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In Wisconsin is a high level of enthusiasm for squeaky-fresh cheese curds, a mild and young variety of cheese. We love stringy-hot, breaded curds to begin a meal or snack on with beer.

Many Badger State cheese factories sell curds by the bag, but former Gov. Tony Earl put Ellsworth at the top of the heap 35 years ago. That’s when his written proclamation declared the community of 3,200 as Wisconsin’s Cheese Curd Capital because Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery was producing 19 million pounds per year.

Now the creamery makes more — 180,000 pounds of cheese curds per day — and this is the month when Ellsworth and its visitors gobble up 2.5 tons in two days.

The annual Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival looked a lot like most other small-town gatherings when it began in 2002. A mix of music and food attracted 1,000 to 2,000 attendees, says event spokeswoman Becky Beissel, an Ellsworth native.

Fast forward to 2018, when the creamery deep-fried almost 5,000 pounds of cheese curds coated with a beer-based batter.

Beissel says local residents began rebranding the festival five years ago because out-of-towners “would come and presume it was a food festival” because of the event name. How did Ellsworth up its game?

Each of the 20 food vendors must post at least two cheese-curd dishes on their menu. Beissel says more out-of-state food trucks are heading to Ellsworth as word gets around that culinary creativity is sought and appreciated.

In the past, kebobs, tacos and grilled sandwiches contained cheese curds. Sometimes offerings — like the combo of jalapenos, chorizo sausage and cheese curds wrapped in bacon and smoked — are elaborate.

Cheese curds with unusual flavorings are introduced, too. Hot buffalo was the featured curd last year. This year, it’s a jalapeno bacon (the smoky goodness of bacon with a hint of heat from the pepper, Beissel explains). A sweeter option: deep-fried curds rolled in cinnamon sugar.

At least six craft brewers will each pair beer with a flavored cheese curd for sampling. “The seasoning world makes the possibilities endless for cheese curds,” Beissel asserts.

An option for children (and others): pairings of cookies and flavored milk from Prairie Farms. Matches have included sugar cookies with strawberry milk, monster cookies with chocolate-peanut butter milk.

A one-hour ice cream tasting involves six of the more unusual Cedar Crest flavors, including Jumping Jersey Cow (peanut butter ice cream with fudge swirls and chocolate-covered caramels).

For adults: samples of 40-plus craft beer, wine and hard-cider products. All are from the Midwest, and many are made within 40 miles of Ellsworth.

The weekend’s big eating contests favor speed over quantity. Adults compete to see who finishes one-half pound of cheese curds first. Children get their own divisions to eat one-fourth pound quickly. Register during the festival.

Preferred attire? Cheese-centric, which means wearing a Cheesehead is a good start.

The next Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival is June 21-22 at East End Park. Admission is free. cheesecurdfestival.com

First butter, then curds

A predecessor to Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery was the 1903 Milton Dairy Co., a Minnesota-based business that churned out a lot of butter. Five years later, 30 farmers invested $500 to start a butter and egg company; soon train cars full of butter headed as far away as New York every week.

Cheese curd production began in 1968. “Popularity of the new squeaky cheese was instantaneous,” the company reports online, “and our all-natural premium Cheddar Cheese Curds quickly became our specialty product.”

Today the company uses the milk from 450 family farms to produce cheeses that include six types of curds (five are flavored: Cajun, garlic, ranch, taco and hot buffalo). This is in addition to cheese curds that are breaded, frozen and sold. ellsworthcheese.com

Farm breakfasts

June is the month for attending breakfast on a farm in Wisconsin and getting a glimpse at the livestock, equipment and hard work that make dairy production possible.

The annual on-farm tradition began one-half century ago and is a great way to introduce children to rural life. It also gives all ages an excuse to eat ice cream (with a meal of other dairy products) early in the day.

Details for this year’s nearly five dozen farm breakfasts are listed at hooraywisconsindairy.com.

Farmstead creameries

Any month is good for ice cream, but it seems like the impending heat of summer deepens our cravings. Get a cone or dish from small batches made at these Wisconsin farmstead creameries:

North Star Farmstead Creamery, Hayward: Sister-farmers make gelato (and gelato cake) with milk from sheep that they raise. Served at the farm café. northstarhomestead.com

Kelley Country Creamery, Fond du Lac: Choose from 22 flavors daily, plus ice cream pies and cakes. Linger on an outdoor rocking chair. kelleycountrycreamery.com

LaClare Family Creamery, Malone: Look for goats frolicking in nearby pasture and at weekly yoga classes. Buy goat gelato, top-notch cheeses. laclarefamilycreamery.com

Sassy Cow Creamery, Columbus: Watch weekday ice cream production, then decide which of 20 flavors seems most enticing. sassycowcreamery.com

Schopf’s Dairy, Carlsville: The hilltop farm’s herd grew from 50 to 575 cows in the past century. Count butter pecan among ice cream flavors always available. dairyview.com

Seehafer Farm Creamery, Marshfield: Turn any of the dozen ice cream choices into a thick malt or shake. facebook.com/seehafercreamery

World Dairy Expo

The World Dairy Expo, Oct. 1-5 at Alliant Energy Center in Madison, is a global leader in introducing the top producers, experts and strategies in the business. The annual gathering began in 1967; more than 65,000 people from 94 countries attended in 2018.

The massive event is one part dairy cattle show, one part trade show and one part education seminars. worlddairyexpo.com

Weekly “Roads Traveled” columns began in 2002. These syndicated articles, archived at www.roadstraveled.com, are the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

Your column feedback and ideas are welcome. Write to Midwest Features, PO Box 259623, Madison, WI 53725 or mary@roadstraveled.com.

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