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Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

The Glorious Reign of Mars’ Cheese Castle

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Mars’ Cheese Castle is Wisconsin’s first line of defense against marauding barbarians with Illinois license plates. The state with which we share our southern border taketh our coin by demanding a toll to travel its road. But our way is cleverer. Protected by timber ramparts and turrets, Mars’ Cheese Castle sits between Milwaukee and Chicago on busy Interstate 94, the main thoroughfare outsiders travel to take respite by our lakes and in our North Woods. We entice them with our sovereign land’s greatest exports, cheese and sausage, and then fill our coffers with the tender they eagerly hand over in exchange for the irresistible goods.

The castle was constructed shortly after World War II, in 1947, when Mario and Martha Ventura resurrected a vacant schoolhouse on old Highway 41, before there was an interstate. They realized their dream of operating a cheese market that served quality cheeses, sausages, hams and gourmet Wisconsin-made products to countrymen and foreigners alike. Over the decades, the castle expanded by several buildings—it now includes a restaurant, bar, bakery and gift shop—and claims an entire corner at the crossroads of I-94 and Highway 142. The heirs of House Ventura have continued the family legacy by serving millions of customers through the roadside castle and its thriving mail-order catalog.

The Ventura family stocks the castle coolers with more than 350 varieties of cheese. They import the classics: surface-ripened cheeses like Brie and Camembert, the smooth, close-textured Edam and Gouda cheeses, well-matured Italian hard cheeses such as Parmesan and Romano, blue mould cheese, stretched curd cheese like mozzarella and Provolone, and butter-rich Swiss wheels. The castle also boasts a fine selection of local-origin cheeses, such as 3- and 10-year aged Wisconsin cheddar, cheese logs, cheeses flavored with herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables, even chocolate, and Mars’ private blend, a robust “King of Clubs” cheddar cheese spread.

The Ventura family is allied with Milwaukee’s sausage royalty, Usinger’s, carrying a variety of links and meats, from bratwurst and knackwurst to beef wieners and fresh kielbasa. They are also in league with the Nueske clan de Wittenberg, who supplies Mars’ Cheese Castle with bacon and its award-winning applewood smoked ham. The castle bakers make bread crammed with a quarter-pound of extra-sharp Wisconsin cheddar in each loaf. Defying holiday punch lines, the light batter of the old-fashioned fruitcake retains moisture from the sweet, natural juices of fruits and nuts, aged bourbon, brandy and New England rum.

The Venturas also offer kringles, stollen, kolacky and rugulach, among other pastries and loaves. There’s a large collection of coffee, tea, jams, preserves, mustards and honey to accompany the baked goods. There’s also a soda, beer and wine section that hosts some local favorites, like Dang butterscotch root beer from Imperial Flavors. The small gift shop is a source of kitsch ripe for plundering by out-of-state corsairs looking for souvenirs of their journey to the hinterland or for travelers looking to bring with them an offering for their host.

The Fortress de Fromage faces imminent destruction as it sits in the path of a major highway reconstruction project that ranges from Milwaukee to the Illinois state line. The Ventura family will continue its reign at the aged castle until their newly designed Mars’ Cheese Castle, complete with a drawbridge, is constructed immediately behind the old market. The state allowed a special dispensation to the iconic, massive Mars’ Cheese Castle sign, so it will be relocated to the new store, where it can continue to lure weary travelers hungry for curd.

www.marscheese.com  / 1-800-655-6147/ 2800 120th Ave., Kenosha.