By Martin Hintz
USA TODAY - No matter how you cut your cheese, Wisconsin has it all. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), the state produces nearly 2.8 billion pounds each year, accounting for more than 25 percent of all domestic cheese. Approximately 11,000 dairy farms with more than 1.27 million cows provide the milk, along with a growing number of sheep and goats.
What distinguishes Wisconsin cheese from others? According to Patrick Geoghegan, WMMB's senior vice president of communications, Wisconsin has won more awards for quality cheese than any other state or nation. While Wisconsin cheesemakers often have four or five generations of experience behind them, the producers are not bound by tradition.
"Wisconsin leads the nation in innovative new artisan cheeses and produces more than 600 varieties, types and styles. There's really something special happening here," says Geoghegan.
Wisconsin's farmers and cheesemakers have been part of an industry-wide renaissance over the past decade. According to Geoghegan, they've reinvested $5 billion in the state's dairy infrastructure, adding cows, building new cheesemaking facilities and modernizing operations that will allow the state to keep innovating.
There is no better place to roam in search of the perfect cheese than south-central Wisconsin, a Holstein-dappled landscape with a Swiss heritage. In Wisconsin's Monroe and New Glarus areas, cheese has been a culinary and cultural focal point since the mid-1840s. At least eight major plants within a short drive of each other produce dozens of award-winning varieties. At most of these facilities, you can watch the cheesemaking process, taste samples and then purchase a pound or two. So when the folks here say "cheese," you'll surely smile.
The National Historic Cheesemaking Center
Everything to know about cheese and Wisconsin cheese in particular can be learned at the National Historic Cheese Center. It's a good place to start a tour of Cheese Country, so be sure to take in the Center's 15-minute, helpful introductory video. Two huge copper cheese vats outside this former railroad depot make it easy to know you've arrived. The large statue of a happy Holstein also helps.
The Center overflows with photos of grandly mustachioed 19th century cheesemakers, exhibits of early cheesemaking tools and loads of historical cheese and related dairy documents to help history come alive. There is even an old cheese tub displayed in which four or five cheese wheels could be shipped. Their combined weight could vary from 550 to 1,300 pounds.
After touring the center, stop in at the century-old wooden Imobersteg farmstead cheese factory, moved to its current site in 2010. Of course, the ubiquitous T-shirt, plus other souvenirs, can be purchased in the Milk House Gift Shop. Plan to be at the Center on the second Saturday of each June, when several Wisconsin's master cheesemakers demonstrate making a wheel of Swiss cheese the historical way. The event kicks off with the delivery of milk at 9 a.m. and continues throughout the day, showing the essential steps in production.
Monroe, WI; 608-325-4636, nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org
Green County Cheese Days
(Held on even-numbered years in downtown Monroe)
Twenty thousand folks "huzzahed" in fine form at the first Cheese Day parade in 1915. It was attended by cheese fan, farmer and Wisconsin governor Emanuel Philipp to celebrate locally-produced curds, wedges, blocks and giant wheels, whether whole or in deliciously melted, shredded, crumbled or thinly sliced forms. That initial program even included a heartfelt recitation of Ode to Limburger. These days, get into the cheese mood by singing a stanza of the Green County cheese song-- Come to Cheese Days in Monroe/That's the place for you to go/Music, dancing, yodeling, too/And a big parade for you." The next festival is set for Sept. 19 to 21, 2014.
Bring walking shoes because activities take place in the expansive town square, with the impressive 1890s-era Green County courthouse as the central focus. Cooking demonstrations lure strollers with their tantalizing perfumes and chef how-to chatter. Enthusiastic arts and crafts vendors peddle their wares, samples of cheese are liberally dispensed, dancing is encouraged every time a band cranks up and the kids' cow milking competition is a promoted as an "udderly good time."
During tours of nearby farms and dairies, one can get up close and personal with a bovine. The Cheesemakers Ball, where the event royalty are introduced, is always jammed with sunburned, calloused-handed farmers and their families dressed to the nines and happy to chat about Brown Swiss dairy cattle. Be sure to depart with an imported, limited edition, numbered beer stein emblazoned with the Cheese Days logo.
Monroe, WI; 608-325-7771, cheesedays.com
Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern
Baumgartner's is the quintessential Wisconsin tavern, with its long, scarred bar and cast of characters sipping Spotted Cow beer from the nearby New Glarus Brewery. Up front near the entrance is a cooler where the freshest of locally-produced smoked baby Swiss and jalapeño havarti can be found. Baumgartner's has been a community gathering place since 1931, long noted for pouring a husky brew from its impressive bank of gleaming tappers. Demonstrating the worldwide reputation of this place, a giant wall map is heavily dotted with pins indicating the homelands of its many international guests. A quirky Old World mural depicting a battle between beer and wine plays out on a wall mural above the bar.
The simple, no-frills menu consists primarily of cheese sandwiches. Also available are hard salami and shaved turkey plus a massive Reuben that can be valued-added with melted cheese, lettuce and tomato. Those in the know regularly order a tasty limburger, albeit a fragrant choice, one slabbed on dark rye with a raw onion and dolloped with coarse German mustard. Augment this treat with a bowl of the world's second best chili. After all, the kitchen folks here admit that mom always makes the best. But, oh, that cheesecake and pie.
Monroe, WI; 608-325-6157, baumgartnercheese.com
Founded in Switzerland more than a century ago, Roth Käse is now a division of Emmi Roth Käse USA, Ltd., one of the world's largest cheese producers. On a typical day, the Monroe plant processes almost 42,000 gallons of fresh milk, produced by cows from less than 60 miles away and within 48 hours of collection. For reference, it takes about 10 pounds of milk to yield one pound of cheese. A large observation window in the plant's viewing hall allows visitors to see the complicated process of making the company's award-winning cheeses such as Grand Cru Surchoix and baby Swiss.
The firm is creatively experimental, catering to a wide range of tastes. Try an original havarti but then branch out to horseradish, dill, jalapeño, reduced fat and one variety enlivened with the addition of Peppedaw, a South African sweet piquant pepper.
Since cheesemakers are up with the sun, the best time to watch the operation is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., weekdays with guided tours available. At the company's large gift shop, a cheese browser's paradise, savvy staffers provide tips on what goes well with what. The store is also primo for purchasing cookbooks and fondue sets.
Monroe, WI, rothkase.com
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
Dreaming of limburger? Follow your nose across scenic back roads from downtown Monroe to Chalet Cheese, whose distinctive product has been turned out here for more than 125 years. Limburger was first made in Belgium, centered in the Duchy of Limburg. Chalet Cheese remains the United State's sole producer of this pungent, creamy cheese, accounting for about 20% of the company's output. Wrapped in distinctive foil, the limburger comes in six-, seven-, and eight-ounce bricks. Limburger, along with other cheeses made at Chalet, can be found in a bare-bones showroom. There are no public tours.
This farmer-owned co-op was founded in 1885. In 2004, Chalet acquired the Deppeler Cheese Factory and expanded its range of offerings. The plant's Master Cheesemakers Myron Olson and Jamie Farney have plenty of hard-to-achieve cheesemaking certifications between them, ensuring that Chalet's product range remains top notch. When not creating vast batches of limburger, Olson and Farney may be found regaling visitors with insights on the cheesemaker's world, including wisely suggesting that dedicated diners not eat the limburger with their noses, but just enjoy the taste.
Monroe, WI; 608-325-4343, eatwisconsincheese.com/wisconsin/artisans