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The Americanization of Mozzarella : Trends: As Americans learn to love pungent foreign cheeses, our cheese industry is learning to make them.


DENMARK, Wis. — This town of 1,500 people, originally settled by Scandinavians some 150 years ago, may seem a strange place for an Italian cheese factory.

But on one of Denmark's back roads, amid rolling green farmland dotted with cows, stands the American headquarters of Aurrichio Cheese Inc. Once a Cheddar cheese factory, the Aurrichio plant is now crowded with millions of pounds of provolone hanging on floor-to-ceiling racks like sausages.

The sprawling plant with the pungent smell of cheese in almost every corner is one of two Wisconsin factories set up by Italy's largest provolone producer in response to America's growing quest for more ethnic, stronger-tasting cheese.

Just a half hour away, in the town of Pulaski on the other side of Green Bay, another Aurrichio plant churns out such Italian specialties as Parmesan, fontina, asiago and mascarpone. Five Italian cheese-makers oversee the two plants, which together produce some 25,000 pounds of cheese a day.

While small compared to such cheese-making giants as Kraft USA, Sargento Cheese Co., Tillamook Country Creamery Assn. and Land O'Lakes, Aurrichio's operations are a good illustration of the nation's changing taste.

Long considered a bastion of Cheddar, Colby, brick and even those rubbery processed American-cheese slices, the United States is slowly but steadily acquiring a taste for fuller-flavored, creamier cheeses. This follows our growing taste for spicy and more refined foods, from fried mozzarella and pizza topped with goat cheese to the creamy Italian dessert tiramisu.

It is thus no surprise that old cheese plants are now being used to produce brie, Parmesan, chevre and soft, creamy blue cheeses. For instance, Bresse Bleu, a French dairy cooperative, imported French equipment to Watertown, Wis., to convert what was once a brick and Muenster operation to the production of double-cream blue cheeses, brie and goat cheese.

Import quotas and a short shelf-life had been imposing constraints on Bresse Bleu. "It made more sense to make the product here," says the company's general manager, Bruno Bardet, whose cheese experience prior to coming to the United States consisted of "eating it two times a day for 20 years."

At first glance, there is little to tip off visitors that this cheese factory is any different from the 350 other plants in Wisconsin, the nation's No. 1 cheese-producing state. As in other cheese factories, workers wear white coats and hair nets as they process milk in 25-foot-long stainless-steel tubs.

The employees--all American--begin their work at 5 a.m.; by mid-afternoon the production area is nearly deserted. The only sign that work has been done rests quietly in the corner: three narrow, whey-draining tables stacked high with stainless-steel molds containing brie. The molds, filled only hours before, will be flipped every two to three hours to guarantee even draining.

However, it is the 50-degree curing room, where the brie ends up after being dipped into a brine solution for two hours, that sets the plant apart from its American counterparts. A faint white mist permeates the room. It contains the bacterium Penicillium, which eventually settles on the exterior of the cheese to create the creamy white rind.

About 90 miles away, in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, brie is also being made--by Besnier, one of France's largest cheese makers. Besnier's product, sold under the "Tradition de Belmont" label, has become one of the better-selling bries in the United States. In fact, business has been so brisk that the company has opened two other plants in California and plans more expansion as demand grows, either through buying American companies or by opening new plants.

But even as foreigners move in, American firms are expanding their traditional lines. Kraft, for instance, has added havarti, baby Swiss and Gouda to its popular Cracker Barrel line. And Land O'Lakes' Wisconsin cheese subsidiary, Lake to Lake, is considering adding Edam, Gouda and havarti to its production line.

One of the more highly automated plants in the country, Lake to Lake's factory in Kiel, Wis., makes about 164,000 pounds of cheese a day (primarily Cheddar) with only eight workers tending the assembly line. At smaller companies, the same number of employees can produce only about one-fifth as much.

The cumbersome slabs of Cheddar cheese curds have to be flipped every 10 minutes to create a dense, dry mass of cheese. Traditionally this arduous task was done by hand, but at Lake to Lake, an elaborate stainless-steel processing line, reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine with its crisscrossing pipes, mammoth vats, invisible stirrers, suction tubes and compressors, does it all.

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