The legends are true.
Less than three hours north, starting in Madison and meandering in every direction along back-country roads dotted with family farms, cornfields and quaint old dairies, you’ll find the best place in the nation to spend a weekend overindulging on cheese. Old World Emmentalers made in copper-lined Swiss kettles. Impossibly creamy goat cheeses. And bold 15-year-old cheddars that’ll make your gorgonzola blush with envy. Plan your trip right and you can cook with them, pair wines with them and sample yourself into cheese-curd nirvana.
Day 1 (Madison)
Sample: Begin your excursion on a Wednesday or Saturday when the Dane County Farmers’ Market sets up shop around the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. It’s the nation’s largest producer-only farmers’ market, offering more cheese products than a Packers’ tailgate party. Fudge-crusted raspberry cheesecakes. Cheese-and-salsa beef sticks. Griddle-fried bread cheese (Think saganaki without the alcohol). Plus, moo-calling competitions and cows on parade for the kiddies.
Learn: You can’t miss Fromagination. It’s right on the square and looks like something out of a Dickens novel. Black lacquered shelves. Gleaming glass cheese caves. And curiosities galore, like 15-year-old Hook’s cheddar. Owner Ken Monteleone is dedicated to importing hard-to-find international cheeses and supporting local farmers. His team will personalize a tasting flight for you that you can enjoy right on the spot or ship home.
Digest: Check into your hotel and make room for dinner. We suggest a local B&B like the sustainable and secluded Speckled Hen Inn or the lavish Victorian-themed Mansion Hill Inn. If you want a budget-friendly children’s option with a pool, try the Hilton Garden Inn about 15 minutes outside of town in Middleton.
Indulge: Madison’s most lauded fine-dining restaurant, the 34-year-old L’Etoile, offers both gastropub and fine-dining fare, allowing guests an opportunity to taste what chef Tory Miller can do with local Madison cheeses, like stuffing little tresses of chevre and garlic in the most delicate agnolotti imaginable.
Day 2 (In and around Sauk City)
Cook: In an unassuming strip mall, you’ll find master cheesemaker Sid Cook’s Carr Valley outlet store. The backroom has an impressive Wolf and Sub-Zero test kitchen where some of the country’s best chefs — like Chicago’s own Steve Chiappetti of Viand — provide cooking classes. But make sure to buy some cheese — Sid’s creations have won more than 60 national and international competitions — because you’ll pay more than double back home.
Pair: Admittedly, the wines at the Wollersheim Winery are on the sweet side, but the estate itself, which was established in the 1840s, is a stunner. Vineyards carpet the surrounding hillside and then roll majestically downhill toward a newly built visitor’s center that’s Napa worthy. The $3.50 tours are a steal, and there’s cheese for pairing in the gift-shop fridge.
Sup: Make sure to leave room for dinner at the Old Fashioned, a modern supper club in Madison that offers 28 local beers on tap, cheese soup and inventive sandwiches, like a muenster-smothered paprika pulled pork sandwich on Texas toast.
Day 3 (Monticello and New Glarus)
Watch: On the way home, take the idyllic farm-lined back roads to the small town of Monticello, where Bruce Workman still makes 180-pound wheels of Emmentaler cheese using raw milk and a traditional copper-lined kettle imported from Switzerland at his Edelweiss Creamery. Call ahead to schedule a tour, but the intimate early-morning tours are a real treat. Call 608/934-1234.
Dip: You’d be remiss not to stop at the New Glarus Brewery on the way back home, which has erected a towering Swiss-style chateau on a hill overlooking the city. The tours are still a work in progress, but it’s a chance to bring home a case of legendary Spotted Cow or Wisconsin Belgian red. And if you want a final dinner, there’s always fondue at the iconic Chalet Landhaus Inn.