At the Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Fantôme Farm's goat cheese draws a crowd.
In Wisconsin, lactose is not just tolerated—it is loved. Through cheese, it is loved most of all. An entrenched part of Wisconsin culture, cheese looms large in the psyche, in the economy, and on the dinner table. It shows up in soup, on pie, and as an amuse-bouche. It makes a delicious gift: anywhere a tourist might stumble in, there is a cow-shaped cheese waxed to resemble a Holstein.
True, California, with its ad campaign that touts the state’s reportedly happier cows, is the top milk producer and its cheese production is poised to overtake Wisconsin’s, quantity-wise. But come on. As Einstein once observed, not everything that counts can be counted.
Venture north of our state line, and you’ll see what counts. Wisconsin’s landscape and climate reminded early European settlers of the lush countryside they’d left behind—gently rolling hills; rich, unrocky soil; cold winters and warm summers; reliable precipitation. Who could ask for better farmland? Cue the cows.
With its prodigious output of milk and its constellations of small cheese factories (more than 2,800 in the 1920s), Wisconsin long ago became the go-to state for mild Cheddar and even milder Colby (named for the town of Colby, up near Wausau), for lovably bland white brick and bags of squeaky-fresh curds, the ultimate travel snack. At last count, in 2005, the state’s 115 cheese plants produced 2.4 billion pounds of the stuff, according to the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Office.
But there’s more to Wisconsin cheese than first meets the eye. Even as big blocks continue to roll off assembly lines, cheese production in much of the state has turned toward the haute, riding the crest of a new, oenophilia-like wave of pedigreed regional foodstuffs. It’s rare to find a restaurant with aspirations that doesn’t mention, somewhere on the menu, the impeccable provenance of its provender. Customers are increasingly attuned to fine shades of difference not only between this pinot noir and that one, this bitter chocolate and that, but also between a Stilton and a Gorgonzola.
With its heritage for dairying, Wisconsin is well positioned to meet the rising demand for fancy fromage. These days, everywhere you look, serious-minded small-batch producers—some of them scions of longtime dairy families—are handcrafting ash-rolled chèvres, exquisite aged Gruyères, organic Cheddars, creamy sheep’s-milk Camemberts, and more (to meet four artisanal cheesemakers, see “Their Own Whey”). Their methods are ancient, their motives irreproachable: Why not make cheese as vivid tasting and as close to nature as possible?
ARTISAN CHEESEMAKERS rely on as little mechanization as possible to make small batches. They buy milk from a local dairy or are themselves "farmstead" operations, meaning they raise their own herds or flocks. Both artisan and large-scale producers., however, follow the same basic steps: Microorganisms are added to milk to convert lactose sugar to lactic acid. A clotting enzyme then separates the mixture into a solid (the curd, which is pressed into blocks or bricks) and a liquid (whey, which is drained). "You end up with Cheddar or Brie using the same 11 steps," says Patrick Geoghegan, of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "That's what makes cheesemaking so interesting."
In Grantsburg, Mary and David Falk age natural-rind cheeses on cedar boughs in naturally humid hillside caves abundant with naturally occurring bacteria, yeasts, and molds. In Mineral Point, better known for its Cornish-themed historical attractions, Tony and Julie Hook make aged Cheddars and distinctive blue cheeses in a tiny factory just off the main tourist drag. In architecturally unremarkable farm buildings along county roads, baby-smooth wheels of cheese are being patiently hand- washed, one at a time, as they age in damp cellars. A few days later, they are washed again. Then again, and again, and on and on, sometimes for many months.
The animals that produce the milk for these cheeses are as closely monitored as the most pampered urban Shih Tzu, their moods and grazing habits better understood. The result of all the hard work and intelligent attention is cheese that dazzles jaded palates and commands high prices.
In Chicago, artisanal fromage from our northern neighbor has earned the respect of the most discerning of chefs. At HotChocolate in Bucktown, Mindy Segal wraps brioche dough around Pleasant Ridge Reserve (from Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville) before baking it into a savory treat. At the South Loop’s Custom House, Shawn McClain includes Crave Brothers’ Les Frères (from Waterloo) among his artisan-cheese offerings. Downtown, at Bin 36, you’ll find Roth Käse’s Buttermilk Blue (from Monroe), Hook Cheese Company’s ten-year-old Cheddar, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and several varieties from Carr Valley, including a goat/sheep combo called Mobay.
Consumers have caught on, too. Inside the Lake View gourmet shop Pastoral, Wisconsin artisan cheeses hold their own among glamorous international imports. At Whole Foods and Fox & Obel, same story. Daniel Sirko, Pastoral’s fromager, is a huge fan. The shop’s selection includes Crave Brothers’ Petit Frère; Antigo Cheese Company’s Antigo Stra-vecchio, an aged Parmesan-style cheese; Cheddars from Hook’s; and from Carr Valley, a goat’s-milk blue called Billy Blue and a cow/sheep/ goat’s-milk blend called Gran Canaria, which is cured with olive oil. Last fall, the store organized a weekend excursion to some of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers; the trip sold out.
“American cheesemaking has exploded,” Sirko says. “It’s logical that Wisconsin is producing some great artisan cheese, given that they’ve always had a strong dairy industry. The more people are exposed to it, the more they learn to appreciate its subtleties. Artisan cheeses are as different from industrial cheeses as a handmade dress, designed by an artist, is from mass-produced clothing.”
And, trends or no trends, the cheese tastes good. “They’re doing an amazing job” in Wisconsin, says Kent Haina, of Marcey Street Market inside Sam’s Wine & Spirits. That well-stocked gourmet shop carries, among other Wisconsin varieties, Carr Valley’s Cocoa Cardona and its Mobay, modeled after the French Morbier.
Haina gives snob appeal short shrift. “Roth Käse’s Grand Cru Gruyère Surchoix is better than a lot of Gruyères that come out of Switzerland,” he says. “People still come in and say they only want French cheeses, but many from Wisconsin are equally good, if not better."
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Just a short drive from Chicago: picturesque farmland, quaint B&B's, and plenty of cheese for your cooler