If you still think of Wisconsin as the state that churns out all that bland, industrially produced cheddar and mozzarella, you're not up on your cheeseology. In the last decade the Dairy State has become home to dozens of small producers whose innovative, handmade cheeses are racking up prestigious awards and wowing cheesemongers around the country.
Recently, Murray's Cheese Shop, one of New York's premier purveyors, offered a class on Wisconsin specialty cheeses that featured seven selections. It could easily have included many more. "I could knock your socks off with a great [Wisconsin] cheese every day for a solid month," says Steve Jenkins, head cheese buyer at Fairway Market, a gourmet grocer in New York.
Wisconsin's 50-odd artisanal cheese makers turn out products that often echo Old World varieties, with differences due to the local vegetation eaten by the cows or sheep and the microorganisms that work on the cheeses as they age. Take Pleasant Ridge Reserve, made by former Xerox executive Mike Gingrich's seven-year-old Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville (uplandscheese.com). Although modeled on Beaufort, a French gruyère-style cheese made from raw cow's milk, Pleasant Ridge has a complex, nutty-sweet flavor all its own. Cave-aged for a minimum of four months, it gains intensity as it gets older, and by the time it's a year old it has formed crunchy, flavor-filled crystals common in well-aged cheese. In 2001 and 2005 it won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society conference. Look to pay about $20 a pound, more for "extra-aged."
It's not just the relative newcomers like Gingrich who are getting into the artisanal act. Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle (carrvalleycheese.com) has been in business for more than 100 years. Its Mobay cheese offers a playful twist on the semi-soft French classic Morbier. While the traditional version features two layers of cow's milk cheese bisected by a fine layer of vegetable ash (originally to separate the morning and afternoon milkings), the thin gray line in Carr Valley's divides bright white goat and creamy-colored sheep milk layers, which are tasty together or on their own. Carr Valley makes more than 50 varieties of cheese, including hand-crafted cheddars, some aged as long as 10 years. Mobay prices range from $14 to $20 a pound.
For those partial to Parmesan, Sartori Food's Stravecchio stands up to even very good Italian varieties (sartorifoods.com). Made in Antigo and aged at least 18 months, it has a robust yet slightly sweet flavor that goes as well on an hors d'oeuvre plate as it does crumbled over soup, salad, or pasta. At the 2006 World Cheese Awards in London, Stravecchio, which sells for about $11 a pound, was proclaimed "best U.S. cow's milk cheese."
Lovers of more pungent fare can also find satisfaction from Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese (cravecheese.com), which makes the mildly stinky but wholely delicious Les Frères. Resembling brie in appearance and texture, Les Frères is a washed-rind cheese, meaning that, as it ages, the wheels are regularly hand-rubbed with special cultures that help it develop its earthy flavor. A brochure for Les Frères says it has "the aroma of a forest floor after a fresh rain." Others might use less sylvan terminology, but that should not deter you from trying it.
The brothers Crave (there are four of them) have 600 Holstein cows on their farm in Waterloo, which also turns out a cheese that offers a classy way to end a meal. Their mascarpone (about $6 for an 8-ounce tub) is creamy-rich and delicately flavored. Straight from the refrigerator it has the texture of hard butter, but don't eat it like that. Let it come to room temperature (good advice for all cheese), then scoop up a pillowy spoonful and top it with a bit of fruit or honey. It's sublime.
By Michael Orey