We hankered for a hunk of cheese—the transcendent kind handcrafted from the unpasteurized nectar of cow, goat, and sheep. And we found it. The best cheesemongers don’t just peddle great cheese. They coddle their edible treasures and cut to order from the wheel or block—all in an effort to ensure the slice is right.
(1) Robiola Incavolata, $23.99 per round. A goat’s-and-sheep’s-milk mix matured in savoy cabbage leaves; northern Italy (at Fox & Obel) (2) Constant Bliss, $9.99 apiece. A soft, mold-ripened cow’s milk; Jasper Hill Farm, Greensboro, Vermont (at Bouffe) (3) 3 Comtois, $12 a pound. Raw cow’s-milk Morbier; Franche-Comté, France (at The Cheese Stands Alone) (4) O’Banon, $9.99 apiece. Styled after French Banon, it’s made from raw goat’s milk, wrapped in chestnut leaves, and soaked in bourbon; Capriole, Inc., Greenville, Indiana (at Bouffe) (5) Winnemere, $29.99 a pound. A seasonal washed-rind raw cow’s-milk cheese, wrapped in spruce bark; Jasper Hill Farm, Greensboro, Vermont (at Marion Street) (6) Valdeón, $13.99 a pound. A blue made from mostly cow’s milk and wrapped in sycamore leaves; Castille León, Spain (at Fox & Obel) (7) Fresh goat cheese round, decorated with edible herbs and flowers, $29.99 a pound; Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, Illinois (at Marion Street) (8) Jaquin Saint Maure, $15.99 apiece. Traditional chèvre dusted with ash; Loire Valley, France (at Pastoral) (9) Ballerina, $19 a pound. Aged goat’s-milk Gouda; Netherlands (at The Cheese Stands Alone) (10) Petit Ardi Gasna, $20.99 a pound. Aged Basque shepherd’s cheese made from raw sheep’s milk and rubbed in paprika; French Pyrénées (at Pastoral) (11) Piper’s Pyramide, $13.99 apiece. Made from ripened goat’s milk; Capriole, Inc., Greenville, Indiana (at Fox & Obel)
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Libby Bonahoom was planning to launch a gourmet food store, long a dream of hers, when she enrolled in an eight-week master cheese class at New York’s Artisanal Premium Cheese Center. The learning experience hit her like a ton of brick cheese. “I was fascinated that with just milk, salt, and bacteria you could create so many different kinds of cheese,” she says. So fascinated, in fact, that she made cheese the focus of her new store. Doing so, she says, was a matter of “following [her] bliss.” After tasting her shop’s decadent Constant Bliss, a buttery raw cow’s-milk cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, we knew exactly what she meant. While Bouffe (French slang for “food”) is not strictly a cheese shop—it also carries bread, pastas and sauces, cured meats, gelati, and tableware—its six-foot-long case is filled with an ever-changing mix of 50 or so cheeses that reflect Bonahoom’s Francophile leanings (she’s a former high-school French teacher, and about a third of her stock is French) and purist sensibilities (no garlic-and-herb or other flavored cheeses). 2312 W. Leland Ave.; 773-784-2314
THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE
When Matt and Sarah Parker traveled to places like Paris and Amsterdam, they wondered why their hometown didn’t have any European-style fromageries. But rather than puzzle for long, the husband and wife became pioneers, opening the city’s first dedicated cheese shop in 2003. This Lincoln Square spot, while low on ambiance, sports a high cheese quotient, with more than 100 varieties on hand. A handful, mostly Wisconsin Cheddars and blues, come from domestic producers. But most hail from Europe, including a solid selection of aged Goudas such as the intense Ewephoria, a salty-sweet Dutch sheep’s milk. 4547 N. Western Ave.; 773-293-3870
FOX & OBEL
Not all terrific cheese comes from small shops. Indeed, large wine retailers such as Sam’s Wine & Spirits, Binny’s Beverage Depot, and Schaefer’s Wine, Food & Spirits boast ambitious cheese operations offering quantity (Sam’s Chicago flagship carries more than 200 cheeses), as well as premium-quality cheeses and a helpful staff. But if forced to pick a cheesemonger within a larger operation, our nod goes to Fox & Obel. The gourmet grocery store in River East offers about 200 cheeses, nearly half from artisanal makers in the United States and Europe, with a particularly strong selection of Italian and Swiss varieties; try the nutty and complex Rolf Beeler Hoch Ybrig, a Swiss appenzeller made from cow’s milk. 401 E. Illinois St.; 312-410-7301
MARION STREET CHEESE MARKET
Some men suffering a midlife crisis buy a Corvette. Eric Larson ditched his career in corporate communications and opened a cheese shop. Larson first gained exposure to a world beyond Kraft Singles through his Swiss mother-in-law, who “would put out cheeses from all over Europe that blew me away,” Larson says. His interest grew into a passion for the kind of artisanal American cheeses, many from the Midwest, that now make up about half the 125 or so varieties he stocks. Larson knows customers don’t always get why they should pay, say, $34.99 a pound for the stunning, tangy Cheddar he gets from Wisconsin’s Bleu Mont Dairy. Telling them about it helps. Giving them a taste—in name only does it resemble the waxy, factory-made Cheddar at your local supermarket—pretty much seals the deal. In September Larson plans to move to a much larger facility in order to expand his retail space, add a café, and offer classes. 101 N. Marion St., Oak Park; 708-848-2088
Greg O’Neill describes the cramped, exquisitely merchandised Lake View shop he co-owns as “a candy store for adults.” Indeed, every inch of this three-year-old storefront’s 382 square feet is packed with epicurean temptation: wines from small producers that play nicely with cheese, a charcuterie case, an olive bar, fresh breads from Bennison’s Bakeries, Tupelo honey, and other gourmet treats. But its raison d’être is cheese. “We’re not a wine and cheese shop,” says O’Neill. “We’re a cheese and wine shop, in that order.” Of Pastoral’s roughly 120 cheeses, about half come from American artisan producers, with the rest mostly from Europe. The cheese-literate staffers—a few have visited and cooked curds with some of the store’s suppliers—make even exotic offerings approachable. And the educational mission doesn’t end at the cash register. Pastoral brings in cheesemakers for in-store tastings, offers formal classes on cheese (and wine) that tend to sell out, and organizes cheese-themed road trips (last fall to a farmers’ market in Madison, Wisconsin, for example). Pastoral recently announced plans for a second location, due to open this summer on Lake Street just off Michigan Avenue. 2945 N. Broadway; 773-472-4781
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Mozzarella's Rich Twin
Where to pick up an authentic burrata
Libby Bonahoom, for one, is counting the days until the arrival of her first shipment of burrata—delicate gobs of hand-pulled mozzarella wrapped around heavy cream and curd. Indigenous to the heel region of Italy known as Puglia, the extremely perishable burrata is hard to find because it is not widely produced. “You can count on one hand the number of people in Italy making this,” says Giles Schnierle, a specialty cheese wholesaler in Chicago who brings in an authentic and beautifully floral version from California. “Burrata is a demonstration of the brilliant sweet tones of dairy products,” he rhapsodizes. “It is so fresh and vibrant, and it just melts in your mouth.” Bonahoom carries Schnierle’s import during the summer at Bouffe, as do Provenance Food and Wine (2528 N. California Ave.; 773-384-0699), in Logan Square, and Foodstuffs in Evanston (2106 Central St.; 847-328-7704) and Glencoe (338 Park Ave.; 847-835-5105). Consume yours as soon as humanly possible.