By Katie Rolnick
Madisonians often lay claim to the contested honor of having the most restaurants per capita. Whether apocryphal or not, the sentiment reflects the central role food plays in this Midwestern capital city. As a Madison native, a visit home for me always evokes a sort of a happy anxiety—so much to eat, so little time.
With a renowned university drawing students and faculty from more than 130 countries, the city's restaurants benefit from this cultural hodgepodge. Top-notch Afghani, Nepalese, and Ethiopian cuisine is easy to find.
And then there's what I fondly call the Wisconsin trifecta: beer, sausage, and cheese, perfect food for those cold winter days when you cannot walk outside without a balaclava.
Here's a sampling of the best, uniquely-Madisonian things I look forward to eating and drinking every time I return to the city I grew up in:
Limburger cheese from Chalet Cheese Cooperative:
Limburger is the durian fruit of cheeses. So I was prepared for the walloping aroma at Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wis., about an hour south of Madison. Mustachioed master cheesemaker Myron Olson helms Chalet, the only domestic producer of this classic Belgian style. (Wisconsin is the lone state that requires a cheesemaking license, and certified makers with a decade of experience who complete rigorous requirements can earn master status.) Myron washes his Limburger in the same cultures used when the co-op was founded in 1885, propagating the bacteria after each batch. The resulting Limburger has a creamy texture and buttery, full flavor—hardly the cheese's infamous reputation. While Chalet's Limburger can be found elsewhere, it's best straight from the tiny, factory-front cooler.
Chalet Cheese Cooperative
N4858 Hwy N
Monroe, WI 53566
Moon Man from New Glarus Brewing Company:
Take in southern Wisconsin's serene rolling hills on the short drive to New Glarus, Wis., about 30 miles southwest of Madison, where husband and wife team Daniel and Deb Carey craft their eponymous beer. Founded in 1993 in an abandoned warehouse, the Careys opened a second facility just up the road in 2007. Deb designed the expansive brewery with tours in mind; I could spend all day watching the packaging process, where lines of bottles flip, bob, spiral, and spin like dancers in a Busby Berkeley musical. Then I come to my senses and head to the tasting room. Dan has racked up copious accolades, including being named the Great American Beer Festival's Brewer of the Year—twice. Which makes it hard to pick a favorite. I last visit on a drizzly, grey day, and Moon Man, a bright, balanced hoppy ale, was the perfect antidote. Sound good? Head to Wisconsin, because that's the only place you can find New Glarus' brews. Seriously. They don't distribute outside the state.
New Glarus Brewing Company
2400 State Hwy 69
New Glarus, WI 53574
Mocha macchiato ice cream from Babcock Hall Dairy Store:
Although Madisonians could probably store gallons of ice cream in their backyards for nine months out of the year, that doesn't keep them away from the Babcock Hall Dairy Store. Students and faculty from UW's Food Science department and scientists with the Center for Dairy Research call Babcock Hall home. The rest of us just enjoy the fruits of their labor. The store offers seasonal specialty flavors, but some staples are (almost) always on the menu. If you've been in Madison for a few days and feel yourself reaching rich-and-creamy capacity, opt for the mocha macchiato. Roasty coffee ice cream and chunks of dark chocolate offset gooey ribbons of caramel. And be forewarned: Babcock gives you Madison's version of a single scoop, which would be called a pile anywhere else.
Babcock Hall Dairy Store
1605 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53703
White chicken chili from Hubbard Ave Diner:
Servers at this bustling, modern diner wear shirts with cheeky pictograms, like "I heart pi" or "piece of pi." (Full disclosure: my sister dons one of those shirts.) Yep, the place is known for its pie—everything from apple to coconut cream to Kentucky derby. On weekends, hungry locals ogle the bakery cases while waiting for a table. But Hubbard also has a huge menu of fresh takes on classic diner fare. The white chicken chili is a surefire choice: juicy pieces of meat, garbanzo and white beans swim in a tangy, tomato-based sauce that's so thick I usually alternate between a fork and a spoon. Don't worry if you're too full for dessert: they do pies to go.
Hubbard Avenue Diner and Bakery
7445 Hubbard Avenue
Middleton, WI 53562
Shallot Confit with Red Wine from Quince and Apple:
The brainchild of another couple, Clare and Matt Stoner Fehsenfeld, Quince and Apple makes artisan preserves and cocktail syrups. Their approach is in step with the current fervor for simplicity. Ingredient lists read like short-form culinary verse. People fawn over their subtle Figs and Black Tea preserve—black tea, dried figs, sugar, lemon juice, pectin—and rightly so. But I couldn't get enough of the Shallot Confit with Red Wine. Sweet and savory work in harmony in this chunky spread. I like it piled on hunks of bleu cheese (obviously) and crispy bread, but you could also use it to class up a roasted turkey sandwich.
Quince and Apple
Available online and at various Madison-area stores
Aged Brick from Widmer's Cheese Cellars:
Joe Widmer is a third-generation cheesemaker who works out of the same teensy weensy plant his Swiss grandparents bought when they landed in Theresa, Wis., in 1922. Widmer's makes a standout brick cheese, named for the traditional curd-pressing method. Widmer, a genial man with an endearing Wisconsin accent, squeezes the moisture from his curds with the same bricks his grandfather purchased 80 years ago. After the blocks bathe in brine, they spend a week curing. Then the cheese ages in a foil wrap. The result is a bold flavor that won't be overshadowed by pumpernickel bread, raw onion, and spicy mustard, the state's traditional brick trimmings. Widmer's also blends its aged brick with cheddar to make an addictive spread deservingly dubbed "cheese crack" by those in the know.
Widmer's Cheese Cellars
214 W. Henni St.
Theresa, WI 53091
You may be familiar with Uplands Cheese, which has sifted and winnowed the cheesemaking process down to its mind-alteringly delicious essence. For more than a decade, Uplands has been committed to making Alpine-style cheeses using only raw milk from its pasture-fed cows. During the summer months, when the cows eat fresh grass, cheesemaker Andy Hatch curds, cultures, and cajoles their milk into Pleasant Creek Reserve, an aged, washed-rind variety (thrice named best in show by the American Cheese Society) with seemingly ceaseless layers of flavor. When hay replaces grass in the fall, Hatch uses the cows' milk to make Rush Creek Reserve, a decadent, super-soft cheese. That's it, just two styles done incredibly well.
5023 State Rd. 23 North
Dodgeville, WI 53533
Available online and at specialty cheese stores throughout the country
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