Heartland Blues

Times Staff Writer

A sprawling appliance factory and its support facilities look decidedly out of place here in central Iowa, an area of expansive grain fields and broad horizons.

Yet, for most of the century this industrial complex has cast its shadow over neighboring farms and pastures.

However, in this instance, the relationship of manufacturing to agriculture is a comfortable, not contentious one.

Just down a narrow, blacktop road from the plant, the harmony of low and high technology is particularly pronounced.

Off to the right sits a small, well-kept dairy. The vista of two-story farmhouse, milking barn and surrounding cornfields recalls "the heartland," a phrase Iowans so often use to describe their state.

But the odd proximity of grazing Holsteins to busy loading docks was by design rather than as a result of poor planning.

For these two operations share one of Iowa's most famous family names: Maytag.

At the plant, washing machines are assembled for shipment throughout the United States. While inside the dairy, cheese makers work their trade.

However, this dairy is renowned--locally and nationally--as the home of Maytag Blue cheese. Ivory-colored with its distinctive blue streaks, Maytag is regarded by many as the nation's best blue. At once, the cheese is smooth, tangy and rich.

Though similar in appearance and taste to French Roquefort, this cheese is distinctive. Central to its buttery crispness is that the Maytag variety is made from cow's milk rather than the sheep's milk traditionally used in France. Maytag Blue, in a concession to European authenticity, is aged for six months or longer in a specially designed cave.

Despite the praise of food critics and customers alike, there's little boasting among the long-term employees and managers of Maytag. They take pride in their work and let the quality speak for itself.

"We don't really like to say that our blue cheese is the best. We'd rather have others say that it is," said James Stevens, the dairy's manager and an employee since 1945.

The Maytag family began their home appliance business in the early 1900s and opened the dairy in 1920. But it was not until 1940, that a third-generation Maytag--Frederick II--decided to diversify the dairy's production from just milk, butter and cream.

The family consulted with Iowa State University and the school's researchers suggested a newly patented method for making blue cheese from cows' milk. The idea intrigued the Maytags and soon thereafter, Iowa State was paid the necessary royalties for the process. Production began in 1941.

In the intervening decades, the Maytags built a reputation for excellence. The acclaim is a considerable triumph because Iowa is not particularly known for its dairy products.

As much as anything, the current popularity has resulted from word-of-mouth recommendations because the company's advertising is minimal. Further, the cheese itself is not generally available through retail channels. Instead, the legend and cult of Maytag Blue has been earned the hard way: through mail-order sales.

And nowhere is Maytag Blue's popularity greater than on the West Coast. There are more sales to California addresses than any other state.

From his desk in a nearby office building, Donn Campbell can look down a gentle slope, out toward the Maytag herd alternatingly grazing or seeking shade under the stands of trees during midday.

Campbell began working at the dairy in 1957 and eventually succeeded his father as president.

"When I got out of the (military) service, I was a trainee for the Maytag Co. But then Frederick Maytag II offered me a job as my Dad's assistant. I assume I made the right decision," Campbell said with a slight grin. He added that Dan Krumb, whom he worked alongside selling Maytag appliances at state fairs during summer breaks from college, now heads the firm as chief executive officer.

The extensive appeal of Maytag Blue is surprising. Campbell, though, gets the most pleasure out of the fact that there are a good number of customers even in Wisconsin, the cheese state.

"We love it. We just love to sell mail-order cheese to Wisconsin," he said.

There are about a half-dozen producers of blue cheese in this country. Maytag is the smallest of the group with total annual shipments of 250,000 pounds.

The item's appeal is not as broad-based as other varieties because of blue's distinctively strong flavor and generally higher price, about $8-a-pound from Maytag, for instance.

Some say, though, that blue cheese is an acquired taste; its namesake dressing notwithstanding. But aficionados insist blue cheese is the best of all cheeses.

"Once you learn to eat blue cheese, other cheeses are uneventful, aren't they?" said Stevens.

And it is easier to learn to eat Maytag blue because of its creamy, buttery texture. While most blue and Roquefort cheeses crumble, the Maytag variety is soft enough to spread with a knife when warmed to room temperature. There is also little of the harshness found with other blue cheese made from cows' milk.

Several steps in the production of Maytag blue set it apart from others.

The first is the Holsteins' high-quality milk--lower in butterfat than most other herds. And secondly, to be faithful to the Iowa State method, the cheese making requires more labor--a crew of six--than would otherwise be the case. (what's the normal number?) However, the extra employees provide greater quality control and individual care than would machines.

However, the initial stages of Maytag blue's production resemble other cheese varieties. A combination of as many as 10 lactic-acid cultures are added to homogenized milk to obtain the acidity necessary for cheese making. Then rennet, enzymes derived from calves, is added to coagulate the liquid.

Once set, the now-dense mixture is "cut" by long wire screens causing the semi-solid curd--the cheese essence--to separate from the watery whey, now a waste material.

The curd is then removed from the whey and, at this point, Maytag introduces its blue-green mold.

"We use more of the (dried mold) powder than the actual formula says you should use," Stevens said. "But we'd rather use a little extra than be short. The mold gives color, blue veining and helps cure the cheese. . . . The formula is exact, but a cheese maker is like a good chef, adding at his discretion."

After the introduction of the mold, the cheese is placed in open-ended hoops or circular containers that coagulate the mixture. Maytag uses a 4-pound hoop, which is smaller than those employed by other producers. The result is an increased moisture content and intensified flavor.

The hoops are removed after a day and then the young cheese is sealed with coarse salt, a curing agent. After salting, the cheese is placed on wooden trays and stored in the dairy's caves.

Built 8 feet below ground, the main room is kept at 50 degrees and at 90% humidity. Cypress is used for the shelving because the wood is tolerant of extreme dampness. Inside the caves, the mold blossoms, ripening the cheese for six months, sometimes longer.

"The length of the curing process is important," Stevens said. "At 60 days, other producers will say, most blue tastes the same. But the quality difference between three months and six months is drastic."

Inside the caves, 100,000 pounds of blue cheese emit a distinctive aroma, but the scent is sweet rather than piquant. Only blue cheese can be aged in the cave because the mold is aggressive enough to infect other varieties as well.

Once the cheese has ripened sufficiently, it is taken to a packing room to be cut and hand-wrapped in the company's distinctive silver-and-blue foil.

Maytag currently ships to all states and Canada. However, care is taken not to mail the cheese to areas undergoing heat waves, to prevent spoilage.

It is this type of extra attention, Campbell said, that helps distinguish Maytag Blue. And he readily admits a famous brand name doesn't hurt. (Although the Maytag Corp. is a publicly traded company, the dairy has always been family owned.)

"The association is helpful. The Maytag name has been symbolic of quality and we adhere to the same principles," he said.

On one occasion, though, it was the appliance manufacturer who was the victim of mistaken identity.

"The president of Maytag Co. once received a letter complimenting him on his blue cheese. And the woman, who wrote the letter, went on to state that, 'If your washing machines are as good as the cheese, well, then I might just buy one.' "

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