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The Capital of Cheese

Madison, Wisconsin, is a city that prides itself on knowing and rewarding good cheese. After all, it is home to the World Cheese Competition, which this past year attracted 2,318 entries from 20 countries. The city itself is surrounded by internationally acclaimed cheese producers, all within a short drive of Capitol Square. The University of Wisconsin–Madison also boasts a Master Cheesemaker Program, a three- year course of study directed by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and the only one of its kind in the country. But perhaps the best proof of this city’s serious cheese cred is found on its streets—in the cafés and restaurants where Madison’s chefs revel in producing creative dishes featuring the state’s signature product and in its markets, lined with riches from large and small local cheesemakers. As any resident can tell you, say “cheese” in this Dairy State capital and everyone smiles, not just the tourists snapping pictures. Rightly so.

Cheese Shops and Farmers’ Markets

Brennan’s Market

Woman hands out cheese

Quitas McKnight selling cheese at Bleu Mont Dairy’s stall.

In 1942, Frank Brennan opened a fruit stand in Green County, Wisconsin, and began offering local cheese for sale. His son Skip now runs the five-store company with the same emphasis on Wisconsin’s most famous food, using many of the same suppliers as his father. Brennan’s focuses on Wisconsin artisanals, spreads, and, yep, even those famous squeaky cheese curds. Primary cheese buyer Chris Luken ensures that the firm stocks the state’s numerous award-winners; master cheesemakers Ron Buholzer of Monroe’s Klondike Cheese and cheesemaker Steve Stettler of Brodhead’s Decatur Dairy are typical of such longtime suppliers, with their Feta, Muenster, Havarti, and Amish Swiss. For lovers of all things exotic, Brennan’s boasts cheddars flavored with horseradish, blue cheese, maple syrup, and even Chilean merlot.

Brennan’s Market 5533 University Avenue Madison, WI 608.233.2777
Brennan’s Market 8210 Watts Road Madison, WI 608.833.2893

Carr Valley Cheese Store

Cheesemaker Sid Cook and his crew manage one of America’s finest specialty cheese plants in La Valle, with seven retail outlets around Wisconsin. The Carr Valley outlet in Middleton, a west-side Madison suburb, offers more than 100 of the company’s products that have won more than 225 national and international awards. Cook’s aged cheddar is especially popular, with a ten-year-old white earning rave reviews. Among Cook’s artisanals, the award-winning Cocoa Cardona and Gran Canaria also have their fans. And his Snow White Goat Cheddar won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society Competition in 2008. Custom-made, deco- rated cheesecakes are among Cook’s latest innovations. Many Madison cheese lovers take classes at the Carr Valley Cheese retail outlet in Sauk City, about a 30-minute drive north of the city. Courses are tailored to different cooking themes based around cheese; each lasts about two hours and costs an average of $45.

Carr Valley Cheese Store 2831 Parmenter Street Middleton, WI 608.824.2277

Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square

Considered one of the largest farm markets in the country, this one is held every Saturday and Wednesday during Wisconsin’s condensed growing season. The market draws about 300 regulars,
of which almost 200 show up for the Saturday gathering. Launched in 1972, the market has elements of a medieval fair—a blending of casbah, street bazaar, and foodie nirvana. The crowd more or less travels counterclockwise on the sidewalks surrounding the imposing dome of the state capitol, although a few hardy souls always seem to drift upstream in their quest for the freshest products. Among the Wisconsin cheesemaker mainstays are Anne Topham of Fantôme Farm; Willi Lehner from Bleu Mont Dairy; Tony and Julie Hook from Hook’s Cheese; Brunkow Cheese’s Mary and Karl Geissbuhler and Greg Schulte; and the ever-knowledgeable Jim Meives of Chula Vista Cheese. To find them, look for the crowds of hungry grazers trying out the generous samples.

Dane’s County Farmers’ Market on the Square 608.455.1999

Fromagination Cheese Store

A man stands behind a cash register next to glass cabinets

The curated selection at Fromagination with cheese cut to order

Across the street from the state capitol, Fromagination is happily ensconced in a building built in the early 1900s and renovated with reclaimed-slate floors and brightly colored old-fashioned milk paints. Owner Ken Monteleone curates a selection of artisan cheeses, hand-cut to order. You’ll also find breakfast and lunch customers flocking around tables made from rescued Wisconsin barn wood in this comfy green space where recycled and found objects are put to new use. Cheese-savvy locals, students, and ever-present tourists mingle over sandwich inventions like Nueske’s smoked ham with Roth Käse Fontina, daikon slaw, carrots, red onion, grainy mustard, and Wisconsin Natural Acres honey, plus a side of cornichons ($7.50). Monteleone also sells a wide selection of other state products, from fruit preserves and chutneys to Madison-made Potter’s Crackers and various Wiscon- sin sausages. He caters events, works with customers in designing special gift baskets and boxes, and offers classes and seminars emphasizing—what else—cheese.

Fromagination Cheese Store 12 S. Carroll Street Madison, WI 608.255.2430

Hy-Vee Grocery Store

When Charles Hyde and David Vredenburg opened a general store in Beaconsfield, Iowa, in 1930, they probably didn’t predict that their small grocery would grow to a 220-store chain, known as Hy-Vee. The Madison outlet, which opened in 2009, was designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification through its ventilation system, concrete flooring, and eco-friendly paint and carpet- ing. What’s more, 90 percent of the construction materials were recycled or diverted from landfills. Equally laudable is the store’s 36-foot-long display of cheese; we dare you to choose just one.

Hy-vee 3801 E. Washington Avenue Madison, WI 608.244.4696

Metcalfe’s Market

Located in the Hilldale Shopping Center, just off traffic-heavy University Avenue near Lucia Crest Park, this market is a Madison institution. Owners Tim and Kevin Metcalfe promote their cheese samplings as an integral piece of their operations, encouraging customers to explore wild cheeses such as cumin-flavored, Sajji BBQ, and Tandoori Goudas. Huma Siddiqui’s White Jasmine, a Pakistani-influenced spice and tea company based in Madison, partnered with Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda, Wisconsin, to craft these tongue-tingling varieties.

Metcalfe’s Market 726 N. Midvale Boulevard Madison, WI 608.238.7612

Steve’s Wine, Beer, Spirits

Steve Varese opened his cozy shop in 1956, quitting his job as a conductor with the Milwaukee railroad to run a store in a converted living room of the family home. He once emphasized that he catered to customers who didn’t purchase their beer and wine from grocery stores, but who wanted a more sociable shopping experience.
Varese died in 2007, yet Steve’s keeps that same friendly feeling under the management of partners Randy Wautlet, Wayne Crokus, Karen Eigenberger, and Steve’s son, Joe Varese. Crokus and Varese run the original store in Shorewood Hills with a retail section covering about 5,000 square feet, which includes a deli-style cheese room and a wine and spirits room. The outlet offers a formidable array of artisan Wisconsin cheese, each sliced to order from a cheese counter. The still- homey University Avenue shop, one of three Steve’s in the greater Madison re- gion, is the only one offering “The Cheese Course,” where artisan cheeses are sold. Steve’s knowledgeable crew put together grand gift baskets, including assorted beverages paired with generous cut-and- wrapped cheese selections. Patrons regularly ask to include fresh Madison-made chocolate from Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier and David Bacco Chocolats.

Steve’s Wine, Beer, Spirits 3618 University Avenue Madison, WI 608.233.6193

Whole Foods

Store managers at Madison’s Whole Foods have created one of the largest cheese counters in the region, featuring brands from California to Vermont to imports from overseas. The parade includes 36 feet of upright cooler space and 16 feet of coffin coolers, plus floor displays, tables, and shelving for its cheese displays. Stock is ever-changing, usually rotated monthly, and the outlet also sells Wisconsin specialty cheese, as well as certified- organic cheeses, with one-day sales on items like the department’s cornerstone brand—what they call the King of Cheese—Parmigiano Reggiano, at $9.99 pound (which retails normally at $22.99). Wise shoppers drop in often to check the latest deals.

Whole Foods 3313 University Avenue Madison, WI 608.233.9566

Willy Street Co-op

Despite several expansion moves to new addresses, the current Willy Street Co-op still retains the early 1970s feel of its original outlet. Starting with a small coterie of “natural food” fans back then, the co-op now counts more than 20,000 members and 160-plus staff, with sales of some $20 million. But its mission continues to emphasize being a cornerstone of the community with reasonably priced goods that support local and organic suppliers. And that means Wisconsin cheese.
The ever-personable Stuart Mammel acts as the co-op’s official cheese coordinator, and he stocks some 240 cheeses, of which about 70 percent are made in Wisconsin by 31 different cheesemakers. The store also has a sushi bar, a rentable community room, a courtyard for plant sales and for sitting with a fruit smoothie and a good novel, plus a kids’ play area and even rain garden to the rear of the store.

Willy Street Co-op 1221 Williamson Street Madison, WI 608.251.6776

Eating Out

Brasserie V

Orchestrated by chef Rob Grisham, this European-inspired neighborhood eatery and taproom offers more than 150 beers and features many Wisconsin cheeses. Lunch and dinner are served daily, with a light menu served on Sundays. Chalk- boards above the dark wood bar announce the regularly changing specials. The dinner menu always features a 12-ounce steak plus frites ($23) and Jacobson Broth- ers duck sausages with carrot-maple puree, a culinary gift at only $17.
The bar fronts a row of tables lining the back wall, allowing for great mingling of patrons, many of whom seem to know each other well. Or soon will. The best place to perch is on the high stools along the front window railing, to see and be seen, especially every Tuesday during sliders night; Wednesday is Prince Edward Island mussels night ($16); and Grisham makes three Fountain Prairie Farms beef burgers, with different toppings weekly. The chef’s Wisconsin cheeseboards ($16 to $25) are complemented by a salad with curly frisée and grilled Belgian endive, crumbled egg, warm bacon, toasted almonds, and apple tossed in apple-cider vinaigrette.

Brasserie V 1923 Monroe Street Madison, WI 608.255.8500

Harvest Restaurant

Cheesecake covered in strawberries

Harvest’s cheesecake made with fresh Brebis cheese, organic Spring strawberries, and fresh mint.

Lauded for an evolving menu showcasing Wisconsin’s organic, local foods, Harvest Restaurant takes its produce, prep, and presentation quite seriously. Appetizers such as grilled fresh asparagus with farro, spinach, and a house-made ricotta ($8) are as finely orchestrated as entrées such as fresh tagliatelle pasta with pork sausage, arugula, garlic, and chili flakes ($18).
In addition to the restaurant’s regular offerings, a themed dinner is served one Sunday per month, usually pegged at $65; an heirloom tomato soirée, a craft beer dinner, and a night of meats provided by a single farm are among the highlights. The annual garlic dinner—a consistently sold-out event—this past July featured guest farmer Richard de Wilde of Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, about a 20-minute drive west of Madison. Chef Rowe prepared a six-course garlic menu using Harmony Valley products, paired with wine.
Naturally cheese plays a big role at Harvest. At least 16 regular Wisconsin suppliers are featured, among them Edelweiss Creamery, Hidden Springs Creamery, Roelli Cheese Company, and Seymour Dairy. The house-made cavatelli pasta with roasted garlic, caramelized pearl onions, oyster mushrooms, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Company is a simple winner at $18.
A make-your-own cheese plate is $4 per selection of ten different Wisconsin artisanal cheeses, which change weekly. Or the staff can construct a plate for discerning diners ($8, $12, and $16) and offer wine and beer companions. “Our number- one suggestions are the pear, apple, and cherry dessert wines made here in Wisconsin by AEppelTreow Winery,” Lax says.

Harvest Restaurant 21 N. Pinckney Street Madison, WI 608.255.6075

L’Etoile/Graze Gastropub

L’Etoile co-owners Tory Miller, Traci Miller, and Dianne Christensen are adamant about using local, organic, and naturally raised ingredients. Their passion and skill make the restaurant one of Madison’s most stellar eating experiences. Serving dinner Monday through Saturday, L’Etoile offers a prix-fixe menu ($39) Monday through Thursday, updated weekly. While high- end in selections and staff attentiveness, L’Etoile is not pretentious—Wisconsin Badgers, after all, prefer their restaurants cozy, not formidable. Established in 1976, the restaurant moved this past summer to an expanded space in the U.S. Bank building, with excellent views of the state capitol.
The restaurant’s newly opened, casual sister unit, Graze Gastropub, features 12 Wisconsin craft beers, along with a diverse wine list. A light night menu offers oysters on the half shell and charcuterie after midnight, a downtown dining plus. Executive chef Tory Miller trained at the French Culinary Institute, with subsequent stints in New York at Eleven Madison Park and Judson Grill. A devout cheese lover, he is also a Wisconsin Cheese Chef Ambassador, helping the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board with its national and international promotions. Miller’s loaded cheeseboard includes the likes of Capri’s Washed Bear goat cheese, Castle Rock’s organic blue, and the ultimate käse, Hook’s dynamite 15-year-old cheddar.

L’Etoile 1 S. Pinckney Street Madison, WI 608.251.0500
Graze Gastropub 1 S. Pinckney Street Madison, WI 608.251.2700

Marigold Kitchen

A woman and two children eat at a countertop.

Snacking at Marigold

Marigold’s website suggests, “Don’t just sit there, being hungry . . . stop by for creative healthy food prepared by friendly folk.” The wafting aroma of perking Ancora coffee is definitely a lure, one experienced merely by passing the front door. Once inside the hip, renovated industrial space, kick back over a newspaper and go for two cuppas. Chef Kristy Schwinn pre- sides over the Marigold, only a block from Capitol Square, making nearly everything with local ingredients, down to the mayo and soup stock. Open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, the Mari- gold also offers brunch on Saturday and Sunday brunch until 2 p.m. A consistent top seller is a breakfast sandwich with a fried organic egg, cheddar-spiked Boursin, applewood-smoked bacon, tomato, and green onion on toasted ciabatta ($6).

Marigold Kitchen 118 S. Pinckney Street Madison, WI 608.661.5559

The Old Fashioned

Madisonites in search of cooking like their grandma’s head to the Old Fashioned. Although founded in 2005, this comfy hot spot exudes a timeless feel. It is neat, without tablecloths, with food served on
weekdays and Saturdays until midnight. Admittedly, the food offerings from chef/ co-owner Robert Miller far transcend comforts like that Sunday-dinner staple, roast chicken. For starters, there’s grilled eggplant, portabella mushroom, roasted red pepper, and zucchini with goat cheese and black olive tapenade on toasted coun- try bread ($7.95). Grass-fed beef burgers, of course, are a staple; the house version is topped with fried onions, hickory-smoked bacon, aged cheddar, garlic sauce, and a soft-cooked egg on a buttered and toasted roll ($8.95).

A building with red awnings and gold letters on a green sign.

The exterior of The Old Fashioned

Karaoke on Wednesdays seems to sound better over a bowl of beer-cheese soup garnished with popcorn ($3.95). Cheese is king here, with Hidden Springs Creamery, the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, LoveTree Farmstead Cheese, and BelGioioso among many sandwich stuffers. Along with dozens of Wisconsin- made beers, thirsty patrons may order the restaurant’s namesake classic cocktail ($4.50)—it’s hand-muddled, of course, just as Grandma would have it.

The Old Fashioned 23 N. Pinckney Street Madison, WI 608.310.4545

Underground Food Collective

This catering group focuses on fairly traded foods and teaching others how to prepare simple delicious meals partnered with local purveyors such as Just Coffee; Sylvan meadows for lamb and beef; Driftless Organics (oh, those pumpkins!); Cherokee Bison Farms; Fountain Prairie Farms for its prized Highland cattle; and Snug haven Farm for spinach and other greens.
A man stirs somethingThe collective conducts coking and prep classes throughout the year, with one recent program featuring how to butcher, cook, and preserve a duck ($70, including a duck to take home). Students can also learn how to make pâté, seared breast, stock, sausage, and confit using pastured birds from Avoca, Wisconsin.
Run by Ben and Jonny Hunter, former Texans of the late, lamented Catacombs on Madison’s Library Mall, along with chefs Kris Noren, Garin Sons, Jon Atwell, and Mel Trudeau, the group also participates annually in the Bike the Barns cycling adventure through central Wisconsin’s lush farm country, the proceeds of which benefit low-income families, to help them purchase fresh, local produce. The collective also sponsors “A Celebration of the Pre-Industrial Pig,” featuring a fabulous down-home, pork-based spread, via word-of-mouth and social networking.

Underground Food Collective 708¼ E Johnson St. Madison, WI 608.556.3033

Bars and Cafés

Alchemy Café

Chef Matthia Melchizedek makes culinary magic with his whopping, thick-cut onion rings, coated in a house-made beer batter and served with herb buttermilk and arbol chile and citrus barbecue sauces ($6). His sweet-potato fries are also to die for, twice-fried and served with tarragon mayo and organic blackberry jam ($4.75). The Alchemy buffalo melt is another winner, made with bison from a farm in nearby Cambridge, Wisconsin, and roasted shallots, melted fresh Wisconsin mozzarella, tomato, thyme, and garlic mayo on a freshly baked roll ($8.75). Melchizedek’s stuffed grilled cheese sandwich, made with fresh sourdough bread, broccoli, roasted carrot, red onion, and cilantro pesto, is usually constructed with Swiss and cheddar ($7), but other styles of cheese are available upon request.

Alchemy Café 1980 Atwood Avenue Madison, WI 608.204.7644

The Cooper’s Tavern

Chef Tim Larsen produces inspired presentations for his guests, including one that borrows from proprietor Peter McElvanna’s Gaelic heritage: a “sconnie” or Scotch egg—a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a fried Knoche’s bratwurst patty and served with house pickles and husky mustard ($4.95). Another take is veal bone marrow with roasted garlic and pumper- nickel crostini ($6.95). Larsen stretches his boundaries, evident in his seared goat-cheese polenta on a bed of brussels sprouts and other in-season veggies with red pepper coulis ($10.95). Located downtown on Capitol Square, Cooper’s doesn’t take reservations and the place is generally crowded for both lunch and dinner, so drop-by diners often need to nurse one of the 28 tap or 122 bottled beers while waiting for a table. Which is just fine: the city’s uber-liberals who sidle up next to arch-conservative politicos are able to talk sociably over house-made Dubliner-cheese pretzels. What’s said in Cooper’s stays in Cooper’s.

The Cooper’s Tavern 20 W. Mifflin Street Madison, WI 608.256.1600

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Martin Hintz

Milwaukee-based Martin Hintz has written extensively about food, restaurants, and chefs, including Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide to the Cheeses of Wisconsin (Three Forks Press/Globe Pequot, 2008), which he coauthored with his wife, Pam Percy.