Roland Wilk falls into our “proof that cheese makers are the most interesting people” category. When he started making cheese, he designed and built his own mechanical stirrer and a press that handles 300 pounds of pressure. When he was younger, he designed and built model airplanes and he played bridge on two national teams. Now, he is an accomplished musician.
Roland’s wife, Marion, is a pianist. They have four children – in New York, Israel, Toronto and Boston. All are married – the oldest three have children ages 10 down. So, Roland and his wife have 11 grandchildren (to date!).
Roland entered our 35th Anniversary Essay Contest last December:
Roland Wilk’s Essay
I love cheese! When I grew up, all we could choose from was Cheddar and
Gouda. I was exposed to the wide variety of cheeses only as an adult,
and slowly developed an appreciation for the hard and soft, bland and
smelly, dry and slimy.
Two winters ago, my wife and I
were visiting my son and his family in New Jersey. Well, that family
certainly LOVES cheese, but they have a challenge in that they keep
strictly kosher. There is a wide variety of kosher cheeses available,
but they all seem to taste the same!
So, I offered to
come to the rescue and asked my daughter-in-law what her favorite cheese
is. “Gruyere”, she answers and the engineer in me naturally responds
“OK, I’ll make you one!” To her surprise, I was serious. Straight to
the web to find out what makes a cheese “kosher,” then to find
ingredients that are certified as kosher and a library of books from
Amazon. Within the week I had received my cheese-making kit and I was on
the way to learning how to make a Gruyere (one of my favorites too).
the books guide a beginner through fresh cheeses all the way to the
more complex ones, like Gruyere. I am rather impatient and decided to
skip the step by step learning, jumping straight into the Gruyere as my
second cheese – and it worked! Waiting the six months for it to ripen
was rough, but the cheese was divine.
|Dressed to play in a symphony orchestra that evening (he plays bassoon).|
My New Jersey
grandchildren (3 to 10 years old) are my most devoted cheese fans and
connoisseurs – they have a very discriminating palate. That got me
thinking about how I could involve them some more.
My solution – to
make each one of my grandchildren a Cheddar that they would open on
their bar- or batmitzvah. To date I have made 5 such 1-pound cheeses and
when the kids visit, they rush to the cheese cave to see “their”
My oldest grandson asked if the cheese spoils after
such a long time. When I explained that the cheese improves with age,
his jaw dropped in disappointment and he replied “that means that Yoni`s
(his younger brother) cheese will be better than mine!” Needless to
say, he is very competitive.
I am now up to batch
number 72 after going through over 300 gallons of milk. I have built a
motorized curd stirrer to do the tedious work (who likes stirring
continuously for 1 hour?) and a wall press that can deliver 300 pounds.
My grandchildren love helping me make cheese and are fascinated by the
process. Selecting and enjoying a cheese from the cave is now a regular
feature of my chamber music rehearsals. One of my chamber music
friends, a Dutch immigrant, bought me a 32 quart pot as a birthday
present. “Cheese-making for the Dutch,” she says, “is a serious
All in all, a rewarding, life-enhancing
pastime – all thanks to my daughter-in-law (who cannot recall that she
was the trigger!).
What kind of cheese are you making now?
I make blue (fourme d’ambert), gouda, cheddar, bel paese, gruyere,
limburger, camembert, jarlsberg. The blue is very popular with my
friends. My favorite is the gruyere.
|Roland’s jarlsberg at 8 weeks|
Given the high
attrition rate (they are popular!) of my stock of cheese, I should be
making a batch (6-1/2 lbs) every two weeks. As we travel frequently, I
have to plan ahead so that I can babysit the young cheeses until they
can take care of themselves! My next batch will have to be mid April.
I tried making a triple cream camembert by tripling
the proportion of cream, from 3.8% to 10.4%. That was a disaster and it
took me some time to learn that triple cream does not mean triple cream
literally, only one and a half times.
What is your source for milk?
I use store milk. It is illegal to sell raw milk in Ontario, and unhomogenized milk one can only get by special order on Tuesdays. I would like to get milk from a farm, but they have a strict quota system here. The farms are contracted to the dairies for their quotas and may not sell beyond that.
The curds I get are not nearly as well formed as the ones I see in the photos on your website, but the cheeses come out reasonably well.
|Cheddars at the end of air drying|
Have you always invented things?
things when I’m desperate!! I have an engineering and business
background (MSc in Electrical Engineering and MBA). Much of my
professional career was in software design and some digital electronic
hardware design. Mechanical design is something new for me. Since
selling my software engineering business in 1999, I have become a
serious classical musician, playing “mechanical” instruments – bassoon,
clarinet and French horn.
I have always detested
physical labour and much prefer intellectual challenges. So when
confronted with all the stirring required to produce cheese, I looked
for a way out. Not finding anything really useful on the web, I set out
to design my own stirrer.
|Roland’s handmade stirrer|
I needed something that
reciprocated – a simple rotating paddle would not do. So I starting
with a motor that rotates at 9 rpm and converted the rotating motion to a
reciprocating motion, much like a steam engine does, but in reverse.
doing a detailed design using off the shelf parts from McMaster-Carr, I
built the stirrer which is tailored to my 32 quart cheese pot. All the
parts in contact with milk had to be from stainless steel, so I had to
find a stainless steel welding workshop to spot-weld the paddle. This
took a bit of phoning around. They couldn’t speak English well, but they
knew how to weld stainless steel.
The paddle is
secured to the motor assembly with a single grub screw, so a twist of an
Allen key releases it. All the drive parts are mounted on a 1/8″x 3″
stainless steel plate. All the bits and pieces cost me a few hundred
dollars, but what I am most pleased about is that it is elegant and not
over-engineered. That aspect took a lot of time, trying to figure out
what thickness plate for the drive, what diameter shaft and thickness
plate for the paddle. I chose a 12VDC motor to keep the main voltage away
from the liquid milk, and have a power unit that houses a 110VAC – 12VDC
converter and a switch.
The cheese press is simply a
lever attached to the wall. The challenge here was to make it
sufficiently rigid. I started with a wooden beam, but it could not
stand the force and just cracked. So I replaced it with a flat
rectangular aluminum beam, but that twisted. An I-beam might have
worked but I could not find one, so I made a laminated beam with a wood
core and aluminum sides – just a composite of my two previous attempts.
This one had the strength from the aluminum and the rigidity from the
wood, and is perfect.
I added a spirit level to the
vertical post to ensure that the pressure is perfectly vertical on the
mold. The pressure on the mold is a simple multiple of the weight I
hang from the end of the beam – in my case I get a gain of 6. So, 20
pounds translates to 120 pounds on the mold. I use dumbbells for
weights (much better than using them for weight training!). It is easy
to suspend them in a shopping bag. If I need more weight than the
dumbbells I have, I add bottles of water or whatever. This press cost me
$20 or so and does the job perfectly.
|Pressing (in practice, Roland puts a draining board and
stainless steel mesh under the mold for drainage).
I currently play principal bassoon in two permanent ensembles –
North York Concert Orchestra and Silverthorn Symphonic Winds. These
rehearse weekly and each one presents 6 or so concerts a year. In August
I’m joining the World Civic Orchestra in a tour to Taiwan and Japan. I
am an avid chamber musician, and play in woodwind quintets and small
ensembles that often include my wife, Marion, who plays piano and
percussion. It was her fantastic piano playing that got me interested in
playing chamber music and performing.
The bassoon is the latest of my
instrument “collection” – I also play clarinet and French horn in
orchestras and chamber music groups. I love the sound of all three
instruments – each one is a different character in an ensemble and takes
on a unique role.
I suppose you could call arts administration a hobby
– I serve on community music-making boards (my orchestra, Toronto Youth
Wind Orchestra, Canadian Amateur Musicians Foundation). This takes up
far more time than cheese making.
I used to enjoy building and flying radio controlled
model aeroplanes – since my teens until the time my youngest son
finished school. In my teens I was also interested in photography and
In my twenties, I was an avid bridge player, and was a
member of the Israeli junior bridge team and South Africa open team.
That was before I got seriously involved with music-making which I find
is wonderful for the soul and spiritually uplifting. It is really
special when you can sit down with complete strangers in a new country,
cannot speak a common language, yet can play orchestral or chamber music
together! It is one of those activities where you can move to a new
city (we have moved to Johannesburg, Cambridge UK and Toronto) and
within days be involved with the local community.
I’m off now to our North York Concert Orchestra
rehearsal – we’ll be performing Schubert’s Rosamunde overture, a
selection of Mozart arias and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. See www.nyco.on.ca (I’m the webmaster and wear a few more hats, too).