We visited my mother-in-law over New Year’s weekend in Rib Mountain, Wisconsin, where we celebrated her 84th birthday. If you’re unfamiliar with Rib Mountain, it is known for its ski slopes on Granite Peak (originally called Rib Mountain) and its ice fishing on Lake Wausau. We knew we had arrived in northern Wisconsin when we stopped for gas in Cadott, halfway between Rib Mountain and the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Hanging from pegboards in the shop aisles were retractable ice picks for pulling yourself out of holes in the ice (should you fall in), as well as ice tip-ups (flags) that pop up to tell you when you’ve hooked a fish.
Located near Wausau about an hour away from the home of the Green Bay Packers in north central Wisconsin, Rib Mountain is a beautiful area studded with forests and lakes, hiking paths, and snowmobile trails. Winters are long and cold, so you learn to dress for the weather. When we arrived at John’s mother’s house, the wind chill factor was -17 degrees. Needless to say, the weather is always a topic of conversation in northern Wisconsin. Before we returned to Iowa, we pulled out our iPhones to check the weather app. Roads close during blizzards when there are whiteout conditions, or when the roads are completely ice-covered. Checking the forecast won’t change the weather, but it prevents you from getting stuck.
Snow showers were forecast in the vicinity of Minneapolis, the edges of which we normally cross on our way home. To avoid the prospect of icy roads, we headed straight south on Interstate 39 from north central Wisconsin. This added about an hour to our usual seven-hour drive home, but we consoled ourselves with the thought that the road less traveled often yields unexpected surprises. That’s when we saw it—the unexpected, that is—in Windsor, Wisconsin as we stopped for gas. Across the street was a tiny building topped by a jaunty mouse.
Who could resist The Mousehouse Cheesehaus, especially in Wisconsin, the Land of Cheese, where Green Bay Packer fans are fondly referred to as Cheeseheads? Besides, it was dinnertime and we knew we’d find something tasty inside. While our orders for ham and chicken salad sandwiches were being filled, John and I browsed the aisles. In the cold case we discovered a Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese Spread. A second stop at the sausage tasting counter netted us a 1-1/2 pound log of Old Wisconsin Beef Summer Sausage. As we rounded the corner, a glass case with 23 different homemade fudges caught our eye. Buying four squares of fudge and getting two free ones was a no-brainer. It was tough to narrow down our choices to Chocolate Walnut, Rocky Road and Dark Chocolate Caramel Toffee, but we got the job done. If you’re diabetic, they even offer two types of fudge made with sucrose-free chocolate.
After we returned home, we visited the Web site for The Mousehouse, and discovered that it has garnered various awards. The Swiss & Almond Cheddar Cheese spread, for example, which uses a white cheddar base, earned 1st place in the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship. The summer sausage logs are hand-tied and made in what is called the “old style Wisconsin tradition.” I’m not sure what that means, but I can tell you it tastes much better than my grocery store’s summer sausage!
The cheeses that you buy at The Mousehouse are purchased from 19 different cheese-making factories in Wisconsin, each with its own specialty. What makes these cheeses so special is that many of them are crafted by Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, a distinction earned by only 51 cheesemaker artisans in the state. The title is earned by graduating from a three-year apprenticeship program administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison by the Center for Dairy Research, whose standards are more rigorous than any other cheesemaker certification program in the nation. Veteran cheesemakers can enter the program only if they have a minimum of 10 years of cheese-making experience. Five of those years must be in the specialization of up to two different cheeses, which is the maximum number of cheeses in which an artisan can be certified each time he or she enters the three-year program. During that time, candidates take required courses in cheese technology, artisanship, grading and quality assurance. They select from a set of elective courses that include applied dairy chemistry, water and waste management, and whey and whey utilization. Finally, apprentice cheesemaker artisans submit samples of cheese for taste and consistency evaluations, and pass a final written exam.
The tradition of cheese-making in Wisconsin goes back more than 160 years, when Europeans first arrived in America and sought the best environmental conditions for crafting cheese. They found it in Wisconsin’s pastures and limestone-filtered waters, perfect for the cows whose milk begins the process of cheese-making. You can learn about The Art of Cheesemaking in the fascinating 12-minute-or-so video shown below, produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension Office.
Making unplanned stops when you travel definitely produces surprising discoveries. You can bet we’ll visit The Mousehouse in the future, either in person or online.
© 2017 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.