Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When I say ‘Wisconsin’, you say ____________


by Steph

So if you only associated one thing with Wisconsin, what would it be? The English amongst you may be scratching your heads, saying ‘what is a Wisconsin?’ but the Americans out there will be shouting one of two things:

‘Football!’ Is one possible answer but not being sports fans, we’re just going to discard that one. Instead, you should all be shouting ‘Cheese!’ Join me now—CHEESE! Wisconsin produces a whopping 40% of all cheese consumed in America, and before you say ‘but that stuff you people eat isn’t cheese, it’s sliced product dyed orange and sandwiched between sheets of clear plastic,’ I will say I’m not talking about THAT kind of cheese. I’m talking about the good stuff.

We began our cheese odyssey early yesterday morning in Monroe, Green County, at the Roth Kase cheese factory and store. Turning up like eager beavers promptly at 9:00, we were disappointed to hear that the tour guide was out for the morning so we’d have to show ourselves around. We had a look at the factory from a viewing platform, and looked down on this:Roth Kase cheese factory

The workers were just getting started, and mostly all we could see was some sterilization of equipment and a little packaging going on. No full-on cheese action. However, we learned from their handy marketing video (and I think this may be the only thing we learned) that their Grand Cru Gouda is Roth Kase’s signature cheese, and that cheese is really very good for you, and in fact they may go so far as to say it is a ‘nutrient dense’ food. Practically a superfood. If you’re still not sure they make low fat versions anyway. Really, it’s good for you. They swear. On the way out, we picked up a little block of the signature cheese, along with some Scandinavian baked ‘squeaky cheese’, which is something like halloumi. You know, for our health.

We made a quick stop at the Piggly Wiggly for some staples, and struck up a conversation with the check-out lady, who told us that her husband is a cheesemaker and have we stopped off at the Center for Historical Cheesemaking yet? She also told us we won’t find many factories that offer tours, as each company closely guards their secret recipes.

old cheese factory bw

Unfortunately the cheese history museum was closed, BUT there were a couple of people there filming a documentary and they said since we weren’t likely to be in the area again anytime soon, we could stand in and watch.

We stood in the background and tried to be out of the way while Ivan Franklin, a cheesemaker of Swiss descent, gave the camera (and us) a tour of the entire process, ye olde style. His grandfather had come over in a large wave of Swiss immigrants who used huge copper kettles over open fires, made their own rennet from the dried stomachs of calves, and physically hauled hundreds of enormous wheels of cheese in and out of their storage shelves several times a day to scrub them down and keep them aging at the right temperature.

  Cheese History Museum

In 1920, there were almost 300 cheese factories in Monroe County alone. Today, there are only 10, but added up these factories produce more cheese than was ever made back then. Traditionally, Monroe made three types: Brick, Swiss, and Limburger. Today, Monroe factories make every type of cheese the market demands. There is only one factory in Monroe that still makes Limburger, reflecting the changing tastes of cheese eaters through time. Ivan says the young generation doesn’t have a taste for a stronger cheese anymore. All I know about Limburger is that it appears in a short story by Mark Twain called The Invalid’s Story about some folks on a train mistaking a dead body for cheese. Or vice versa, but either way the point is it’s stinky stuff.

On Mr. Franklin’s recommendation, we stopped on our way out of town at Brennan’s store to pick up a few things. We thought we were going to get some lunch afterwards, but Brennan’s turned out to be a wonderland of samples. We gorged ourselves on little squares of basil cheddar, gorgonzola, gruyere, olive cheddar curds, edamame dip, polenta crisps, locally made jam, apples, grapples (ever heard of those!? They’re apples that taste like grapes…), pears, melon, crudites with asiago cesar dressing…there was more, I just have to stop there.

I really wanted to try the three original Monroe county cheeses, so we left the store with a little piece of brick and a chunk of limburger and headed for Madison. Hopefully we won’t get pulled over and accused of transporting a dead body in the back of the car!

Madison street HDRMadison is super-cool. It’s a big University town (University of Wisconsin), and laid out like an English or European town would be with a clear center marked by a beautiful capitol building, a vibrant downtown, and plenty of pedestrians and cyclists out and about. We stopped off at the veteran’s museum, partly because Steve was looking for a Wisconsin magnet to add to his collection (no dice), and partly because once we got there, it was free! For a small space it was surprisingly well done, and the highlight was that you could look out of a real periscope at the rooftop of the building and the streets around. After that we wandered magnet-less and poked around in some shops, but were too full of cheese to eat and didn’t want to spend any money, so we headed back to the car and drove another 4 hours into Minnesota.

No comments:

Post a Comment