When you stop to think about it, it’s kind of like oxygen: It’s all around us, to the point where even though it’s part of our fair state’s core identity, we sometimes (gasp!) take it for granted. But in a place that’s justifiably synonymous with top-flight and uber-delicious cheese, failing to appreciate the wealth of sweet, sharp and creamy goodness in our own front yard qualifies as a crime of truly Gorgonzola-esque proportions. An exhaustive list of the cheese shops that dot south-central Wisconsin, like countless holes in a block of Swiss, would end up rivaling “War and Peace.” We’ve zeroed in on the most interesting (and, in some cases, unexpected) ones in easy striking distance of Madison, all the better to fuel your aged-cheddar itch. Dude, what are you waiting for? That cheese won’t eat itself.
Babcock Hall Dairy Store
You think of it as a great place to score a scrumptious scoop of ice cream—and you’re right, it is—but it’s also a great place to score chunks of cheese. The offerings here don’t stray too far from the traditional—think cheddars, Swisses and mozzarellas—but if you hit up Babcock’s before the lunch rush hits, you’re likely to score some cheap and tasty remainders of that morning’s fresh batches.
1605 Linden Drive, 262-3045
Bavaria Sausage Company
Meat’s the bigger star here, obviously, but the cheese stands alone quite nicely, too. Wisconsin faves include Widmer’s creamy cheese spread, bierkase and aged brick camp alongside imported Jarlsberg and raclette. These varieties will accompany your landjaeger and knockwurst quite gracefully, thank you.
6317 Nesbitt Road, Fitchburg, 271-1295
Everyone has their top picks at this graze-a-licious market, where a stunning array of cheese options cozies up to some truly transcendent fruit. Maybe it’s the basil farmer’s cheese, with huge flecks of the sweet green herb encased in some of the softest and mellowest white cheese ever. Maybe it’s the smooth-as-silk butterkase that feels like it might have missed its calling as a cheese spread. Or maybe it’s the distinctive tang of a block of 10-year aged sharp cheddar. Whatever you choose, it’s a cheese victory.
5533 University Ave. 233-2777, 8210 Watts Road, 833-2893
Carr Valley Cheese Company
Camped right next door to Hurts Donuts in Middleton, this Carr Valley outlet is just one corner of the sprawling Cook family cheese empire, an operation that’s won enough national and international awards to fill multiple barnhouses. The front of the store is where the distinctive stuff is hiding, from the smoked glacier point blue cheese to cave-aged options and the Marisa, a truly delicious sheep’s milk cheese named after cheesemaster Sid Cook’s daughter.
2831 Parmenter St., Middleton, 824-2277
The “ye olde” storefront look is oh, so Americana main street, but inside, those cases packed to the gills with blocks and wedges of Wisconsin and international cheeses are all business—and all delicious. It doesn’t take long to find the “heck yeah” options here—our crackers are partial to the Wollersheim white cheddar spread (infused with Prairie Fume!) and the raspberry ale-soaked BellaVitano made by Wisconsin’s own Sartori.
183 E. Main St., Stoughton, 873-1777
Edelweiss Cheese Shop
Edelweiss has its own signature draw—the indescribably smooth and delish Emmentaler Swiss cheese created by cheesemaster Bruce Workman and cut from wheels that weigh about 180 pounds. If that’s not your chunk of cheese—really?—fear not, as Edelweiss also sells artisan cheeses from a huge number of talented purveyors from Wisconsin and beyond.
529 1st St., New Glarus, 636-2155
Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet
You’ve probably seen the TV commercials for this DeForest cheese purveyor, which means that—you guessed it—you’re unlikely to forget the Ehlenbach’s cheese. Which makes sense when we’re talking about some of the chalet’s more eye-popping offerings, like a cheese soaked in Bulls Falls Nut Brown Ale, a cheese that incorporates both ghost and habanero peppers into its scorching mix, and a white cheese that tastes just like a bowl of your favorite chicken soup. Like the man says, it’s all good, baby.
4879 County Road V, DeForest, 846-4791
The smart kids are already part of Fromagination’s Cheese of the Month club, an extravagance that’ll bring things like sumptuous Hook’s cheddars and Emmi Roth specialties right to your doorstep. But there are always plenty of reasons to stroll into Ken Monteleone’s college of cheese-based knowledge and (naturally) taste the best of our state’s artisanal cheeses. The options quite literally boggle the mind and the taste buds, ranging from SarVecchio Parmesan and Dunbarton blue to Bent River Camembert and Widmer’s pungent brick cheese spread. On second thought, maybe you’d better plan multiple trips.
12 S. Carroll St., 255-2430
Plenty of grocery stores have extensive cheese displays/cases; Metcalfe’s puts them to shame, offering enough options in its cheese bar for wine and food pairings that you may suffer a sudden bout of fromage paralysis. And believe us, there’s plenty to pair, with a selection of Wisconsin cheeses only slightly less large than some of the wheels from which the wedges were cut. Think Gouda from Marieke, goat cheese from Montchevre and selections from Carr Valley and Emmi Roth.
726 N. Midvale Blvd., 238-7612; 7455 Mineral Point Road, 829-3500
When you duck beneath the signature nibbling rodent standing astride the entrance on a supersized chunk o’ cheese, there’s no doubt what you’re in for—bins and bins of A-1 cheese chunks, spreads, whips and curds. The house is home to the Mango Fire Cheddar, a cheese that placed third in the World Championship Cheese Contest two years ago. For something completely different, check out a greenish Monterey Jack with Pantaleo peppers, or one of the Mousehouse’s Scandinavian juusto, a baked bread cheese that’s truly app-a-licious.
4494 Lake Circle, Windsor, 846-4455
We all love cheese with the passion of a thousand suns, but let’s be honest with each other and face the ugly truth: Bingeing constantly on Brie and co-jack isn’t exactly wonderful for the waistline or the cholesterol levels. Luckily, Northwoods comes to the rescue. One of the Verona purveyor’s popular niches is called “Lifetime Cheeses”—low-fat and cholesterol-lowering versions of popular types of cheese like cheddar and Swiss. (How do they do it, you ask? Google “plant sterols.”)
7872 Black River Road, Verona, 829-0809
Steve’s WINE | Beer | Spirits
Hey, wait a minute. We know Steve’s is a great place to score a rare bottle of, say, Tullamore Dew Phoenix—but cheese? Yep. This liquor store is actually a hidden trove of Wisconsin cheese goodness, all just waiting to be cut and taken home as part of Steve’s cheese course. The list of options comprises a murderer’s row of Wisconsin and international cheese artisans, from Carr Valley and Bleu Mont Dairy to Delice d’bourgogne and Manchego. So seriously, grab a chunk of Hook’s to go with that sixer of porter, why don’tcha?
122 Junction Road, 833-5995; 6227 McKee Road, 442-9600; 3618 University Ave., 233-6193
No discussion of area Wisconsin cheese is remotely complete without a deep-dive into the region’s international fromage superstar: Fitchburg-based Emmi Roth USA. The cheesemaker took first in the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest with a Grand Cru Surchoix that’s aged and combines the flavors of caramel, fruit and mushroom. Roth cheeses racked up an amazing 11 major awards last year alone.
From Gruyeres and Emmentalers to havartis and goudas, Emmi Roth’s list of amazing cheeses is longer than a snake of string cheese. The company has a storefront, Alp & Dell, connected to its plant in Monroe, Wisconsin, but luckily, you also can find the company’s signature cheeses in a bunch of local shops, (Ehlenbach’s, Brennan’s, Edelweiss, Mousehouse Cheese House, Steve’s Liquor) and a few local grocery stores, including Metcalfe’s, Whole Foods and Hy-Vee, too. Proscht!