Taste your way through Wisconsin
BY GARY KNOWLES For Sun-Times Media
Winemaker Philippe Coquard holding a bottle of ice wine in the vineyard. | By Gary Knowles
Knowing the joy of travel includes experiencing the culture and flavor of a place, trying uncommon foods and enjoying them where they’re produced. Not many places can match Wisconsin for quality or variety.
Wisconsin’s cheesemakers always bring home bags of awards for their products. Sargento of Plymouth, Carr Valley of La Valle and Crave Brothers of Watertown are among those whose products are showcased at cheese shops statewide. Hook’s Cheese of Mineral Point has earned international acclaim for Fifteen Year Cheddar as well as Blue Cheeses. As you travel, watch for cheese stores offering Fresh Curd. To ensure that you get them at their squeaky best, ask if it they were produced that day. If not, hold off. If you get near Monroe, Wisc. you can buy a brick of Limburger Cheese made nearby at the Chalet Cheese Cooperative. It’s the last factory in the US making the odiferous specialty.
A great place to sample Limburger is at Baumgartner’s Deli and Pub in Monroe. The fragrant cheese goes great on rye and some connoisseurs add a slice of onion. To wash it down, try a fine Wisconsin craft beer like Spotted Cow from nearby New Glarus or Huber Bock brewed right in Monroe.
Wisconsin’s craft brewers have also earned plenty of trophies. Beer lovers near Ashland on Lake Superior praise South Shore Brewery’s products just as Madison folks say the local heroes are Capital Brewery, Ale Asylum and Lake Louie. Brewery Creek Pub in historic Mineral Point is a microbrewer offering excellent Lemon Shandy and Scottish Porter. Either will help wash down the local miner’s pocket meal, the pasty.
Travel to the tip of Door County and catch a ferry to Washington Island. Head for Fisk’s Restaurant. There, you can enjoy Capital Brewery’s popular Island Wheat brewed with grain grown just down the road. While you’re at it, be sure to order a plate of lawyers. This local fish (burbot) pairs nicely with the beer and is a local delicacy.
While on the Island go to Nelsen’s Hall and join The Bitters Club, which claims members worldwide. During Prohibition, Tom Nelsen got a pharmacist’s license so he could dispense the 90 proof Angostura bitters as a stomach tonic. To become a club member you drink a shot of the elixir. About 10,000 people per year become card-carrying members.
Of course, Door County’s most well known claim to fishy fame is the popular fish boil. This storied tradition of boiling locally caught fish with potatoes (and sometimes onions) outdoors in huge cauldrons over a roaring fire is said to be related to local Scandinavian fishing heritage. Whether true or not, the fish boil, served with lots of Wisconsin butter and finished with a slice of Door County cherry pie, has become the area’s signature dish.
Farther north, in Bayfield on the Lake Superior shore, the most famous local fish delicacy is whitefish livers. Local commercial fishers once kept these delicately flavored bits for themselves, but creative local chefs caught wind of it and they’ve since become a town specialty. Greunke’s Restaurant claims to have served them first. Today, fans also flock to Maggie’s Café and the Rittenhouse Inn to satisfy their cravings.
Wisconsin’s German and Polish emigrants brought with them a passion for making a great variety of sausages. Travelers still enjoy Usinger’s, Klement’s and Johnsonville Old World recipes. Visitors to Manitowoc, Milwaukee, Sheboygan and Green Bay taste the tradition in bratwurst at local restaurants, town picnics, ballparks and public brat-frys sponsored held by Boy Scout troops, volunteer firefighters, churches and civic groups.
In fact, the entire state of Wisconsin is a gourmet’s delight. Racine is known for its Danish Kringle pastries, Warrens is the capital of the world’s largest cranberry growing region, Muscoda forages for thousands of wild Morel Mushrooms and some of the best Wild Rice is harvested by hand and sold by Ojibwe people at Bad River and Lac du Flambeau. The first hamburger was patted out in Seymour, and the first ice cream sundae was scooped for a young boy in Two Rivers.
Wisconsin is also producing excellent wines that win awards in major national competitions. It is one of the few wine-producing regions in the world with the right combination of growing conditions and climate to make authentic ice-wine. The historic Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac precisely monitors winter temperatures to harvest frozen St. Pepin grapes in ideal conditions, usually in December, to produce the rare, sweet and delicious nectar of the vines. It’s a fitting beverage to toast to the local specialties and the cornucopia of flavors that make the state such a rich gourmet destination.