Understanding the Swiss Master of Milk, Willi Schmid
After meeting Swiss cheesemaker Willi Schmid and tasting almost 30 of his cheeses in New York last winter, I knew I had to travel to Switzerland to learn more about this talented craftsman. I was thoroughly impressed with his innovative approach to cheesemaking and so curious as how one man can make so many superb cheeses. World famous Swiss affineur Rolf Beeler, the great Swiss cheese importer Caroline Hostettler, and the author of Swiss Cheese, Dominik Flammer all say Willi Schmid is the best. But, I needed to understand for myself, a knowledge-hungry cheese professional, what makes him so great and how does he do it? After spending two weeks with Willi Schmid at Städtlichäsi creamery in Lichtensteig, Switzerland, I came to understand what makes this cheesemaker and his cheese so special.
Willi Schmid, a lifetime resident of the Toggenburg region of Switzerland, is a master at listening to the voice of the land and translating that voice into distinctive and ever-evolving artisanal cheese. His unprecedented creativity and a very broad knowledge of the science of cheese makes him one of the world’s leading cheesemakers. He has truly taken the craft to a new level. Simply put, Willi Schmid combines innovation with tradition to create unique cheeses of the highest quality that also happen to be Swiss. But there is nothing simple about how Willi accomplishes this. His understanding of the milk of his region is unsurpassed and he knows how to transform that day’s milk into the appropriate cheese expression. He has largely broken free of the classic Swiss cheese types and creates many styles, from goat’s milk blues to bark-wrapped washed rinds; over two dozen different cheeses in all. Some of these styles are new and yet they are completely terroir driven; conveying the personality of each milk, the season, and the land.
For Willi Schmid, the raw materials are absolutely the most important element of cheesemaking. He lives by the philosophy that only great cheese can come from great milk. Working with the area’s best farmers, he only uses milk of the highest quality from animals that are respected and well cared for. Willi examines the milk each morning by tasting it and only decides then which cheese recipe will best express the milk. He is very aware of the seasonal (even daily) changes to the milk and isn’t afraid to adjust his production schedule because of these changes. Every breed’s milk tastes different and, therefore, some of his cheeses are only made with a certain breed’s milk, and often only a particular herd of that breed. This kind of attention to detail reminds me of great winemakers where certain wines are only made from a certain plot of grapes, but, in the world of cheese, this practice is almost unheard of. For example, Willi’s cheeses Millstone and Jersey Blue are made only with the organic Jersey cow’s milk from farmer Hansruedi Giger.
Willi Schmid loves the cows he works with, especially the gorgeous Brown Swiss cows. One morning in the creamery, he said to me with a huge smile on his face, “I love my family the most and then I love the cows”. I could tell he was serious because he really does know the names of almost all the cows he works with. He pets them affectionately and speaks to them kindly, as if they are all old friends. He proudly tells me of each of their achievements, awards, and prizes. Willi even knows their personalities and temperaments, letting me know which ones get nervous easily or liked to be scratched behind the ears.
In the creamery, this master cheesemaker thinks and operates on a very intense level. He moves fast and exacting while juggling up to five recipes at one time in his head, using only his nose and palate, a thermometer, and 28 years of experience to guide him. Before 9 a.m. this man has received milk from a few local farmers, driven to get other milk, driven whey to local pigs, and made not just one great batch of cheese, but about four different kinds. They are all made with raw or thermised (gently pasteurized) milk from Brown Swiss and Jersey cows, goats, sheep, and even four beautiful water buffalo. After using very unique and creative techniques in the creamery, the bare minimum is done to the cheese in the caves in order to let the milk shine. There is little blue mold or white bloom and no heavy washed rinds.
I hardly need to say it, but, the final cheeses are sublime. They are some of the best cheeses I have tried during my career. The cheese speaks louder than these words, though, so go find them for yourself. Look for Bergmatter, Bergfichte, Jersey Blue, Hölzige Geiss, Millstone, Vivienne, and any made with Buffalo’s milk. Ask your local cheesemonger to start carrying these cheeses, if they are don’t already. Because now you can explain to him or her exactly what makes Willi Schmid and his many cheeses so special.