From Iceland to Italy, a Wisconsinite cheesehead's guide to European cheese

I left the continent wondering how Swiss fondue would taste with Wisconsin cheddar

By Chaya Milchtein
Published October 5, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)
Varieties of cheese and bread sticks  (Getty Images/Westend61)
Varieties of cheese and bread sticks (Getty Images/Westend61)

While many stereotypes are far from true, the one about Wisconsinites and their cheese is certainly true for me — though being from the state probably isn't the reason I fell in love with it. 

Growing up in a Chassidic Jewish household with over a dozen children, cheese felt more precious than gold. My parents kept kosher, and all of our cheese had to be made with Chalav Yisroel milk, which means that it had a special certification indicating that a Jew had watched the entire milking process and ensured the cow's milk wasn't mixed with any other animal's milk, which was often the case historically. 

Poverty added to the allure of cheese, as well. 

For most of my childhood, nearly all the cheese we ate was whatever we got from WIC. The volume depended on how many little ones were eligible for the supplemental nutrition program in the family at the time. Some years, we'd just get four, 8-ounce sticks of cheddar to share between all of us. However, we made it count. 

The joy was palpable when we got those four precious sticks of cheddar and watched as the orange blocks were transformed into luscious macaroni and cheese. Maybe it was the luxury of a hot meal, or perhaps it was my Wisconsin roots — but whatever the reason, I fell hard for cheese. 


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My tastes got better with age (much like good cheese tends to do). The blocks of cheddar turned into deep-fried cheese curds, which turned into intricately-designed charcuterie boards and trips to stores that specialize in cheese. When it came time to plan my European honeymoon this year — a belated treat for my wife and I after a guestless pandemic wedding —I knew that I just simply had to eat as many of the pungent, creamy and aromatic cheeses that I possibly could. 

Iceland

Our first and last stop on our honeymoon was Iceland, which most people don't associate with cheese. I know I didn't, but there was cheese everywhere. Breakfast at the Silica Hotel included an assortment of cheeses. I sat at the window, eating a slice of Icelandic gouda that had the texture of silk and a remarkably delicate flavor. 

Later, I discovered my new favorite bleu cheese at the Sky Lagoon in Kópavogur. Auður is uniquely luscious because where most bleu cheeses are produced using around 26% milkfat, it is made with whole milk that contains 33% milkfat. When paired with steaming, chewy Icelandic bread and tart bilberry jam, it is the ideal combination. I might just come back to Iceland just to eat it again! 

Italy 

I've eaten parmesan cheese in the States before, but usually it's grated onto or into something. However, when we took a boat tour of Lake Como, I opened the food that was provided to us by the host and found big hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano. Apparently, Italians simply eat hunks of it! When paired with prosecco — as well as the gentle breeze and breathtaking views — the fruity, sharp and slightly gritty bite was perfect. 

Switzerland 

Much like cheddar cheese, I have memories of Swiss cheese from my youth. My father offered it to me once with a warning, "You'll have to wait six hours before you can eat meat, Musia!"

Observant Jews don't eat meat and dairy together, though when eating most dairy products, an hour is sufficient to wait to eat meat again. However, my father informed me that aged cheese, like Swiss, is the exception and a full six hours is required; this dissuaded me from eating Swiss cheese to this day. 

But when I planned my trip to Switzerland, I knew I wanted to try Swiss cheese — but not that Swiss cheese. I'm a Wisconsin girl who was obsessed with cheese and after incessantly watching videos about fondue, it was definitely on the itinerary. 

However, it was ultimately nothing like the videos I had so diligently watched. When we tried to blindly order at Auberge de Savièse, we were gently redirected to the fondue they thought we would like best. "It's more flavorful," the server told me. 

We were served hunks of crusty bread and a pot of bubbling gruyère, mixed with some other cheese and dry white wine. As soon as the custardy cheese-soaked bread hit my tongue, all my concerns simply melted. It was heaven. 

While I couldn't bring home all the cheeses I tried with me, I will be bringing back that Swiss fondue recipe where it will permanently live on my roster of party recipes. I wonder how it would taste made with Wisconsin cheddar? 

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Chaya Milchtein

Chaya Milchtein is an automotive educator and journalist who writes about cars, plus size fashion, queer life and love, and sometimes, food and travel. Her work has in Real Simple, Parents Magazine, Xtra Magazine, Al Jazeera, Shondaland and others.

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Cheese Dairy Europe Food Reporting Travel