One of my favorite pastimes is eating. To be more specific, one of my favorite pastimes is eating cheese. Sharp cheddars, creamy French-styles, hard and soft Italians. Sliced on top of crackers, melted into omelets, baked with veggies. I’ll eat it anyway, anytime of day.
You can only imagine the smile that took over my face when the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) invited Grocery Headquarters on a media cheese tour to learn about the state’s dairy industry, meet the cheese makers and, best of all, taste award-winning cheeses. Yes please!
I estimate that between the time that I landed Wisconsin last Thursday evening and left on Sunday morning, I tasted more than 60 varieties of cheese. And 60 would be playing it safe since I stopped counting after the eighth or ninth booth I visited at the cheesemaker reception on the second night.
The tour included a night at the Iron Horse Hotel—a Milwaukee hotel that has received world-wide recognition for its history, atmosphere and most of all, cuisine—a visit to three different creameries and entry into the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Annual Festival, including the Meet the Cheesemaker reception and a day of seminars. (Note: If you have the opportunity to eat at the Iron Horse Hotel, the beer cheese soup served in a toasted pretzel bowl is not to be missed.)
The highlight of the trip, without a doubt, was visiting the cheesemakers in the comfort of their creameries. Kicking it off, Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman showed us around the Edelweiss Creamery while Master Cheesemaker Jeff Wideman, from Maple Leaf Cheese, told us all there is to know about the Master Cheesemaker program in Wisconsin. Did you know Wisconsin is the only state that requires its cheesemakers to be licensed? And you have to make cheese for at least ten years before you can qualify for the Master Cheesemaker program.
We also learned the secret behind Wisconsin’s world-awarded cheese. I’ll give you a hint: Its in the grass.
Much of Wisconsin was spared during the ice age, leaving an abundance of Limestone in the ground which helps produce quality grass for the cows to chomp on. Lessons like this, such as how dairy farmers care for their cows, the impact of feeding the cows grass versus silage and why some cheeses are stinkier than others, filled the remainder of the day.
In addition to creameries and aging rooms, we paid a visit to Willi Lehner’s underground cheese cave. Yes, the cheesemaker from Bleu Mont Dairy built an actual cave in the side of a hill to age his cheeses. Best yet, he does it the old-fashioned way, bandaged and coated with lard.
The tastings were plentiful. Each creamery shared their product with us after explaining how it was made, including the most-awarded Wisconsin cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, created by Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese. Delicious! And Belgioiso Cheese put on a lunch that allowed us all the opportunity to taste their varieties both raw and as a hot, gooey pizza topping. What a difference! I am not typically a fan of bleu cheeses, however, when cooked on pizza with caramelized onions, I found myself grabbing a second slice of the CreamyGorg.
Wisconsin makes some good cheese. The quality of the product shows how well the industry is cared for.
But there is something more.
Shining in everyone we met along the way, including the fabulous team at the WMMB, there was a sense of pride.
The Wisconsin cheesemakers are proud of their product. They are proud of their farms and their cows.
Wisconsinites are proud of their heritage. They are proud of the moral foundation rooted in the industry.
Dairying in Wisconsin grew from an ambition to flourish through using and caring for the natural assets of the land—the cows. As Edward Janus—who I had the privilege to sit with at dinner and is absolutely charming—says in his book Creating Dairyland, “Care of the cow has brought prosperity to Wisconsin.
“Dairy farmers must be dedicated to caring for other living beings and for the resources that feed them. This devotion is the basis of a dairy farmer’s business and of our conservation ethic, and over the years thousands of young men and women have carried this ethic off the farm and into the professions, cities and politics of our state. This ethic of caring is a persuasive influence in our lives. Cows have shaped us.”
It’s a communal love and pride. The cheesemakers strive to make the best product they can. They are driven towards quality and flavor, not beating out the competition. They look out for their way of life—and each other.
During one of the classes I took on Saturday, two cheddar cheesemakers were sitting at the front of the room discussing and comparing the techniques and components to their mouth-watering cheeses when someone commented, “You guys are competitors, yet you sit alongside each other and discuss your processes like friends.”
In a way they are friends. As they replied, there is room for everyone in the market. They share the same love and passion for their lifestyles. Working side by side is what turned Wisconsin into America’s Dairyland, and it is what will continue to drive its growth.
My old roommate is a Wisconsinite and she’s always exhibited a connection and pride for her state, especially her hometown of Madison. I realize now that it isn’t just her standing up for her childhood in the mix of her adult life in New York City, but rather a value engrained in her.
It was enchanting to see that value alive and kicking on such a large scale.
Wisconsin’s pride definitely makes the cheese taste better.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks to read more about Wisconsin’s dairy industry and what I learned on the WMMB cheese tour.