Shortly before I piled the cheese curds on a platter, sprinkled them with homegrown Espelette pepper and surrounded them with olives, I learned that this was a really lame idea. Cheese curds are supposed to be scarfed down like popcorn, straight from the bag. “They’re the potato chips of dairy,” says Jeanne Carpenter, a cheesemonger in Madison and authority on Wisconsin cheese. Obviously, I did it anyway, because fresh curds are rare where I live and worth some ceremony, and these were the best I had ever had.
“The reason why people outside of Wisconsin don’t understand cheese curds is because they’ve never eaten them fresh,” says Carpenter. “In Wisconsin, we don’t eat curds if they’re over a day old. The whole point is that they squeak, and after about 24 hours, the squeak goes out. (Here’s why.) I don’t want to be dramatic here, but once you have a squeaky curd, it changes your perspective.”
At Metcalfe’s Market, where Carpenter is cheesemaker liaison, Cheddar cheese curds are delivered fresh four days a week. They’re never refrigerated. Fifty pounds of curds, in half-pound bags, vanish in hours. Some customers finish the bag while they’re shopping.
“A good cheese curd has to be salty, it has to be squeaky and it has to be, like, squishy,” says Carpenter. Wisconsin creameries produce both pumpkin-orange curds (colored with annatto, like most Wisconsin Cheddars) and white curds, with no added color. Some people will only eat white; others only buy orange. “Customers will argue with you that they taste different, which obviously is not true,” says Carpenter. Many producers add flavors like dill and garlic, Cajun spices or “Ranch” seasoning, but Carpenter disdains those. “Just give me a fresh squeaky warm Cheddar curd,” says the monger.
“What you need to understand about curds is that they are the economic backbone of the Wisconsin dairy industry,” adds Carpenter. “A lot of famous cheesemakers are making fresh curds and selling them for $6.99 a pound, and that’s what’s financing the high-end artisan cheese in their cellars. Curds are the cash-flow king that keeps a lot of Wisconsin cheesemakers in business.”
Northern California’s newest creamery, Wm. Cofield Cheesemakers in Sebastopol, is also relying on curds to ring up some sales until its first bandage-wrapped Cheddars are ready. These are the curds I brought home last week, sweet, chewy and buttery, from Jersey milk. I visited the creamery on its third day of production, and cheesemaker Keith Adams scooped the curds straight out of the vat and into a bag for me.
These are not the same curds that, if aged, would emerge as fine Cheddar. For curds sold fresh, the milk must be pasteurized. And because complexity isn’t the point, Adams uses a single culture for these curds. For the aged Cheddar, he uses raw milk and a cocktail, or blend, of cultures selected for their flavor-yielding potential. Both curds have been “cheddared”—the laborious process of stacking and turning big slabs of curd, then feeding them through a mill.
“A day will come when we have fresh, warm curds every Friday afternoon,” Adams promised me. “Alas that day is not here yet.” For now, you can buy his fresh (but refrigerated) curds at the creamery’s small retail counter, open Friday through Sunday only, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (in The Barlow shopping complex, 6780 McKinley Street, #110, Sebastopol). For the freshest curds, go Friday morning. Bring them to room temperature before eating.
I’ll write more about this new creamery and its raw-milk Cheddar when the first 8-pound wheels are released this summer. The 30-pound wheels, a more traditional size, are receiving a full year’s aging so we won’t see them until next winter. But the enterprise has good genes. Adams started Alemar Cheese in Minnesota, known for its excellent Camembert-style Bent River. With Wm. Cofield, Adams is returning to his California roots (he grew up in Davis) and partnering with longtime friend and former winemaker Rob Hunter.