My grocery budget—probably like yours—has no spot for “Pound of cheese: $40.” But you can’t really think of a cheese like Pleasant Ridge Reserve as groceries. In my way of thinking, the 10 bucks I spend on a reasonable wedge of this all-star from Wisconsin’s Uplands Cheese Company is the price of a bargain vacation.
At home, I unwrap the triangle carefully, like a letter from a traveling friend. From there, it’s a short trip into the world of Andy Hatch. Because I once visited his creamery, I can taste the rich backstory in a slice of Andy’s handiwork. Hidden somewhere in the cheese’s flavor, I know, is a hint of early-summer grass, the only kind Andy trusts to produce the right milk. More specifically, what I’m tasting is early-summer evening milk that arrives in the workroom warm from the milking parlor next door, rich with more fat than milk given any other time of day. I eat the cheese slowly, remembering a place where limestone flavors the soil, the grass, the milk, the cheese.
That’s a lot of experience from 10 bucks. And every good cheese shop (or even a well-curated suburban grocery store) is full of such escapes. The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese each year, and making a small portion of it a specialty cheese is a chance to turn ordinary meals into events.
The unquestioned mecca of cheese journeys is America’s Dairyland—Wisconsin—which produces 25 percent of America’s cheese and more than every nation except Germany, France and the rest of the United States. Want proof that there’s quality with all that quantity? At last year’s American Cheese Society competition, Wisconsin claimed 93 awards, marking the eighth straight year it won more than any other state.
If you can make an actual road trip, you’ll see such artwork in progress at cheese factories large and small across the state. The buildings are extravagantly clean, full of white uniforms, gleaming metal vats, and the mixed scents of cream and bleach. All this perfectionism makes the entire cheese community an inspiration to hang around, an island of craft in a mass-produced world.
And if you stop to chat with a cheesemaker like those featured in this story, you’ll learn that even they still find the process enchanting. “The older cheesemakers get, the less they say they know how cheese making works,” says Ed Janus, who writes frequently about Wisconsin cheese. “Many master cheesemakers are still fascinated every time the cheese turns out. It’s like that magical process every single time.”
Take our recipes, tasting guide and profiles as your invitation to venture out, beyond pepper Jack and mozzarella. We asked several chefs to share new ways to cook with cheese—and melting it over things is nowhere in the mix. Good cheese, after all, asserts itself even in supporting roles. That’s a new way of thinking for a lot of cheese fans, but it’s all part of the journey.