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Sep 13 2011

The rolling hills of…Wisconsin?

I have traveled all over the world eating global cuisine in some of the most interesting culinary cities:  Hong Kong, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Aspen, Chicago, Florence, Barcelona, Bangkok…and the list goes on.  So when I was recently offered a guest pass on a Wisconsin cheese tour with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, I was skeptical.  I couldn’t help but envision shrink-wrapped blocks of cheddar and Monterey jack down the grocer’s aisle.  I’m a cheese snob. I have fantasies about French triple cream on a crusty baguette or freshly made Humboldt County goat cheese at the San Francisco Farmer’s market. But I am always on board with a new food adventure, so I hopped on the bus with an open mind and an empty stomach.

I visited eight locally owned, family operated Wisconsin cheese producers just outside of Madison. Many of these cheese makers use sustainable farming practices to produce high quality and flavorful cheeses.  I even toured several farmstead operations, and was able to see firsthand the lifecycle of the entire process from the milking of the cows, to packaging the cheese.

First, there was Meister Cheese, a multi-million dollar operation that supplies large chains like Chipotle.  Next, we visited Upland’s, a small farm overlooking the beautiful and scenic hills of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Just two types of cheese are produced at Upland’s, and I was fortunate enough to sample the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an award-winning Beaufort style cheese that you can barely find outside Wisconsin due to its limited supply. Andy Hatch, the cheese maker and general manager, has a passion for cheese making that is infectious.  He refuses to make cheese at any other time of the year except summer/early autumn when his cows are grazing on lush grasses and their milk is at “its finest quality.” During this period, he and his wife and their small staff of six work tirelessly seven days a week.  The effort is worth the reward; a deeply intense, harmoniously balanced cheese with an almost nutty flavor.  Was I really in Wisconsin or the Swiss Alps?

Lunch at Crave: Bacon, Pesto & Mozzarella was just one of many delights we sampled

I loved Widmer’s family history, and Crave Brother’s farmstead operation. Not to mention their unreal Les Freres (a favorite of the trip), fresh mozzarella and mascarpone.  And the Alpine Renegade and Bandaged Cheddar from Bleu Mont is award winning for a reason.  Cave aging, as you can see below, helps create some of the most dynamic cheeses I have ever tasted.

The Cave!

Inside the Cave

Can I possibly eat any more cheese? I think I can....

We finished off with salted caramel ice cream from Sassy Cow Creamery that, quite possibly, was the best ice cream I’ve had outside of Italy.

As I left Wisconsin with a whole new appreciation for their cheese (and maybe a small tummy ache), I decided to plan a party and do what I do best – feed and educate my friends and family. I invited about fifteen friends over for a local craft beer and Wisconsin cheese tasting on a lovely summer evening….

Read about that night on my next blog posting!