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Mary Alger

Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.

Mary Alger

For the past 20 years, Alger has been owner of The Real Cheese Place—the building that resembles a Holstein cow at 1334 Milton Ave., Janesville. In 1997, she bought the shop from her father, Roger Schumacher, who learned early in his life how to make cheese from some uncles who were natives of Switzerland.

Alger, who also has a brother and sister, actually lived in the cheese factory where her father worked until she was 6 years old. Her parents moved to Janesville after Roger took a job working at the General Motors plant here.

A graduate of Craig High School, Alger met her husband while the two were students at UW-Whitewater. The couple married and moved to San Diego, where they had their son, Ryan. Seven years later, the family moved back to Janeville and added a daughter, Christina.

In running the store today, Alger gets much of her inventory from some of the same cheese factories her father used when he started out. The Real Cheese Place stocks fresh curds every Wednesday, and it ships cheese from October through April, weather permitting.

To learn more about The Real Cheese Place, visit WisconsinCheese.com or search for “www.wisconsincheese.com” on Facebook.

1. Your father founded The Real Cheese Place, which you now run. Would you say you have cheese in your blood? My father founded the shop back in the ’80s. I do believe there is cheese in my veins because our family actually lived in a cheese factory. I was a small child when Mom and Dad packed us up and moved to Janesville so he could take a job at GM. It’s probably Swiss cheese, too, because that was the cheese my dad was making.

2. What’s the story behind the decision to paint your building like a giant Holstein cow? The painting of the building was all my dad’s idea. He felt people weren’t noticing the building and thought it would capture attention and bring in more business.

3. Do you have many people coming in asking for Camembert? What type of cheese is most popular at your store? We get a few who ask for Camembert as well as a few other imports. By far, our most popular and best-selling cheese is our mild white brick. We get it from the factory when it’s only two days old. It is salty at first because it has just been pulled out of the brine. I’m told brick cheese is only made in Wisconsin. It’s mild when it is so young. It’s similar to a mozzarella, and many of our customers tell us they use it on pizza. It is also good on a cracker or in grilled cheese.

4. Cheese never lasts long enough to go bad at my house. Still, what’s the best way to preserve cheese? Keep all cheese wrapped tightly, and store it in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

5. What is your favorite type of cheese? I love the 10-year cheddar and also a newer product we’ve been carrying called black pepper bellavitano. I think it tastes like a cross between an aged cheddar and a Parmesan. It goes really well with a sweet wine or fruits such as apples, pears or grapes. It was the winner of the U.S. championship this year. Almost everyone who tries it loves it.

6. People pair cheese with everything from wine to crackers to sausage to chocolate. Does doing this accentuate the taste of cheese, or does it detract from it? Lots of cheese tastes good alone, but it is also good on crackers, with wine or in cooking. It is mostly a personal preference. We do have a wine pairing chart at the store for some good ideas on what goes with what.

7. In today’s world, where it seems there are fewer stores and you can buy almost anything you want online, is it tough being a specialty store? It is a challenge having a small store such as ours, but we do have many returning customers and lots of travelers. We also have a website, and we ship cheese during the cold months—usually late October through mid April. We depend on the cool temperatures to keep it cold on its journey.

8. Does Wisconsin cheese still carry cache, or has America’s Dairyland become just another producer? We can tell by the musings of our traveling customers that they believe there is no better cheese than the cheese produced in Wisconsin. It is truly America’s Dairyland, and we hope to never lose that distinction.

9. Name something you refuse to eat on your pizza. I like many variations of pizza toppings. I have tried everything but anchovies. But my favorite of all is plain cheese pizza (wink, wink).

10. What is the most versatile type of fromage? I think the cheddar is most versatile. Mild, as well as aged, is good in cooking. The flavor just keeps getting more intense as it gets older.

11. You have two hours of free time. What do you do with it? Go to Green County and see what is new at the cheese factories. They pair all kinds of things with cheese, and there are new combinations all the time. A new one we just got in is Carolina Reaper cheese. That is a very, very hot item. There is even a warning on the label.

12. Name the last good book you read. Did you enjoy it? “The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook” by Paula Lambert. Very good!

13. Is there any type of cheese people can eat if they are lactose intolerant? Cheese with trace levels—less than .5 grams—of lactose include natural-aged cheeses such as cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss. During the cheese-making process, most of the lactose is drained off with the whey (a liquid portion). Others low in lactose are Camembert, brie, provolone, Gouda and blue.

14. How many televisions are in your house? Are you a big TV watcher? We have a couple of TVs. We usually watch Netflix or stuff on our computers.

15. What is your favorite cheesy recipe? Please Google “Martha Stewart’s Macaroni and Cheese” (marthastewart .com/957243/macaroni -and-cheese).

16. If you could see any concert featuring any artist, alive or dead, and money was no object, who would that be? Bruce Springstein and/or Barbra Streisand.

17. Name one career you could never see yourself being a part of. I don’t think I’d do well in a factory. While serving the public can be a challenge, it is also very rewarding. We have made many great connections and relationships with our customers over the years.

18. Are there keys to buying good cheese? Is it really just a matter of taste, or is there more to consider? I think tasting before you buy is a good thing. It really is a matter of preference.

19. I love Limburger cheese, but I’ve always wondered what causes the terrible smell. Do you know? The smell of Limburger comes from the bacteria called Brevibacterium linens. It is the same bacteria found on human skin that is responsible for body odor, and particularly foot odor. The bacteria is used to ferment the cheese.

20. What would you tell your teenage self if you could go back in time? I would tell myself to enjoy every moment of your life because, as you get older, it really passes by fast. Be kind. Be open minded. Have fun.

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