We'd been walking through Greenwich Village in New York last spring when we stopped at Rocco's, a glorious Italian bakery, for espresso and cannoli. Next up: Murray's Cheese, a famous foodie outpost founded in the 1940s by an American communist who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Whoa! What was this? Mario, the guy behind the counter, was sporting a Wisconsin cheese hat. And amid the big-buck Euro-delicacies were a familiar selection of Badger artisan cheeses marked with little Wisconsin flags.
Holding their own with Europe's best were Uplands Cheese's award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve Extra Aged, curds from Ellsworth Dairy, petit frères from Crave Brothers and Carr Valley's 10-year-old cheddar and gran canaria, among others.
Chalk it up to an important lesson in local-flavor economics: Many local purveyors need national exposure to pay the bills, especially those who depend on wholesale business rather than direct sales to consumers at farmers' markets.
The much-honored Uplands Cheese operation, run by Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude near Dodgeville, is a good example. They sell 80% of their award-winning cheese out of state.
"The best market for artisanal cheese is New York and San Francisco," says Mike Gingrich, noting that 20% of Uplands' cheese goes to greater Gotham and maybe 15% to the Bay area. "If you're only going to sell within 100 miles you're really going to limit your market."
Founded in 1994, Uplands is famous for its Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is made from the milk of Uplands' own dairy herd, 150 cows that graze on 300 acres in the Driftless Area.
"We've been selling to Murray's for five or six years now," says Gingrich. "Every year, they're one of our top three customers." Indeed, Murray's in turn sells Pleasant Ridge cheese to New York's top restaurants.
It's a good deal for Uplands, and more than good fortune brought it about.
Sometimes criticized for being a handmaiden to corporate agriculture, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has woken to the advantages of supporting Wisconsin organic dairy farmers and small artisanal cheesemakers. (Uplands' part-time workforce translates to only four full-time employees.)
"They've been terrific," Gingrich says of the marketing board. "In the last three or four years, they've turned around and given us a lot of support. We do give an image to Wisconsin in terms of having high quality dairy products."
That last point gets no argument from the board's Heather Porter Engwall, who says that promoting Wisconsin's specialty and artisanal cheeses "gets more bang for the buck" because of the favorable press it generates for Wisconsin dairy products.
"Those cheeses build more excitement for the rest of our dairy industry," she says.
To that end, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board now sponsors tours of Wisconsin cheesemakers for the biggest chefs in Chicago, New York, Dallas and elsewhere (and puts Badger State cheeses in their kitchens), and sends small-town cheesemakers like Gingrich and Carr Valley's Sid Cook to do in-store demonstrations in exalted gourmet venues like Zingerman's and Murray's.
As it happens, this past October the marketing board also brought Murray's owner, Rob Kaufelt, to Wisconsin for a four-day tour of small-town cheesemakers, including BelGioioso in Denmark; Bleu Mont in Blue Mounds; Carr Valley in LaValle; Cedar Grove in Plain; and Chalet, Valley View and Roth Käse in Monroe.
It was just one more example of how our best local purveyors have a national reach. Had I known all this last April, I wouldn't have been so surprised to see Mario wearing his cheese hat in the hippest cheese shop on Bleecker Street.