The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin: An Interview with Author James Norton

James Norton and Becca Dilley are fast becoming the "Brangelina" of the Midwestern food scene - a smart, high powered couple whose presence is everywhere. Not content to have launched the terrific food website Heavy Table early in 2009, this fall sees the release of their first book together, the excellent "The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin." I recently caught up with James and pumped him with questions about the book.

Simple, Good, and Tasty: Your new book, "The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin," is beautiful. How did it come about?

James Norton: Becca Dilley - who in addition to being the photographer for this book, is also my wife - and I both lived in Boston for a number of years. While we were out there, we found ourselves having to be ambassadors from the world of cheese to the world of people who don't really understand what cheese is. We'd bring cheese to parties, and people would look at us strangely, as though we'd brought condiments - we'd have to explain that, yes, you can just eat the stuff as is, and it's delicious. At any rate, being informal cheese spokespeople led us to learn a lot about cheese, and Becca learned about the Master Cheesemaker program in the course of her homework.

In a nutshell, the program is a 2-3 year course of study in cheesemaking that can only be undertaken by people who have been making cheese as licensed Wisconsin makers for 10 years or more - it's a fair bit of coursework at the University of Wisconsin, and a 30+ page written exam at the end.

We got intrigued - who are the people who are so serious about making cheese that they sign up for it? How would their stories tell the story of Wisconsin? So, we pitched the idea to the University of Wisconsin Press and wound up interviewing 43 masters at 35 different plants, covering about 7,600 miles in our Honda Civic in the process.

SGT: Why did you choose cheese as your topic? Are you a cheese guy?

JN: I'm a food guy, and, by birth, a Wisconsin guy. So it was a pretty good fit. Becca's definitely a cheese girl. Perfect fit for her. We both saw this as a chance to take a documentary approach and really tell the stories of food artisans whose identity is absolutely intertwined with that of the state in which they live. I'm hoping that this book is read not just as a cheese book, but also as a Wisconsin book. These guys are so Wisconsin - jolly, insanely hardworking, collegial, humble, fond of their beer and sausage. And smart as hell. The smarts that it takes to be a successful master cheesemaker is really impressive.

Jim Norton and Becca DilleyJim Norton and Becca DilleySGT: Which are some of your favorite Wisconsin cheeses? Do you have a favorite?

JN: Ha! I could never choose a single favorite, but I'll name a few really good ones. Sartori's SarVecchio is an aged parmesan with a sweet, nutty character that's a great table cheese and a great cooking cheese. The cheddar of David Metzig (Union Star) is absolutely stellar, as is his fresh and natural tasting string cheese, which tastes like new milk made solid. And the Crescenza Stracchino of BelGioioso is amazing on a baguette - it's a very soft, tangy, bright-tasting cheese that's like nothing else I've really tried.

SGT: What about Minnesota cheese? And European cheese?

JN: For Minnesota cheese, I'm really partial to the blues of Faribault Dairy. Terrific mellow but spirited cheeses. As for Europe, I'm a big fan of the soft, buttery, high-fat Saint Andre, which is a little like brie on steroids.

SGT: What's the plan for the book?

JN: We're touring this month all throughout Wisconsin, plus Minneapolis and Chicago as well. I'm working on some op/eds for consideration by national publications, but if the book is going to do well, it'll probably be as a Christmas gift for and from Wisconsinites and those who love their cheeses. We'll see how it goes. Right now, I'm just pleased and proud that the book turned out as well as it did.

SGT: Your wife Becca's pictures are terrific too. What was it like to do a book together?

JN: Actually, it was great. We roadtrip very well together - we both like to explore new places, but neither of us go so far off the beaten path that we get lost or wildly off schedule. Becca's warm and personable and ... well, I'm me. So between the two of us interviewing someone, Becca can make them feel at ease while I extract an interview's worth of information from them. Ultimately, we both have a very documentary sensibility - we take a "warts and all" approach to our reporting and photography, and we're much more interested in telling the story of how things actually are than telling some idealized version of that story. That was really key.

"The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin" is avaialble everywhere, including Amazon online. Even better, James and Becca will be at Magers and Quinn in Uptown Minneapolis with Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on Sunday, Nov. 29 at 4:30pm - with cheese, of course.