Rural ramble: St. Croix curds, cave, Vino in Valley

Ellsworth: churning out cheese for 102 years.

Former Gov. Anthony Earl in the 1980s dubbed Ellsworth, population 3,200, as Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin. The 102-year-old Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery produces 160 pounds of curds every day.

“They’re fresh and ready at 11 a.m.,” says the creamery’s Beth Ingli, while busily distributing samples at this month’s annual Wisconsin Restaurant Association Expo in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin produces 2.6 billion pounds of cheese per year. The Ellsworth creamery encourages visitors and has begun working with neighbors to market the hilly, rural area near the St. Croix River as a day trip, especially from April to October.

A flyer encourages visits to the creamery and four other family-operated businesses within 25 miles. In the mix:

Crystal Cave, W965 Hwy. 29, Spring Valley; 800-236-2283. The spot was discovered by a farm boy in 1881. Open seasonally, starting March 31, for hour-long tours.

Sailer’s Meats, 600 W. Winter Ave., Elmwood; 715-639-2191. The five-generation butchery wins many state awards for its meats, especially sausages. Closed on Sundays.

Vino in the Valley, W3826 450th Ave., Maiden Rock; 715-639-6677. Open Thursday through Sunday. Business hours change with the seasons; Italian meals sometimes are served outdoors, amid five acres of grapevines.

Flat Pennies Ice Cream, W6442 Hwy. 35, Bay City; 715-594-3555. Hot dogs to sundaes are served from a Soo Line caboose.

The quintet represents a combined population of well under 10,000, and these Pierce County businesses are south of Interstate 94.

The cave opens at 9 a.m., Beth notes, well before the fresh curds are ready. For more: www.tasteandtours.com.

The creamery produces white cheddar curds and four flavored versions: ranch, taco, Cajun and garlic. Other flavors are taste-tested by visitors before moving to large-scale production.

Watch www.facebook.com/WICheeseCurds for taste-testing details. For more about the creamery, 232 N. Wallace St., Ellsworth: 715-273-4311.

Think you make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, or that grilled cheese requires no cooking skill? Get enlightened at the Iowa County Fairgrounds, Mineral Point, during the state’s first Grilled Cheese Championship, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 21.

Competition occurs on two levels: professional and amateur. Up to 60 entrants will compete in up to two of four sandwich categories. They are:

Classic – using any type of bread, real butter and cheese.

Classic Plus One – a savory sandwich that includes one additional ingredient.

Classic Plus Extras – a savory sandwich with unlimited ingredients.

Classic Dessert – a sweet sandwich with unlimited ingredients.

In all categories, “interior ingredients must be at least 60 percent cheese,” and the cheese must be made in Wisconsin. Each cook gets 15 minutes to prepare an entry. Judges score taste, presentation and style.

Kewaskum-based Regal Ware is donating stainless steel cookware as prizes. All competitors pay $10 to $20 per category entered and will use the company’s 12-inch fry pans to prepare the sandwiches.

Admission for spectators is free, but pre-registration is advised. Also on the menu is country music and comfort food (grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup).

The cheese event is a project of the Iowa County Area Economic Development Corp., which opened the Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point in 2010 and provides work for 35 people with disabilities. The commercial kitchen prepares ingredients for chefs and helps launch new food products in small batches.

Executive Director Rick Terrien wants to establish similar facilities throughout Wisconsin, especially in marginalized neighborhoods. Next up: north Milwaukee site development.

In Mineral Point, Innovation Kitchen customers include RP’s Pasta in Madison (workers prepare a pumpkin-squash filling for ravioli) and Raw Dog Relish in Portage (workers prepare, jar and label the product for retail sale).

Innovation Kitchen also sells its own Farmhouse Recipes product line. A gift shop at 851 Dodge St. is open on weekdays. For more: 608-341-6797.

Carry Valley Cheese Cooking School has added “pairings classes” to its popular visiting chef cooking classes. That means cheese-wine and cheese-beer pairings.

Some of the new season’s offerings already are sold out. Visiting chefs come from as far as Las Vegas (Matthew Silverman of Vintner Grill) and Virginia (Rhys Lewis, Williamsburg Lodge – and formerly of Kohler’s American Club).

For more about the 1.5- to 2.5-hour classes at 807 Phillips Blvd., Sauk City: 608-643-3441. Carr Valley produces about 80 types of cheese and most recently acquired Glacier Point Cheese, Linden, whose specialty is an artisan blue cheese.

Small-batch and handcrafted gouda from Holland’s Family Cheese, Thorp, has won at least 50 national and international awards since the business began four years ago. The cheeses are pressed into 18-pound wheels, and one of the newest versions is the tasty Burning Melange, which incorporates nettles, parsley, chives, celery, dried onion and garlic.

Also in the farmstead cheese shop (closed on Sundays) are European – especially Dutch – products. For more about this enterprise, operated by Netherlands natives Rolf and Marieke Penterman at N13851 Gorman Ave., Thorp: 715-669-5230.

Fifty is the magic number for Madison-based Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream this year. The family-owned business has begun a 50-week celebration of its golden anniversary by featuring 50 products.

“Throughout the year, we’ll have random days – 50 days – when ice cream cones will cost 50 cents for 50 minutes,” says Dave Deadman, vice president. Stay tuned to the company’s Facebook page to learn when this happens.

The official birthday party, at the company’s three Madison stores, is June 16. Expect Happy Birthday ice cream – which tastes and looks a little like angel food cake with blue buttercream icing and specks of colored candy – to be served.

New products include Bang!, a caffeinated ice cream. It comes in four flavors (mint with cookie and chocolate chunks; chocolate with peanut butter cups and ripples; espresso with chocolate chunks and fudge swirls; and dark chocolate with Heath candy).

One scoop contains the amount of caffeine found in an average energy drink. The caffeine comes from a natural stimulant, guarana seeds from Brazil.

Madison stores are at 1726 Fordem Ave., 555 S. Midvale Blvd. and 468 State St. For more: 608-221-8640.