
“The people in this industry are amazing,” he says. “We're a big family – not only in the state but throughout the United States and throughout the world.”
A Tasty Tribute
That big family is making a lot of phenomenal cheese, but there are only two places on earth they can become certified Masters: Switzerland and Wisconsin.
Jeff is proud to be among the first cheesemakers to go through the program here, earning certifications in Cheddar and Monterey Jack.
“Graduating and being recognized as a Master Cheesemaker was definitely a highlight of my life,” says Jeff, who now sits on the board for the program.
He’s put his mastery to good use over the years, crafting exceptional cheeses like his Jeff’s Select Gouda (“My name's on it, but that wouldn't have happened without everybody,” he says of the dreamy, crystalline-crunchy masterpiece) and English Hollow, a Cheddar inspired by time spent overseas in Europe.
“When I came back I thought, Why can't I make a cheddar that way?” he says. So he did. “I'm happy that it was called English Hollow – this is a real place with a real meaning behind it.”
English Hollow was what locals used to call the area around Maple Leaf, due to a high number of dairy farms owned by English immigrants. The hand-turned, rind-formed wheel is a tasty tribute to the local heritage, and that’s hardly surprising – Jeff is deeply rooted in a sense of place and pride in his home.
“We're so fortunate to have the ground that we stand on here that gives us the milk with the flavors that we possess,” he says. “We're in a special place.”