By Jerry Huffman
Special to TravelWisconsin.com
They are the pioneers. They are the keepers of Wisconsin’s holiest grail. They are Wisconsin’s Master Cheese Makers. And more often than before, they are women.
"It’s a perspective they bring to the craft," said Patrick Geoghegan, Vice-President of Communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "The women in our industry are taking cheese creativity to new levels."
"One-hundred fifty years ago cheese making was considered women’s work," said Carie Wagner of Organic Valley in La Farge. "But as the farm-made cheese evolved into a business, production increased and the equipment got heavier."
Wagner was the first woman Master Cheese Maker in Wisconsin. First, you need ten years of experience and then must complete a three-year training course in individual cheeses. Wagner is considered a Master at Asadero, Havarti, Monterrey Jack, and Cheddar.
Raised on a La Crosse dairy farm, Wagner says none of the cheese makers see gender. "It’s all about the shared passion for cheese."
Organic Valley just opened a new retail store in Cashton.
Pam Hodgson, Wisconsin’s second woman Master Cheese Maker, fell in love with the profession the first time she helped her grandfather finish a vat of cheese.
A Master in both Fontina and Open Hard cheeses, Hodgson has been quoted as saying cheese making combines the best of "art, science and team sports because everyone plays a role in creating a great cheese."
You'll find Sartori cheese in groceries and specialty stores statewide.
Julie Hook is the Babe Ruth of women cheese makers. As the only woman to ever win the Wisconsin Cheese Makers World Championship, you’ll often find her at the Dane County Farmer’s Market.
Julie and husband, Tony, have some 50 years of cheese making experience between them. They’re passing on their knowledge to Tony’s sister and niece to carry on the family business.
The Hook’s factory store in Mineral Point is open Monday-Friday and offers more than 50 cheeses.
Ten years ago, Dutch-born Marieke Penterman had a dream. She had already moved to Wisconsin but desperately missed her hometown Gouda cheese. "I woke my husband up and said we should make Gouda," said Penterman, "and like a good husband he said, 'can we talk about this in the morning?'"
Now, Penterman has made a name for herself by creating some of the most authentic tasting Gouda on this side of the Atlantic with what must be some of the state’s happiest cows. Fans, rotating back scratchers and no stalls mark their unique setup.
The Milk Marketing Board’s Geoghegan credits Penterman for bringing an "old world flavor" to her cheeses.
Marieke’s store is open daily 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You can also book tours online.
Katie Fuhrmann is often mentioned as a rising star in cheese making.
Fuhrman works largely with goats’ milk for her cheese and is racking up an impressive list of awards. Her Evalon won the 2011 United States Cheese Championship just two years into her career and also made the Sweet 16 at the 2014 World Championships.
"Patience," said Fuhrmann, is what distinguishes her work and that of other women cheese makers from their male counterparts. "Patience…plus a flair and energy for the work."
LaClare Farms is open seven days a week with a gift shop and restaurant on the grounds.
Try the Cheeses in Action!
Buying cheese directly from the source is a great experience. You can buy it a few ounces at a time or fill up a suitcase. Often you'll find the cheese at a lower price than at your neighborhood grocery.
Eating is still the best adventure of all. Hook's Cheese maintains an online listing of restaurants serving their cheese. Try Riverstone Restaurant in Eagle River. You'll find Organic Valley cheese used at both Graze and L'Etoile in Madison. Both Holland's Family Cheese and LaClare Farms have cafes on site where they feature many dishes using their most popular cheeses.
Keep the cheesy adventure going. The options are endless in the Dairy State of Wisconsin. Go get yourself some squeeky cheese curds!
Jerry Huffman, like any good cheese nerd, will be at Lambeau Field in March for the 2017 US Cheese Championships.