MILWAUKEE -- Only at an airport in Wisconsin can the phrase "half my bag is cheese" attract nothing more than a shrug.
But in the Dairy Land these days, there's a lot of cheese to be had and tourists are eating it up.
The state's milk marketing board keeps adding more dairies on its cheese map for tourists who want to tour the state on a sojourn of cheese. Last year they distributed some 220,000 maps listing more than 115 dairies and creameries. When the next map goes out next year, it will have some 130 listings.
I didn't realize how big my appetite was for the cheese – and how wonderful and fresh the selection is in Wisconsin – until I moved to New York last year. There's a lot of great food in New York, but for me, Wisconsin is my favorite place for cheese.
On my first trip back to the state last fall, I snagged 7 pounds of cheese curds, chunks of aged cheddar and unique artisanal blends in just 48 hours. And that's not even counting the cheese I ate. In all, my bag weighed 14 pounds when I checked it through at the airport in Milwaukee.
Now, whenever I go back to the land of the Cheeseheads, I let my taste buds do the planning. Here's the cheesy take on tourism from an insider, where to go, what to eat and how to get it home:
THE CHEESE MAP
The map has been around for about eight years and originally included wine and beer. But now it is exclusively dairy.
"Three years ago we had so many cheesemakers and cheese shops that we decided only cheese," said Heather Porter-Engwall. spokeswoman for the milk marketing board.
Next year's revision, with a planned spring release, will feature yogurt and ice cream, she said.
Among the many listings on the map is this author's favorite, Curd Day. If you haven't spent much time in Wisconsin, chances are you have not tried the almighty curd. That salty, moist funky little nugget of squeaky goodness comes in simple flavors like cheddar, all the way to savory dill and garlic and burn-your-mouth jalapeno. Curds are made every time someone makes cheese, but they're not eaten much outside of Wisconsin.
On the first Saturday of every month, curds are celebrated at Beechwood Cheese Company, a tiny creamery that is more than 100 years old located in the Kettle Moraine, a region of glacier-made ponds and lakes in Sheboygan County.
Every first Saturday of every month, the cheesemaker makes some 2,200 pounds of curds, and its tiny store connected to the factory is descended upon by cheese-o-philes. They sometimes drive for hours to attend and have to wait outside just to get in.
Why? The secret to curds is freshness. If they're not eaten within a few days of creation, then they don't squeak. And the squeak is a major part of their appeal.
Think of curds like pre-cheese. Curds are the milk solids that are separated from the milk liquid – or whey – in the cheesemaking process. They're salty and moist, much more so than regular cheese. It's this saltiness and moistness that makes them squeak against your teeth. (More delightful than it sounds!) They come in little nuggets and odd shapes since they're formed so haphazardly, which also makes them fun to eat.
Allen Uebele makes the 40-some minute drive north from his home in Milwaukee once a month to Beechwood. Curds, he said are "the Beaujolais of cheese," a nod to the famed French red wine, whose release each November is celebrated by oenophiles.
"They're just a perfect little cheese morsel to eat," he said.
MEET YOUR CHEESEMAKERS
There's something to see and eat every day at Wisconsin's cheesemakers. Get there early in the morning, just as the cheese is being made, for the freshest and the best. You are never far from one in Wisconsin.
Carr Valley Cheese hosts a growing number of cheese tourists at its seven retail stores and factories, said Sid Cook, master cheesemaker, owner and operator.
"There'll be license plates from seven or eight different states at a time, and maybe 10 places to park. It gets to be a bit of a jungle," he said of Carr Valley's flagship location in La Valle, in central Wisconsin.
He realized years ago that not everyone visiting was a local, so he started selling coolers to help transport the cheesy bounty home.
More stringent food safety requirements have put an end to factory tours, but visitors can see most of the functions of his three plants through large windows. There is always someone available to answer questions, and just as importantly, to dole out samples.
"We always have samples, lots of samples," he said. "If somebody's dying to try something we'll open it up. The idea is if you're going to buy something you should darn well like it."
FARMERS MARKETS AND STORES
Instead of visiting the dairies, you can let the cheesemakers come to you. Wisconsin has a wealth of farmers markets all throughout the state that draw farmers, cheesmakers and artisans from the area.
Even in the winter, the market is still held. The indoor market is much smaller, but just as delicious.
Stores are also plentiful. Check out cheese specialty stores to get your cheese fix every day. In the Milwaukee area, the West Allis Cheese And Sausage Shoppe has a wide array of cheeses available, and even fresh curds. There's one location in the suburb of West Allis and another downtown at the Milwaukee Public Market. It's a great place to visit for any food-lover.
You can always buy cheese in the Milwaukee and Madison airports on the way home. It may not be the freshest or most delicious, but it will be in the shape of a cow, a beer or even Wisconsin.
GETTING IT HOME
Flying is the ideal way to transport cheese, especially if you check the bag through. That's because it will be stored underneath the plane, where the temperature is cool. Perfect refrigeration for your delicious cargo.
Just to be extra cautious, you can go to larger grocery stores now and pick up an insulated shopping bag, almost like a cooler. You can also carry solid cheese on a plane. It's not a gel or a liquid – so that 3.4 ounce limit does not apply.