French Connection: WISCONSIN VILLAGE SAYS 'OUI' TO CHEESE

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel September 6 1996. (credits follow)

Belmont, Wisconsin---This village doesn't have a single stoplight, but it has plenty of traffic: brie, Camembert and goat cheeses departing regularly for big cities across the country.

It's a curious picture: two French cheese companies in a tiny Wisconsin village with clientele on the East and West coasts. Both plants are managed by Frenchmen the only Frenchmen in Belmont and their enthusiasm for cheesemaking is as obvious as their accents.

Montchevre Betin Inc. makes soft goat's milk cheeses: fresh, blue, brie and Camembert. (Montchevre is French for "mountain goat.") Besnier America, down the road from Montchevre, makes cow's milk Camembert, brie and a small amount of feta, all under the President label.

Wisconsin had the right stuff when Besnier was looking to expand to America in 1981, said Remy Colas, Besnier's Belmont plant manager.

"Wisconsin milk is as close in quality as you find in France smaller farmers taking care of herds the old-fashioned way," Colas said.

Besnier specifically was attracted to Belmont, population 845, because of its work ethic.

"Belmont is small town, hard workers," Colas said. "Farmer boy and girl used to work hard, work very well. We were welcome here."

Colas and his counterpart at Montchevre, Jean Rossard , mastered the science of cheesemaking in France. They are still working on their English.


Jacques Rossard

Montchevre began its American venture in Preston, Wis., seven years ago, and is headquartered in Los Angeles. When the company was seeking room to grow last year, it homed in on Belmont and the cheese plant Besnier vacated after it built a new, high-tech plant a block away.

Montchevre employs 17 people, while Besnier employs 48.

Besnier America, a subsidiary of the largest private dairy in Europe, is headquartered in New York City. The company has a second American plant in Turlock, Calif., opened in 1987, to produce brie, Gouda, Edam and feta cheeses.

Besnier is a big name in brie, according to Michael Nazarczuk, a buyer for European Imports in Chicago, a national distributor for everything from dry groceries to imported cheeses.

Besnier cheeses are widely available across the country and Europe.

Belmont has Montchevre Betin's only American plant.

Montchevre sends most of its cheese out-of-state, but Dick's Supermarkets in southwest Wisconsin carry it, as do a few other retailers around the state. You may have trouble finding Montchevre in Milwaukee-area stores, but you can taste it at Chancery restaurants, Eddie Martini's, Bartolotta Ristorante and Bartolotta's Lake Park Bistro, which use the goat cheese in entrees or appetizers.

Montchevre may not be a household name in Wisconsin, but it is a respected brand in Chicago and cities along both coasts.

"You have to have your own accent or signature, and Montchevre has received great reviews," Nazarczuk, of Chicago, said. "Its recipe and aging come from experience in France."

Thirty goat farms within 300 miles of Belmont supply the milk for Montchevre cheeses.

About 90% of Montchevre's production is fresh goat cheese. The remaining 10% is split between goat brie and bleu chevre. All are high-moisture cheeses.

"It's nice to have variety," Rossard said.

The most visible difference between cheeses made from cow's milk and those made from goat's milk is their color, Rossard said. The inside of goat Camembert is very white.

"Goat cheese also breaks down faster than cow's (cheese), and butter fat in goat is smaller, so goat milk is easier to digest," he explained.

Montchevre expects the goat cheese market to grow. At the plant, cheese presses imported from France can mold up to 100,000 pounds of milk a day into fresh goat cheese. Currently, the plant handles just 400,000 pounds of milk a month.

Another machine, formerly used in sausage-making, shapes the fresh cheese into logs. The cheese either remains plain or is hand-sprinkled with a garlic-herb or four-pepper seasoning.

Bleu chevre, goat brie and Camembert cheeses are made strictly by hand cured in vats and poured into round, plastic hoops for shaping.

Rossard is from Deux-Sevre, a wine and goat milk region not far from Cognac, in the southwest of France. He moved to Wisconsin seven years ago, when Montchevre moved to Preston.

Upper photo caption: "Cheri Hocking packages small wheels of brie at the Besnier cheese plant in Belmont." Lower: "At Monchevre, Jean Adams and Becky Thomas sprinkle goat-milk cheese with and herb and garlic"

Now a Belmont resident, Rossard has been making cheese for 17 years. His father is a goat cheese maker in France, and his grandmother made goat cheese by hand on her farm.

Sheep's milk cheeses may be the next product line added to Montchevre.

Sheep farmers have not organized like other segments of the dairy industry, Rossard said, but several sheep farmers across the state are interested in selling their milk to Montchevre.

"You can freeze sheep milk because it's so rich," Rossard said, adding that he was awaiting approval from the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection to begin fresh sheep cheese production.

The only other Wisconsin plant making sheep's milk cheese is Bass Lake Cheese Factory in Somerset, said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association in Madison.

Wisconsin has five goat cheese plants, including Montchevre.

Besnier is in a class all its own. It's the state's only significant producer of traditional (cow's-milk) brie and Camembert, according to Umhoefer.

Besnier's new plant is nearly twice as big as the old plant occupied by Montchevre. Building in Belmont represented a commitment to the village, and rejuvenation of a neighborhood, officials said.

"We couldn't afford to lose them," Village President Ken Leahy said. "They have had a big impact. The site of the new plant used to be a blighted area. It was weeds and mosquitoes."

After the plant was completed last year, two apartment complexes sprang up nearby. A new village park is taking shape across the street.

Colas moved to Wisconsin from France in 1988. He started his American career at a now-defunct French cheese plant in Greenwood, then joined Besnier in 1991. He now lives in Platteville.

About 65% of Besnier's production in Belmont is brie, 30% is Camembert, and the remaining 5% is feta, a recent addition to the Belmont line.

While the cheeses are made in "the European tradition," Colas said, Camembert in France traditionally is made from unpasteurized milk. Wisconsin requires the milk be pasteurized.

Brie and Camembert cheeses have a snowy white crust called "fleuri" that is a harmless, edible mold sprayed on the rind the second or third day of the cheese-making process.

The Besnier plant is computerized, and the packaging and processing areas are isolated from each other to maintain a sterile environment. A "brain center" in the plant monitors all aspects of production, and the air flow inside the plant is carefully controlled.

Besnier's commitment to Belmont likely helped the community land Montchevre, Umhoefer noted. "Foreign companies like successful precedent. If one cheese company is successful in Belmont . . ."

It didn't take long for Montchevre to earn its own success.

Montchevre cheesemaker Tom Crist last spring claimed first-place honors for goat's milk cheese in the 21st World Championship Cheese Contest, held in Green Bay.

His entry beat goat cheeses from 28 other companies around the world. Second place went to a cheesemaker in France, and third place to a Canadian plant. Other entries were from England, Spain, Austria, Australia, Vermont, Maine, Oregon and California.

"That's quite an accomplishment for their size," Umhoefer said of Montchevre.

The Belmont Besnier plant has placed at the top of its class in past World Championship Cheese Contests. Several ribbons on the Besnier lobby wall attest to the plant's success, but the proof is in its cheese.

At Montchevre, Loretta Merten makes goat-milk cheese
Montchevre's Chabis cheese is an award-winner

Following are a few simple recipes from Besnier that use Camembert and brie cheeses:

Baked Brie with Almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In small skillet, saute almonds in butter, stirring constantly until almonds are lightly browned. Place Brie on cookie sheet. Arrange almonds in border on top of cheese. Bake in preheated oven 20 minutes or until warm and heated through. Serve warm as a spread on bread or fruit. Makes 24 servings.

Camembert Roast Beef Sandwiches