Greetings from Wisconsin’s World of Curd

by Ari Weinzweig

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m biased towards Wisconsin in some way. My mother did go to college in Madison and I certainly like the Dairy state. But I mean, hey, we’re in Michigan and we make our own cheese right here in town.

Three things in particular that get my passion going for Wisconsin cheese right now. Basically, the way I see it—or should I say, taste it? —Wisconsin’s got it coming, going and everything in between. Plus, it is the home of fried cheese curds, seemingly, almost everyone’s favorite food at the Roadhouse.

1. The Past: The Great Cheese Tradition

If you like history, as I do, and you like cheese, as I also do, Wisconsin’s gotta be pretty darned high on your list. Go almost anywhere in the state over the last hundred and fifty years and you’re going to find curds and whey woven into the culture and the community; cheesemaking and dairy farming are stamped onto the state’s personality as seafood is on the East Coast.

2. The Future: Fantastic Commitment to Artisan Cheese

A lot of states talk big when it comes to supporting artisan foods. Wisconsin, by contrast, has consistently put its money where its mouth is. Between the work that the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and all the other related government support groups that provide training and help for the small cheesemakers, the power, insight and expertise that’s been put behind artisan cheese in the Dairy State is pretty demonstrably huge. There are extensive training programs, meaningful efforts to improve quality, combined with very real emotional, technical and business support for the sorts of small, artisan cheesemakers that we like to buy from. And I can tell you, although I haven’t done a state by state study and I have no idea what they’re doing in Mississippi, Montana or Maine, I can say with fairly high degree of certainty that Wisconsin’s where it’s at with this.

3. The Present: Really Fine Flavor

Of course, all of the above without great tasting cheese isn’t worth a whole lot outside of academia; past and future aside, its in the present and in our mouths where we eat the cheese. There are some incredibly delicious cheeses coming out of Wisconsin right now and we’ve got a whole wide range of ‘em here at the Roadhouse and the Deli.

Speaking of which, here are a bunch that are at the top of my list. Come by and taste at will.

Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Mike Gingrich

No doubt in my mind that this is one of the best cheeses in the country. I’m pretty sure that I’ve only had one person of the hundreds that I sampled this cheese to in the last two years that didn’t like it—it’s that good. Quite simply, Mike Gingrich and crew are just doing a great job. The milk comes only from a single, carefully managed herd of cows. The cheese is made only when the animals are grazing in the open pastures. They use only very fresh hand from raw milk. And the cheese is very nicely matured on wooden shelves. After tasting a number of different day’s production (remember every day’s flavor is a bit different) we chose cheese from two days in May 2006—the 11th and 27th if you really want to know. Wonderful, nutty, totally full flavor that has perhaps the slightest similarity to a French Beaufort or Comte, and a fairly firm though not hard texture that’s reminiscent of the sheep’s milk cheese from the French Ossau. But Pleasant Ridge is really a cheese all its own. If you want to sit and eat a piece of great cheese—before dinner, after dinner, for a picnic lunch—try this one.

30 Month Old Baby Swiss from Myron Olsen

Baby Swiss may not be a name that sends cheese experts into fits of excitement but I’ll tell you this is one seriously good piece of cheese. And anyone who dismissed it because Baby Swiss isn’t usually all that exciting is missing out if they skip this cheese. It’s made in the town of Monroe by Myron Olsen and the crew at Chalet Cheese a hundred-plus year old coop of 28 farms and the farms are all located in the surrounding Green County countryside. Chalet is the oldest continuously operating cheese plant in Wisconsin, which is nice to know but I guess the more important thing is that the cheese is so darned good. I first tasted this Baby Swiss over a year ago—liked it so much we got Myron to set aside a whole pallet for us. It was good then and it’s just continued to get better as it ages. To state the obvious, it’s NO “baby”—the wheels are now well over two and a half years old. If you like Swiss cheese, you really ought to try this one—it’s got a delicious intense nutty Swiss flavor with just a touch of sweetness and none of the bitterness that mark poorly made Swiss cheeses. I like it on its own, on burgers, grilled cheese, fondue, or just with some apples, a hunk of French Mountain bread from the Bakehouse, some cultured butter, and some of those really good roasted grapes at the Roadhouse.

Traditional Brick Cheese from Joe Widmer

An American classic, Brick is actually a Wisconsin original invented in the late 19th century by a Swiss immigrant named John Jossi. This particular brick is made by Joe Widmer who you might know better as the guy that make the curds that go into the fried cheese curds at the Roadhouse. The Brick is actually the pride and joy of Widmer’s cheese—Joe’s grandfather started making it back in 1922. He’s still using his grandfather’s bricks to weight and age the cheese. The finished cheese is what Europeans know as ‘washed rind’ – same cheese family as the famous French classics like Pont L’Eveque, Livarot and Muenster. Traditional brick like this, although few Americans know it, really is one of our great indigenous eating cheeses. Just sit down and cut off a hunk and have some fun eating it. It’s a working person’s cheese and I say that in the best sense of the word—Brick’s really great with beer, melts nicely for a full flavored burger, or on a grilled cheese with the Roadhouse bread from the Bakehouse.

7-Year Cheddar from Tony and Julie Hook

A great piece of Wisconsin cheddar made by two of the sweetest folks you’ll meet in cheesemaking. Tony and Julie Hook hand make this cheese at their factory in Mineral Point. Mostly they just sell it at the Madison Farmer’s Market so I feel lucky to get it here. The cheese reflects the personalities of the folks who make it—both are really nice; sweet but not in a cloying way; smooth with no bite; and, when you get to know them, loaded up with lots of interesting complexity. I love the cheddar on the 24/7 Burger at the Roadhouse—fresh ground Niman Ranch chuck on a New Jersey roll from the Bakehouse along with Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon. (The bacon is smoked for 24 hours, the cheese aged 7 years and the burger is good pretty much anytime you feel like eating one, hence the name.) Check it out next time you’re in the mood for some super-aged, great tasting cheddar.

Wisconsin Mountain Cheese from the Jaeckle Family

Another really good cheese being made in Monroe, it’s younger than the Baby Swiss with more of an aromatic nose and a smooth texture on the tongue. The Jaeckle family, who’ve got over a hundred years of history of great work with cheese in their home country, brought the techniques used to make it from Switzerland. It’s originally a Gruyere recipe but because they’ve successfully adapted it to their Wisconsin environment, it’s really become a great cheese in its own right. Which is why we call it Wisconsin Mountain Cheese – it’s a mountain cheese recipe made in the middle of the US, not in Switzerland. Anyone who likes a good Swiss cheese is going to like this one. Right now it’s running about — months of age – Great on its own or on most everything and anything—burgers, grilled cheese, gratins, good onion soup.

Stravecchio Parmesan from Sartori

I can’t sincerely say that I’d take American Parmesan over the best Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. But fortunately I don’t have to choose—we get to have both! To me this is the best American Parmesan out there. Made in the tiny town of Antigo, up near the border with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The cheeses are made pretty much as they have been at Antigo for over five decades. Aging is done on fir boards, and, unlike in Italy, the wheels age in an upright position. The cheese is really quite impressively excellent, both for eating and for grating. Nutty and addictive in the way that good nibbling works – sort of like those potato chips on the ads, I’d venture to guess that if I set out a bunch of pieces of this cheese you won’t be able to just eat one. It’s become a staple at the Roadhouse on everything from the much-loved Caesar salad to pastas and soups. Ask for a taste next time you’re in.

Fried Cheese Curds Take the Cake

Although Wisconsin’s clearly not a country unto itself, I’ve taken to calling this “the national dish of Wisconsin”—it’s got presence and popularity worthy of being a national dish, even if in truth, Wisconsin only currently has the status of a state. They’re being ordered in ever increasing quantities at the Roadhouse, where sous chef Julio Vanderpool points out regularly, that they “put the ‘sin’ back in Wisconsin.”

If you aren’t from the Dairy State, and let me explain what people over on the other side of Lake Michigan mean when they talk about eating “curds.” Basically they’re bits of young, unfinished cheddar, cut or broken into pieces about the size of a large crouton. In Michigan we usually eat curd in the softer un-pressed context of cottage cheese (large or small?). But over Wisconsin way, they eat curds just as they are, usually within a day or so of taking them out of the vat. Given that we don’t have access to them that close to their curdly origins, we serve the curd the other way that Wisconsinites love to eat ‘it—fried. Having tasted a lot of fried cheese curds over the years, I will say with some confidence that the fried cheese curds at the Roadhouse are pretty darned good. We get the “raw” curd from Joe Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker in the town of Theresa. The batter is made with Sprecher’s Pub Ale. The kitchen crew serves them up with a crock of roasted jalapeno ranch dressing. The rest of us take advantage of all their work, and just eat them with great pleasure.

The cool cultural thing about the fried cheese curds is that, literally, almost everyone seems to love these things. Kids and adults both adore them. Long time regulars and first timers all take to ‘em. Food fanatics who’ve driven hours to eat here like them, as do people who are venturing into great food for the first time ever. Even Wisconsinites who come to visit have consistently been reporting that these curds are great (and many do keep saying—unsolicited mind you—that these are way better than anything they’ve had back home in Wisconsin. In fact the loyalty factor is going so high on these that people are starting to get mad when we’re out even though they’re not on the menu.

Of course as one loyal customer pointed out—“What’s not to like? It’s fried cheese. And it’s really, really good fried cheese!”