Cheesemaking happens on many levels. There are 250,000-pound-a-day operations that ship out cheese using fleets of tractor-trailers, and—on the other end—there's a guy carefully emptying a nylon bag of delicate goat milk curd into a stainless steel form. Scott Erickson of Bass Lake Cheese Factory is one of those folks holding down the artisan end of the cheesemaker brotherhood, less than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities.
Tattooed and slightly scruffy, wearing clothes more casual than the starched, name-bedecked white uniform of a typical cheesemaker, Erickson could easily be a sculptor or an abstract painter. This is fitting; while most of his fellow certified Wisconsin master cheesemakers celebrate the artistic aspects of their work, Erickson is consumed by them.
"I've always been really into art," he says. "That's one thing I excelled in during my school years. Art's a way of expressing yourself, and I feel pretty much the same thing about cheesemaking.
"One of the best compliments I ever got was from a professor at the University of Minnesota," Erickson says. "He was one of the main judges at the Minnesota State Fair. And when you sent your product in, they'd remove all the labels, and it would be co-mingled with hundreds of different cheeses. But he told me he could always identify which cheese came from here."
The spacious Bass Lake shop stocks a staggering array of goat, sheep, and cow milk cheeses, and it's not surprising that they stand out to the trained palate. His chèvre, a mainstay of Bass Lake's business, is delicate in flavor and texture, almost melting in the mouth, a gentle cloud of milky flavor spiked by a note of tangy acid.
Erickson is also known for his Juustoleipa, Finnish "bread cheese." A sweet, mellow cheese that stands up to grilling, baking, or immersion in a cup of hot coffee without melting, Bass Lake's Juustoleipa survived a most unusual rite of passage.
"We went to FinnFest up in Hibbing, Minnesota," he says. "And if you don't know Finnish, you're kind of an outsider. And I don't know Finnish. Anyhow, we were sampling up there, among all these true Finnish people. And an elderly lady came up, and she was talking to, I assume it was her daughter, in Finnish, and her daughter translated that she wanted to try some Juusto."
At this point, the stakes were raised.
"Her daughter more or less scared me by saying: 'This better be good, because she makes it at home,'" he says. "So we had some warmed up, and she tries it, and turns around and walks off, and I thought: 'Oh, no.' And then she turns around and nods her head. It was the closest she'd come, from anything bought in the United States, to what it is in Finland."
Bass Lake Cheese Factory will be hosting a wine and cheese tasting this Saturday, June 14, from 1 to 5 p.m. Find out more at blcheese.com.
James Norton is writing The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin (mastercheesemakerbook.com) for the University of Wisconsin Press.