European flavors in a small-town setting
Your tour guides: Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko, are co-authors of Rural Renaissance and ECOpreneuring, and the innkeepers at Inn Serendipity B&B (Browntown, Wisc.). Completely powered by renewable energy and Travel Green Wisconsin certified, Inn Serendipity specializes in local, seasonal, creative breakfast fare featuring their organic produce and local cheeses.
From cheese and beer to Swiss cuisine, Monroe dishes up a day trip filled with a buffet of memorable local foods and flavors. Located in Green County about 45 minutes south of Madison, Monroe offers a savory history lesson in the art of cheese and beer making set against a backdrop of small-town charm and European heritage. With a little forethought as to how you schedule your day, you can immerse yourself in a culinary getaway that gives you the insider experience of how the Monroe community has been crafting artisanal food and drink for over 150 yearsbefore the state of Wisconsin was even a state.
No matter what corner of Green County you enter as you approach Monroe, you'll be greeted by the area's unofficial mascot: grazing dairy cows. Just as these rolling, fertile green hills lured Swiss settlers in the mid-1800s as reminiscent of the Alpine foothills of their homeland, the population of Green County today still boasts more cows than people. To get the full Monroe day-trip experience, tune into the dairy farmer's routine and start your day on the earlier side of the morning.
Detour onto a county back road as you head into Monroe and wave to the backbone of this community: the hard-working dairy farmer out for the morning milking. Look for speedy silver milk tanker trucks on their morning farm stops to pick up the morning milk, much of which gets turned into cheeses. Not surprisingly, the official county mascot is the Swiss Alp boy with his foot on a cheese round.
It's a simple equation in these parts: Milk plus Monroe equals Cheese. Not just "cheese," but "Cheese" with a capital "C," coming from a community where the "Cheesemakers" rule the high school football field and the town population of 10,000 mushrooms to over 100,000 for the biannual Cheese Days festival (the next festival will be Sept. 14-16, 2012). From boasting the last Limburger factory in the country to a variety of award-winning European-style cheeses, Monroe can slice up cheese no matter if you're an aged Gruyere aficionado or more partial to Baby Swiss.
Your early morning start to your day trip will be rewarded with a first stop at the Alp and Dell Cheese Store (608-328-3355), a large, chalet-style building on the north side of town. Here you can readily view the cheese-making operations at the Roth Kase cheese factory through viewing windows and take part in informal, personal tours and Q&A sessions with the friendly staff. Cheese is typically made Monday through Friday in the mornings until late morning; however, the viewing area is open anytime during store hours. Tutored cheese sampling is encouraged at Alp and Dell, with a tempting selection of both Roth Kase cheese and other area specialties. Don't forget to bring a cooler to store your take-home food selections.
After experiencing cheesemaking in action, develop a deeper appreciation for the craft with a stop at the Historic Cheesemaking Center (608-325-4636) a mile further south on Hwy 69. Located in a restored train depot, you'll often find veteran retired cheesemakers volunteering their time to chat cheese and take you through a treasure-trove of historic cheesemaking tools and lore. Here's the place to ask why Swiss cheese has holesand what makes cheese curds squeak.
In true Wisconsin fashion, Monroe provides the ultimate complement to cheese: locally-brewed beer. The country's oldest continually operating brewery established in 1845 (did we mention we Wisconsinites love our beer?), Minhas Craft Brewery, brews award-winning Berghoff, Huber Rhinelander and other fine beers, plus Blumer's Old Fashioned Premium Sodas (our son Liam highly recommends root beer). The brewery offers "Taster's Tours" seven days a week; call 608-325-3191 to reserve a spot. Typical of Monroe, this isn't a quick in-and-out, push-you-through kind of tour. Here you'll get to sniff the hops, rub the brew kettle to ensure a great brew and maybe see a "bunging" as a keg is sealed with a special plug. Tour guides share local stories and legends (ask about the 1855 fire where beer was used to keep the brewery from burning). You can linger at the bar in the Founder's Tap Room, the cozy spot where the tour ends and beer and soda sampling begins.
After all that cheese and beer sampling, take a walk around Monroe's Historic Downtown Square. A historic district on the National Register, the Square surrounds a century-old Romanesque courthouse. The Square remains a hub of the social scene in Monroe. You can stop for a homemade bakery treat at Café Claudeen and the Boomerang Bakery or choose a handmade truffle at Chocolate Temptation. Better yet, have both. For local produce, meats, jams and other locally made goodies, check out the seasonal Farmers' Market on the square on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.
The Square also offers an array of cozy restaurants where you can sample the region's finest fare. The longest operating cheese store in Wisconsin, Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern on the west side of the square, endures as the quintessential tavern where you can get a simple, hearty cheese sandwich and local beer on tap. If you haven't sampled Monroe's Limburger cheese yet, here's your chance. And don't worryit's served with a mint on the side. The Ratskeller Restaurant at Turner Hall, located just south of the Square, tempts you with a variety of Swiss-inspired specialties including röesti potatoes and Käsechüechli, a traditional Swiss cheese and egg baked dish served with seasonal fruit on the side. If you're in town on Friday night, head to the Ratskeller Restaurant for the classic Wisconsin fish fry, complete with local brew in the batter and local farmers often playing the squeezebox, a mini version of the accordion.
Linger and discover all of Green County, exploring the buffet of additional local flavors to savor. Between more cheese to produce to sausage and even some emu, pack an extra cooler for all the goodies you'll want to take home. Be sure to call ahead for retail hours and tour possibilities.
But here's perhaps the most tempting local spot in Monroe: real estate offices. Maybe you, like us when we became permanent cheeseheads from Chicago nearly 15 years ago, will find yourselves never wanting to leave Monroe.