Michelle L. Johnson, FILE, Associated Press
MILWAUKEE — Only at an airport in Wisconsin can the phrase "half my bag is cheese" attract nothing more than a shrug.
But in the Dairy Land these days, there's a lot of cheese to be had and tourists are eating it up.
The state's milk marketing board keeps adding more dairies on its cheese map for tourists who want to tour the state on a sojourn of cheese. Last year they distributed some 220,000 maps listing more than 115 dairies and creameries. When the next map goes out next year, it will have some 130 listings.
I didn't realize how big my appetite was for the cheese — and how wonderful and fresh the selection is in Wisconsin — until I moved to New York last year. There's a lot of great food in New York, but for me, Wisconsin is my favorite place for cheese.
On my first trip back to the state last fall, I snagged 7 pounds of cheese curds, chunks of aged cheddar and unique artisanal blends in just 48 hours. And that's not even counting the cheese I ate. In all, my bag weighed 14 pounds when I checked it through at the airport in Milwaukee.
Now, whenever I go back to the land of the Cheeseheads, I let my taste buds do the planning. Here's the cheesy take on tourism from an insider, where to go, what to eat and how to get it home:
THE CHEESE MAP
The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's map of the state with 116 cheesemakers and retail stores, is the perfect way to begin planning. They list where you can find the country's only licensed Limburger maker (Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wis.), and other places to visit in every part of the state. You can order a map from their website for free, or print one out: http://www.eatwisconsincheese.com/wisconsin/travelers_guide.aspx.
The map has been around for about eight years and originally included wine and beer. But now it is exclusively dairy.
"Three years ago we had so many cheesemakers and cheese shops that we decided only cheese," said Heather Porter-Engwall. spokeswoman for the milk marketing board.
Next year's revision, with a planned spring release, will feature yogurt and ice cream, she said.
The board also maintains an extensive directory of cheese-related events: lectures, festivals, visits to dairies. So see what's curdling when you're there: http://www.eatwisconsincheese.com/events/default.aspx.
Among the many listings on the map is this author's favorite, Curd Day. If you haven't spent much time in Wisconsin, chances are you have not tried the almighty curd. That salty, moist funky little nugget of squeaky goodness comes in simple flavors like cheddar, all the way to savory dill and garlic and burn-your-mouth jalapeno. Curds are made every time someone makes cheese, but they're not eaten much outside of Wisconsin.
On the first Saturday of every month, curds are celebrated at Beechwood Cheese Company, a tiny creamery that is more than 100 years old located in the Kettle Moraine, a region of glacier-made ponds and lakes in Sheboygan County.
Every first Saturday of every month, the cheesemaker makes some 2,200 pounds of curds, and its tiny store connected to the factory is descended upon by cheese-o-philes. They sometimes drive for hours to attend and have to wait outside just to get in.
Why? The secret to curds is freshness. If they're not eaten within a few days of creation, then they don't squeak. And the squeak is a major part of their appeal.
Think of curds like pre-cheese. Curds are the milk solids that are separated from the milk liquid — or whey — in the cheesemaking process. They're salty and moist, much more so than regular cheese. It's this saltiness and moistness that makes them squeak against your teeth. (More delightful than it sounds!) They come in little nuggets and odd shapes since they're formed so haphazardly, which also makes them fun to eat.
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