Sunday, September 16, 2012

midwest cultural tour - cheese

No cultural tour of Wisconsin would be complete without cheese. Besides, what else would we put in the cooler we used to bring frozen salmon from Alaska? And where to begin? We made a few visits to cheese shops, sampling or choosing cheeses just by the descriptions on the labels. But it's not just about the cheese.

While traveling through cheese country, which is also Amish
country, the buggy-parking paddock.


After our visit to Taliesin, including lunch at the visitor center, Jon and I headed into Spring Green (pop. 1,628) to browse through a few shops. We took our time and almost missed the open hours at Cedar Grove's factory store just outside of Plain (pop. 773). With five minutes to spare, we tried to be quick with our selections. Most notably, we grabbed a couple packages of grated buffalo mozzarella. Great on salads or pizza, we knew our hosts, Mike and Pam, would enjoy it, too. I also grabbed an impulse buy, Fleance, sheep milk cheese. (Cedar Grove uses only organic and non-rBGH milk and that does set them apart from most other cheesemakers.)

We drove through Plain, stopping at a local market for sweet corn which looked pretty shriveled. Then we noticed a meat market (the butcher kind; not the bar kind), Straka's, just down the street. Inside we found locally-made sausages and bacon and a variety of meats plus a staff waiting to help us. We picked up some cinnamon maple bacon (wow!), some pepper-crusted summer sausage (tender, and the best I've ever had), braunschweiger and some meat sticks. As we waited to ring up our order, the woman from the cheese shop came in and I asked if she knew of any produce stands north of town. She told us where to find one and we were off, continuing the trip toward Reedsburg and, eventually, Wonewoc (pop. 816).

The produce stand had fresh tomatoes as did one farther up the highway where we also found cucumbers. Still no sweet corn. It's been a rough year for corn on farms without irrigation, which is most of them. We gave up that search, but made one more stop in Reedsburg (pop. 9,200) before going to the house. I needed to take Jon to Viking Liquor. A beer-lover's paradise, I walked along the long row of microbrews, displaying them to him Vanna White style. After stalking in wonder back and forth past the selections, we made two mixed six-packs and got a third six-pack of IPA then headed for the counter. After our hot, sweaty day, we were looking forward to sampling the Wisconsin brews.

 If I was a better reviewer, I'd have kept a list of the beers we sampled. I do recall one called Bitter Woman. What can I say? I buy for the labels! And while Mike pointed out that a store in Madison has a much more extensive selection, for us Alaskans, Viking was pretty impressive.

The next day, Jon and I drove to Mauston (pop. 4,423), the county seat of Juneau County, to have an early lunch with my aunt, Anna Mae. We shared with her our impressions of Taliesin, talked about family and what we've been up to. We also tried to convince her to come up for a visit since one of her old friends lives in Anchorage. Maybe next summer. After lunch, Jon and I left the city and headed south on our way to one of our favorite cheese stores: Carr Valley Cheese, just south of LaValle. The shop was surprisingly busy for a Wednesday afternoon, but we went to work finding our favorites and discovering some new varieties. While not organic, the cheeses are pretty awesome, with lots of variety. How could I resist the label for Glacier Penta Crème Cheese: 'A revolutionary five crème blue, the most decadent blue available at Carr Valley?" Or the Caso Bolo Mellage which I enjoyed so much on my little Wisconsin bike tour two years ago? Or the aged Cardona, Canaria or black goat truffle? I was practically swooning!

While we were in the cheese store, an Amish man came in and bought something. It occurred to us that he and some of the other people shopping might be overflow from a farm auction taking place just down the road. Well, we'd never been to a farm auction! Cute suede sandals be damned, we headed for the auction, where I carefully dodged puddles and cow pies, horse poop and mud, as we examined old farm equipment set out in a field, making our way to the farm house, then the barn.

At the farm auction. A consignment auction, there were animals
and equipment from several farms.

It was an Amish-owned farm, so there was no electricity, but a man was running a gas-engine that worked an ice cream machine, producing some darn fine soft serve. (I don't know the many rules of Amish power usage, but who cares when it delivers cold ice cream on a hot day?) Under a large canopy-tent, women and girls were selling pies and produce. We bought fresh green beans, then walked past some wringer washers and other household appliances and headed toward the barn. On our way, we looked at all the horses and two-wheeled buggies that their owners had parked in a corral. We strolled through a dark barn, its low white-wash ceiling dripping with cobwebs, past a few cows and one very skinny calf. The auctioneer's voice carried through the building. They were bidding on horses. Work horses, riding horses, buggy-pulling horses. It would have been a bit of a mucky walk to get to the auction area, so we watched from outdoors as yet another horse was led in and introduced for the bidding.

Ready for auction.

We could tell this was an all-day event and it may have been fun to hang out a little longer, but the high 80-degree temperatures wouldn't be great for the cheese in our cooler, so we headed back toward Wonewoc, watching out for more horse & buggy teams as we drove the two-lane roads.

Back in Wonewoc, we were enjoying the seemingly unlimited supply of basil in Pam's backyard garden. Since arriving the previous Friday, we'd picked leaves for making pesto, had fresh basil in salads - especially with tomatoes and mozzarella. That wasn't the only thing we were picking. Mike and Pam have hops growing on their back fence, but learned that they are an ornamental variety. Luckily, a wild supply grows along the rail-trail just outside town. Pam and I picked the wild hops - the area was known for growing hops during a craze in the mid-1800s - for the Labor Day beer making project. We added a quart of the green buds to the home brew kit Mike was using.  I won't have a chance to try any when it's ready sometime in October, but I'm sure it'll go great with cheese and summer sausage.

*Jon took all the photos at the auction.

1 comment:

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