Wisconsin’s 10 Best Places to Eat Local Cheese
As the fromage war between California and Wisconsin wages on—you know, whose cows are happiest?—consider a trip to the Dairy State this autumn, when foliage bursts into a riot of colors. The state’s creameries are just as spirited, too, with tours, retail boutiques, and events. Dairy lovers can enjoy a cheese-centric itinerary that ranges from an urban creamery in Milwaukee to a farm full of Holsteins, or a a deli serving slices of Wisconsin artisanal cheese. One thing's for certain: you won't leave hungry.
The American Club, Kohler
In the company town of Kohler, an hour north of Milwaukee, the American Club’s fine-dining restaurant, The Immigrant Restaurant, boasts an enviable Cheese List. On it are flights with quirky names like “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Softer Side." The latter offers Brie by Lactalis American and Bass Lake country Chevre. Cheeses are organized by milk (cow, sheep, and goat) and the tasting notes rival that of any wine list for their depth and wit.
Carr Valley Cheese Company, LaValle and Sauk City
Master cheese-maker Sid Cook has cheese-making in his blood—his family's been churning out wheels and blocks since the 1880s. Visit one of eight factory stores (including LaValle, in central Wisconsin) to snatch up cheeses that have placed high in American Cheese Society Competitions, like the cocoa-rubbed goat-milk cheese, Cocoa Cardona or cheddar aged up to 10 years. Cooking classes are taught by guest chefs at the Sauk Valley store, 30 minutes northwest of Madison, and include two glasses of wine. A veritable spread of the creamery's products helps kick off each class, where the topic might be tapas or BBQ.
Farm-to-table pioneer Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile on Madison’s Capital Square in 1976. Under new chef-owner Tory Miller’s wing (a James Beard Award winner for Best Chef-Midwest), it’s continued to be a hot-ticket reservation. Wrap up a seven-course tasting menu with a cheese course featuring Bleu Mont Dairy Cave Aged Bandaged Cheddar (from Blue Mounds), with Jamón Ibérico, Bartlett pears, and pea vine. Also on the menu: Hook’s 12-year aged cheddar served with La Belle Farm foie gras, apples, caramel, and arugula.
Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee
Bob Wills (founder of Cedar Grove Cheese) opened this urban creamery—one of only a few such examples in the U.S.—in 2012 with a mission to get cheese curds to customers before they stopped squeaking. Previously he made his cheeses two hours from Milwaukee. Now, locals can easily access the creamery just five minutes south of downtown in the hip, up-and-coming restaurant-centric Walker’s Point neighborhood. Bonus: a half-hour tour ($3, daily except for Sunday) shows the cheese being made through a viewing area in the observation room.
Larry’s Market, Brown Deer
North of downtown Milwaukee, in the suburb of Brown Deer, you'll find this grocery retailer with a boutique bent and the region’s best selection of Wisconsin-made cheeses for sale. For travelers on-the-go, you can test drive a Dairy State favorite with daily deli specials that fold in artisanal cheeses, such as buffalo chicken mac-and-cheese with Roth Buttermilk Blue from Monroe, a panini with bacon and Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodgeville, or Holland’s Family Cheese “Marieke Gouda” on top of a burger and under a pretzel bun.
Sporting a cute name, this boutique on the Capital Square flaunts sophistication and whimsy. Fromagination is the place to pick up “orphans,” (tiny chunks of cheese perfect for solo travels that would be quite pricey if bought by the pound), a rare knife for cutting cheese, accompaniments like truffle honey, charcuteries, and hometown favorite Quince & Apple’s fruit preserves, or copies of Culture, a cheese magazine. It’s all you need for a picnic along Lake Monona, just a few blocks away.
Marieke Gouda, Thorp
With a Holland-born owner at the helm, Holland’s Family Cheese is a love letter to Marieke Penterman’s homeland. New this year, visitors to the creamery in rural central Wisconsin are welcome to tour the farm. Here you'll find 435 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows hanging out in the milking parlor. In the retail store and cheese plant is a cozy nook with a fireplace and just-brewed, complimentary coffee. The creamery’s Gouda is highly prized, thanks to Penterman’s clinching the U.S. Champion Cheesemaker title in 2013—proof she’s come full circle from her Dutch dairy-farm roots.
Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese, Egg Harbor and Ellison Bay
Wisconsin’s Door County, a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan, evokes a Cape Cod vibe with zero chain stores, lots of beaches, and amazing farm-fresh food. Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese’s Ellison Bay location is under the same roof as Savory Spoon Cooking School, where classes fold in cheese, and in Egg Harbor you can sample (and buy) cheeses from among 30 different cheese-makers. Pair those cheeses, along with picnic fare (charcuterie, salads and sandwiches) and Wisconsin craft beer or wine, also sold here.
Emmi Roth USA, Monroe
A visit to Monroe (an hour south of Madison, in Green County, where there are 400-some dairy farms) is just like going to Switzerland—because many of the town’s settlers were Swiss, and even today many of the residents are Swiss. At Emmi Roth’s plant, you can take a factory tour and peer at the operations through an observation window, as well as buy the company’s cheeses (including the Alpine-style Grand Cru Reserve and the tangy Moody Blue). Afterward, visit the plant’s Alp and Dell Cheese Store, carrying at least 100 cheeses.
Old Rittenhouse Inn, Bayfield
It’s not hard to find this adorable Victorian-era inn: just look for the twin red houses on the top of the hill a few blocks from downtown. Many people come to Bayfield to explore the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, which is in full view of the inn’s wrap-around porch, but the local culinary scene is just as memorable. Not only are local whitefish, apples, and cranberries on the inn’s dinner menu, but so are Wisconsin artisan cheeses, whirled into many dishes on the menu.