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A lot of products use the word "Amish" in them and often their ties to the church and culture are tenuous at best. I had seen Salemville Amish Blue Cheese in grocery stores before but never thought much about it, assuming it was just another corporate complex someplace that had slapped "Amish' on the label. But as I was planning writing Amish Cooks Across America and the different stops we'd make, I discovered online chatter about a cheese factory in rural Wisconsin that really does have a strong connection to the Amish.
Nowhere have the Amish found their dairy niche more than around the community of Cambria where the Salemville Cheese factory crafts delicious cheeses. The Salemville Cheese Co-op is the only entirely Old Order Amish-run cheese factory in the United States. The company is owned by Saputo, a large international conglomerate based in M0ntreal. However, you wouldn't know it from the unassuming, low-slung building on a nondescript country road outside of Cambria, Wisconsin. The "suits" generally stay out of the operation and let the Amish make the cheese as they have for generations.
The first hint that the Salemville plant was different was the employee parking lot, which didn’t have any cars, just horse-drawn buggies. Adding to the factory’s “plain” presence was the small on-site retail store, which sells a variety of cheeses and was staffed solely by Amish workers.
Salemville’s cheese niche is narrow: The company makes only blue cheese and one variant, gorgonzola cheese. It seems like there isn't much middle ground when it comes to blue cheese: you either love it or you hate it. Many Amish in central Wisconsin have learned to love it. More than 60 Amish dairy farmers participate in the unique co-op that supplies the milk to the Salemville Cheese Company. Amish participating in the co-op hand-milk their cows twice a day and deliver the milk to the Salemville Cheese Company in 10-gallon containers.
LaVerne Miller, who manages the property, arrived there with one of several groups of Amish that have settled in central Wisconsin from northern Indiana. Prior to moving to Wisconsin he had no prior experience with blue cheese. But Miller learned the craft and is now a certified master cheesemaker.
“They are both mold-ripened cheeses, but gorgonzola is an older cheese,” Miller explained. The gorgonzola cheese has to age for 90 days, while regular blue cheese ages for 60. The aroma inside is an overpowering wave of blue cheese. I was struck by how nuanced Miller had become in the science of cheese-making.
“When we started out in 1984, we would use 9,000 pounds of milk,” Laverne said, describing the annual milk usage. Almost 30 years later, Salemville uses three times that amount. He explained that a lot of the process to perfection has been trial and error.
“A lot of things we had to learn the hard way,” Laverne said. For 15 years, Miller, his wife, and their growing young family inhabited the relatively cramped living quarters above the cheese factory, unusual living arrangements for most Amish who tend to live on spacious lots. Now Miller and his family live on a nearby farm.
Five Amish sit on the board of directors of the cheese co-op, which guides the business. Salemville cheese is found in many major retailers, including Kroger and Costco.
So what is Miller’s favorite way to enjoy blue cheese?
“It goes well with fruit. I love to eat it with an apple,” he said. He, like many Amish from northern Indiana wasn’t always a blue cheese fan.
“It took me a while, but I like it,” Miller said.
Miller, donning a beard covering and gloves, puts on a fascinating tour as he guides visitors through the cheese-making operation. It’s fascinating to watch the cheese born from its liquefied milky mass sloshing around in vats to its final form in the aging process and then as its crumbled into fine blue cheese. This whole process takes time, and there’s a lot of science involved. One entire room is devoted just to aging the cheeses for 60 to 90 days, depending on the variety. At this point in the production process, the cheese has been shaped into large cylindrical blocks. And there they sit, awaiting their turn to be set free and turned into finely marbled crumbles, which will then find their way onto people’s potatoes, salads, and fruits.
(Editor's Note: Because of the product's Amish authenticity and the fact that I've personally toured the premises and love the product, I am happy to have Salemville aboard as a promotional partner on this website. We'll be featuring their recipes and other blue cheese fun in the months ahead!)