In my twenty plus years in the food world, I’ve had the privilege of visiting some of the world’s best cheesemakers. The Comté aging caves of Marcel Petite in the Jura mountains of France. Jamie Montgomery’s bucolic estate in Somerset, England where they make traditional cheddar in the birthplace of the world’s most famous cheese. And I’ve been to Wisconsin.
Maybe it’s not the most exotic of locations—especially for a neighboring Michigan boy like me—but for cheese, there are few places in the world today with a greater concentration and diversity of incredibly flavorful cheese. Here’s a look at two of my favorites.
First up: Marieke Gouda.
In central Wisconsin, about halfway between Minneapolis and Green Bay sits the small town of Thorp, home to Holland Family Cheese. The farm was founded by Rolf and Marieke Penterman, immigrants from the Netherlands. Land was too expensive to set up a cheesemaking enterprise in Europe, so, lucky us, they settled in Wisconsin and starting making cheese.
The Pentermans make gouda every day, all year round, from their closed herd of about four hundred cows. The cows live indoors on comfy beds of playground sand, feed on silage and hay, and have access to spinning bristly brushes dangling in the corners of their pens to scratch their back when it itches. Automated scrapers remove manure from the floors and each cow wears a kind of bovine fit-bit that monitors their temperature, behavior, eating habits, if the cow is in heat (!), etc. The level of technology used may sound antithetical to artisan producers, but it’s not used to make the cows give more milk, just to keep them healthy. When 100% of the milk for your cheese comes from your own cows you tend to take care of them very, very well. These are well loved and well cared for animals and they produce really flavorful milk that becomes really flavorful gouda that rivals the best goudas coming out of The Netherlands.
Next up: Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
This is the cheese that brought the spotlight back to Wisconsin artisan cheese. Fifty miles west of Madison in the town of Dodgeville sits Uplands Cheese and its cheesemaker, Andy Hatch. In 2004, Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society’s annual awards and it hasn’t looked back. It’s only gotten better over time and is now widely considered—me included—as one of, if not the, best cheese in America.
Andy’s animals live their entire lives outdoors and he only make cheese when the cows are in the pastures, May through October. When the grass is dried up at the end of fall it’s over, the cows go indoors and they stop making cheese. That means the cows have an amazing diet, a diverse range of grasses, legumes and herbs. That diet turns into fantastic tasting milk, which makes for a more interesting and flavorful cheese.
Many of the best cheesemakers in Europe and America follow parts of Andy’s process but few go as far as he does in each step. Andy ages most of his cheese for about a year but there’s some he holds back to age further, which he calls “Reserve.” We go even a stage further, working with him to choose exact batches of Reserve we like best, then shipping the wheels to Ann Arbor to hand cut when you order.