Wisconsin: Hidden Cabins, Heavenly Cheese
While the cheese world gathered at the largest dairy competition in Raleigh last week, I was on a ramble through Wisconsin with Frau Fromage. Every summer, my Swiss-born mother and I make tracks through our home state to sniff the dairy breeze (me) and birdwatch (she). Frau wears her binoculars, I carry my cooler, and the deal is that we pull over if we spot an eaglet or a creamery.
Since the American Cheese Society 2013 Conference promises to be in the Dairy State next August, let me suggest a roadtrip. Wisconsin is an awesome state to explore for anyone who enjoys cabins and creamery hopping. Think of it as the Vermont of the Midwest — you’ll see beards, birds, and roadside cheese curds at every turn. My favorite areas outside Madison are: 1) The Driftless Region in the center of the state, where rock formations and rolling hills lead to blissful little hippy towns like Viroqua; 2) The Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River, linking inns, biker bars, fish fries, and pie bakeries.
Here’s a record of my recent meanderings. Anyone contemplating a pre-cheese-conference roadtrip should consult this article on Eight Hidden Cabins of Wisconsin and download a Wisconsin Cheese Trail map.
Day 1: The Cheese People of Beloit
We started our tour with a visit to this new shop in the little river town of Beloit, home to Frau Fromage. Run by Darren Larsen, The Cheese People of Beloit carries the best selection of cheese between Chicago and Madison. Larsen is a former social services nerd who got immersed in the local farmers’ market scene and decided to branch out.
His shop carries craft beer, coffee, Jeni’s Ice Cream, and an impressive selection of cheeses from around the Midwest. I picked up a wheel of Capriole O’Banon, which I never see on the East Coast. I also sampled some fantastic Wisconsin cheeses: Red Rock, Gravity Hill, Marieke Gouda with Fenugreek, and Cesar’s Hand-Pulled String Cheese.
I’m not a fan of string cheese, but Cesar’s was a great new discovery. Fresh, it tasted like mozzarella in the form of angel hair. I grabbed a wedge of Marieke Gouda with Fenugreek seeds, and that became my go-to nosh for the rest of the trip. This sweet young Gouda with rice-sized flecks of oaty fenugreek is great for breakfast with toast and coffee.
Day 2: Madison’s Saturday Farmers’ Market
The first life-changing cheese I ever ate in Wisconsin as a food reporter was a small moon of Fantome Farm goat cheese rolled in ash. Whenever I make plans to visit my brother in the state cap, I always make sure to be in town for the Dane County Farmers’ Market where Anne Topham sells her rounds. The Saturday Market in Madison spans the entire downtown square and is a great place to buy braided garlic, observe sleeve tattoos, and chomp on fresh-baked croissants at Graze or Baker’s Window. I was impressed that Baker’s Window provided grass-fed cream for their coffee. In the Dairy State, people really do dig their dairy.
Near the Farmers’ Market, you’ll also find Fromagination, the cheese shop that carries the city’s best wedges. I was delighted to discover that my brother Andre had already paid the shop a visit before I hit his couch and that his fridge was stocked with two great new Wisconsin cheeses I was dying to try: a yet unnamed sheep’s milk wonder from Willi Lehner at Bleu Mont Dairy (above) and Ziege Zacke Blue, a new goat dream made by dream team Katie Hedrich of LaClare Farm and Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese. Of course, I couldn’t help but swing by the Willy Street Co-op, where the dairy aisle is always open for daydreaming.
Day 3: The Glass Cabin in Richland Center
The Frau and I made tracks through Spring Green, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and American Players Theater — but we didn’t have a moment to spare for architecture or Shakespeare. We were set on visiting the Driftless Depot, a new restaurant with great promise. Alas, the restaurant was closed, but we ate some deeply dark chocolate gelato and made a pit-stop at The General Store for pie and sandwiches. We visited “The Opal Man” to oogle gemstones and sipped some Milk Oolong, a tea washed in milk — the subject of a future post.
That brought us to Richland Center, home to The Glass House. I’d seen it online, and I had to sleep there: it’s my idea of Walden. Who doesn’t want to drift off in a glass room? We caught frogs, photographed wildflowers, and drank dark beer. Then: crickets. Oh, the crickets.
In the morning, we puttered through the little towns of Richland Center (good bookstore, a butter creamery, and a lovely food co-oop) before hightailing it through the hills to Viroqua (home to Organic Valley), where we ate blackberry coffee cake at the Driftless Cafe and a plate of divine pickled corn on the cob.
Day 4: A Cabin on the Bluffs, Fountain City
Our journey up the Mississippi was full of curious sightings: marshes full of lily pads in full bloom, a social-media savvy Brit on a homemade river raft, a fabulous plate of pan-fried Walleye at the Hillside Fish House, and a close encounter with Harriet the eagle at the eagle refuge in Wabasha. Our real reason for journeying upriver was to stay in a tree-house-like cabin high in the bluffs above the Mississippi. Our cabin, The Falcon, was so high up and precariously situated above the wee river town of Fountain City that Frau Fromage had to disembark from her car halfway uphill. Despite the altitude, our bluff-side cabin was stunning — we saw an amazing thunderstorm from this room.
The next day, we nibbled our way upriver, stopping for ice cream and iced tea until we reached Rabbit’s Bakery in Lake City, Minnesota, home to some of the best wood-fired corn bread imaginable. We could have continued on to the Twin Cities just an hour or so north, but we got too busy watching herons and scoping out turtle nests at the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge. The lily pads and thick cloud cover were sensational.
There, you have it. That’s what I did while everyone ate loads of cheese at this year’s American Cheese Society Conference. Don’t think I wasn’t a little sad not to be there. Thankfully, I read Cheese Underground for up-to-the-minute reports on this year’s Wisconsin cheese winners.