A Delicious Day in ‘Swissconsin’

Immigrants made Wisconsin the Cheese State. You’re welcome.

Everyone knows that Wisconsin is the epicenter of the US cheese universe, but did you ever stop to think why that is? If I ever thought about it, I probably just thought ‘Hey it’s a huge dairy state and cheese is a value-added product.’ But look a little bit deeper and there’s a reason there are so many dairy cows and an overflow of milk in Wisconsin: the chain migration of immigrants.

Dairy cows signs abound.

Swiss immigrants, to be precise, some 20,000 who arrived in two waves mostly before 1890. They arrived en masse and clustered together in non-English-speaking enclaves, preserving the traditions and foodways of the country they loved and only left because economic opportunities there dried up. Scandalous, right? But this familiar and completely natural immigrant story is why you can get some of the finest cheeses anywhere in the world in Wisconsin. Because the Swiss know from cheese.

Baumgartner’s Cheese Shop in Monroe, WI, is the oldest in the state.

I spent the day in the rural southern Swiss-settled part of Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago and I ate four new-to-me foods, which is a banner day for someone who eats as often and adventurously as the time space continuum allows. I’m on an epic road trip to celebrate my big 5-0 birthday April 1 via the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon and plan to try as many new foods as I can sleuth out along the way.

I was 3 for 4 on deliciousness:

  • For some reason, I could not resist ordering a Limburger-and-Salami Sandwich at my first stop, Baumgartner’s Cheese Shop and Tavern in Monroe, WI. When we were little, my older sister Sherry and I used to chase each other around the grocery store with foil-wrapped blocks of this pungent cheese. It was the late ’70s, in a German-settled part of Kansas City, and Limburger could be found next to the “regular” cheeses, in fact, before there got to be a rich and poor cheese section. Anyway I guess I thought Limburger was a fear I should face as an adult. Baumgartner’s is the state’s oldest cheese shop, founded in 1931, and it is decorated like the old country, with a dark carved bar and a panopoly of murals celebrating all things Swiss. They even had Swiss cowbells and a big swooping alphorn, a la the Ricola commercials on display. I sampled the cheese first. But the sample was tiny, and after I ate it I did not think “that Limburger was delicious;” I thought “I usually LIKE stinky cheese; that wasn’t so bad, I can DO this in sandwich form!” Well, I couldn’t. I ate half of it and I loved two thirds of the ingredients in the sandwich, a soft rye bread that was neither dark nor light and a Wisconsin-made soft but not quite spreadable salami. But the amount of limburger on the sandwich was intimidating and where the sample was a speck, the sandwich had overpowering 1/4 inch planks of the stuff. Halfway through I salvaged the salami and crumpled the other part into a napkin, defeated by the Brevibacterium linens, the bacterium that defines as it despoils this semi-soft washed rind cheese. On the bright side, the waiter who had been dubious and oracle-like about my ordering the sandwich took away my shameful crumpled napkin without comment and while I was not looking. Except for a pressing need to brush my teeth, it was as if it had never happened. This is probably why I have no real photo. Instead, here is the over-the-bar sign that serves as a menu.
  • Landjägers — I got my introduction to the jerky of the Alps. Made in paired links, these flavorsome sausages are squashed into long rectangles and dried until they are lightweight. The more age they have, the less water weight and the harder they get to bite and chew. “If you’ve got good teeth the harder ones are the better ones,” Kathy Workman of Edelweiss Cheese confided, and I assured her my choppers were up to it. I purchased a light/hard pair of landjägers and I was going to wait to eat them later, and maybe even do a video about it, but I couldn’t wait. I ate them both in the car, with the fierce determination it took to bite into them. The texture was crumbly inside, like a shortbread cookie, but all savory fat and flavor. The natural casing tore like it was a paper covering as I gnawed on it and drove. Would totally recommend, even if you’re traveling by minivan and not hiking boot.
Swiss pride runs high in New Glarus, WI and thereabouts. All of southern Wisconsin has a Swiss twist thanks to these early settlers.

3. Appenzeller Cheese — This is one of those “secret recipe” cheeses, which different cheesemakers make their own by changing the herbs used in the wine or cider-based brine that’s brushed on the exterior of the wheel to flavor and harden it. A medium-firm and light-colored cheese with some tiny holes, it has a nutty flavor with an after-tang that Kathy says gets more pronounced as the cheese ages.

Kathy Workman cuts the Appenzeller!


4. Bienenstich — Finally, the baked goods, which everyone seems to be avoiding for one reason or another, myself included. But I’m going to call this my birthday cake because I did enjoy it with abandon. It’s made from a buttery, yeasted crisp pastry sandwiched around ungodly amounts of buttercream and topped with almonds coated in a crispy caramel, just this side of going too dark, reminiscent of a brittle, but without the baking soda.

The New Glarus bakery and its Swissconsin environs

Check back for more food and travel adventures and please do like and share and all that good stuff. It really does help.

Swissconsin Photos:

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