If there was an overarching theme to the presentation on Wisconsin cheese Tuesday night at Fromagination, the lovely cheese shop that just opened at 12 S. Carroll St., it was that in Wisconsin, cheese is, well, a big deal.
"Where else do people wear cheese on their heads?" asked Fromagination's Laurie Greenberg, rhetorically. She led the seminar -- the first of a series the store is sponsoring -- with Jeanne Carpenter, who blogs about cheese at Cheese Underground.
None of the 14 who came wore cheese on their heads, but they did arrive ready to eat cheese -- nine cheeses in all, including sheep's milk cheese, washed-rind cheese, firm cheese and semi-firm cheese. All were from artisanal Wisconsin cheese makers, and all were of very high quality. All were delicious. Along with the cheese, the people ate dried fruit and nuts, the better to cleanse the palate between cheeses. Water was drunk from plastic cups.
Greenberg began the talk with a little history. Many years ago, she said, "There was a cheese factory at almost every crossroads. If you had a lot of milk, the best way to preserve it was to convert it into cheese." Alas, Wisconsin cheese production peaked in 1922.
But Wisconsin cheese still is going strong. There are 115 cheese plants here, she said, the most in any state -- as compared to the 62 in California, the runner-up. True, California recently surpassed Wisconsin in sheer volume of cheese produced. "But the focus in Wisconsin has always been on quality," she said.
The people assembled sat knee to knee in the front of the store, where Greenberg and Carpenter spoke before a flat-panel display. On the screen they displayed old pictures from Wisconsin dairy history, and photos of today's cheese makers.
Overhead, ceiling fans slowly spun. Lining the walls were shelves of honey, crackers, fancy olive oil. There were humming refrigerated cases full of Wisconsin cheese -- grass-based cheddar from Edelweiss Creamery, Crave Brothers Mascarpone. (For the first month, the store is selling only Wisconsin cheese.)
A red-faced man interrupted Greenberg. "I read that Maryland consumes the most Velveeta per capita," he volunteered. Everyone laughed.
"And it's so small!" someone said, referring to Maryland.
Then Carpenter gave some opening remarks. She loves blogging about cheese, she said. "It took me about 35 years," she noted, "but I finally found a job I liked and felt like getting up for."
At last it was time to eat cheese. A large tray circulated the room. It contained all the evening's samples, the first of which was a smooth, subtle sheep's milk cheese called Driftless, from Westby's Hidden Springs Creamery. On the screen appeared a picture of Hidden Springs' Brenda Jensen. "They use draft horses," said Carpenter. There were appreciative murmurs.
Then came morsels of something called Mobay, from Carr Valley in La Valle. Mobay actually is two cheeses, a layer of goat cheese and a layer of sheep cheese, separated by grapevine ash. It had a tang.
"Did you like that one?" Greenberg asked.
"M-hm!" came a chorus. Everyone was still chewing.
Carpenter distributed slices of Fleuri Noir, from Fantme Farm, in Ridgeway. "Soft; bloomy rind," read a description of the cheese in the evening's syllabus. "Dusted with ash & salt; hand-ladled."
"Look at the bloomy rind!" Greenberg said, brandishing a piece of the Fleuri Noir. "I'd pass it around, but we don't need to get it on everyone's fingers."
And so came all that glorious cheese: aged Swiss wheel from Monroe's Chalet Cheese; Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese, in Dodgeville; delightful brick cheese from Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa.
As the Widmer's was going around, a slide of proprietor Joe Widmer appeared on the screen. He wore a beard, a paper hat, and a stern expression. Behind him was a pile of bricks. They are used, Greenberg said, to force the whey from the cheese, and that is why it is called brick cheese. "Those are the bricks his grandfather used," said Greenberg. "Nobody makes brick cheese like Joe."
The tasting was winding down. "You always want to start a tasting with a mild cheese and end with a strong one," said Carpenter, who had begun passing around slices of aromatic gorgonzola, from North Hendren Co-op in Willard. It was the best cheese of the evening, an explosion of flavor.