Getting cheesy in Wisconsin

From cocktails to soup, cheese is the order of the day.

Here in Northeast Wisconsin, fried cheese curds are on virtually every restaurant menu, and grilled cheese sandwiches are on most. Cheese tops not just pizza and burgers, but also soups, salads and hash browns.

So I supposed it shouldn’t have surprised me that the bloody Mary at Kitty O’Reillys Irish Pub in Sturgeon Bay arrives topped with narrow strings (“whips,” they call them) of mozzarella cheese. Or that, according to the locals, some bars serve drinks with speared cheese curds.

There’s simply no such thing as too much cheese in Wisconsin. I think I’ve found paradise.

The curds are the big deal. Salvaged during the cheese-making process before all of the whey is squeezed out of the cheese, these bite-size morsels are squeaky when you bite them. You can buy them at cheese shops in a bag, but at restaurants, you typically see them battered and fried. Green Bay Packers fans devour them like popcorn at Lambeau Field, which goes through roughly 20,000 pounds per game.

At Bleu Restaurant and Lounge in De Pere near Green Bay, the fried curds are made of goat cheese, but typically they’re cheddar. At the Cannery Public Market in Green Bay, they’re beer-battered using Johnny Blood Red Ale from Titletown Brewing Co. next door.

Beer, of course, is another famous Wisconsin product, and my favorites included not only the aforementioned ale but also Green Bay-brewed Badger State Red Ale and Badger State Walloon Witbier, as well as Door County Brewing Company’s Little Sister Witbier. Craft beer up here concentrates not on IPAs (“Not enough hipsters,” a local said) but on ales and lagers. Also, people drink a good bit of Miller Lite.

But back to cheese: I also enjoyed it for breakfast stirred into hash browns and covered with cornflakes at Door County Coffee (whose house-roasted arabica I found worthy of toting home) and, of course, atop pizza: house-made mozzarella at Sonny’s in Sturgeon Bay, which also employs it in cheese curds.

I visited two cheese-making operations and learned the difference between white cheddar and orange cheddar: food coloring. That’s it. It’s exactly the same cheese, except that in order to make it orange (or yellow), food coloring is added. White sells better nationwide, according to Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay. Renard’s, which uses milk from family farms in the area, sells a lot of flavored cheeses — cheddar with added herbs, garlic, onion, peppers, dill and such.

Renard’s has a lunch counter, where I fell deeply in love with my Signature Grilled Cheese: provolone with spinach, pesto and bacon. Renard’s also sells rubber cheese hats (which you can also buy at Lambeau, of course), along with neckties and necklaces.

Two days later, I was ready to eat grilled cheese again and got a fabulously gooey, very basic nothing-but-orange-cheddar variety at Beerntsen’s Confectionary in Manitowoc (with a fabulous vanilla malt).

My second cheesemaker, Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, was in Keil, south of Manitowoc, where flavored cheese includes some quirky ones such as pina colada, blueberry cobbler and mango-habanero. Here, I’m told that Wisconsonites prefer their cheese orange, so Henning’s food-colors most of it, although judging from the store, there’s enough white cheese to meet demands.

Like Renard’s, Henning’s uses milk from local farms — such small farms, I’m told, that the cows have names. Here, we were able to tour the factory, although no cheese was being made at that moment, and see a good bit of cheese calmly waiting to be shipped.

Henning’s makes rounds between 12 pounds and 12,000 pounds. Who orders a 12,000-pound cheese? Well, apparently a Central Market in Houston did some years back. It’s big, the store was told. That’s good, Henning’s was told; Texas likes big things. The cheese arrived and wouldn’t fit through the door. A window had to be removed to get it into the store, at which point it was discovered the cheese was too big to roll down the aisle. More moving of stuff.

“We tried to tell them,” the tour guide said with a shrug.

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