I know the route from Madison through Door County like the back of my hand. I’ve been traveling its parts since my high school years in Green Bay, when day trips included cross-country ski outings to Potawatomi State Park and beach parties at Whitefish Dunes. In college, my friends and I drove from St. Norbert’s in DePere to the Fox Cities for concerts and shopping sprees, and since that time I’ve been back and forth between my Madison home and the thumb of Wisconsin for innumerable family gatherings, cabin stays and work trips. Sometimes I think I could drive from the capital to Gills Rock with my eyes closed.
But lately I’ve had them wide open, so as not to miss a certain kind of stop along the way: cheese stores. Indeed, in recent years I’ve watched as a growing number of businesses that specialize in Wisconsin cheese have cropped up along that familiar stretch—a happy sight to a cheesehead locavore like me.
Access to good local cheese isn’t a new thing in this state, of course, but establishments where you can find a diversity of artisan, farmstead and specialty cheeses—crafted in Wisconsin and sold in one place—have become as hot as fondue in Switzerland. These are places where cheese lovers have put their passion to work, launching such shops as Fromagination (Madison), Arthur Bay Cheese Co. (Appleton), and Nala’s Fromagerie (Green Bay), as well as Wisconsin Cheese Masters and Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese (both in Egg Harbor).
Not long ago, I pulled off the multi-laned behemoth that is Highway 41 near Oshkosh to check out Butcher Block Meats & Cheese, one of the newest in this retail category to open its doors. I can’t say I was expecting much, given its location near the freeway and within a small, nondescript strip mall. But the moment I entered, I thought to myself, something extraordinary is going on here.
Inside, the Butcher Block is at once pristine and lush, ordered and inviting. Gleaming aluminum tubs serve cleverly as light fixtures; neatly filled shelves and cold cases beckon from all sides, and there’s not a smudge or a speck or a dust mote in sight. The two people working behind the counters each turned, gave me a cheery grin and welcomed me to the store.
I headed straight for the cheese case, where word-class varieties waited, arranged like architecture in a big-cityscape. It wasn’t the largest selection I’ve come across, but there wasn’t a lightweight in the bunch, either. Among the notables were Willi Lehner’s stellar Bandaged Cheddar, the much-awarded Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese; Marieke Penterman’s exotic Cumin Gouda, and Hook’s veined Tilston Point. I felt like I’d happened upon the cheese equivalent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Then Kim and MariBeth Theusch introduced themselves. The smilers behind the counter turned out to be the shop’s owners, a couple who, as I soon learned, had left “regular jobs” to realize a dream that combines Kim’s love of making sausages and MariBeth’s thing for cheese. As they waxed poetic about the creativity and tenacity of small-batch cheesemakers and offered me little tastes of paradise, the pleasure they take in their work was so obvious I swear I saw sparks in their eyes.
The Theusches offer an assortment of regionally sourced delicacies beyond cheese, including fresh cuts, cured meats and Kim’s own incredible homemade sausages (think Hungarian, Swedish potato, andouille… and then keep going). They also carry Wisconsin-made products such as RP’s Pasta, Potter’s Crackers, and Quince and Apple preserves.
Part meat market, part local foods store and all cheese heaven, the Butcher Block instantly became a go-to spot on my much-traveled route. I’m keeping my eyes open for it from here on in.