No matter how you slice it — or spread it, shred it or cube it — Wisconsin cheese is worth a road trip.
Whether goat, sheep or cow; whether swathed in wax, riddled with holes or dotted with cranberries, America’s Dairyland takes its wheels and bricks seriously. As it should. Wisconsin produces around 26% of the nation’s cheese, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 2018, Milwaukee resident and journalist Kristine Hansen set out to explore Wisconsin’s cheese culture, compiling recipes and profiling creamery owners for the “Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes From the State’s Best Creameries,” which was published March 1.
In her visits to 28 creameries, Hansen encountered goat yoga, toured an urban creamery and talked with dozens of cheesemakers inspired by the generations before them.
“What’s interesting about Wisconsin cheesemakers is that most of them learned from their ancestors, and those can be traced back three or four generations to Italy, France and Switzerland,” says Hansen. “So some of these cheesemakers grew up watching their parents or their grandparents make cheese, either here or in Europe, and now they’ve continued the tradition.”
While not all of the creameries included in the cookbook are open to the public, a handful of them are ripe for visiting. Hansen shared her picks for a lactose lover’s road trip.
LaClare Family Creamery (Malone, Wis.)
Larry and Clara Hedrich launched this artisan goat milk creamery, which is about a 20-minute drive from Fond du Lac, as a hobby farm in 1978. Now it’s run by four out of five of their children.
“The only reason the fifth isn’t involved is the child’s too young,” says Hansen. “When I visited there, the joke was that she’s on speed dial and is going to be ready to join.”
Visitors can stop by the shop to pick up some cheese, milk, yogurt, ice cream, wine or beer, or settle in at the cafe for farm-to-table cheese curds, beer cheese pretzels, beer-battered cheese curds, cheesecake and more (including lighter options, like salads and wraps).
If you’re out to try just one cheese, make it the Cave-Aged Chandoka, a New Zealand-style Cheddar made from cow and goat milk. It earned Best of Class at the 2018 World Cheese Championship Contest.
To see where it all begins, stop by the farm to watch the goat-milking process. When the weather’s nice, you can even feed and pet the goats — and, if you’re lucky, get a peek at the newborn kids.
Door County Creamery (Sister Bay)
A creamery that offers yoga sessions with goats? Better start planning a trip to this creamery in downtown Sister Bay on the Door County peninsula. The creamery, which reopens for the season in May, is the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Jesse and Rachael Johnson. In warmer months, you can book a yoga session on a peaceful farm (check online for dates; availability is limited).
The farm also offers lunchtime tours (check online for those dates too), so you can gaze at the goats, savor cheese and gelato, and learn about what goes on behind the scenes in making goat cheese.
You can stock up on all the delicious wares, like chèvre, marinated feta, goat Cheddar, curds and goat milk gelato, in flavors such as goat cheese and honey, gingerbread cookie, olive oil and sea salt. Door County Creamery also sells an array of gifts and gadgets with a Wisconsin connection.
“Jesse and Rachael are really big champions of Wisconsin food and farm life,” Hansen says.
Landmark Creamery (Paoli)
Two Annas run this creamery, about 13 miles southwest of Madison. Their products are made from the milk of sheep and grass-fed cows.
“Anna Thomas Bates is a food writer, and she creates all of the recipes served in the cafe that incorporate the cheese,” says Hansen.
“Anna Landmark is really interesting; she used to run political campaigns and then found her calling as a cheesemaker,” she adds.
In addition to selling all things cheese — from their award-winning pecorino-style sheep milk cheese to super-fancy grilled cheeses — the creamery is also stocked with great gifts, like chocolates, preserves, soaps and more.
Hansen recommends visiting Paoli not just for a taste of Landmark Creamery’s cheese, but also for an adventure.
“It’s a really cute arts town and community,” she says. There’s a brewery, cafes, a bicycle shop and even a shop dedicated to backyard chicken enthusiasts, called Cluck the Chicken Store.
Clock Shadow Creamery (Milwaukee)
One of the country’s few urban creameries, you’ll find this one tucked away in Walker’s Point, an industrial-chic neighborhood known for its food and bar scene.
Small but mighty, the team makes Cheddar cheese curds, ricotta, chèvre, quark (spreadable cheese), Mexican-style cheeses and more, all in an eco-friendly building. Tours, which take place in an observation room, are available every half-hour between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
If you’re thirsty after your visit, Central Standard Craft Distillery and Milwaukee Brewing Co. are across the street.
Holland’s Family Cheese (Thorp)
The Penterman family has a fairy tale farm story. Marieke Penterman grew up on a dairy farm in the Netherlands. She wound up in Wisconsin when she followed a “cute guy” there. (“Those are her words,” laughs Hansen.) That “cute guy” is Rolf, now her husband. He moved to Thorp, about 40 miles east of Eau Claire, to start a dairy farm with his brother in 2002.
Marieke missed the cheese she grew up eating back home, so she decided to learn the craft. She got her Wisconsin cheese-making license, traveled back to the Netherlands for training and started making her own Gouda.
“Within a year of making her first cheese, she won her first award,” says Hansen. “As of today, she’s won at least 150 awards.”
At the creamery, visitors will find all kinds of flavors of Marieke Gouda (black pepper, clove, mustard, honey clover and more), as well as plain. In addition to visiting the shop and cafe, visitors can watch the cheesemakers in action through a window, and during warmer months (Memorial Day through Labor Day), they can take farm tours and meet the cows.