Recently, I spent some time in Door County, Wisconsin. If you enjoy vacationing near water and around farmlands, businesses in Door County open their doors to you. And I’ll get to all that in another story. This story demonstrates how travel enriches our lives even after we are back at home.
This Door County experience could take place during any season, but it’s so ‘fresh’ in my mind, I want to share it now. Perhaps you will also create a festive event based on your Door County adventures after you return home.
Do you remember the scene in the movie about Truman Capote, Infamous, where Capote is in a small, country grocery store in Kansas, and he asks for cheese. Another customer directs him to a towering display of sunny-yellow boxes of Velveeta. He asks if that’s the only choice, which elicits the reply, “what more do you need?”
Well, that is definitely not the attitude toward cheese in Door County, Wisconsin!
Door County consists of a collection of small villages that each offers visitors various vacation opportunities such as fishing, boating, hiking, cross country skiing - – rural, even rugged type stuff. But, mixed with all that, you will also find fascinating shopping opportunities that do not include a Starbucks on every corner, cookie-cutter shopping malls, nor fast food outlets. The entrepreneurs, the citizens of Door County, go all out to ensure that visitors enjoy memorable, and dare I say it, unique opportunities for shopping and entertainment. Especially if shopping IS your entertainment.
Egg Harbor! All Ashore! Visit the Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese Shop!
Enter Egg Harbor; population less than 300 with about 80 families making up that count. “Egg” is a small dot on the Google road map. The business center, for the most part, is found at the intersection of Egg Harbor Road and Horseshoe Bay Drive. You are right on the water, and on this winter day, the winds off Green Bay were at 24°F and filled with giant snowflakes falling sideways!
Several distinctive businesses, including a microbrewery-pub and an artist shop-egg museum, frame this corner. But time was limited, the day was late, it was 4:30 pm, and shops were about to close.
And I was hungry.
Out of the gusts of snow, what to my wondering eyes should appear… the Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese shop. Cheese monger, jovial Peter Kordon, welcomed me and a two other very chilled cheese aficionados into his small shop. He probably thought, “Damn, more tourists escaping the cold. My day is done. I was on my way home.”
If he thought that, each of us soon changed his mind.
Little did I know that I was standing in one of the finest cheese emporiums in Wisconsin. And little did I know that Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese is the purveyor of the widest selection of famous, handmade, award winning, family-farm Wisconsin artisanal cheeses around. They even feature several varieties of cheese for which they are the sole outlet.
Within seconds, the two strangers and I were sampling slivers of many of the different cheeses artistically displayed in Kordon’s cooler like the crown jewels of Wisconsin. We tasted. We savored. We gloated about the pleasure these flavors wrapped around our tongues. And then (as Kordon hoped), we actually bought quantities of fantastic Wisconsin handmade artisan cheeses.
Now living near Dallas, I have access to some fine specialty stores – even cheese shops. Since I do not travel to Wisconsin often though, I recognized this as an opportunity to treat myself and some friends to truly great American cheeses. Much of what was for sale I’ve not seen in Dallas, perhaps because it’s made in such small quantities.
Eureka! Chef de la maison that I tend to be, with the grand selection of cheeses before me, I hatched (it was Egg Harbor after all!) the idea of a small dinner party of four to six guests. Fine wines. Nibbles. And the main course would be cheese! Handmade Wisconsin artisanal cheese – fresh off the local farms. Aged to perfection, of course.
I tasted. I pondered. I allowed the different flavors time to develop and excite my taste buds.
First was a large slice of Marieke’s 32 Month Old Gouda from the Holland’s Family Farm ($38.00/pound). The Marieke had a smooth texture that pleased us all. Many high quality, aged Goudas are significantly more firm than the Marieke version, yet the satisfying crystals, well distributed through the slice, delivered a flavor of finely aged brandy.
Then, awed by its uniqueness, a Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra Aged from Uplands Cheese ($31.99/pound). The Reserve has been named #1 cheese in America, though I did not know that at the time of purchase. Pleasant Ridge Reserve’s velvet like texture is as pleasant as its name. Subtly flavored, it is a quality, strong cheese that diners who shun pungent cheeses will enjoy. It is justifiably a multi-award winner.
Third was a moist tranche of Mobay ($21.99/pound). The name Mobay is a play on words between the French Morbier cheese and Green Bay. Instead of using morning milk and afternoon milk (what does the country of 600 cheeses know), Wisconsin’s Carr Valley folks use the traditional grape vine ash layer, which imparts its own flavor, to separate a goat’s milk cheese from a sheep’s milk cheese. This masterful goat and sheep cheese combination of Mobay delivered complementary flavors, delicately distinguished by color and texture.
Finally, the Hope Diamond in this selection was the “limited season” Rush Creek Reserve farmstead cheese from Upland Cheese ($28.99/four inch wheel), which may make you think camembert or brie, though its flavors differ greatly from its French cousins. Wrapped in a band of spruce-tree bark for additional flavoring, Rush mirrors its French cousins in shape only. Frankly, its inspiration is a French Vacherin Mont d’Or. Interestingly, the spruce bark adds a tasty woody flavor to the spread, not an evergreen acidity that one might presume.
Seventy-five dollars did not seem too much for a festive, spontaneous dinner party. And it all fit in my carry-on suitcase. So, unlike with wine or spirits, I did not have to pay a checked-bag fee to the airlines.
Cheese as a Main-Course Dinner
Back in Dallas, three close friends immediately came to mind to invite to my avant-garde, cheese as a main-course dinner: one friend, Steven, who could survive on a diet of cheese, and two other friends, Diane and Bill Teitelbaum, she being a world renowned wine taster. I called them, suggested the dinner – at the Teitelbaum house. Diane would supply wines, fruits and dessert. My partner, my cheese-head friend and I provided some local artisan baguettes and crackers. To that I added a selection of olives, pickled sweet peppers, and dolmas. For the carnivore in each of us, I included a Columbus brand Sopressata and a Peppered Salami.
Diane Teitelbaum’s Wine Selections
When we arrived at the Teitelbaum’s home, the first wine was waiting is a crystal decanter; a Château Verdignan, Cru Bourgeois, Haut Medoc, 2001. This served as our apéritif while we prepared dinner. The tannins had perfectly mellowed in their 10 years in the bottle, and this Bordeaux was plum-fruity with a lasting fresh finish.
We prepared a colorful platter with our cheeses surrounded by clusters of green grapes. A wooden cutting board served for slicing and serving the sausages. Diane prepared a small plate with slices of red and green apples and a sliced pear. Another cut crystal serving piece served up the selection of olives. Three additional bowls held thin slices of two different baguettes and some crackers. Crystal wine glasses glistened in the dimmed dining room light and the flickering candles.
We proceeded to open two more red wines to round out this wine and cheese repast: a La Sirena, 1996 Sangiovese from Juliana Vineyards in Napa Valley, and a Chalk Hill 2002 Estate Bottled Merlot from Russian River Valley.
And we savored the individual cheeses, sipped the wines and rounded out the meal with the olives and sliced sausages, and then we went back for more - we supped like royalty. We discussed our individual interpretations of the flavors and textures of each cheese and compared these Wisconsin artisan cheeses with other similar cheeses we have tasted.
The wheel of Rush Creek Reserve was attacked by each of us, and was the first to disappear. Though each of the cheeses we ate was at room temperature when placed on the cheese tray, the Rush Creek had been warmed slightly in the oven. Peeling off the top croûte revealed a smooth, thick cream with the consistency of perfectly aged brie. We used a small spoon to scoop small dollops of the Rush onto the crackers and slices of baguettes.
We might have been a bit melancholy as the empty cheese tray was returned to the kitchen; this night’s dinner with great friends was so unusual and about to end.
The great wines could well have been dessert. But Wisconsin cheese influenced Diane’s choice - a simple, lemony mascarpone cheese cake with fresh blueberries and whipped cream on the side.
We laughed at our own ”decadence”. We pooh-poohed the future looks our friends would give us when we discussed our main-course dinner of Wisconsin cheeses. And we said “good night”.
This Egg Harbor idea had ’hatched’ into a memorable dining event.
Photos courtesy of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese and the author.