MADISON, Wis.— It’s hard to say what Wisconsin is best known for these days — its cheese or its politics. This has traditionally been a dairy state, but recently, hotly debated gubernatorial decisions and strong anti-union policies, in a state where unions have serious clout, have ignited a frenzy of political protest. Voters hoping to unseat Governor Scott Walker pushed for a recall election, set to take place June 5.
The state capitol towers over a narrow little store called Fromagination, where an uproar of the edible variety is taking place. Owner Ken Monteleone, 49, is on a mission to showcase Wisconsin’s many local artisanal cheese producers. “Fifteen years ago, small-batch artisan-made cheeses from Wisconsin weren’t really being recognized outside of this state,” says Monteleone. By putting them into the spotlight, Monteleone is hoping to change the way consumers think about Wisconsin cheese. Last year, Fromagination was named an Outstanding Retailer by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.
Wisconsin, with its green hills and sprawling pastures, was home at one time to thousands of cheese factories, producing Colby, brick, and cheddar blocks sold in supermarkets around the country. “There are a lot of places you can buy cheese,” says Monteleone, “but no one was really bringing to life the [cheesemakers’] story.”
Monteleone decided he is the one to do this. A slim man with close-cropped dark hair and a shy, crooked smile, he radiates nervous energy that turns into pride as he tours the shop. With its dark wood and iron ceiling fans propelled by a rope-and-pulley system, Fromagination has the ambience of an old-world chalet. Floor tiles, which look like ancient stone, are recycled roof tiles from an abandoned building. His goal was to reflect the ethos of Madison, says Monte-leone, “stylish, but not offensive to anyone.”
Many customers in the crowded shop are wearing blue-and-red protest T-shirts with the “Reclaim Wisconsin” slogan.
In a long display sit 100 or so cheeses, many crafted within a 45-mile radius. There’s Dunbarton Blue from Roelli Cheese, a crumbly white cheddar shot with veins of blue mold; generous slices of creamy raw-milk Gouda studded with fenugreek seeds from Holland Family Farms; Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, which cheesemaker Willi Lehner ages in a cave in the hills of Blue Mounds; Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Co., made from seasonal raw milk only when the cows are grazed on pasture. Monteleone unabashedly declares Pleasant Ridge the best cheese in the country.
Wisconsin’s reputation as the nation’s top dairy producer began to founder in 1993, the year California surpassed Wisconsin as the country’s leading milk producer. In the mid-2000s, after several large-scale dairy operations closed in Wisconsin, California launched an ad campaign about their happy cows. One commercial featured a cow named Kirsten shivering in the middle of a snowstorm, begging, in a pronounced Midwestern accent, to “become the next happy California cow.”
With factory-produced cheese losing its vice grip on the market, smaller-scale Wisconsin cheesemakers found the land to create their labels. In 2006, Marieke Penterman moved to Wisconsin from the Netherlands to open Holland Family Farms. Despite her first-ever batch of Foenegreek Gouda winning a top national award, Penterman had trouble getting visibility until she met Monteleone. “Without people like Ken, the magic wouldn’t happen,” says Penterman.
Monteleone grew up in tiny Trinidad, Colo., on the New Mexico border, watching his mother bake fresh bread, an uncle make goat cheese, and his father and uncles make wine and sausages. Food, he says, “was always the center of everything.” After college, in a career as a footwear buyer, and travels through Europe, “I found myself more excited about going to the food stores than to the shoe stores.”
The next stage, he decided, was to open the shop in 2007. It was an immediate success. But the cheesemonger was dealing with a personal crisis: His partner of 15 years was undergoing treatment for leukemia; he died in 2008. “I really lost sight of everything. It was not becoming healthy,” says Monteleone. “I gained a lot of weight.” He knew he had to change. That led to a new, healthier attitude, and, eventually, to running a marathon.
The focus at Fromagination, says Monteleone, is creating an experience. Staff is briefed on the history of each cheese, the cheesemakers, and what customers can expect to taste. Matt, a Fromagination employee with a bushy beard, hands out a cube of Dunbarton Blue to a patron. “It’s got the forward tang of the cheddar with the saltiness of the blue cheese,” he explains.
The customer, a woman with a hard-set face, chews thoughtfully. “Not as bad as I expected,” she offers.
Matt chuckles. “OK, we can work with that.”
The anti-Walker protests hurt sales last year. Monteleone says people were focused on protesting, and the crowds discouraged others. Things seem different now.
Matt goes to the back of the store to speak with Monteleone. “I’ve got some people that want to buy cheese, and then go protest, and then come back to pick it up. Is it cool if we keep their cheese in the walk-in?”
It’s cool, says the boss, unfazed. That this store, which connects its customers so profoundly to the source of their food, should find its place among those shouting for change outside, seems fitting.
Cristin Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.