Magnificent candy, cheese in tiny Theresa

We are sitting outside of Joel Bernhard’s kitchen in Theresa, a town of 1,300 in Dodge County, and the topic is how important it is for all senses to take over when cooking.

“You can feel the batter’s stiffness when stirring, smell the ingredients, tell the difference between flours by touch,” Joel explains. Since 2002, he has operated Confections for Any Occasion about five miles from where he was raised, and keen senses are crucial to his success.

That is because the candy maker has been blind since age 4, when a tumor was discovered on his optic nerve.

“I remember some basic colors but am starting to forget because I haven’t seen them for 25 years,” Joel says. It is a day of back-to-back interviews, first with me, then with college students. A couple of hours earlier, he greeted 30 children on a field trip.

Mom Karen, who works with Joel (as do nine part-time employees), raised him to believe that “I can do everything but drive a car and fly an airplane.”

He took a liking to food and nutrition projects in 4-H and enrolled in a culinary arts program in Fond du lac after high school graduation. When introduced to the world of chocolate truffle production, Joel knew it would be a sweet match.

Concocting treats from a base of chocolate, heavy cream and butter was straightforward, but endless variations are possible, “so I wouldn’t get bored.”

Joel began his business by renting a commercial kitchen and filling the orders of family and friends for two years. “It went well,” he says, so he rented Theresa’s former general store, a 1915 building with the original hardwood floors and tin ceilings. The business goes through 6,000 pounds of chocolate per year.

For sale are Wisconsin wines and beer, trendy candy products (Pop Rocks to candy cigarettes), gift baskets and Joel’s chocolates. His small and casual restaurant serves paninis, pizzas, other sandwiches and breakfast.

More than 500 molds produce chocolate tractors to butterflies. Among his near-50 candy products are Berry Bogs (a chocolate-covered mix of dried cranberries, cherries and blueberries, with caramel and almonds), Peanut Butter and Jelly Truffles, and the spicy-sweet Mexican Truffles.

Theresa, despite its modest size, provides a double punch of quality for foodies. It’s all about cheese and chocolate.

Visitors stop at Joel’s place and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, a couple of blocks away. Widmer’s speciality is award-winning brick, Colby and cheddar cheeses. The recipe and technique for the brick goes back to 1875.

Enter Widmer’s retail outlet, and the first thing you see is a cooler full of cheese. Only a wooden railing separates it from the production vats in the “make room.” If visiting on a weekday morning, you’re likely to see cheesemakers at work.

This is the same place where owner Joseph Widmer’s grandfather made cheese in 1922. The family lived above the cheese factory.

“Most people today don’t know what real brick is,” Joe says, online. It has “a heady aroma, and the flavor intensifies greatly as it ages.”

Categorize it as a stinky cheese, like limburger, but that translates into terrific flavor. Our bet is that more people are realizing this, because “good cheese” no longer is “bland cheese.”

For more about Confections for Any Occasion, 101 N. Milwaukee St.: www.confectionsbyjoel.com, 920-488-9269.

For more about Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, 214 W. Henni St.: www.widmerscheese.com, 888-878-1107.

Take Hwys. 28/67 west, off of U.S. 41 south of Fond du Lac, to get to both businesses. Orders also can be placed online.

Theresa is less than 10 miles from the 32,000-acre Horicon Marsh, which is the nation’s largest cattail marsh. About two-thirds of the acreage is a national wildlife refuge; the rest is a state wildlife area.

The marsh is a haven for birds, particularly geese in autumn, but more than 290 species have been spotted here. Four miles of hiking trails regulate human access.

For more: www.horiconmarsh.org, 920-387-7860.

The annual Horicon Marsh Bird Festival, May 9-12, involves several communities in the area. Many bird-watching events are booked months in advance, but the boat tours, bird lectures, hikes and demonstrations are numerous.

For more: www.marshmelodies.com, 920-210-4832. Horicon Marsh Bird Club organizes the festival, and many events are free. It’s smart to pre-register when fees are involved.

One of the more unusual offerings is the Big Sit, from midnight May 9 to 8 p.m. May 10. It is a free event, but donations are appreciated. This is the event’s main funding source.

“Our goal is to identify as many bird species as possible in a 20-hour time period,” organizers say. Participants gather at the marsh’s Horicon Observation Deck. Average number of bird species seen: 79.

Coming soon: a $5.2 million Horicon Marsh International Education Center at N7725 Hwy. 28.

Want to stay overnight in the area? Meander to Mayville, a community of 5,000 that is rich with architectural diversity. On the main drag is the gorgeous Audubon Inn, an 1896 and three-story Queen Anne building that is the beacon for all else.

The midweek Snooze & Cruise package, good until Oct. 26, includes an overnight stay for two adults in a junior whirlpool suite, breakfast and a one-hour narrated boat tour of the marsh. Cost is $115, plus tax. Similar packages, on weekends, boost the cost to $145.

For more: www.auduboninn.com, 920-387-5858. The inn is at 45 N. Main St., Mayville.