The love of Uplands Creamery’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve is what prompted Westby, WI-based Hidden Springs Creamery’s owner Brenda Jensen to venture out into the world of washed rind cheese production.
“That was the inspiration for Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve, so I worked on a similar recipe,” she says. “The problem was, I didn’t know how much work a washed rind and raw milk cheese was.”
With the help of Dodgeville, WI-based Uplands Creamery’s owner Andy Hatch, Jensen learned about washing or brining.
“Andy took the time to teach me what it meant to wash or brine a cheese,” she says. “I went through a real learning curve, thinking I would actually be washing and reusing the brine.”
Thankfully, Jensen had a 30-gallon vat of sheep’s milk to work with.
“I wasn’t making a lot of cheese to start with,” she explains. “I went from making fresh cheeses into the raw milk, cave aged, washed rind type; it was a big leap.”
Because Jensen was aging the cheese on wooden boards, she also needed to learn how to wash and care for these, as well.
“I was so thrilled making an aged, hard cheese that I wanted everyone to try it when it was only three months old, but it didn’t taste like anything yet,” she recalls. She discovered that aging her cheese six to eight months was the sweet spot.
Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve is aged underground in cement caves that maintain a temperature of 52 to 54 degrees F year round.
“Watering the floor to keep the moisture up was new to me, too,” Jensen says. “I talked with people on how to do that, as well.”
She also had to learn how different times of the year impacted the aging process. Because of Wisconsin’s varying temperatures, Jensen invested in an HVAC system for temperature consistency.
As for its unique qualities, Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve becomes more flavorful from the brining and is more condensed from the aging process.
“The 3-pound wheels age pretty quick, so at six months, it had a nice sweet, nutty flavor, and the rind was wonderful,” she says.
Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve took first place at the 2019 American Cheese Society competition in the washed rind cheeses aged more than 60 days up to 42% moisture made from sheep’s milk category as well as first place at the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in the Hard Sheep’s Milk Cheeses category.
Jensen recommends pairing Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve with a dry red wine, like a Pinot Noir, or a good stout like a dark ale, which brings out the cheese’s sweetness. It’s great as part of a spaghetti sauce. The rind also can be used to flavor soup, and the cheese can be melted for a sandwich or to top a steak. And it is a great flavor enhancer for salads, as well.
Ocooch Mountain Grande Reserve is available at specialty cheese retailers nationwide, in addition to Whole Foods Market. “Our sheep and the people who work here are our greatest assets,” Jensen says. “If you don’t have good milk, you don’t have anything.”