Saturday, May 31, 2014

Roland Wilk in North York, Ontario, Canada

Roland Wilk

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).

All 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" cheeses ripening!

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 business."

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
Roland's gruyere

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.

Roland's Camembert

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?

I invent 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.

After 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.

Drive bottom

Drive top


Power unit


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).

Other interests

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 chemistry.

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 (I'm the webmaster and wear a few more hats, too).


Anonymous said...

Accomplished, talented and a great Dad and Grandpa to boot :)

Deon said...

Awesome, and not too cheesy :)

Ronnie Gehr said...

Outstanding achievement for a bassoon player. Imagine what you could accomplish if you played the viola! Seriously, I'm envious of your remarkable talents; may you go from strength to strength. And may none of your cheeses fly away.

gamelaner said...

A man of many talents indeed! May I ask, Roland, specifically what types and brands of milks you use? I'm in Ontario too, wondering what will work in the face of the no-raw-milk and no obviously minimally pasteurized milk. Thanks!

Anita said...

Thank You, Roland! What a delightful read! You truly are an inspiration!

Unre said...

Now that is fun to read!
Truly a man of many talents and especially clear reasoning!
Sharing the cheese you made with you is memorable!
An example to all of us!
Thank you
Unre Visagie

Roland Wilk said...

To gamelaner:
Beatrice 3.25% homogenised milk from Metro is OK. Better if you can get non-homogenised milk e.g. Harmony Organic Dairy Products availablle from Galleria Supermarket or Lovegan.
What are you using currently?
You're welcome to email me directly at


To Roland

ravi said...

My mother told me about my grandmother would prepare cheese during the Russian Tsar, now I understand how she did it:-)
Avi Rosen.