I use the Summer Food Drive as an opportunity to visit those places I’ve heard about for years and need to see/try for myself. When I was a kid you could not get me past the Kraft singles and near that weird stinky stuff the “grown-ups” ate while drinking “silly juice.” Over time the odd Fontina, Swiss or Cheddar was added to my repertoire. That summer after college was my first exposure to the real mature European cheeses. A traveling buddy used the ripest smelling varieties he could find as complements to our train compartment meals; to enjoy and to chase off other passengers with the strong cheesy smell so we could stretch out and “sleep for free” on the naugahyde vinyl compartment benches. It was a backwards introduction to a great food product, but it was an introduction.
Maytag Blue Cheese by the Original 1941 Recipe
As I’ve aged, I’ve become a fan of the artistry complexity/simplicity and patience involved in making (and eating) mature (in most senses of the word) cheeses. So while researching the Summer Food Drive ‘10, where I’d wanted to visit some farms raising heritage breeds (and did), I changed tacks and recalled that I’d always loved the blue cheese, but most especially the “Maytag” blue cheese. That researching phase was the opportunity to delve into Maytag cheese. Is it a style? Is it a brand? Where the heck did it come from? What made it so sought after and special?
So loaded with a large, multi-day, ice chest I deviated from I-44, the shortest distance between Pittsburg, Kansas (Chicken Annie’s Versus Chicken Mary’s) and St. Louis, Mo (Pappy’s BBQ and Iron Barley [track back]) to head 300 miles north across rural Kansas and Iowa to seek out Blue Cheese. Going out of my way is part of what makes the Summer Food Drive so much fun. I’ve seen, as we all have, a lot of office buildings, strip centers and Wal-Marts. I have not seen as many farmers, prairie roadside stands, and old town squares. When there is a worthy goal, to mix metaphors, at the end of the rainbow, the excursion is that much better. The only drawback might have been my rule about only eating at my planned stops. Almost 700 miles would be a long way to go just subsisting on some fancy cheese. I should not have worried.
It Looks Pretty Perfect From Here
Newton, IA about 30 miles east of Des Moines is, to a passing visitor as idyllic a town as you can find. It almost brought a tear to my eye to drive down the small rural lane heading from town to the farm and see the old farmers and their wives, laying wreaths and flags at their town cemetery for the upcoming Memorial Day. This town had served and still cared. Add in the fact that they have one of the most fabulous fancy fromage farms in the country and forget about it.
Rising early, I headed over to the Maytag Farm to meet Myrna Ver Ploeg, Maytag Dairy’s welcoming and energetic president.
Myrna Ver Ploeg President Maytag Dairy
Here is what I learned. Maytag is owned by the same Maytag family that started with washers and dryers in 1893 also in Newton. Apparently, Fredrick Maytag’s son, E. H. (Elmer Henry) Maytag was not into the corporate white goods thing. He was more interested in finance and in dabbling in a rural, bucolic life. He used his wealth to build a prize winning herd of Holstein cattle on a picture book farm just north of Newton. And the story would have ended there, an apple falling on the other side of the tree, if he had not willed the dairy farm to his sons.
On E.H.’s death, his sons Frederick Maytag II and Robert Maytag inherited a dairy farm and prize winning herd of Holsteins. What were they to do with it? They’d been to Europe and savored Roquefort Cheese (sheep milk blue cheese from France) and knew no one was making anything like it in the United States at the time (1940). As luck would have it, agricultural scientists Clarence Lane and Bernard Hammer at Iowa State University in Ames, IA just 50 miles away had just invented (1938) a process to make blue cheese from high quality cow’s milk. The process and the dairy were united and luckily for all of us Maytag Blue Cheese was born on October 11, 1941.
Maytag Blue Cheese starts out as homogenized (separated but not pasteurized) milk that is ripened before receiving a dose of rennet (a coagulating enzyme) to create the curds and whey. The whole concoction is allowed to cook in the hot whey and then drained. Penicillium fungi, which give the cheese it’s characteristic blue/green colored veins, are then added to the finished product.
The cheese rounds are formed by hand and then aged in specially designed caves that have high humidity and cool temperatures. Today, the company still makes cheese the same way as they first did in 1941. Biting into one of their wedges is like eating a bit of flavorful history.
The Maytag family still owns the company (and Anchor Steam Brewing) and sells the product from an office/packaging/warehouse space overlooking the dairy.
Inspecting and Packing Maytag Cheeses
Packing Maytag Cheese for the World by Hand
Luckily for my hunger pangs, there is a gift shop that sells product right on site. You can visit to get yours or more easily order via the Internet.
Maytag Blue Cheese, Newton, IA
2282 E 8th St N
Newton, IA 50208-8775