By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Brava magazine June 2007
Around the Table
Recipe: Pineapple-Cheddar Casserole
When Julie Hook signed herself “A friend in cheese” in an e-mail to me, I knew she was my kind of people.
In fact, for 31 years Julie and her husband, Tony, co-founders of Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point, have been best friends in cheese – to each other, to the small, sustainable dairies whose milk they buy, to patrons of many of the area’s finest restaurants including L’Etoile, the University Club and Blackhawk Country Club, and most certainly to all the cheese-loving shoppers in the area who appreciate quality local products made with passion and pride.
One of only a handful of licensed female cheesemakers in Wisconsin, in 1982 Julie became the first – and so far the only – woman to win the coveted World Championship Cheese Contest, bringing home the title of “Finest Cheese in All the World” for Hook’s Colby. Over the years, Hook’s cheeses have also won first place at the American Cheese Society awards, the Cheese Shop of Beverly Hills competition, the Wisconsin State Fair Governors Cup and more.
VVK: You and Tony celebrated your 35 wedding anniversary this May and you’ve run a business together for over three decades. How do you share and divide the responsibilities in your business?
JH: We’ve always worked side by side. Whatever needs doing, whoever has time just does it – we’re both licensed Wisconsin Cheesemakers. We’ve been working together so long it just seems to flow.
VVK: How did you get started in cheesemaking?
JH: In 1970, Tony began apprenticing at a small cheese factory in Barneveld. He got his cheesemaking license in 1972. In 1976, we formed Hook’s and moved our young family [the Hooks have two children, Shawn Hook and Melyssa Schroedl] to a small rural cheese co-op in Mineral Point. Together we made cheese, hauled milk and hauled out the whey, seven days a week, starting at 4:00 a.m. Little by little I learned from Tony how everything was done. We outgrew our rural cheese factory and in 1987 purchased [our current] factory in Mineral Point.
VVK: About how big is your operation, and what types of cheese do you make?
JH: We make up to 100,000 pounds of cheese per year – cheddar, Monterey jack, muenster, brick, baby Swiss, a good aged Swiss and a variety of flavored cheeses with garlic and onion, pepper, pesto, tomato basil, bacon, dill, smoke and horseradish. We also make a whole milk cheese we call Sweet Constantine, based on a Parmesan recipe.
Tony loves experimenting. He’s always trying new cheeses, new twists to his recipes and new techniques. In 1997, when we started making blue cheeses, there were not many places in the U.S. making it. We wanted to make a high quality blue that could be as good as any European blue. We think each of our blues is a little different – and yet as good as or better than – their European or American competition. Together we’ve created four different kinds: our traditional Danish-style blue, Tilston Point (a washed-rind, pungent blue), Blue Paradise (a double-cream blue) and a creamy gorgonzola.
We love to try new cheeses. When we make a new cheese we have a perfect place for taste testing: the Dane County Farmer’s Market, where we sample out all of our cheeses.
VVK: I’m curious about aged cheeses. Can any kind be aged? And what gives 10-year cheddar that distinctive, delightful, little crunch?
There are actually many cheeses that can age wonderfully – Parmesan, Swiss, cheddar. In general terms drier cheeses can be aged if they’re made properly, and moister cheeses cannot, because they break down faster and this usually gives the moister cheeses some off flavors. The bacteria and the enzymes in the cheese break down the proteins. Eventually the milk sugars (lactose) and the calcium come together to form the [crunchy] calcium lactate crystals which you find in many aged cheeses.
We age our cheddar cheese in curing rooms at just the right temperature and humidity for a slow curing process. Every few months each batch is taste tested to ensure that only the cheeses of the highest quality are saved to age. Each batch ages a little differently, and through tasting we pick just the right ones for aging long periods of time – seven, 10 or 12 years. Some people say once it gets to a certain age the flavor quits changing, but so far we haven’t found that to be the case. It keeps changing and getting more flavorful and better through 12 years.
We have a cave about eight feet underground that we cure our blue cheese in. It’s built into the hill where our factory is located. It’s kept at cave temperature and humidity, but it’s not a separate cave dug into the ground.
VVK: Tell me about the milk you use and the cows it comes from.
JH: We’ve worked with the same dairy farmers for the past 30 years. We have small farms – 11 to 60 cows – that supply us with high quality milk. Quality has to start at the farm in order to make great cheese. All of our farmers use sustainable methods of farming and have their cows out on pastures from May thru October. They have all signed an agreement with us that they will not use rBGH.
VVK: Traditionally, women made cheese at their farmsteads, but until recently almost all professional cheesemakers have been male. Why, do you think?
JH: Nowadays there are many more women in the cheesemaking profession. It’s a very physical job. In an average day a cheesemaker lifts, flips, carries and moves several hundred pounds of cheese. There are heavy salt bags, boxes and liners to be moved. You climb inside bulk tanks to wash them and pray you don’t slip. Everything has to be scrubbed and sanitized. It’s hot work in the summer and the old rock walls of the make room get really cold in the winter. You always have cheese to label and cheese to cut. And you have to wear an UGLY hair net! It’s not very glamorous. It sure saves on expensive work clothes, though!
VVK: What changes have you seen over the years in people’s awareness and appreciation of local, artisanal cheeses and other sustainable products?
JH: Not too many years ago most of the cheese produced and sold in this country was mild and without a lot of flavor, but things have changed, People have a real appreciation for high quality artisan cheeses. Even children have experienced palates. More people are looking for more variety and stronger and more varied flavors. Cheesemakers are changing – making more varieties and aging cheeses longer to fulfill these needs.
People want to know how their food is made and where it comes from. Everyone is becoming more educated about what they put on the table and in their bodies. That’s what makes shopping at the Farmers Market so special. You’re buying directly from the producer – it couldn’t be any fresher. People are asking questions and learning from us. And the producers are learning what people want and their concerns.
VVK: What’s your favorite way to enjoy cheese?
JH: Cheese fondue is delicious and a fun family event. You can’t have hot apple pie without Hook’s Ten Year Cheddar melted over the top. Give me a plate of Hook’s aged cheddar cheeses and all four of our blue cheeses – at room temperature – and a little of our son’s homemade ice wine. Kick off your shoes and enjoy! That’s the best.
VVK: What does the future hold in store for Hook’s Cheese?
JH: We’ll keep making cheese as long as we’re able. Who knows – maybe there will be a grandchild in the future that will want to take over. What’s around the corner for Hook’s Cheese? That’s what’s so exciting – not knowing!
Look for Julie and Tony’s delicious cheeses at the Dane County Farmers Market (In front of the glass bank), Willy Street Co-op, Sentry, Whole Foods, Brennans and many other markets, or call Hook’s Cheese at 608-987-3259.