The only thing more mid-America wholesome than church-going is cheese-making, so it’s fitting that John and Anne Hoyt—after years of bouncing around temporary Leelanau digs—landed inside the defunct Sutton’s Baby Bible Church. Although it must be said, I can understand how you could go belly-up producing labor-intensive artisan cheese in a style most Michiganders have never heard of, but how do you flop as a church?
No matter; so far, the score is God – 0, Raclette – 1.
The story begins in the pastoral hills of Valais, Switzerland, home to half of Swiss wine production as well as ground zero for raclette—the semi-soft cheese whose eponymous dish is a culinary mainstay of this small, landlocked country. Both Valaisian traditions combined to make John and Anne Hoyt; he was an exchange student from Detroit learning French while picking up seasonal work in the vineyards; she was a cowgirl from France doing seasonal work in the alpages of the Swiss mountains. They met in 1986 at one of the many Swiss junctions where these two culture cultures meet and, finding that he had had more interest in caseiculture than viticulture, John went to Chateauneuf School in Valais to earn his cheese degrees.
After stints at several respected Swiss dairy co-ops, John and Anne traveled to Oregon, where John’s brother had an in at Springfield Creamery (owned by author Ken Kesey’s family) and from there, to Omena, Michigan in the Leelanau Peninsula where John used his European-honed pruning skills at Boskydel, L. Mawby, Leelanau Cellars and Good Harbor, socking away nickels and dimes and on the lookout for a stainless steel pasteurizing vat so that the couple could pursue their one and true love.
“I finally found one in a neighbor’s basement; original purpose unknown,” John says, “but it was a steel-jacketed vat the right size to pasteurize enough milk to make eight wheels of raclette per day—our goal at the time. We set up shop in an unused room next to Keith Brown’s Omena Harbor bar. It used to be a gas station bay, so we had to clean the oil off the floors and fire up the boiler in the basement for heat. That went well enough; I paid Keith a couple hundred dollars a month for use of the stalls and a percentage of sales.”
A workable business plan until Brown sold the bar and the new owner neglected to pay the utility bills. Cheesemaking, besides being a sterile proposition, requires precise temperature control. “We were reduced to bringing in propane tanks to run the operation, and that got old pretty quickly.”
Add to that the stress of hauling milk up from Garvin Farms in Cedar in the back of his Ranger, nine cans at a time, and the future of Leelanau Cheese hung in the balance.
It was finally tipped by Lee Lutes, who in 2000 was (and is) the winemaker at Black Star Farms. The cheeseworks relocated to the Farm, where Anne and John acidified, coagulated and separated curds from whey in full view of a semi-tipsy crowd in the winery tasting room. They tripled production, upping the ante to 24 wheels per vat every couple days and found retail outlets that essentially bought every pound they didn’t sell through Black Star’s lively souvenir shop.
That lasted for fourteen years—and I recall it being a mandatory stop in Sutton’s Bay for plenty of those years. Whatever happened I am not a party to—somebody cheesed somebody off, who knows?—maybe it was just time to move on—but the new operation in the repurposed sacellum, where the sprawling ex-prayer room serves as the the place where the magic happens, is perfect.
To Brie or Not to Brie…
Had John Cleese wandered into Leelanau Cheese, his conversation with John and Anne Hoyt might have progressed exactly as it did in the classic Monty Python sketch; there’s no caerphilly, perle de Champagne, gorgonzola, camembert or mozzarella—certainly no Venezuelan beaver cheese—and of the thirty-seven other cheeses the customer requests in his frustrating television attempt to cheese-up, he makes no mention of raclette. Too bad: If he had, he’d have walked out a happy man. Like Germany and wine, Leelanau Cheese makes only one product and makes it better than anyone else.
Don’t take my word for it, though. The American Cheese Society awarded John and Anne Best of Show in 2007 and at the Michigan State Fair, they’re seven times champions. Follow-up awards from the Wisconsin-sponsored U.S. Championship Cheese Contest must have been like a California wine winning the Judgment of Paris in 1976.
So, what is raclette? Like most people, I thought it was the name of the 1970s melted-cheese party dish like fondue rather than the cheese itself, but it turns out that raclette day was a lazy one for people-who-name-meals. Raclette is classified as either semi-soft or semi-hard (as riesling—an ideal accompaniment—can be labeled ‘semi-dry’ or ‘semi-sweet’ depending on the marketing strategy) and is characterized by an edible, nut-brown crust that forms after a brine bath and an inoculation of yeast and coryneform bacteria; the cheese then undergoes a period of cellar aging during which it is washed with salt water daily.
In the ideal wheel, the interior is smooth, ivory-colored and gently piquant with flavors of buttery hazelnuts, herbs and resplendent with earthy complexity. Melted, preferably before a roaring hearth fire and requisite in serving raclette-the-meal, it becomes velvety and runny and traditionally accompanies small Valaisian potatoes and gherkins.
Unwilling to be labeled ‘one-trick-ponies’, the Hoyts produce not one, but two presentations of raclette, neither made from pony milk. The ‘sharp’ version undergoes prolonged aging in order to ripen; up to ten months in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.
On the day I visited, work was underway to construct a massive steel-and-concrete cellar in the rear of the property, which, when completed, will be to cheesemaking what the Large Hadron Collider is to particle physics—both inventions of the Swiss, by the way. Age-time is always a delicate balance between spoilage and improveage; that’s why it has to be approached with such surgical precision. Done correctly, a transformation of casein proteins and milk fat into a complex mix of amino acids, amines and fatty acids happens gradually, turning a mild, milky young cheese into a graceful oldster filled with character and depth. The tang of aldehydes and alpha-keto acids offer a sensory experience that is often called ‘sharp’, although like ‘Reserve’ on a wine label, there is no industry standard for such a designation. In any case, Leelanau Cellars’ aged raclette offers an array of variations on a theme: Beneath the taffy-colored rind, the pungency is more pronounced, the nuttiness nuttier and the richness redoubled in a slightly drier package; there is a savory weight to it that seems almost meat-like. For the extra two and a half bucks a pound, it is well worth it.
When asked why he has not branched out into other cheese varieties, through curiosity, if nothing else, John Hoyt gave me the same sort of puzzled stare that Michael Palin did when asked if he carried cheddar, the most popular cheese in the world—a look that said, “Not much call for it around these parts.” In fact, cheddaring—an add-on process in cheesemaking wherein the curds are kneaded and stacked—is something requiring extra time, extra space and extra practice, none of which the Hoyts are currently able to invest.
“I would like to try my hand at Gruyère,” he admits, naming the other, similar quintessentially Swiss cheese, which is a little like a pinot blanc maker saying he’d like to branch out into pinot gris.
For now, we’ll have to settle for the raclette and the Cheesus puns; the glittery highbrow and the guttery lowbrow that makes Leelanau Cheese Co. such a Pythonesque paradigm.