Travel: Finding Fromage
It isn’t necessary to travel to Wisconsin to eat the state’s cheese, but it’s definitely fun. Cows and barns are plentiful, for one, and some cheese factories offer guided tours—during which you might hear “Cheddar” used, correctly, as a verb. Many smaller operations are not open to visitors, but there are loads of places to buy local cheese, and plenty of restaurants where you can sample it.
Armed with a tourist-friendly map from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, we recently headed for Monroe, in the state’s southwest corner, the capital of Cheese Country. North of Freeport, Illinois, the scenery becomes prettier almost precisely as you cross the state line. Suddenly you’re in a Disneyesque land of prosperous farms and herds of picture-perfect cows that look—there’s no other word for it—happy.
In Monroe, where parking meters give you an hour for your nickel and a courthouse-square statue honors a teenage Civil War hero (“As brave a boy as ever carried a musket”), cheesemaking is a mainstay of the local economy. A tiny museum attached to the town’s visitor center lays out the industry’s history and explains how cheese is made; it’s a great place to start your tour. Housed in a restored railroad depot, the Historic Cheesemaking Center displays milking machines, churns, wooden shipping tubs, and giant copper kettles, along with lots of carefully annotated old photos and maps.
The town hosts a Cheese Days festival every other September (next one, 2008). But there’s plenty to eat and see in between times. Baumgartner’s, a historic tavern on the town square, serves simple cheese sandwiches, including zesty Limburger with raw onion, along with locally made beer. Brennan’s Market, at the intersection of Highway 69 and 8th Street, stocks a mind-boggling array of local cheeses, jams, bakery items, and prepared foods, as well as fresh produce.
Also in town is Roth Käse, producer of Grand Cru Gruyères, Buttermilk Blue, and other varieties both usual and unusual. Its Alp & Dell Cheese Store and Deli is well stocked, and its factory is viewable through windows.
Just outside of town is the Chalet cheese factory, a farmer-owned cooperative that is the only producer of Limburger in the United States. We popped in to see Chalet’s retail outlet; it turned out to be a cavernous space where white-clad gentlemen in hairnets sat at a table pasting labels on foil-wrapped blocks of cheese.
Another Monroe-based cheese cooperative is Maple Leaf, whose label you’ll see on a wide range of cheeses in Brennan’s and other stores. Specialties include Cranberry White Cheddar and flavored yogurt cheese.
Some small producers are nearby, though they usually require visitors to make an appointment. Down the road, at Edelweiss Creamery, proprietor Bruce Workman uses traditional methods to produce handcrafted Swiss and other specialty cheeses. Workman, a certified master cheesemaker, says he’s happy to show people around if he has time (if he doesn’t, he recommends a visit to Roth Käse). A short drive away are Mike Ging-rich’s Uplands Cheese, home of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and Fantôme Farm, where Anne Topham and Judy Borree produce French-style soft cheeses that they sell at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison.
Visiting the popular year-round market is an excellent way to sample and buy artisan cheeses. Some of Madison’s top chefs (including brother-sister team Tory and Traci Miller from the well-regarded L’Etoile, on Capitol Square) and hard-core foodies get theirs early, grabbing while the grabbing is good. And it’s the perfect place for a Chicagoan to load up a cooler before heading home.
An excursion to Cheese Country can be combined easily with a visit to other points of interest. New Glarus is chock-a-block with Swiss-themed attractions and fondue-serving restaurants; pick up a six-pack of excellent beer brewed on the premises (and sold only in Wisconsin or online) at New Glarus Brewing Company, on the town’s outskirts. A bit north is Mount Horeb, as Norwegian as New Glarus is Swiss, and home to what claims to be the world’s largest mustard collection, at the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. A little way west is Mineral Point, with its Cornish heritage, art galleries, and other attractions. Need shorts? Lands’ End is headquartered in Dodgeville, just up the road.
Also within easy reach is Spring Green, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, the well-regarded American Players Theatre’s outdoor performances from June through early October, and the unfailingly weird House on the Rock all nearby.
In Wisconsin, lactose is not just tolerated—it is loved. Through cheese, it is loved most of all.
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