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For some cheese lovers, it’s simply not enough to pick up brie and havarti at a local grocery store or even an artisan cheese shop. If you’re a true cheese aficionado, you’ll want to taste world-famous cheeses at the source. Whether it’s a dairy farm in the Italian countryside or a tasting room in the Swiss Alps, these destinations offer the freshest and most authentic cheeses in the world. And if you visit, regional cheese makers can tell you exactly what to pair with their prized varieties.
South of Madrid, the La Mancha region is a broad plateau in central Spain, famously known as the setting of the 17th-century novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The area is dotted with Don Quixote’s windmills along with medieval castles and vineyards. But more importantly, the rocky plains are ideal for freely grazing Manchega sheep. The milk produced by these sheep is used to make Spain’s famous manchego cheese — a firm, pale yellow delicacy with a dark rind that can range in taste from acidic to peppery to buttery, depending on the aging process.
The best place to search for manchego is in the ancient, walled city of Toledo. Of course, you can buy manchego almost anywhere in town — but why not begin at a museum entirely dedicated to this fabulous cheese? The Museo del Queso Manchego (MQM), which is only steps from the famous Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, offers an exhibition space detailing the region’s cheesemaking processes over centuries, a tasting room where multiple varieties are presented with traditional accompaniments, and a shop selling cheeses and other local delicacies.
Paestum is located on Italy’s Cilento Coast along the Tyrrhenian Sea. Once a major city in ancient Greece, Paestum is frequented by many visitors, who flock there to see the remarkably preserved Greek temple ruins. The three Doric temples, which date from as early as 550 B.C., are quite spectacular. But so is the cheese. In the area surrounding the city, you’ll encounter many dairy farms boasting the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP seal, which acknowledges that the cheesemakers are abiding by strict quality standards.
These farms are also home to shaggy water buffalo that bathe in muddy pools to cool off from the baking Italian sun. Their milk is used to produce mozzarella di bufala — one of Italy’s most famous cheeses. More delicate in flavor and firmness than fior di latte, the fresh mozzarella produced from standard dairy cows, buffalo mozzarella is silky smooth, creamy, porcelain-white, and best consumed at room temperature shortly after production. Formed into balls or bocconcini, the slightly tangy cheese can be eaten straight from its “keeping water.” For those who don’t want to bite into cheese like an apple, the soft cheese is best served with local tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and a pinch of salt.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Dairy is big throughout Wisconsin — it's the state that produces the most cheese in the U.S. — but only the city of Green Bay hosts the U.S. Cheese Championship. The biannual competition was last held in March of 2019, and cheeses produced in-state won 168 of the 348 awards. And these Wisconsin winners weren’t just cheddars — they included goudas, fresh mozzarellas, and of course, the state's famous cheese curds. For those who aren’t in the know, cheese curds are moist bits of curdled milk, unaged and unformed into the mature blocks of cheddar we all know and love.
Green Bay in particular is home to dozens of cheese shops, and fans of the Green Bay Packers NFL team are called “Cheeseheads.” (Be sure to pick up a foam Cheesehead hat while in town.) However, the entire state is a cheese lover's fantasy. The city of Plymouth, once home to the National Cheese Exchange, which set commodity pricing, calls itself the “Cheese Capital of the World,” and there are dozens of cheese factory and dairy farm tours and tastings around the city of Madison. You can also just stop at a gas station for a quick fix — most offer display cases of locally made dairy.
Gloucester, United Kingdom
If you’re not content to merely snack on cheese, chase after it instead. The city of Gloucester in southwestern England hosts the famous Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling Competition. The event, held each May, involves a series of races in which groups of brave runners chase after a nine-pound double Gloucester cheese round that's been pushed down a steep hillside. You used to have to catch the speeding cheese, but now, for safety’s sake, the winner just has to cross the finish line first — hopefully without injury (paramedics are on standby). The prize is that same round of double Gloucester. Made from the milk and cream of once-nearly-extinct Gloucester cows, the cheese is firm, nutty, and rich with a slightly crumbly texture.
Gloucester itself is a lovely inland port city in the Cotswolds. Steeped in history, the city is famous not just for its cheese but also for its Romanesque cathedral, completed in the 15th century, and its maritime legacy. You can visit its picturesque canal and dock, featuring restored Victorian masonry warehouses, in addition to numerous museums celebrating the region’s shipping and manufacturing heritage.
Situated on the northern coast of France along the English Channel, the region of Normandy is rich in World War II history and famous for its rugged, beautiful coastline, fragrant apple orchards, and half-timbered rural architecture. It’s also home to the township of Camembert, the birthplace of the decadent cheese of the same name. Legend has it, a farmer named Mariel Harel first made the now-famous cheese in 1791. The soft, buttery cheese with an earthy, edible rind is still hand-produced in this area today, utilizing exacting techniques recognized by the AOP Camembert de Normandie designation.
To learn more about the region’s history of cheesemaking, a visit to La Maison du Camembert is a must. Both a museum and a cheese shop, the building was designed to mimic the shape and appearance of a round of ripe camembert. Cheese lovers can also visit Harel’s stately manor house, now a museum, along with a host of cheese shops, factories providing tours, and farm stands in and around town — all celebrating the area’s famous cows and top-quality dairy products. If you’re just here for the cheese itself, however, you can enjoy a warm wheel of camembert with toasted slices of baguette, fruit, and walnuts at one of the town’s many charming cafes.
Located near the Swiss Alps in the French-speaking canton of Fribourg, Gruyères is a stunning medieval river town you shouldn’t skip on a trip to Switzerland. The town and surrounding countryside are famous for the region’s namesake cheeses. A range of hard, yellow cheeses typically mild in flavor, young gruyère cheeses are usually aged for three to 10 months and feature a nutty, sweet flavor. Other varieties can be aged for up to five years and offer a grainier texture and a stronger, earthier flavor.
At La Maison du Gruyère, visitors can tour a facility that utilizes centuries-old techniques, learn more about the cheese’s history at a museum, view an aging cellar that houses 7,000 wheels of the specialty, and dine at the museum’s restaurant. Other restaurants, cheese shops, and farms throughout the region also welcome tourists, and are happy to share their exquisite cheeses, as well as the processes that make their products so special. According to local cheesemakers, the secret to making a successful gruyère is allowing open grazing and frequent exercise for dairy cows who feed only on wild grasses and flowers, in addition to using only pure, unpasteurized milk.