Madison Wisconsin-at the Pearly Gates of a culinary revolution

Madison Farmers Market

Madison Farmers Market temptations - Photo credit: Kimberly Winter Stern

Earlier this summer I took a short trip to Madison, Wisconsin, packing an attitude as casual as the clothing in my suitcase. I remember thinking—smugly—that a typical college town awaited me: the well-respected University of Wisconsin, a clutch of good restaurants, some hipsters and a party vibe.  Oh—and the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, cozying up to the shores of Lake Mendota and Lake Menona; his ballyhooed summer home, Taliesin, a picturesque 38-mile jaunt from Madison’s epicenter.

Madison – The Unexpected
So imagine my surprise when I find myself standing at the pearly gates of a culinary revolution in the Dairy State’s capital.

Indeed, Madison crawls with academics, liberals, conservatives and the rabid Badger fan. Shops carry the Velveeta-colored triangle of pockmarked foam that many a Green Bay Packer fan sports after a few brewskies (Wisconsin craft beer, no doubt).  Friday Night Fish Fry’s are a traditional staple at restaurants around town.

What I didn’t expect is Madison’s curious juxtaposition:  a food-centric city whose shiny, modern-day veneer sidles up to its old-world heritage, with people earnestly making food with the same care their German and Swiss ancestors did two centuries ago.

Madison is a quirky collision of old-world sensibilities co-mingling with the pop culture of the ubiquitous Wisconsin Cheesehead.

Madison Farmers Market beckons you

Madison Farmers Market beckons you - Photo credit: Kimberly Winter Stern

Strolling the Farmer’s Market
On a brilliant Saturday morning, I feasted on a basket of plump Door County cherries while strolling through the country’s largest farmers’ market and simultaneously get a healthy dose of politics (the market rings the capitol building’s perimeter, and protestors and producers mingle amicably).  I met a corporate executive-turned-chocolatier whose origin-sourced product has been called the Holy Grail of Chocolate. At night I savored meals in big-city-ambience restaurants that trot out symphonies of artisan breads, beers, meats and produce.

And the real thing—wedges of cheddar, rounds of Gruyere, logs of goat cheese—is served, sold and revered everywhere.

Fromagination – Cheese Meets Innovation
In a town where cheese is king, there is one cheese shop that stands alone—Ken Monteleone’s Fromagination.  Located on Capitol Square, across the street from the weekly market and the revolving door of demonstrations and protesters, the diminutive store is one of the sexiest European-style cheese shops I’ve encountered this side of the Atlantic. I’m drawn in through an exterior that beckons like Juliette Binochet’s entrancing shop in “Chocolat.”

Cheesy delights at Fromagination

Cheesy delights at Fromagination - Photo credit: Kimberly Winter Stern

Fromagination’s interior is Pottery Barn-meets-salon-cheese; almost wedge-shaped in design, the store is a bounty of dairy inspiration.  There are pristine coolers loaded with beautifully styled mounds of Wisconsin cheeses, including award winners and boutique varieties.  Rough-hewn wood shelves are stocked to the ceiling with crackers and spreads and accouterments for enjoying cheese. Stylish and captivating, the store is crammed with shoppers, but it feels spacious, maneuverable.  Customers are quietly whispering, tasting, soaking in.

The employees—no doubt fueled by Monteleone’s passion—are downright evangelical about Wisconsin cheese, plucking this sample for a customer, that jam for another, a box of crackers for a group of professional tasters and assisting a newfound recruit:  me.

I felt myself swooning as I carefully made my way to the back of the store, my nose twitching at the heady smell of aged cheese, my mind on overdrive. I imagined the fondue parties I could have with this stuff—the Mother Lode of Wisconsin.  The cheese trays I could style for cocktail soirees.  The salads, soups and even desserts enhanced by this cheese, these breadsticks, that chutney.

When I reached the back of Fromagination—which in real time could take a minute, but in culinary fantasyland took me the better half of a delicious hour—I realized that this is where the magic happens, where Monteleone, a former Lands’ End corporate executive, is the magician.   Fromagination

Rather than pulling a hapless rabbit from a black top hat, this guy makes pure fromagination. He mixes the alchemy of old-world cheese producers with a contemporary patina of tasting, experiencing and learning about artisan cheese.  Standing beside a communal table where shoppers are lifting glass domes and skewering chunks of cheese, Monteleone begins his sermon.

I stood there, rapt, making mental notes as Monteleone talks about the provenance of the cheeses he handpicks for Fromagination.  As he talks about pairing different cheese personalities with wine, beer and jams and mustards, customers make notes on brochures they plucked from stands at the store’s front counter, on the palms of their hands, on airline ticket documents.  Like me, they’re anxious to capture, remember, learn from Monteleone’s remarks that have very little to do with the marketing of Fromagination and more about a way of life and producing food that has been revived by artisans.

As I stepped away from the cluster of newly-crowned cheeseheads at Fromagination and prepared to continue my tour of Madison—a Fish Fry is on my agenda tonight and cocktails and amuse bouche at a big-city-hip French restaurant followed by dinner at a contemporary farm-to-table restaurant tomorrow—I took with me Monteleone’s passions.

The Lure of the “New” Madison
Everything old becomes new again in Madison—the cheese-making and food artisans of the past blend with today’s enthusiasm for preserving a heritage, a process, a way of life that is good … very, very good.  It’s part history lesson, part imagination, part culinary revolution in Madison, and it fits the city as snugly as a foam cheesehead cradles the noggin of a football fan.

More Information
Visiting Madison
Places to Eat in Madison
Visiting Wisconsin

Visiting Door County

Kimberly Winter SternGuest writer, Kimberly Winter Stern is an Overland Park, Kan.-based freelance writer . She writes about travel, food, lifestyle and design. Also known as the gregarious and cuisine-informed Kim Dishes to listeners tuning in weekly for her on-the-road segments on “LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen,” a popular Kansas City radio food show. Prolific in eating, writing and discovering, this foodie satisfies an innate desire to sample the world’s gastronomic rainbow by meeting food artisan trendsetters, gaining insight into the culinary points-of-view of everyone from cheese makers, chocolatiers and chefs who set their city’s locavore pace to farmers who are passionate producers.  Stern is a sought-after writer, with work appearing in  Better Homes and Gardens, Unity, KANSAS! Magazine, 435 South magazine, KC Homes & Gardens, Generation Boom, Shawnee Magazine, KC Magazine, KC Home Design, KC Business and Midwest CEO. Stern is a national blogger for the Dean & DeLuca Gourmet Food Blog where she cooks, styles, shoots and writes about cooking … and loves to lick the bowl clean.   E-mail Kimberly Stern.