The Wisconsin Whey

Bring your appetite, because here, everything is better with cheese.
Squeak, squeak. That’s all I hear driving down Highway EE in Monticello, Wis. I’ve just discovered cheese curds — cheese in its natural form, before it’s been processed into blocks and aged — and I’m in love. I reach over, pop another one in my mouth and laugh at the squeak, squeak sound the curds make when I bite into them.

I’m in Wisconsin to indulge in all things cheese. The Badger State produces more than 25 percent of all cheese made in the U.S., more than any other state. These cheeseheads know what they’re talking about.

I’ve just come from Silver Lewis Cheese Cooperative, a small cheese factory set amid the rolling hills and farms of Monticello, a small town with a few main streets and stores. Josh and Carla Erickson, their two daughters and other family members use milk from nearby dairy farms to make specialty cheeses such as Muenster and their popular smoked habanera farmers cheese. While local customers wait for their orders to be cut, Rob’s daughters place a few cheese curds on the counter for tasting. Eventually everyone adds a bag of curds to their order.

Inside the factory, Josh gives me a behind-the-scenes look at cheesemaking. We head to the back of the factory, where Josh begins the process by mixing milk and rennet, an enzyme that separates the milk into curds and whey (the watery part of milk). After the mixture sits for a few hours, he’ll cut the curds, cook them and pour off the excess whey. Once the whey is completely strained from the cooked curds, the curds are placed in canisters and flipped every 20 minutes to compact them. After the curds have settled into bricks, it’s time for them to age for anywhere from a few days to several weeks, depending on the type of cheese.

Between the many co-ops sprinkled across Wisconsin and the factories churning out tons of cheese every day, there are more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in the state. From the small, family-run Silver Lewis, I head for the mammoth Roth Käse factory in Munroe. There’s a large cheese house with coolers and cases, along with an observation hall behind glass walls, where I can see conveyor belts moving wheels of cheese and large vats mixing away. There are separate rooms for tasting and sampling, filled with computers and gadgets — this cheesemaker is focused on perfecting fancy cheeses such as Fontina and the bleus.

Perhaps it’s the steady diet of cheese (and those amazing curds) that makes the people here walk so much. In Madison, the capital city, nobody seems to be in a hurry. There are few cars, even on the Friday night I spend window shopping. Everyone seems to be walking or riding a bike or an electric scooter. Prevention magazine named Madison the best walking city in America, and it’s easy to see why. At night, the Capitol building glows outside my hotel window, a night-light for walkers and the Madison nightlife. Come Sunday morning, it’s a beacon for the foodie crowd: The Dane County Farmers’ Market opens in its shadow at 6 a.m. sharp.

At 5:30 a.m., I peer out the window to see if the vendors are really setting up this early. Indeed they are, so I hurriedly dress to get down there. This farmers’ market is one of the largest in the nation, swamping the Capitol building on all four sides with more than 150 vendors selling produce, honey, cheese, baked goods and flowers. The market runs until 2 p.m. every Saturday along the Capitol and every Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. along Martin Luther King Boulevard just off the square. The waiting list for a vendor spot in the market is at least three years, and the spots are coveted.

My last stop on this cheese odyssey is New Glarus, a small town 25 minutes south of Madison. It bills itself as America’s “Little Switzerland,” and decorates accordingly. There are Swiss flags, flowerboxes and long sloping roofs, statues of cows, polka music in the background and the smell of Wienerschnitzel in the air. At the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant, the extensive Swiss menu is tempting, but my newest addiction is calling. These cheese curds are deep fried, hot and salty, and they melt slowly, satisfyingly, on the first taste. I bite into one and discover that, while deep-frying takes away the squeak, it doesn’t take away my laughter. I giggle, and pop another one into my mouth.
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