With its deep river valleys, steep bluffs, and some of the world’s most highly decorated cheeses and cheesemakers—this is Wisconsin’s Driftless region. Untouched by glaciers that passed over Wisconsin more than 10,000 years ago, the southwest corner of The State of Cheese boasts an undulated topography unique to the rest of the Midwest. Instead of being host to endless flat prairies attractive to large agricultural practices, rolling hills in the Driftless Area have afforded smaller farms and creameries the space to thrive, resulting in artisan cheeses that taste as unique as the land itself.
A Taste of Place
Cold water streams, limestone bedrock and incredible vistas are iconic Driftless region features. They combine with other regional characteristics to create what’s known as terroir. A French term that means “taste of place,” terroir is defined as the environmental conditions—soil and climate—thought to give local food a distinct or enhanced flavor (similar to the famous wine regions of Bordeaux and Champagne in France). Cheesemakers in the Driftless credit the local landscape as crucial to the milk’s flavor, and, for some, it also inspires the place used to age many of the region’s artisanal cheeses.
Perhaps it’s why the most-awarded cheese in American history resides here. Crafted by Head Cheesemaker Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Company, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is notably named after the land formation on which the farm sits. It’s made only in the summer from grass-fed raw milk as cows amble and graze upon the area’s lush pastures abundant with herbs, wildflowers and grasses. In turn, this land lends complex and sweet flavors to the milk used to make this aged, alpine-style cheese that’s rich and salty with a long, fruity finish—and coveted worldwide by cheese connoisseurs.
There are caves in the Driftless, too. Natural, stalactite-studded caverns, as well as man-made caves built to precisely control the temperature, humidity and environment for aging cheese. Cave-like inspired ripening rooms create an atmosphere for affinage that enhances the cheese's earthy nuances and complex flavors. Hook’s® Cheese Company in picturesque Mineral Point ages their artisan cheeses in curing caves. Each batch of cheddar is taste tested to ensure that only the highest quality cheeses continue through the aging process. The best cheddars are aged a decade or more, such as 2006 American Cheese Society First Place winner Hook’s 10-Year-Sharp Cheddar. If you want an even rarer cheese experience, a limited batch of Hook’s 20-Year-Sharp Cheddar will be available in May 2023.
Flavored with Heritage
In the mid-19th century, cheesemakers from Germany and Scandinavia were the first immigrant groups to realize the potential of the Driftless Area. Bringing with them Old-World cheesemaking techniques and recipes from Europe, this long-standing heritage is often recognized as another reason this area is a powerhouse of cheesemaking expertise and creativity. After all, there aren’t many other places in the U.S. that possess a hundred-year history of dairy farming and an assemblage of families with four generations of cheesemaking know-how.
Meet Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, owner of Roelli Cheese Haus—his family has been making cheese in Lafayette County since the 1920s when Swiss native Adolph Roelli settled in the area. Today, Chris makes artisan cheeses like the 2023 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest Best of Class winner Roelli Haus Select Cheddar, 2014 and 2017 American Cheese Society winner Dunbarton Blue®, 2022 World Championship Cheese and 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contests Best of Class winner Red Rock, and 2016 American Cheese Society Best of Show winner Little Mountain.
Cheesemaking families like the Roelli family have cultivated a well-connected network, which offers information, encourages experimentation and shares resources with other area cheesemakers. What does this unique collaboration mean for cheese lovers? Amazing artisan cheeses from the Driftless region continue to evolve and delight.
A Driftless Cheese Champion
Some say the Driftless Area is a well-kept secret. But that’s something Executive Chef Luke Zahm, owner of the Driftless Café in Viroqua and new venture The Owl Farm, and the host of television’s Wisconsin Foodie, is working to change.
“The café was started with the intention of it being the authority on local food, beverage and service,” says Luke. “I wanted to spotlight our region’s local farmers and food producers.” The majority of the café’s budget, 72%, is spent in a 90-mile radius of the restaurant—a stat Luke is proud of.
“Local cheese is a medium we can use to tell a story,” Luke explains. “It allows us to converse about who we are as food artisans, cheesemakers, and farmers and, hopefully, grow an awareness of the Midwest that differs from the version that many people have.”
For Luke, the Driftless provides inspiration and delectable fodder for his locally sourced menu, which includes a cheese plate with rotating cheeses like Carr Valley Creama Kasa®, Roelli Red Rock, Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Hook’s Blue Paradise, as well as other specialty cheeses from Wisconsin like BelGioioso’s Fresh Mozzarella. Wood-fired pizzas featuring unique cheeses like Carr Valley Glacier Penta Crème™ are also popular customer favorites.
You throw me in a cheese shop, and I’m a kid in a candy store,” shares Luke. “It’s an opportunity to play with different textures and styles, and inevitably I come across a unique cheese that helps to shape the menu.
And living in the Driftless supplies Luke with an almost endless supply of delicious muses. “Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese is the most-awarded cheesemaker in North America. He’s the Willy Wonka of cheesemaking, and he’s here in this quiet pocket of Wisconsin,” Luke says excitedly. “Pleasant Ridge Reserve is always a staple…and I know people are taken aback whenever we put any of Chris Roelli’s cheeses on our cheese board. Then there’s Roth Cheese. Their Grand Cru® Surchoix was crowned World Champion in the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest. As a Wisconsin chef, that’s such a point of swagger.”
Take a tasty trip to the Driftless region without leaving your home by trying unique cheeses from the area and these recipes.