When the good people of Illinois began calling us Cheeseheads in the 1980s, we embraced the pejorative and began wearing yellow wedges of foam on our heads, particularly during football games.
So it seemed quite appropriate to host this year’s U.S. Cheese Championships, the nation’s biggest cheese competition, at Lambeau Field.
Final score: 41 gold medals for Wisconsin cheesemakers, out of 64 presented for the 1,360 cheeses and butters entered. The overall winner was a 20-pound wheel of SarVecchio Parmesan from Sartori Foods in Plymouth.
Our excellence at cheesemaking turns into great bait for tourists, too, especially during this time of year.
Look for “The Great Wisconsin Cheese Trail,” routes for cheese lovers to follow, at www.travelwisconsin.com, the state’s tourism clearinghouse. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, at www.eatwisconsincheese.com, keeps updated “A Traveler’s Guide to America’s Dairyland,” a map of cheesemakers who welcome visitors.
About 90 percent of the milk produced annually at 15,000 Wisconsin farms turns into at least 2.5 billion tons of cheese. Roughly 70 of the state’s 115 cheese factories accept visitors.
How might cheese lovers proceed? Visit downtown Madison on a Saturday morning for the nation’s largest farmers’ market of locally produced foods. At least 150 vendors – including artisan cheesemakers – fill the sidewalks that surround the state capital, the city’s most popular gathering place.
Rip into a loaf of Hot Spicy Cheesebread from Stella’s Bakery, a popular market vendor. That’s breakfast. For lunch, take a seat at The Old Fashioned, specializing in foods, beverages and food habits (like a Lazy Susan of supper-club-style appetizers) unique to Wisconsin.
Also on the Capital Square: cheese boutique Fromagination, where tastings, cooking classes and cheesemaker talks are plentiful all year.
Splurge by staying downtown at Dahlmann Campus Inn, a classy hotel near the bustle of college life and lakefront landscapes. State Street shops and the Wisconsin Union Terrace, overlooking Lake Mendota, will amuse you for the rest of the day.
Another good overnight option: Arbor House, whose eco-sensitive confines are close to the UW Arboretum and Madison’s Lake Wingra. Guests at this bed and breakfast get access to bikes and canoes.
Just west of Madison is Carr Valley Cooking School, where cheesemaker Sid Cook routinely invites restaurant chefs to conduct classes. Andrea Curto-Randazzo of Talula Restaurant in Miami Beach cooks with cheese July 27.
Carr Valley cheeses since 2006 have won more than 60 awards in U.S. and international competitions (this year’s top cheeses were the mixed milk Cave Aged Mellage, goat milk Cocoa Cardona and sheep milk Virgin Pine Native).
Forays from city to farm are easy in southwest Wisconsin because dozens of miles of bicycle trails hook up to Madison’s city limits. Military Ridge, Sugar River and Badger trails are former railroad tracks, snaking through farmland and rural towns. For more: www.dnr.state.wi.us.
Expect evidence of ethnic pride in a few of these quaint communities, especially Mineral Point (the former Cornish mining camp) and New Glarus (our “Little Switzerland”).
Snack on the nation’s only authentically made gruyere (at Roth Kase in Monroe), brick and muenster as they’ve been made for a century (at Silver Lewis in Monticello), world champion colby and cheddars aged up to a dozen years (at Hook’s in Mineral Point).
For lunch, order a slice of stinky limburger (only Wisconsin produces it), plus raw onion, on rye bread at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern, Monroe. It’s a longtime tradition here.
Book a room at Mineral Point’s Brewery Creek Inn, where beer is made on the premises. The cozy restaurant closes early enough for you to get a good night’s sleep at this B&B.
Or head to Earth Rider in Brodhead, a five-room boutique hotel that is near 75 miles of bicycling trails. Bike rentals are available.
Time it right, and your reward for a day of peddling The Dining Room at 209 Main, Monticello. Expect fine dining, but bicyclists are welcome to come in straight from the trails. The restaurant is only open for dinner, Wednesday through Saturday.
Dane County Farmers’ Market, Madison, 608-455-1999, www.dcfm.org.
Fromagination, 12 S. Carroll St., Madison, 608-255-2430, www.fromagination.com.
The Old Fashioned, 23 N. Pinckney St., Madison, 608-310-4545, www.theoldfashioned.com.
Dahlmann Campus Inn, 601 Langdon St., Madison, 608-257-4391, www.thecampusinn.com.
Arbor House, 3402 Monroe St., Madison, 608-238-2981, www.arbor-house.com.
Carr Valley Cooking School, 807 Phillips Blvd., Sauk City, 608-643-3441, www.carrvalleycheese.com.
Roth Kase Cheese Factory, 657 Second St., 800-257-3355, www.rothkase.com.
Silver Lewis Cheese Co-op, W3075 County EE, Monticello, 608-938-4812.
Hook’s Cheese Co., 320 Commerce St., Mineral Point, 608-987-3259, www.hookscheese.com.
Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern. 1023 16th Ave., Monroe, 608-325-6157, www.baumgartnercheese.com.
Brewery Creek Inn. 23 Commerce St., Mineral Point, 608-987-3298, www.brewerycreek.com.
Earth Rider. 929 W. Exchange St., Brodhead, 608-897-8300, www.earthridercycling.com.
The Dining Room at 209 Main, 209 Main St., Monticello, 608-938-2200, www.209main.com.
Don’t miss the opportunity to visit Crave Brothers Farm, near Waterloo (Dodge County), a cutting-edge operation that hosts the July 21-23 Wisconsin Farm Technology Days. The farm and its cheese factory are not typically open to the public.
The four Crave brothers farm 1,600 acres of crops and raise about 2,000 cattle, from which farmstead cheeses (including mascarpone and fresh mozzarella) are made.
The farm also takes sustainability seriously: Manure biogas is converted into enough electricity to power 550 homes. That is more than twice of what is needed for the farm and factory. Manure solids become organic potting mixes.
Farm tours are just one part of Farm Technology Day, and admission is $5 (ages 12 and younger get in free). Although many demos and exhibits are of professional interest to farmers, others are designed to remind the average consumer about how farms and the food chain work. For more: www.dodgefarmtech.com.
Roger and Beverly Peterson, who farm near River Falls, will host the 2010 event. In 2011, the hosts are Ken and Karen Seehafer, who farm near Marshfield.