Driving the lazy roller coaster of U.S. Highway 10 just west of Marshfield, Wis., I pass the usual stretches of cornfields and dairy farms on my way to The Highlands, a Vietnam veterans memorial in nearby Neillsville. But when I see a sign that says Nasonville Dairy, I am inclined to stop.
In the middle of farmland in the middle of the state, this third-generation, family-run cheese factory at 10898 U.S. Highway 10 near Marshfield is not exactly a destination, but if you're passing by any day but Sunday, the day's fresh cheese curds are lying on a stainless steel table right inside the door, waiting to squeak in your teeth. If someone inside is free at that moment or if you called ahead (715-676-2177, nasonville
dairy.com), you can even get a little tour of the place and learn a bit of something about cheesemaking.
Cheese and Wisconsin seem inseparable, but in the middle of the 19th century, Wisconsin actually was a wheat state. Crop failures and wear and tear on the soil, however, forced many farmers to consider feed crops, and by the turn of the last century, most farms had at least a few dairy cows. Cheese production grew with the herds, and by the 1930s there were well over 2,500 factories in the state. Sadly, by the 1990s there were only about 100.
But in recent years, cheese has been making a comeback — and it's not just Cheddar. The result is a statewide cornucopia of familiar cheeses and some uncommon artisan varieties. The factories making them are excellent for either a snack stop or as the focus of a trip itself.
Green County, Cheese County. With roots in Swiss culture, an abundance of dairy herds (including the special Brown Swiss) and the largest concentration of cheesemakers in the state, Green County usually is the most popular region for a trip centered on cheese.
The Swiss-themed town of New Glarus has dueling fondue servers at the New Glarus Hotel (100 Sixth Ave.; 608-527-5244; newglarushotel.com) and the Glarner Stube (518 First St.; 608-527-2216; glarnerstube.com). The Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus (554 First St., 608-527-2000; mapleleafcheeseandchocolatehaus.com) sells artisan cheese and fudge side by side.
But for cheese factories, just roll south a bit to the farmland west of Monticello.
Near the intersection of County Highways C and N, you can find Edelweiss Creamery, where Bruce Workman creates the only giant Swiss wheels made in America. Workman holds seven Master Cheesemaker certificates and has havarti to die for and Gouda that will convince you of the importance of grass-fed cows. The Swiss wheels weigh in at 80 pounds and measure 31.5 inches in diameter. He's happy to show you around the small place, but get there early and wear closed-toe shoes. It's not really a cheese store, but you can buy some here. (W6117 County Highway C, 608-938-4094; edelweisscreamery.com).
Just south a few miles is Chalet Cheese Co-op (N4858 County N, 608-325-4343). Tours are for groups of four or more and require a reservation. The Chalet produces Swiss, brick, Cheddar and Muenster, but what makes a visit here like no other is Limburger. Long vilified by Saturday morning cartoons as the stinkiest thing since Pepe Le Pew, the semisoft, surface-ripened cheese does qualify as one of those acquired tastes, and this is only place in the United States that still makes it.
Continue south from here, and you'll arrive in Monroe, the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA." At the north end of town, Alp and Dell (657 Second St., 608-328-3355; alpanddellcheese.com), the cheese store for the Roth Kase cheese factory, has samples of many of the cheeses and a couple of viewing windows. At the south end of town, housed in an old train depot, is the National Historic Cheesemaking Center (2108 Sixth Ave.; 608-325-4636; national
historiccheesemakingcenter.org), a collection of old equipment and other artifacts. And right in the middle of Monroe, across from a marvelous 1893 Green County Courthouse, is Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern (1023 16th Ave.; 608-325-6157; baumgartnercheese.com).
The Limburger sandwich here is a rite of passage and a local favorite. If they're using fresh onions to balance the cheese, that should tell you something. There are plenty of other cheese alternatives here if Limburger doesn't work out. Wisconsin beers are served, and the soups are notable.
Cheese as art and science. Just north of Spring Green and the Wisconsin River, the town of Plain is home to Cedar Grove Cheese (E5904 Mill Road; 608-546-5284; my.execpc.com/˜cgcheese), which produces 20,000 pounds of cheese curds a week for sale across southern Wisconsin. Flavors include horseradish, garlic and chives, and spicy pepper, and the factory has many other varieties, such as butter kase, Colby/Jack and havarti. Tours can be had with a call ahead. But a visit here goes beyond the cheese process and shows off what may seem like a giant science project.
In a greenhouse out back, large, open tanks take in the milk and whey waste from the factory and feed a variety of microbes with the nutrients. When the water becomes clean enough, a whole variety of plants and even algae, snails, frogs and some bluegills can live off of it in subsequent tanks. The end product is clean enough to dump in the local creek and in summer, the dried remains of the microbes can be used as excellent potting soil. That's some pretty green cheese.
Moving northeast along the Wisconsin River Valley, you enter Carr Valley territory. Another family operation, Carr Valley Cheese Co. (608-986-2781; carrvalleycheese.com) has three factories and four retail stores in the region. Master cheesemaker Sid Cook has won an abundance of awards and uses sheep, goat and cow milk blends to create a variety of American originals such as aged Marisa from sheep's milk. The best place for a tour is the facility at S3797 County Highway G near La Valle, west of the Wisconsin Dells and south of Interstate Highway 90/94. But Carr Valley's Sauk City retail store (807 Phillips Blvd., Sauk City; 608-643-3441) offers something different. In a test kitchen in back, classes in cooking with cheese are offered once or twice a month from March through September. Each class is hosted by a guest instructor, ranging from national Iron Chef winners to local brewers offering beer/cheese pairings. Class size is limited to 30 and last about 21/2 hours. The schedule and its list of guest chefs can be found at carrvalleycheese.com/cooking-classes.html.
Something to remember about cheese factory tours: Cheesemakers are early risers. Arrive about 8 a.m. or so if you want to see cheese being made. Most places also appreciate a call in advance.
Cheese tasting on the square. If you're just out for the flavors but not so much the driving, stop by the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison. Several area artisan cheesemakers set up tables at this sidewalk market that surrounds the state Capitol from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday morning April through October (and moves indoors nearby during winter). Be sure to try some squeaky juustoleipa, Finnish "bread cheese," toasted on a skillet at the tables of Brunkow Cheese.
Tony Hook of Hook's Cheese (320 Commerce St.; 608-987-3259; hookscheese.com) in Mineral Point also attends the market. He is famous for his four varieties of bleu cheese and some rather stunning aged Cheddar. If cheese curds are what you hanker for, almost all of the cheese vendors will offer a batch made up that morning. Let the squeaking begin.
Road map to cheese. Designed by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, "A Traveler's Guide to America's Dairyland" is a free map highlighting 116 cheesy places to check out, including retail stores and cheese factories. Request a copy or download it yourself at eatwisconsincheese.com/wisconsin/travelers_guide.aspx.
Kevin Revolinski is the author of "Backroads and Byways Wisconsin" and the coming "Wisconsin's Best Beer Guide."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun