After years of calendar conflicts and forgetfulness and sheer ignorance, last weekend fulfilled a long-standing dream of mine.  I am from Wisconsin.  In Wisconsin cheese is something like a religion.  I hate to make my (sometimes surprisingly) cosmopolitan, high-tech, open-minded state sound like a ho-dunk stereotype, but yeah, our cheese is better than your cheese and that makes us awesome and we celebrate it.  We incorporate it into meals in strange ways.  We think of creative ways to make it and support the traditional methods of making cheese passed down through the centuries.

We are cheese and we are territorial.   California produces more milk than us (our cow herds are smaller because we have fewer factory farms), but we take comfort in knowing that we still make more…you guessed it…cheese. If you love cheese you should come here and meet your tribe.

This weekend I spent Saturday doing what I do just about every day; I celebrated cheese. But this time I was with others.

One would imagine that the festival that celebrates cheesemaking in the most cheese-making-dense part of this cheese-loving state would be a big deal, right?  On Saturday, I ventured to Monroe, Wisconsin for Green County Cheese Days to find out:

At the very least, it sure was a big wheel!

Green County Cheese Days is a festival held every two years in Monroe, a community surrounded by many well-known and internationally award-winning Wisconsin cheesemakers.  In fact, Monroe’s high school mascot is the Cheesemakers.  At one point in my life that was incredibly funny!

Based on the devotion to quality and tradition displayed throughout the festival, Monroe has a lot to be proud of.  One of the great (and surprising) thrills was a grilled cheese sandwich served at  a local boy scout troop stand.  I expected two slices of American grilled on some white bread (per usual), but instead had an amazing mayo-scallion-brick combination grilled on two high-quality slices of toasted rye bread.  I bought that sandwich because I was hungry and  the other lines were long and ended up eating what might have been the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever had.

Another daring adventure was my first time trying Limburger cheese (Monroe is one of two places in N. America that makes Limburger).  In Monroe, you can buy a cheese sandwich (or some big pieces of sausage!)  from a tavern window and just eat on the street:

Yes, Limburger did have a very pungent smell…something with a sour corporal resonance…like sweaty feet kept in plastic bags for a few hot days.   But the actual flavor was pretty mild, like brick cheese with maybe just a hint of  sourness.  Although it’s a strong odor, it is probable something one could overcome for the rather pleasant flavor that accompanies it. I’m no chef, but I think the sourness could add some complexity to a meal that calls for a milder cheese, or just a cheese sandwich. I also had some tangy brown mustard on my sandwich and it seemed to compliment the milder Limburger base quite well.  I would be interested to see how Limburger works in a grilled cheese sandwich.  Perhaps the smell cooks away?  Be mindful of your cohabitants, however, as the smell was noticeably permeating from skin later that day.

The bacteria that lives in Limburger also lives in your armpits when you are stinky enough for people to give you that look

Another big draw was the Optimist Club’s cheese curd stand.  The entire day, the stand was swarmed  with people with no clear line.  Finally the bullet was bitten and I entered the cheese curd mass.

Somewhere in this photo is the start of four serving lines

The 30-45 minute wait was tempered by the women in front of us who assured me that these would be some of the best cheese curds I’ve ever had.  And they were.  Definitively the best served from a festival stand.  Their fried skin was light, crisp and buttery and meshed well with the cheddar cheese on the inside.  If I hadn’t already chowed down on so much cheese I would have been in cheese heaven, instead I was closer to cheese heave.

Monroe also provides a cheese tent where visitors can sample different cheese types from different local  producers.  Though, it should be noted, this tent was pretty packed and just getting a piece of cheese on a toothpick involved great skill and patience.

Although there were plenty of cheese tasting opportunities, I was surprised to see how much the festival also doubled as a celebration of the Swiss ancestry seen in many communities in Green County:

Yes, this dog is wearing a cowbell and yes, I wanted to steal it (dog and bell).

This sounded like a melancholy whale roaming the deep ocean

This old cheesemaker explained how, as a boy, he hammered nails into his grandpa's boots so his grandpa wouldn't slip while making cheese. Also, that hat!

The Swissness just added color to what otherwise might have been a paint-by-numbers local commerce festival (seriously, Corn Fest? That’s just another excuse for Drunk Fest).  I also appreciated being serenaded by yodelers throughout the day–it made the waits in line all the more whimsical.

And with that: