Photo: smcgee, Flickr
Lactose intolerants should skip Milwaukee: this is a city where milk and milky treats dominate local palates and menus. And with good reason, according to Theresa Nemetz of Milwaukee Food Tours. "Originally, the farms in Wisconsin focused on wheat production – the German immigrants had originally come to grow that," she explains, "But then there was a famine because insects ruined that crop, and they turned to dairy because it was a much safer product. " The rich, fertile land was a boon for cattle-rearing, too, adds Wisconsinfoodie.com's Arthur Ircink. "The glaciers had come through here, we're on this natural lake, we have this crazy seasonal cycle – all that makes the dairy thrive."
The milk mountain around Milwaukee led to twin local obsessions: cheese and fudgey chocolate. The Germans who settled in Wisconsin's reassuringly familiar terrain revived their old world artisanal churning skills. "Cheese runs through our veins," Ircink adds, "People here would eat cheese curds with milk for breakfast in the morning. In taste tests, some cheesemakers in Wisconsin beat the whole countries of England or France." For many newcomers, it's a shock how pungent and flavor-packed cheese from Milwaukee might be compared with supermarket brands. "Often when we do tours with students, they're so used to Kraft cheese that when you introduce them to an aged cheddar, they don't even like it," Nemetz warns.
The German dairy farmers supplied cream to a slew of local bakeries, too, and with one on almost any corner, those bakers became experts at turning out sweet treats like fudge and chocolate. Nemetz confesses a guilty fondness for a local delicacy that combines both Milwaukee's dairy-based staples: Chocolate Fudge Cheese – cream cheese with a ribbon of fudge through it. "It has that sweet tooth and wonderful rich, rich cheese that people love."
Read about Milwaukee's cheese, chocolate and more, after the jump.
The eternal debate around Milwaukee brats – Usinger's is the staple brand though Johnsonville sausages are almost as beloved – is simple: what about the beer? Should you marinate them in a craft brew before cooking, or grill them plain and sluice down with a pint or two? Guide Theresa Nemetz plumps for the former, as does Ircink – though he always adds onions, sauteed in beer, as a deliciously sloppy topping.
The city is full of stores dedicated to selling nothing but locally made cheese – take that, Camembert and Danish Blue. The Wisconsin Cheese Mart has almost 200 state-made selections – including Colby, from Colby, Wis. – or try the West Allis Cheese mart. Aged cheddars here can match vintage whiskies, logging up to 15 years maturing and developing moreish studs of salt crystals ribboned through them.
More than any other treat, these odd but delicious balls are uniquely Milwaukee. The best way to try them, according to foodie John Mose, is driving by a cheese factory and stopping off at its store to sample the fresh curds not yet pressed into blocks. "One of its distinguishing characteristics is that it 'squeaks' when you eat it," he advises, "And as it gets less fresh, the squeak becomes less pronounced." If you can't swing by a farm, hit up Larry's Market for ultra-fresh curds ideal for battering and deep-frying.
FRIDAY NIGHT FISH FRY
Sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan, it's not surprising that almost every local restaurant offers a fish fry dinner on Friday nights, usually heavy on cod and perch. "I live next to the Lakefront Brewery and it's amazing, every Friday they almost have to close the street down, there are so many people – I swear," Arthur Ircink confides. For an easier sample, head for Serb Hall, where there's a drive-up.
This thicker, eggy upgrade on ice cream is another dairy treat: stores usually offer three flavors – vanilla, chocolate and a daily special -- that can be mixed with chunky blends-in. Theresa Nemetz recommends a Grasshopper Fudge (vanilla studded with mint thins and chunks of brownies) from Kopps though Gilles comes a close second.
The highlight of the Milwaukee Public Market is this iconic candy firm, that has been hand dipping chocolate goodies for 80 years.
THE NORTHERN CHOCOLATE COMPANY
Another sweet-toothed staple on the foodie circuit, run by a reassuringly eccentric onetime employee of the now-defunct Ambrosia chocolate factory. "He makes you take your shoes off when you come into the store, and might kick you out if you do something wrong," laughs Ircink, "And he doesn't allow furs in his store." PETA members can enjoy the chocolate and conversation equally.
Miller Bakery's specialty – "a beautiful puffy bun that has a crustier, chewier top than most," says Ircink, joking "Seriously, you could put a human hand on one of these buns and it would taste delicious.