In Wisconsin, we keep cheese close to our heads and our hearts. Whether it is top of mind for a snack, or it reminds us of friends and family working in the dairy industry, cheese brings pride to America’s Dairyland.
As my days left as Alice draw to a close, I cannot think of a cheesier place to select our next agriculture ambassador than Green County. Famous for rolling hills and fertile farmlands that first attracted Swiss immigrants, robust rural communities in Green County create a powerhouse for Wisconsin dairy.
Home to a dozen cheese plants and the most Master Cheesemakers in the nation, I’ve tasted my way through many visits. My first official cheese tour was at Emmi Roth in Monroe. Although Emmi Roth is an international brand with its headquarters in Switzerland, the Wisconsin plants source milk within a 60-mile radius of their creameries. My stop was not complete until I heard the sweet, yodeling voice of Tony Zgraggen. Tony and his wife, Esther, emigrated from Switzerland in the 1980s. They once had a dairy farm, but today, Tony sells more than 100 varieties of cheese at the Alp and Dell Cheese Store connected to Emmi Roth.
I had the honor of not only tasting one of their special, award-winning cheeses but also meeting the cheesemaker herself! Madeline Kuhn took charge of crafting a specialty cheese called Monroe. Kuhn said it was a chance to help people discover Roth Cheese while making a flavor just as bold and unique as the Wisconsin city. The double-cream cheese is made in small batches where each wheel is smeared and turned by hand every day. The only one of its kind, Kuhn said Monroe pairs well with our official state fruit, the cranberry! I’ve included a recipe for making a Champion Cheese Sandwich with Monroe and tangy cranberry butter below!
Monroe is one of more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheeses crafted in Wisconsin, including many specialty cheeses that win awards around the world. With so many options out there, it is hard to imagine a time when Wisconsin grocery stores did not have dairy cases packed with cheese. While we may never truly know the history of our state’s signature product, legend claims cheese was first discovered by accident thousands of years ago when people stored milk in the stomachs of animals. An enzyme found in the stomach of ruminant animals called rennet separated the milk into curds and whey. Whether this tale can be believed, the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe does shed some light on how cheese became part of our state’s economy, culture and future.
The center said cheese production in America took root in the early 17th century when English Puritan dairy farmers brought their knowledge of dairy farming and cheesemaking to the New England colonies. Making cheese was a delicious way to preserve milk, but when those settlers stepped on Wisconsin soil, their priority was wheat, not dairy. In fact, Wisconsin was one of the top wheat producers in the country until chinch bugs destroyed the crop year after year. The pests, poor prices, and overworked land were all factors that ended the reign of wheat and crowned dairy as king with the expansion of cheesemaking in the 19th century.
Although my heart is not ready to say farewell as Alice, I am grateful for the opportunities that have filled my head with new cheese knowledge and understanding of Wisconsin agriculture. Those who are interested in learning more for themselves can take a trip to Green County for the 72nd Alice in Dairyland Finals May 9-11. Information about tickets and events can be found at aliceindairyland.com.
Champion Cheese Sandwich
• Roth Monroe (the amount of cheese is up to you!)
• Sourdough bread
• Dried Wisconsin cranberries
• 3/4 cup fresh or frozen Wisconsin cranberries
• 1/4 cup Wisconsin honey
• 1/2 cup butter
• Zest from orange
• In a small saucepan, cook cranberries, honey and orange zest for 8-10 minutes, or until cranberries are tender. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
• Combine cranberry sauce with butter (can mix by hand or whip with a hand mixer).
• Slice as much Monroe cheese as desired for your individual sandwich.
• Spread cranberry butter on both sides of the sourdough bread.
• Add cheese and dried cranberries to your preference.
• Cook covered in a frying pan until bread browns and cheese center is melted.