“Give me a good sharp knife and a good sharp cheese and I’m a happy man.”
~George RR Martin
Not long ago a friend of mine went to Wisconsin for a long weekend. Another friend asked him to bring her back “a little cheese.” Do you know what he brought back? A tiny lapel pin shaped like the State of Wisconsin, bearing, in quotes, “a little cheese.” So small I couldn’t read it without my glasses. He was laughing.
“You never brought her any cheese? If I go to Wisconsin, I always stop for cheese.” I’ve learned hard cheese will keep inside an air-conditioned car or hotel room so I don’t have to refrigerate it in transit, and it’s best served at room temperature. (I’ve been to Wisconsin in winter; I prefer summer.) If mold does appear (never happened to me), it can be easily trimmed off; mold doesn’t harm the cheese.
He shrugged. “Cheese is cheese. What’s the difference between Wisconsin cheese and the cheese you get at the grocery store?”
Well, the United States is one of the top two leading cheese-producing countries in the world (the other is France), and Wisconsin is its leading dairy state. Wisconsin produces more than one-third of all the cheese made in the United States, offering more than three hundred varieties of Wisconsin cheeses in various shapes and sizes. Another thing that is unique about this state is that decades ago, when transportation was more difficult than today, someone decided to price milk and dairy products according to their distance from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the heart of dairy country: it is called the Eau Claire rule. To this day, government still regulates the price of milk. So, theoretically, Wisconsin should have the freshest (aged, if you want it) and least expensive dairy products you’ll find Stateside.
When I’m on the road, I enjoy going to cheese houses, sampling all the cool flavors, and touring the cheese-making process. And, yes, the flavor and texture of cheese does vary from place to place and from brand to brand. And I tend to favor 100-percent farmer-owned coops. If you like cheese, as I do, and like to visit cheese houses, here are some casual tourist destinations.
Central Wisconsin on SR 29, between Eau Claire and Wausau.
I stop in Colby if I’m nearby because Colby cheese was my dad’s favorite, and I’m sensitized to the name. The only cheese house in town is Welcome Dairy, but there are other kinds of cheeses and cheese houses throughout the state. Almost all sell Colby cheese, which originated right here. Colby is a cow’s milk cheese that is milder than cheddar, with less acid content.
Southwestern Wisconsin off SR 33, between La Crosse and Wildcat Mountain State Park.
One Amish cheesehouse in Wisconsin is Old Country Cheese Factory. The factory accepts fresh milk from over two hundred Amish milk producers, which brings in over a hundred thousand pounds of milk a day. The outlet offers fresh Amish cheese and Wisconsin cheese gift boxes; the gift shop, Amish crafts and maple syrup.
Northwestern Wisconsin off US 10, between Eau Claire and the Mississippi River.
Nineteenth-century Pepin County was the home of the Laura Ingalls Wilder family and the opening saga of the Little House on the Prairie series: Little House in the Big Woods, which you can visit while you’re in the area. In nearby Durand is the family-owned Eau Galle Cheese Factory, one of the finest cheese plants in the State of Wisconsin, producing millions of pounds of cheese a year and offering a full product line, everything from American to Wisconsin Yellow.
Northeastern Wisconsin off SR 67, west of Manitowoc and I-43.
Hennings is another family-owned cheesemaker, specializing in cheddar and Colby. Hennings is the last cheese factory in the United States making cheese wheels larger than 75 pounds: they offer wheels as small as twelve pounds or mammoth cheese wheels (wholesale only) weighing up to six tons.
Meister Cheese Company processes the milk from three thousand cows and is one of the few specialty (gourmet) cheesemakers that cut, package, and label for retail sale.
Southeastern Wisconsin off US 41, between Green Bay and Milwaukee.
Widmers is Wisconsin’s only cheese factory still using real bricks to press their brick cheese. They manufacture brick, super-aged cheddar, and an authentic Colby cheese and offer morning tours by appointment.
Northwestern Vermont on US 7, south of Burlington.
For sheer beauty, Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre working dairy farm and National Historic Landmark, designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is unsurpassed. You park in the parking lot, pay the admission fee, and are carried by horse-drawn hayride to the barn. Shelburne is equally unsurpassed as a cheese house: the farm produces a high-quality Farmhouse cheddar cheese, entirely by hand, with no artificial flavoring, coloring, or preservative.
Eastern Vermont on US 4, I-89×1, west of White River Junction.
Quechee Gorge is about as quaint as Shelburne is manicured, but both have their own intoxicating ambience. The cheese produced and sold in Vermont is Cabot, a farmer-owned New England brand of cheese, with cheese outlets in Quechee Gorge, Cabot, and Waterbury, Vermont. The Vermont Cheese Council is dedicated to producing and marketing the finest cheese, which you can learn about on the Vermont Cheese Trail.
STATE COLLEGE, PENNSYLVANIA
Off the beaten track. Take US 322 some distance west of Harrisburg. Or I-99 north of Altoona. Or I-80×161 south.
Penn State, an agricultural college, is the premier state university in Pennsylvania, partly supported by tax revenues. At its small Berkey Creamery you can enjoy coffee, sandwich, or ice cream or buy dairy products from the cooler or over the internet. Each year well over four million pounds of milk pass through the Creamery’s stainless steel tanks: about half from the school’s own small herd and the other half from independent dairies.
Southeastern Pennsylvania on US 30, between York and Philadelphia.
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, boasts the most fertile soil in the United States, perhaps due to old-fashioned manure from Amish cows and horses. Here you will find almost any cheese you’re looking for, including goat cheese and organic artisan cow milk cheese. Nearby, in Millersville, is Amish Foods. A little outside of Lancaster, to your east, is September Farm Cheese, Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, which offers visits to the farm.
Northern Ohio on SR 39 west of I-77, south of Wooster, west of New Philadelphia.
Sugar Creek, Walnut Creek, Millersburg, and Berlin, Ohio, are all part of Amish country, Holmes County having the largest Amish community in the world. Here you’ll find a number of cheese houses, some along the back roads, with lots of cheese choices. Check out Broad Run Cheesehouse, Sugar Creek; Walnut Creek Cheese, Walnut Creek; and Guggisberg Cheese, Millersburg. Heini’s Cheese Chalet, also in Millersburg, uses only hand-milked cows and still processes milk from Amish herds. Here you can sample more than fifty varieties of locally made cheeses.
Northern Indiana on US 20, east of South Bend and Elkhart.
Middlebury is home to Das Dutchman Essenhaus, but you’ll have to drive back roads to find the cheese houses. Guggisberg Deutsch Kase Haus Cheese Factory is one of the ideal stops, because it is the only place in Indiana’s Amish Country where you can see championship cheese being made. Two of its specialties are longhorn and Colby.
Neighboring Shipshewana, which is slight more commercial, has the Blue Gate Restaurant, gift shops, fine furniture, the Menna-Hof Museum (telling the Amish and Mennnonite story), and Yoder’s Meat and Cheese, which stocks more than one hundred varities of cheese.
POINT REYES STATION, CALIFORNIA
Western California on SR 1, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, east of the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Most dairy farms lie east of the Mississippi River or in states bordering the Mississippi. The reason is that out West, ranches raise beef cattle not dairy cattle. But occasionally you do find cheese houses west of the Rockies, like the avant-garde Cowgirl Creamery. This company manufactures its own artisanal cheeses using organic milk from the Straus Family Creamery and operates outlets in Greater San Francisco and in the Penn Quarter of Washington, DC.
Western Oregon on US 101, west of Portland.
South of Tillamook, as you head north, you’ll begin finding cheesehouses on US 101. Stop and browse. If you’ve ever lived out West, you know: West is not East, or even Midwest. So a cheese house out West is different. Don’t expect the same smiling atmosphere. Westerners are more reserved. You may find yourself browsing, with no attendant in sight; but when, it seems, you need to pay or ask a question, a shopkeeper will appear. Don’t take this as rudeness or coolness: it’s just the way of the West.
Tillamook Cheese Factory is famous for its Squeaky Cheese and Baby Loaf, which you can find right here in its gourmet gift shop or even watch being made on the factory tour, which attracts more than one million tourists a year. Each day the factory turns out close to two hundred thousand pounds of Tillamook cheese and is in the Top Fifty dairy producers in the United States.
“Cheese—milk’s leap toward immortality.” ~Clifton Fadiman
Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee