Travel Destinations

Monday, February 17, 2014

Madison Lessons: Wisconsin Cheese Rules and Politics Is All About Real Estate

Madison Capitol Building Wisconsin
Madison's capitol building.
We visited Wisconsin to experience Madison winter travel in all its snowy glory, complete with outdoor winter activities.  But most visitors to Madison wait until the snow has melted to experience Madison’s attractions.  In the midst of all our outdoor winter fun, we had a chance to visit some of Madison’s highlights that can be visited year-round and sample some great food and drinks.  We also confirmed Wisconsin makes some of the best cheese in America, sang some Poupon U songs at the mustard museum, and learned an interesting motivation for winning elections.

Touring Wisconsin’s Capitol Building

Madison is Wisconsin’s state capitol, so the city’s crowning glory is the state capitol building.  The capitol building is a gorgeous white-domed, cross-shaped structure in the middle of the city.  As the capitol is the highest building in the city with four streets leading to the capitol from all directions, the building can be seen from blocks away.  During the day it gleams white, at night it shines bright, and at dusk the dome reflects a slightly pink hue from the setting sun. 

The capitol building is open to the public and also provides guided tours.  We were lucky enough to receive a behind the scenes tour from Steve’s friend who works for one of the state senators.  Interestingly, the state capitol building houses all three branches of government.  The capitol even has its own police.  We walked through the senate floor as well as the very opulent back room where deals are made.  We visited one of the assembly rooms where part of Public Enemies was filmed.  We even got to enter the Governor’s conference room.  The interior of the capitol is just as stunning as its exterior, with granite and other materials all coming from Wisconsin. 

Governor's Conference Room Madison Capitol Building Wisconsin
We got to peek into the Governor's conference room.
We also learned interesting facts such as there is a tunnel that leads underground from the capitol building to somewhere near the Irish pub (coincidence?) and that every time there is a shift in power between Democrats and Republicans everyone plays musical offices.  The Democrats are currently the minority party so their offices are on the first floor of the building, next to bathrooms and overlooking the parking lot and staircases.  The Republicans, on the other hand, have the prized offices on higher floors with views of the city and lake beyond.  Think about that next time you see desperate political ad campaigns on television.  Are they fighting for their political beliefs, or just a better office where they don't have to hear the bathroom door open and close all day?


The National Mustard Museum

You heard me right, in the land of cheese and beer there is also a mustard museum.  Barry Levinson is the proud founder of the National Mustard Museum in Madison’s neighboring town of Middleton.  It all started when the former Wisconsin Assistant Attorney General started collecting mustard and mustard products in the 1980s.  He decided to share his collection with the world by opening a museum for his mustard in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin in 1992, and later moved the collection to Middleton. 

National Mustard Museum Middleton Wisconsin
Part of the National Mustard Museum's collection of mustard.
Barry led us on a tour through the mustard museum where he told us stories about various pieces of his collection, including medicinal mustards used for mustard plasters, old-timey mustard tins, and ornate mustard receptacles including one made to commemorate the visit of the King of England to Canada in 1939.  We then returned upstairs where everyone in the store was pulled into singing some mustard themed songs.  Check out my Winter in Madison, Wisconsin video for the Poupon U Fight Song.

National Mustard Museum Middleton Wisconsin
Some old mustard jars at the National Mustard Museum.
After our tour Barry left us to read a mustard-filled children’s story to a group of little kids while we moved on to the tasting portion of our tour.  There are hundreds of jars of mustard to taste of all different kinds.  There are spicy mustards, sweet mustards, chocolaty mustards, and cheesy mustards.  One excruciatingly painful brown horseradish mustard called Hit & Run caused the funniest exclamation of the day, “When does it run?!!!!”  There may have even been a tear.  We went home with a new mustard from the Czech Republic, a spicy brown mustard, and a blue cheese and bacon mustard.


Food, Both Traditional Americana and Foodie Worthy

Let’s first talk about the cheese.  Everyone knows Wisconsin is known for their cheese.  It’s the state of cheese heads after all.  Fromagination is a downtown cheese shop in the shadow of Madison’s capitol building.  Fromagination has a passion for artisan, specialty and organic cheeses from all over the state of Wisconsin.  When you walk into Ken Monteleone’s shop you are greeted with cases filled to the brim with beautiful cheese.  Customers can try samples and travelers who can’t bring home cheese can sit at the long table at the back of the store for a light lunch.  

Fromagination Madison Wisconsin
A small portion of Fromagination's large selection of cheese.
My Neuske’s smoked ham and Wisconsin fontina cheese sandwich was heaven with local Clem’s Hot Pepper Mustard and Door County cherries.  We also shared a cheese platter so we could sample some of Fromagination’s many cheeses.  We tried the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative sheep’s and cow’s milk semi-firm cheese from Plain, Wisconsin, the recipe for which was developed at the University of Wisconsin.  A favorite, the Bleu Mont Dairy cave-aged cheddar from Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, is aged in caves specially built into the Wisconsin landscape.  We also tried a La Clare Farm cave aged goat’s milk Gouda from Chilton, Wisconsin, and a Hidden Springs Creamery Bohemian Blue from Westby, Wisconsin.  The Blue Mont cave-aged cheddar, with its British-style crunchiness, came home with me.

Fromagination Cheese Platter Madison Wisconsin
Fromagination cheese platter.
L'Etoile Restaurant Madison Wisconsin
Fountain Prairie dry-aged grass-fed steak.
L’Etoile Restaurant has been around since 1976 and is a big contender in the food world.  In fact, L’Etoile was named one of America’s “Top 50 Restaurants” by Gourmet Magazine, was included in Saveur’s “Top 100,” and Executive Chef Troy Miller received the James Beard Foundation’s 2012 Award for Best Chef.  At night the restaurant provides a beautiful view of the capitol building through its wall of glass windows.  The menu features local seasonal farm-raised ingredients.  Some highlights from our meal included a fantastic concoction of freshly made pasta with SarVecchio cheese and local beets and the most flavorful Fountain Prairie dry-aged grass-fed steak.  L’Etoile also has an award winning wine list and some delicious craft cocktails, some created with locally made spirits, such as Death’s Door Spirits gin.  For some comfort food in a more casual setting by the same chef at an affordable price, head next door to Graze.

The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company started in 1994 and features homemade pub fare (and fried cheese curds!) and their great list of beers.  The Old Fashioned serves a traditional fish fry every Friday night along with their signature hand-muddled Old Fashioned drinks plus a huge selection of local beers on tap.  Madison also has the hipster eatery The Weary Traveler, which serves some tasty food made with locally sourced ingredients and a great Bloody Mary.  We didn’t receive the best service when we visited, but the food was delicious and I am hoping it was just a one-off experience.

Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company Madison Wisconsin
Good beer and good times at Great Dane Pub.
Mickies Dairy Bar Madison Wisconsin
Mickies' huge blueberry pancakes.
No trip to Madison would be complete without having breakfast at Mickies Dairy Bar.  Mickies opened in 1946 and is an old fashioned diner so old-school they don’t even have a website. Their original menu is still on the wall and they serve egg scramblers bigger than your head.  Actually, practically everything they serve is bigger than your head, including their ginormous square pancakes and sky high coffee cake.  Mickies is a popular place for Sunday morning churchgoers and Badger pre-game meals.

Along with their cheese, Wisconsin is known for its craft beer.  Being a college town, Madison has quite a few watering holes, including Malthouse, Vintage Spirits & Grill, and Capital Tap Haus.  If you want an in-depth brewing lesson, Madison also has some local craft breweries that can be toured, including Capital Brewery. 

Whether you, like me, want to experience Madison, Wisconsin during its chilly winter months, or wait until the snow melts and the sun comes out, Madison is a fun travel destination with a beautiful downtown, some funky museums, and great food and drinks.  Be sure to add Madison to your list of American travel destinations.

Thank you to Visit Madison for helping us plan some of our activities, including setting up interviews and our tour of the National Mustard Museum.

Travel the World: Things to do in Madison Wisconsin including touring the capitol building and the National Mustard Museum and dining on world-class food.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.