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An Epicurean Getaway: The Wisconsin Cheese Tour
Posted on: 3/11/2009
To know Wisconsin is to know its cheese. The state’s love affair with cheese isn’t just reserved for something we are often fond of wearing on our heads. Even the cows seem to know that while bovines in other state may claim they’re happier, only Wisconsin’s cows (and goats and sheep for that matter) can be confident in the knowledge that the milk they produce go on to make the best artisanal cheese in the nation, reaping more awards than any other state.
As one might expect for a state known for its originality, there is no shortage of creativity among Wisconsin’s cheese makers. Some 60 artisan cheesemakers are currently producing more than 600 different types of cheese, including hundreds of complex, one-of-a-kind artisanal, farmstead and organic varieties made by hand in small batches.
But what does all that mean for the traveler? Just as the oenophile heads to Napa Valley for their grand wine tour, the compass for the artisan cheese enthusiast – in fact, any traveler interested in authentic Wisconsin fun and food – points directly to Wisconsin where its long list of master cheesemakers are passionate about their goods and share them proudly. Couple that with farmers’ markets, restaurants featuring regional ingredients, farm-fresh breakfasts at the local B&B and tours of the breweries and wineries producing cheese’s most complimentary beverages – and you have an epicurean’s dream getaway.
To make your culinary trip even easier, we’ve done all the hard work of pinpointing the best sights, stops, tastes and tours for this culinary journey. Just use one of these two itineraries as a starting point and begin your taster’s tour across Wisconsin.
The Southwestern Itinerary
Madison, Green County, Prairie du Sac, Sauk City, Plain, Spring Green
Day One: Madison
Taste & Shop: Fromagination
Travelers can launch their culinary adventure at Fromagination, one of the state’s premier cheese shops. Though Fromagination offers international artisanal cheeses, as a certified member of the Slow Food Organization their primary focus is Wisconsin dairy products. Additionally, Fromagination offers cheese cooking classes, fondue events, gourmet lunch options, catering and in-house culinary events.
Lunch: The Old Fashioned Restaurant
After shopping, visitors can sample Wisconsin’s culinary heritage with lunch at the Old Fashioned. Inspired by the traditions of Wisconsin taverns and supper clubs, The Old Fashioned pays tribute to the foods and spirits that make the state famous, from Door County cherries and artisan cheese to beer and bratwurst.
Taste & Shop: Dane County Farmers’ Market
As the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the country, the Dane County Farmers’ Market showcases Wisconsin’s culinary spirit in this is a downtown gathering of 300 vendors selling produce, flowers, baked goods, artisan cheeses, honey, meats and more every Saturday.
Dine: L’Étoile Restaurant
Tory and Traci Miller’s L’Étoile, bringing exceptional French-based cuisine with a Midwest flavor to Madison. Through multiple partnerships with a large network of small-scale farms, the focus of the menu is local and regional ingredients.
Stay: The Speckled Hen
Travelers looking for gracious hospitality and earth-friendly lodging will find it easily at The Speckled Hen in Madison. Travel Green Wisconsin-certified and located just miles from the capital and campus area, the inn offers guests a luxurious and sustainable lodging option on 50 acres of property that is home to sheep, llamas, wetlands, trails and orchards.
Day Two: Green County
Day two could well be called “cheese lovers in paradise.” Forty-five minutes southwest of Madison, Green County offers a tasty history lesson filled with curds, wedges and wheels.
Tour: Emmi Roth Käse USA, Monroe
Many Green County cheese makers have strong ties to Switzerland, but few are as close as Roth Käse’s, which was founded more than a century ago in Switzerland, reestablished in Wisconsin and is now under Swiss ownership once again. Roth Käse typically launches three to five new cheese products each year. 2009 products include Moody Blue (a handcrafted blue cheese delicately smoked over native fruit wood) and Montanella (a washed-rind Alpine-style cheese with a robust and earthy flavor). Self-guided tours are available with a viewing hall allowing you to observe the cheesemaking process. Best times to catch some action in the viewing hall are weekdays from 9am-1pm.
Lunch: Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern, Monroe
Featuring some of Wisconsin's finest cheese, imported cheese, specialty foods, and much more, Baumgartner's, opened in 1931, is Wisconsin's oldest cheese store. What do the locals order? Limburger with mustard and cheese on rye. With a mint served on the side.
Taste & Tour: New Glarus Brewery, New Glarus
Visit the uber-Swiss community of New Glarus and experience some of the state’s famous brewing heritage, not to mention some of its popular native beers. Open every day of the week from 10am to 4pm, the brewery offers a free self-guided tour. The tour ends in the gift shop where, for a nominal fee, tourists can sample beers like Spotted Cow, Uff-da and Fat Squirrel.
Dine: The Dining Room, Monticello
Boasting a Wine Spectator 2008 Award of Excellence, this restaurant may be tucked away in the verdant hills of Green County but it’s well worth the trip. Chef Dave "Wave" Kasprzak combines ethnic influences and flavors to produce his signature dishes. He and wife Janet offer a monthly culinary class but spots are limited so call ahead!
Stay: Chalet Landhaus Inn & Restaurant, New Glarus
You’ll feel a yodel coming on after spending the night at the Chalet Landhaus Inn & Restaurant where Swiss-trained New Glarus chef Mike Neval offers fondue demonstrations. For groups of 10 or more the demonstration includes fondue history and tips on what to serve with a gooey pot of cheese. The restaurant offers the best of Swiss and American fare in a well-appointed chalet-like dining room.
Day Three: Prairie du Sac, Sauk City, Plain, Spring Green
Taste & Tour: Carr Valley Cheese, Sauk City
Day Three begins with a trip to one of the most heralded artisan cheese makers in the nation. Under the tutelage of fourth-generation Owner/Master Cheese Maker Sid Cook, Carr Valley Cheese won an unprecedented 28 awards at the 2007 American Cheese Society (ACS) competition and two “Best in Shows” at the 2008 ACS competition. The staff recommends visitors come early to the La Valle factory for the best show. In nearby Sauk City, The Carr Valley Cheese Store and Cooking School has also become important stop for discriminating gourmets. Begun in 2008, the cooking school/test kitchen features chefs from across the nation.
Taste & Tour: Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac
There’s no better compliment to cheese than wine, so the Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac is another “must-see” on this artisan cheese tour itinerary. Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, the “Father of California winemaking,” first selected it for vineyards in the 1840s. Today, Wollersheim is led by winemaker Philippe Coquard, who is originally hails from the Beaujolais region of France where he grew up working in the wine industry. After a tour of the facility, Wollersheim offers a complimentary wine sampling along with an explanation of official wine tasting guidelines.
Taste & Tour: Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain
The next stop is Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. One of Wisconsin’s most environmentally conscious producers of organic and local cheese, Cedar Grove provides additive-free cheese from ecologically sustainable sources, including white cheddar, farmer’s cheese, pepper jack and Colby. The company’s unique “Living Machine” performs biological treatment to wash water left after whey separation. Please call ahead for tour dates and times.
Stay: Hill Street B&B
A good night’s rest can be found at this newly remodeled Victorian Hill Street B&B. It offers homey hand-crafted charm and is a short distance from other Spring Green attractions such as the American Players Theater, House on the Rock and Taliesin.
The Eastern Culinary Itinerary
Pick an area below for the perfect day trip or combine for a longer overnight getaway.
Taste & Shop: Downtown Milwaukee
A full day alone could be spent checking out Milwaukee’s food scene but here are our three picks for gastronomical shopping gems. With 24 vendors, the Milwaukee Public Market offers the best of gourmet, organic and specialty produce from independent purveyors. Aside from the shopping, the Public Market also offers cooking classes, tastings and in-house music performances. Sausage always makes a nice accompaniment for cheese, so visit the 100-year old Usinger’s Famous Sausage in Milwaukee’s historic German retail district. Usinger’s is nationally recognized for its production of 70 different types of gourmet German sausage. Just steps from Usinger’s, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart offers “the world’s largest selection of Wisconsin cheese” with over 150 varieties.
Taste & Tour: Lakefront and Sprecher Breweries
The names Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst and Miller certainly ring a bell where beer is concerned. And what do they have in common? They’re all part of Milwaukee’s long brewing history. The Sprecher Brewing Company tour offers a pairing of ten Sprecher beers. Lakefront Brewery is a Travel Green Wisconsin-certified business.
Dine: Sanford Restaurant
In an upscale but homey atmosphere, Sanford offers guests a changing, gourmet menu to reflect the peak freshness and flavor of the season. Additionally, Chef Sandy D’Amato was named a “2009 Wisconsin Cheese Chef Ambassador” by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Taste, Tour & Shop: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars
Master cheesemaker Joe Widmer is the third generation of Widmer’s producing the family’s renowned Brick cheese. Joe is adamant about sticking to the traditional method of brining the cheese, still using the same bricks his grandfather employed to weight down the new cheese decades ago. Open during the week, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars Factory in Theresa features a guided tour Monday- Friday starting at 9:30am. Please call in advance to make a reservation.
Taste & Learn: The Cheesemaker
Plan ahead and take one of Steve Shopson’s (aka The Cheesemaker) two-hour weekday or two-day weekend hands-on cheesemaking course in Mequon. Over the course of instruction, students can learn to make cheeses like camembert, brie, blue cheese, chevre, feta, mozzarella and ricotta. Cheesemaking classes include samplings, history and cheesemaking basics. For more information, see thecheesemaker.com.
Taste & Tour: Cedar Creek Winery
Guided tours of the winery are offered daily and run around 45 minutes. The tour starts with a briefing on Cedar Creek’s history followed by a visit to the wine cellar, the aging room and the bottling line. At the end of the tour, guests can enjoy a brief video on Cedar Creek’s personal wine making process. The last stop includes a complimentary formal wine tasting in the Cedar Creek tasting room.
Stay: Washington House Inn
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Washington House Inn offers guests the opportunity for rest and relaxation in one of their 34 plush private rooms. The Washington House Inn is the best bed and breakfast accommodation in Cedarburg and has been slated as a place of “distinguished comfort” by Better Homes & Gardens.
Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine Area
Taste & Shop: Beechwood Cheese
The Beechwood Cheese Factory in Adell has been in business for over 100 years. Mark and Kris Heise are the husband and wife team behind the 30 flavors of natural cheese they produce, which include five different aged cheddars that can be purchased in their in-house retail store. Enjoy watching the magic happen behind an observation window, then eating cheddar or jalapeno curds fresh from the vat the first Saturday of each month starting at 9:00 a.m.
Craverie, located at the Shops at Woodlake in Kohler, offers diners a unique approach to cuisine—their menu walks the delicate line between lean and indulgent. For chocolate lovers, Craverie is home to Kohler’s Original Recipe chocolates. Along with the indulgent side, Craverie’s menu features decadent pastries, gelato and desserts. On the lean side, guests can feast on lighter soups, salads, sandwiches, and sorbets.
Taste & Learn: L’Ecole de la Maison
Located in the luxurious Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake, L’Ecole de la Maison offers weekend, single and multi-day culinary workshops in the French tradition. Under the instruction of a gourmet chef, guests at any level can learn to master the basics and advanced techniques of high end cuisine at Lola’s on the Lake.
Dine & Stay: Osthoff Resort
Nationally recognized for its exquisite guest accommodations, the Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake is also a foodie haven. The resort offers comfortable, spacious rooms and an unparalleled fine dining experience.
Taste & Shop: Trega Foods/Simon’s Specialty Cheese
Steeped in the history and tradition of Wisconsin cheese making, Trega Foods churns out some of the best feta, mozzarella and provolone in the state. Simon’s Specialty Cheese, Trega’s Little Chute Retail store, is the place to go to browse 100 varieties of cheese.
Taste & Shop: Lamers Dairy
The Lamers Dairy retail store in Appleton specializes in providing guests with the highest quality Wisconsin dairy products and specialty foods. It’s a haven for the tourist interested in Wisconsin’s culinary tradition.
Lunch: Stone Cellar Brewpub
Guests can enjoy the pub, which serves traditional English style pub far and Stone Cellar’s ten original beers on tap. Call ahead for an appointment to tour the brewery.
Taste, Tour & Shop: Union Star Cheese Factory
Union Star Cheese Factory offers tours of their facility every morning except Sundays. The factory tour includes pit stops at pivotal steps in the cheese making process along with a cheese tasting at the end. Additionally, Union Star has an in-house retail store where visitors can purchase the cheese tasted on the tour.
Dine: Pick a Supper Club
For an authentic Wisconsin experience, dinner at a supper club is in order. Expect simple, classic American cuisine like surf and turf, shrimp cocktail, a generous relish tray, baked potatoes and salads with homemade dressings. The Appleton area boasts several supper clubs including the Lox Club, Simpson’s Red Ox Club, and Darboy Club.
Stay: CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa
Appleton’s finest luxury hotel features whirlpools, fireplaces, The Bella Vita Ristorante and SPA BenMarNico’s.