Cows watch cyclists pedal along the Cheese Country Trail that passes through Green County, home to Wisconsins largest concentration of cheesemakers.
MONROE, Wis. - Wisconsin provides me with ample opportunity to indulge in two of my favorite pursuits: riding a bike and eating cheese. Sometimes simultaneously.
The limestone hills, kelly-green valleys and fertile farms of America's Dairyland not only make great cycling terrain; they make great terroir for churning out 600-plus varieties of cheese.
One out of every four pounds of cheese sold in this country comes from our neighbor to the north, which takes its dairy very seriously. So seriously, the use of butter substitutes is banned in state prisons. The state quarter proudly displays a cow and a wheel of cheese. When it comes to the latter, no state produces more, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
And no part of Wisconsin has a higher concentration of cheesemakers than Green County, which seemed like the perfect place to hit the road - better yet, bike trail - for a tasty Tour de Fromage.
Wisconsin's extensive bike trail network makes it possible to cycle more than 150 miles in a big loop through cheese country, staying on paths virtually the entire way.
Our two-wheeled journey began a bit north of Green County in Madison, a bike-friendly city with a pair of mandatory stops for lactose-lovers: the Dane County Farmers Market and an artisan cheese boutique called Fromagination, both on Capitol Square. The massive farmers market, held Wednesdays and Saturdays, is your best bet for meeting local cheesemongers, whose factories and farms often aren't open for tours or require an appointment set up in advance. Any day except Sunday you can stop in at Fromagination for a Wisconsin cheese plate tailored to your tastebuds.
After a day spent clogging our arteries, it was time to get in the saddle. My husband and I left our car behind at Madison's accommodating Arbor House B&B, packed some overnight necessities into his bike's saddlebags (he lost the Wisconsin quarter coin toss), and pedaled to the nearby Southwest Commuter Bike Path.
The path hooks up with the Capital City State Trail, which led us to the Military Ridge State Trail. That's what we rode straight west - and straight into some massive headwinds - for roughly 40 miles. This rails-to-trails crushed limestone path passed through agricultural land and small towns like Ridgeway, where cheesemaker Anne Topham raises goats and creates a mouth-watering chevre that's light as a cloud.
The Military Ridge trail ends in Dodgeville, where we turned north onto Route 23 for a hilly six-mile spin to Uplands Cheese, a 300-acre dairy farm. It's owned by former Chicago suburbanites Mike and Carol Gingrich, who moved here "to get away from the city life, get away from cubicles," said Mike, who used to work for Xerox.
Instead of cubicles, Gingrich is surrounded by cows - 160 of them. He uses their milk to produce his award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve, similar to a gruyere-style cheese made in the French Alps.
Like many Wisconsin cheesemakers, Gingrich will do his best to take you on a tour if you give him a few days' notice. We swapped our bike helmets for hair nets and followed him into a series of cheese caves, where the 10-pound wheels of creamy goodness can spend up to two years aging.
"We make it right here on the premises with milk that's minutes old," Gingrich said.
"The complexity of the flavor comes from the way the cows are fed," he added. "These cows walk around grazing on the grass, choosing to eat what they think is tastiest. So when someone says they like the flavor of our cheese, I always say, Thanks, I'll tell the cows.'"
We popped a few tasty samples to fortify us for our push south to the charming hamlet of Mineral Point, our home for the night. (Had we not deviated north to Uplands Cheese, we could have avoided riding on the road by hopping on the new six-mile-long Shake Rag Trail from Dodgeville to Mineral Point.)
The entire town of Mineral Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Originally settled by Cornish miners, it's home to art galleries, pre-Civil War houses and a couple of Wisconsin's top cheesemakers: Tony and Julie Hook of Hook's Cheese Company.
The Hooks started a bit of a foodie frenzy last December when they released a 15-year-old cheddar for $50 a pound. Despite the holy cow! price tag, their 1,200-pound inventory sold out in eight days. The next batch of ultra-aged cheddar won't be available until December. But Hook's sells plenty of other varieties, and you can watch the cheesemakers at work if you drop by the non-descript factory at 320 Commerce St. between 4 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Fridays.
"The best time is probably 8 to 10 in the morning, when you can see the cheese in the vats and we're turning the slabs, salting it, putting it in the forms," said Tony Hook, who also sells his cheese at the Dane County Farmers Market.
Hook's Cheese is just a few pedal strokes away from the Brewery Creek Inn, where owner and cycling enthusiast Jeff Donaghue let us store our bikes next to his in the on-site brewery.
Over a few pints of microbrew, we told Donaghue about our next day's plan to ride state highways to our next stop, Monroe, the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the U.S.A." That's when Donaghue told us about the Cheese Country Trail that basically connects his inn to Monroe on a 45-mile-long trail. He warned us that we'd be sharing the trail with ATVs and that the sometimes rocky terrain isn't ideal for bikes.
He was right on both counts. At times, it felt like we were pedaling on a bed of marbles. The trail would be impossible on skinny road bike tires, but our hybrid bikes have more rubber so we managed to slog through. After several hours of riding to Monroe, we never saw another cyclist on the trail. But we did see plenty of bucolic scenery, curious cows checking us out, and a few harmless ATVers.
Our self-imposed time constraints meant we were in for a massive day of biking: 90 miles from Mineral Point through Monroe to Madison. If you're not in such a rush, Monroe would be a good spot to call it quits for the day. It's richer than a ripened brie when it comes to cheesy tourism. You can visit the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, a museum/shrine devoted to the craft of cheese production. Over at Roth Kase's chalet-style plant, a viewing gallery lets you watch cheese being made. Roth Kase's factory is connected to the Alp and Dell Cheese Store, selling more than 125 types of cheese and every cheese-related knickknack on the planet.
Whether you're spending the night or just a lunch break in Monroe, a pit stop at Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern is mandatory. Dating back to 1931, Baumgartner's is something to see, with dollar bills stapled to the ceiling, mounted animal heads and colorful murals covering the walls and lots of artifacts celebrating the area's Swiss heritage.
Baumgartner's also boasts "the world's best cheese sandwiches" - a bold claim for what amounts to a simple slice of cheese between two pieces of brown bread. People with an adventurous palate should try the limburger sandwich. It's made with the notoriously stinky cheese that's produced by only one North American factory, Chalet Cheese Cooperative, just outside of Monroe.
The Badger State Trail will take you out of Monroe right to Madison's doorstep, where you'll need to ride the last seven miles or so on roads until the final segment of the trail is finished, possibly later this year.
Keep in mind that Wisconsin is known not only for cheese, but for beer. And every bike rider knows the importance of staying hydrated. So your Tour de Fromage should include a short side trip along the Sugar River State Trail to New Glarus Brewing Company, about 15 miles north of Monroe.
Here you can take a self-guided tour of the impressive hilltop brewing facility, give your weary legs a rest and kick back with a well-deserved pint of - what else? - Spotted Cow.
Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.