Happiness is a Piece of Cheese (Madison WI: Part One)

by FatEnglishman on 16 June 2011

Hello!  Fat Englishman here…

I recently had occasion to make my Maiden Voyage to the fair city of Madison in the State of Wisconsin.

To be frank, there was little I knew about either the city or the State beyond the prevalence of all things Dairy, Cheese in particular and things like the Green Bay Packers (about which I nothing more than the name –I think they play baseball).  I’d also heard rumour of some sort of secret society called The Cheeseheads that is most notable for outlandish headwear and while there, I learned that Badgers were revered in some way, though I have no idea why.

So in order to address what could at best be described as a somewhat patchy (or more accurately, pathetic) intellectual grasp of what lay before me, I wisely reached out to a small and carefully selected group of cultural advisers.  And as I was going to one of the great centres of American cheese production it seemed only natural to reach out to the oracles of the fermented curd in order to learn better which cheeses were likely to be my best bet and where to find them.

(After all, there can be few greater pleasures than shopping for cheese – it’s basically shopping for the senses.  Some ladies of my acquaintance feel that way about shoes, but for me it’s cheese!)

“But pray tell” (I hear you say), “who are these cheesy oracles of which you speak?”  In short, they have each provided me with exemplary service and help over the years (not to mention entertainment and pleasure) in my pursuit of gastronomic delight.  The first is Artisanal Cheese, whose expertise and array of cheeses makes any time spent on their web site akin to a mental massage – an indulgence possibly only bettered by a visit to their Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro in New York where on my last visit my companion and I managed to while away five hours of our lives wallowing in some of the finest cheeses I’ve ever experienced along with a different wine pairing for each (more on this another time).

My second oracle was none other than the legendary New York purveyor, Murray’s Cheese who can always be relied upon for a spectacular array of both cheese and salumi at their Bleeker Street and Grand Central locations, and my third source of inspirational insight was Culture Magazine which is always a rich source of information and inspiration on all things cheese whatever your needs and desires.  Finally, my good friend Cheeseslave made some splendid recommendations for which raw milk cheeses to look out for.

Duly equipped with enough knowledge to work up an appetite I sallied forth.

Now it must be said that Madison itself is an utterly delightful city and a splendid food town.  On the basis of my experience, the people seem remarkably friendly and the area around the State House is teeming with good food and dining experiences (one major regret is that I didn’t make it to the Farmer’s Market that takes place right by the State House each Saturday and Wednesday through the Summer).  Anyway, more on my dining experiences in Madison another time.  My focus today is cheese!

One of the critical pieces of advice I received – and which was echoed by my hosts in Madison – was that my search for cheese nirvana should begin and end at Fromagination – an establishment that elevates the art of buying and selling cheese and any manner of accompaniments to a level of pleasure that is seldom achieved.  Evidence of this was first indicated not only by the easy and friendly nature of the service and the offer to taste various cheeses when I was ready, but also by the fact that a glass of a decent choice of wines was forthcoming nice and early in the proceedings.

Fromagination is clearly something of a hub of the regional cheese community in Madison.  Certainly there were cheeses from further afield and abroad, but it seems to me that the majority were from the area and as such delightfully new to my palate.

In accordance with the guidance I’d been given I duly gravitated toward those suggested while also being guided by Fromagination’s own experts on hand.  Hook’s Cheddar had featured large in my recommended list and I soon understood why.  There were five, ten and twelve year old cheddars on offer (Hook’s produce a fifteen year Cheddar around Christmas) and each was spectacular (and I say this as one that is not readily impressed with Cheddars produced outside of England having grown up on the original stuff).  I came away with a hefty lump of the ten year old and a smaller piece of the five.  Every morsel was delightful but the ten year cheddar is especially so – sharp and characterful this is no shrinking violet of a cheese and it also benefits from an unusual and very subtle crispiness in the body which I’m told is due to the aging process producing something called “lactate granules”.  Sounds strange but I can assure you it’s jolly good!

Dunbarton Blue was another great success.  Like the Hook’s this is made from cow’s milk and is a nice firm cheese that to all intents and purposes has the characteristics of a very good cheddar mixed with a very subtle firm blue cheese.  It’s extremely easy and very rewarding to eat and it wasn’t long before I regretted not buying more.

Branching out into the realm of the sheep, I sampled – and subsequently purchased – some Dante.  This is an aged cheese that (to me at least) tastes ever-so-slightly nutty and has a smooth after taste.  Gorgeous.

My final purchase was of a small piece of Buttermilk Blue from Roth Kase – it didn’t last long!

I tasted many others but it is the sad lot of the traveler to be bound by the limitations and rigors of travel itself upon the things he or she would like to purchase.  Some cheeses would not have survived the journey home and buying all those I tasted would have resulted in at lest some of them being past their best before I’d enjoyed them to the full.

Others that I tasted and which I heartily recommend include Ocooch Mountain (raw Sheep’s milk), Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra-Aged (Cow’s milk), Reserve Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar (Cow’s milk), Saxony (raw Cow’s milk) and Eagle Cave Reserve (Cow’s milk).  In truth there were probably more but by the end of it all I was in such a state of reverie that I was feeling quite giddy!

It goes without saying that if you find yourself with the opportunity to go to Madison you most definitely should and that when you are there you must visit the good folks at Fromagination – some of the cheeses they stock are only available there so you’re sure to find something you haven’t experienced before.  And they’re jolly nice people (special thanks to Steve for indulging me and suggesting things to try).

If of course you’re not in that part of the country and feel inspired to try some of Wisconsin’s finest, you can always order from them online and if in New York, then naturally you can always drop into the Artisanal Cheese Shop at the Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro or buy online from them or head to Murray’s Cheese.  And it would be remiss of me not to suggest you take a look at  Culture Magazine too – it will do you good.

Thanks then to all of my oracles and to all at Fromagination – not to mention the noble cheese-makers of Wisconsin.  Long may you practice your art and long may we appreciate you.

Happy Eating!

(pics: Wikipedia, Fromagination, Culture Magazine, roellicheese.com)

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