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Wisconsin's Prize-Winning Artisan Cheeses

by Lou Seibert Pappas

Artisan cheese makers in Wisconsin are turning out prize-winning original cheeses based on cow, goat, and sheep's milk. At the 2002 World Cheese Contest, they tallied 35% of all awards -more than any other state or country. That includes their many European and classic Cheddar varieties as well.

Overall, Wisconsin produces more than 350 varieties, types, and styles of cheese- twice as many as California, its closest competitor with 175 kinds.

It was a delight to visit this beautiful state and meet many of the top cheese makers, tour their plants, and taste their renowned cheeses. The hush green pastureland and rolling hills stretch for miles, all punctuated by silos to mark the 17,000 family dairy farms.

The limestone-filtered water supply and flavorful alfalfa are credited with contributing to the exceptional milk supply. These factors have drawn European cheese making artisans who often work side by side with third and fourth generation family farmers, practicing centuries-old cheese making techniques. Many dairymen have entered the tandem business of cheese production to remain competitive.

CheesemongerCarr Valley Cheese Factory, situated alongside County Truck Highway G in La Valle, celebrates 100 years of family ownership this year. The personable fourth generation family owner Sid Cook was raised in the plant and got his cheese making license at age 16. He is known for his prize artisan Cheddars, hand-wrapped in cheese-cloth and waxed in red, green, and black coatings, the color varying with the age. The Apple Smoked Cheddar is a white wheel, smoked with applewood and rubbed with paprika. A Virgin Pine Cheddar Blue is pierced with needles to let mold grow. His 8-year-old Cheddar, sealed in black, is sublime.

Cook also delights in creating new varieties. In a second plant in Mauston, he turns out such innovative cheeses as Mobay: made with a stripe of ash sandwiched between a slice of goat milk cheese on one side and sheep milk cheese on the other. Each side has a distinctive flavor and with a mouthful, they blend into a new taste. Gran Cararia, aged 3 years in olive oil, is robust and pungent with a crumbly body like Parmesan. Rofumo is hickory smoked with a pleasing smoked flavor. Shepherd's blend stems from three kinds of milk and with its soft body is an excellent eating cheese.

The spotless plant was a whir of activity the day we visited yet our group had a special opportunity to take a hand in making a batch of Cheddar once the milk in the big stainless vat had coagulated into a giant curd and was sliced into blocks. That meant plopping the cut slabs of Cheddar one on top of each other, then rotating the stacks, and finally when enough whey had oozed out, a special spinning and cutting machine cubed the mass into small curds. These were then packed into the round metal molds and pressed for 22 pound wheels. Just the simple technique of slipping cheesecloth into a mold proved a challenge for us novices.

The plant also sells cheese curds, made fresh daily. These flavorful irregular 1/2 inch morsels make great snacking. Customers drive from miles around to stock up on their favorite cheese.

Big CheeseAt Fond du Lac, Park Cheese Company has been manufacturing fine Italian cheese for over 30 years. The Italian cheese maker Armando Ferrari is revered among his peers for his great style. His products include Asiago, Fontina, whole peppercorn-studded Pepato, and organic milk Parmesan and Romano. Walking through the massive cellars with owner Eric Leibetrau, we stopped to taste an aged Provolone. He inserted a cylindrical plunger into a gigantic 600-pound cheese hanging from the raters and pulled out a plug. One bite proved addictive.

Armando lives with his wife, Lina, above the plant and she is justly famous for her culinary talents as she often regales special visitors with an extensive Italian-style four course lunch. naturally utilizing the Italian-style cheeses. Her chicken soup is dolloped with Parmesan and egg nuggets and Italian Gorgonzola laces the field greens salad.

A stop at Roth Kase USA Ltd in Monroe introduced the classic Swiss way of using copper vats to produce their world famous Grand Cru Gruyère and salt ripening them from the outside in. They also make Raclette, Muenster, Fontina, and Knight's Vail and their latest prizes are for Panina, a Spanish-style cheese, and Homestead, a traditional farmhouse-style cheese.

Uplands Cheese Co. relies on pasture-grazed cows for their award-winning Beaufort, a French alpine-style Gruyère they named Pleasant Ridge Reserve Cheese. The small firm is owned by two couples, Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dave and Jeanne Patenaude, and their cheese is coveted by top restaurants such as New York's Daniel.

Third generation Joe Widmer runs the Widmer Cheese Cellars family plant in Theresa. His grandfather John Widmer settled in the Wisconsin area, sought his betrothed to join him, and had to swiftly marry her on the dock when she landed in New York since she lacked proper papers. Like the early cheese makers and their families, the Widmers lived in rooms above the plant and Joe was raised in this fashion as were his children.

The firm specializes in Brick, a Wisconsin original first developed in 1875. It is an aged foil-wrapped, smear-ripened cheese that becomes tangy and pungent with age. It is pressed with the same bricks used by his Swiss Grandfather, and it is the only plant in the States to make this cheese. The firm is also renowned for its 4-year-old Cheddar, which took first place at this year's American Cheese Society competition.

Just this June, Crave Brothers, located near Waterloo, launched a farmstead niche with fresh Mozzarella, mascarpone, and Mexican string cheese. This family farm is owned by four brothers and has long been one of the state's most progressive, successful dairy farms with 600 Holstein cows, each cow producing 30,000 pounds of milk per year.

The brothers wanted to add value to the farm's own high-grade milk .and decided producing specialty farmstead cheese was a good solution. Debbie Crave, a creative marketer and wife, set forth for tasting their creamy mascapone sandwiched between softened dried apricots. The cheese was also spread as a frosting on pumpkin squares for a delicious treat. The soft balls of Mozzarella were a great match paired with red and gold just-picked cherry tomatoes.

An excellent map, a taster's guide of the cheese plants, breweries, and wine cellars, is available from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc., 8418 Excelsior Dr., Madison, WI 55717.

If you visit Wisconsin from May 1 through October 31, don't miss a tour of Taliesin, the private residence of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the complex of adjoining buildings, situated in a spectacular setting in the brow of a hill. All tours start at the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor's Center, which features a bookstore and terrace café. For tour reservations, call 608 588 7900. The House on the Rock Inn offers a lovely nearby stay with many amenities including luxury two-room suites, indoor and outdoor pool, fitness center, golf, and tennis. Reservations: 888-935-3960.

It is a perfect time to set forth an almost instant wine and cheese paring. Or, consider some of the darker interesting micro-beers mated with cheese. With wine, the semi-soft creamy white Monterey Jack and Muenster types go with Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot; aged Cheddar, golden or white, suits Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Port; Blue and Gorgonzola rate red or white sweet wines or fruity red wines; aged Asiago and Parmesan types have affinities with Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Merlot. It is best to experiment and try new matchings to please personal taste.


For an easy appetizer, or a light supper consider this Swiss-style specialty.

Raclette with Spuds, Sausage, and Fennel

This almost instant entree can double as a fast appetizer. In the Alpine restaurants and beer halls in Switzerland, raclette cheese melts over an open fire and acquires an intriguing smoky aroma.

12 tiny new potatoes (red, purple, or gold or an assortment)
8 ounces raclette, Gruyère, Samsoe or Jarlsberg cheese
12 cocktail sausages
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and sliced
12 cornichons or small pickles
Dark rye or pumpernickel bread

Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a fork or microwave for 6 minutes or until tender.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Thinly slice the cheese and place in individual baking dishes or 6-inch ramekins. Bake in the oven until cheese melts and starts to brown, about 10 minutes. Place sausages on a baking dish and bake in the oven alongside for 10 minutes or until hot through. Serve cheese ramekins on dinner plates surrounded with potatoes, sausages, fennel, and cornichons and pass a basket of bread.

Makes 3 to 4 servings



Wisconsin cheeses can be ordered from these web sites. Contact:


Here are two other cheese web sites, but these do not take orders from the web:

Lou Seibert Pappas is the author of over 30 cookbooks including Christmas Candies, Biscotti, Omelettes, Frittatas and Souffles, and Crźpes, published by Chronicle Books.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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