America's Dairyland Delivers

By Christine Hyatt

When I mention my career in cheese, I sometimes receive a smile and a knowing nod, followed by: "I'm from Wisconsin." In the cheese world, those are some serious bona fides.

People from Wisconsin know and love their cheese. It's featured on the state quarter, worn on heads during sporting events and celebrated on license plates with "America's Dairyland." Indeed, many great cheeses come from this part of the country, and we'll delve a little deeper in the latest installment of "Great Cheese Regions of the World."

Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state, 2.5 billion pounds in 2008. Though much of the production is commodity style, a fair and growing portion - about 20 percent - falls into the artisan and specialty category.

The milk supply for all types of cheese relies on small, family-run dairies, with the average herd size numbering around 100 cows. Today, 90 percent of the milk produced on 13,000 dairy farms goes directly to the state's 138 cheesemaking facilities.

Wisconsin's dairy roots reach deep; during its pioneer days, European settlers realized the area reminded them of their homeland. After a push to grow wheat and other crops failed, rolling hills and lush pastureland soon gave way to dairy farming, perfect for homesteading and ready-made for producing cheeses reminiscent of the old country.

As more immigrants settled the area, distinctive cheese styles reflecting the heritage of the various communities began to emerge along with a number of American originals, including Colby and Brick. Traditional European-style cheeses with an American spin are, today, among the finest in the region. 

A unique facet of Wisconsin cheesemaking is the number of third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers attending the vats. No other state can lay claim to so much cheese knowledge intrinsic to family genes.

Taking a tour of America's Dairyland is as close as your local cheese shop. Some not-to-be-missed varieties are covered below and make excellent matches with our local wines.

Fourth-generation cheesemaker Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle is undoubtedly the most decorated cheesemaker in the U.S., earning over 200 awards in the past five years alone. His cheeses run the gamut, from the commodity type to handmade artisan gems, made with cow, sheep, goat and mixed milks. His line of specialty cheeses is quite exceptional; Cave Aged Marisa, Gran Canaria and Cave Aged Mellage are among my favorites.

If you are a fan of traditional Swiss Emmentaler, set your sights on a wedge of Edelweiss Creamery's version crafted in a traditional copper vat. Made by Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, this cheese - made with milk from a single local dairy - rivals any import in its 180-pound stature; it's delicious with a nutty taste and phenomenal melt.

Roth Kase, a family operation with roots in Switzerland and a new tradition in Green County, Wisc., was founded in 1991 by three cousins, descendants of Oswald Roth, a Swiss cheesemaker and affineur of the late 1800s. Their flagship line of cheese is, of course, Swiss in nature.

The company produces Gruyère at several ages, including the nine-month-old Surchoix, which is exceptional with its buttery aroma and sweet, nutty flavor that lasts and lasts. Pair the cheese with young red wines without an abundance of tannin or even Sherry for an after-dinner treat.

No tour of Wisconsin cheese is complete without a taste of the incredible Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Dairy of Dodgeville, a two-time "Best of Show" winner at the American Cheese Society Competition. Made only during the grazing season from April to October using raw milk from their own herd, this Alpine-style cheese boasts a firm, dense paste and full flavor with a pleasant nuttiness that would pair well with a Riesling or light, fruity red.

New cheesemakers are making their mark on the state as well. One standout in the crowd is Holland's Family Farm.

Owners Rolf and Marieke Penterman moved to Wisconsin from the Netherlands in 2002 specifically to produce cheese. In Holland, dairies are limited to small areas of land, and the couple wanted to begin a dairy they could expand. They found Thorp, Wisc., to be the ideal place to settle and raise their five children and build a business. The company makes a line of authentic, award-winning Gouda using milk from their own herd. Marieke Gouda is a particular standout with gorgeous amber color and sweet and salty caramel notes.

For fans of stinky cheeses - who are above a certain age - you may have fond memories of an American original called Liederkranz, a schmear (washed) cheese with a pungent aroma similar to Limburger. The cheese went out of production about 20 years ago but is making a comeback thanks to cheesemaker Myron Olsen of Chalet Cheese. The first batches of this famous cheese have been produced and as production ramps up, you may soon get a whiff - and a taste - at a cheesemonger near you.

Some of the large-production Wisconsin cheeses are available in well-stocked cheese shops in major retailers, but for small-production varieties, check in with your favorite specialty shop, and savor the delights of America's Dairyland. 

Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She welcomes cheesy questions at

Roasted Wisconsin Feta Cheese, Slow-Cooked Tomato Sauce, Z'aatar and Grilled Pita Bread

By Chef Kristine Subido


1          pound Wisconsin Carr Valley Feta Cheese, cut in 1 1/2-inch cubes

1¼       cups extra virgin olive oil, divided

*          zest of 1 lemon, grated

1          tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped

1          teaspoon juniper berries, ground

1          teaspoon z'aatar*

1          28-ounce can San Marzano peeled tomatoes

½         cup shallots, chopped

1          tablespoon garlic, chopped

½         cup white wine

1          teaspoon Spanish paprika

¼         cup kalamata olives, chopped

¼         cup capers, rinsed and drained

1          teaspoon red chile flakes

*          pita bread, grilled

* Z'aatar is a pungent Middle Eastern spice blend of toasted sesame seeds, thyme, majoram and sumac.


1. Marinate cheese cubes in mixture of 1 cup olive oil, lemon zest, oregano, juniper berries and z'aatar for at least 1 hour. 2. Heat oven to 425°F. Drain liquid from tomatoes; split tomatoes, and drain liquid inside tomatoes; reserve liquid. Place tomatoes in oven-proof pan, and roast them 20 to 30 minutes or until dried. 3. Heat remaining ¼-cup olive oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic. Cook 3 minutes; stir in wine and paprika. Add roasted tomatoes, reserved liquid and all remaining ingredients (except pita bread). Simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until all vegetables are tender. 4. To serve: Heat oven to 375°F. Pour tomato sauce in shallow 1-quart oven-proof casserole. Top with marinated cheese. Roast in oven 20 to 25 minutes or until cheese starts to brown. Serve in casserole or on individual plates with grilled pita bread. Yields 12 servings.

Recipe ©2010 Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc.




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