Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hello Wisconsin!

Through Waukesha, Waupaca, Wonewoc, Menomonie, & Weyauwega, over the Mississippi, Hudson, & St. Croix, & between Lakes Winnebago & Michigan...I cruised grand ol' Sconi like it was my curd-loving job (which it pretty much is, but that is a cheese-tail of it's own). I was pleased to find that the cheese pride is alive & well in America's Dairyland. Beyond the mounds of colby-jack & smoked jalapeno baked in chocolate cheese (the later was a bit of an exaggeration, but I certainly would not be surprised), there are WONDERFUL things happening with artisan cheese in Wisconsin. I was fortunate enough to catch some of the amazing people responsible for the cheese wonderment...the tour starts just west of Madison.

Uplands Cheese Co,
located in the beautiful rolling hills outside of Dodgeville, WI was my first stop on my way northwest. I was lucky enough to score a tour with Mike Gingrich, part owner & original cheesemaker of the delightfully delicious Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Back before their journey into cheesemaking, the owners operated the farm strictly as a dairy farm focused on rotational grazing. The local flora in their pastures produced a unique & delicious milk that seemed to be going to waste as milk prices dropped...which is where the cheese came into the picture (thank goodness). After some serious cheesearch of their own, they decided on a Beaufort style (a raw cow's milk cheese made in the French Alps, similar to Gruyere) and worked with the University of Wisconsin to hone a recipe. The rest is history. Cheesemaking only happens in the summer when there is fresh pasture, keeping production fairly small & the quality of this cheese unbelievable. I can barely wait to taste what they come up with next!

After Uplands Cheese, I backtracked slightly to Bleu Mont to
check out their operation & talk cheese. Willi Lehner, owner & cheesemaker, was out adventuring in the Tetons with his daughter, but his partner, Kitas, was a wonderful hostess. Willi grew up making cheese & in 1998 bought the farm in Blue Mounds, WI, which is now a peaceful piece of cheese heaven. 'Willi's Caves' are the latest addition to this property for affinage of Bleu Mont & local friendly cheeses. Willi buys milk from local producers & leases facilities nearby to make Bandaged Cheddar, Lil' Will's Big Cheese, and several other tasty varieties. The flavors of his cheese certainly reflect the unique aging environment...the caves are his secret weapon of sorts. Willi is always experimenting, and the state of Wisconsin reaps all the benefits as their cheese rarely escapes the state. I savored ever last morsel of the Bandaged Cheddar that Kitas sent away with me...delicious!

On my way to Minneapolis I stopped at Cedar Grove Cheese.
This outfit has offered help to many new cheesemakers (Uplands included) & is a leader in the responsible & sustainable farming & cheesemaking, so I had to take a peak. Work was mostly done for the day at the time of my visit, but I was able to check out their "Living Machine" waste water filtration system. This working ecosystem uses natural microbes & hydroponic plants to filter all waste water produced by the creamery before releasing the clean water in a nearby creek. Pretty stellar operation. After Cedar Grove, I was off to the Twin Cities for a cheese-filled burger at The Nook in St. Paul. It was called the Paul Molitor, my favorite Brewer of all I could not resist. Is there a such thing as cheese overload?

After a delicious breakfast in Minneapolis & a quick stop at Surdyk's to check out their cheese selection, which is quite respectable, I headed north to the LoveTree Farmstead in Grantburg, WI. It was a busy day for the husband & wife duo recovering from the weekend markets & Monday's storms (there was some crazy wind in cheesehead land Sunday & Monday), but I was able to talk with owner David Falk about their lovely farm. I will certainly try to make it back for a more in depth tour of the cheese caves. They have received several awards for their cheeses & in 2002 named Artisans of the Year by Bon Appetite, but they remain a small operation...selling most of their delicious cheese at local farmer's markets. If you are lucky enough to live in the area, grab a hunk of the Trade Lake Cedar (raw sheeps milk aged 2-4 months) & enjoy. I'm jealous.

The rest of my daylight hours were spent cruising across the state to Appleton, where I would spend the night with good friends, enjoy some delicious food & beer, & agonize over who I would side with in Monday night's Packers vs. Brett Favre match. Many of us grew up wearing a wedge with a green & gold Favre jersey. So, I hope you were patient with your Packer fan friends on Monday. I digress...

The last stop on the Wisconsin leg of the GACT, was Saxon Homestead where I scored an amazing tour the farm & creamery. Erik Klessig (I wanted to put him in my pocket he was so sweet), uncle to Karl & Robert Klessig who run the farm, was kind enough to show me the ins & outs of the family farm including a little Johnny Cash to show off the sound system in the newly converted barn hall (party in Cleveland, WI anyone?). Saxon, similar to Uplands, participates in rotational grazing moving the heard to a new paddock, or pasture, every 12 hours. This allows the pasture to recover & the cows happily fed, which produces the delicious milk that gets directly transported a few miles down the road to their creamery. At the creamery, all Saxon cheeses are hand crafted with love. My personal favorite is their Green Fields which highlights the quality & flora of the milk produced by their beautiful family farm. Delicious.

Wisconsin, you were so good to me. I am so happy to see your dairyness still in tact & happy cows are roaming free. There are certainly some creameries I missed & others I would like to go back to for another visit, so I will be back, but this tour was quite enjoyable. Speaking of being good to me...I would like to get personal for a moment & extend a giant THANK YOU to my parents, Richard & Dianne Dvorak, who are trusting me with their car & have provided love & support beyond anything I could have ever expected. You guys are seriously the best! Also, my lovely lodging sponsors Chris in Minneapolis & Beth & Chris in Appleton. It was so great to see you guys & sleep in a lovely bed! This curd is for you!

Cooler chock-full of cheese & two 6-packs of New Glarus Spotted Cow in tow...I head to Chicago!

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