When you step into Baumgartner's Cheese Store & Tavern in Monroe, Wis., a small sign above an inner doorway proudly proclaims, "Through this portal you can get the best cheese sandwiches in the world."
It's no idle boast.
Monroe has been synonymous with cheese since Swiss immigrants settled there in the 1800s and began producing--what else?--Swiss cheese. Local producers also churned out vast quantities of Limburger, and soon overtook New York as the nation's main supplier of this pungent cheese. By 1910, some 200 small cheese factories dotted this part of America's Dairyland--about one every other mile. In 1926, Ray Kubly started The Swiss Colony, America's first mail-order cheese company and Monroe's largest employer today.
The number of local dairy farms and cheese factories has declined since then (only 12 factories remain in surrounding Green County, three in Monroe), but the town's Swiss legacy and can-do attitude is strong--strong enough in fact that Monroe was ranked 13th in Norman Crampton's book, The 100 Best Small Towns in America (Prentice Hall, 1995).
America's only Limburger cheese plant still is located here, as is the only U.S. plant making Swiss cheese in wheels, rather than today's standard blocks. The 80,000 dairy cows grazing the county's verdant hills dwarf its human population of 33,000, and Monroe and Green County actually produce more cheese than ever--an estimated 48 million pounds annually--much of it by descendants of the original Swiss settlers.
Specialty cheeses now rule. Besides Swiss and Limburger, the region produces Havarti, Gouda, Gruyere, Fontina, Edam, Feta, Jarlsberg, Gorgonzola, and other types Ñ all the result of heating milk to separate liquid (whey) from solids (curds). The curds are molded into cheese, with 10 pounds of milk needed to make a pound of cheese. Bacteria gives cheese its unique flavor and characteristics.
Monroe's railroad depot, once the shipping point of origin for millions of pounds of cheese, lay derelict for years until 1995, when it was renovated into the town's Historic Cheesemaking Center. Exhibits and artifacts, such as copper vats and kettles once used to heat milk for cheesemaking, now chronicle the local cheese and Swiss heritage. Retired cheese dealer Doran Zwygart, a third-generation Monroe resident and amateur historian, is one of the center's volunteers who explains to visitors how bacteria produces gas that creates the holes, or "eyes," in Swiss cheese.
"You don't want too many eyes, too few, too big, or too little," Zwygart says. "Eyes should glisten, and not be dull." (Dull eyes indicate an off-flavor.)
Cheesemaking was hard, physical labor before mechanization in the 1950s, says Sue Disch, president of Historic Monroe Inc. Workers regularly hoisted 200-pound cheese wheels, and had to pull up enormous, dripping nets of curd from the liquid whey. "That's why our high school team is called the Cheesemakers," she says with pride. "In the old days, you'd never want to mess with a cheesemaker."
Besides operating the Historic Cheesemaking Center, Monroe celebrates its heritage by holding Cheese Days every even-numbered year, a festival whose origins date back to 1873. More than 200,000 people cram into the city of 10,000 for the three-day blow-out, set Sept. 15-17 this year, where visitors can nosh on cheese, cream puffs and fried cheese curds, tour dairy farms and cheese factories, try their hand at milking cows, and listen to authentic Swiss entertainers.
More than a few stop in at Baumgartner's, which has been serving its famous cheese sandwiches since 1931. If you're brave enough to order one, try the traditional Limburger with onions and mustard on rye bread. Don't worry: It comes with a mint.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.