Chelsea Kalberloh’s seventh-grade teacher misread her name on the attendance list and called out “Cheesy? Cheesy Kalberloh?” The nickname stuck, and now Kalberloh’s moniker matches her job: cheesemonger at the Wicker Park cheese and wine boutique Taste. At her cheese counter in the back of the shop–opened April 12 by veteran restaurateur and wine sales rep Rodney Alex–Kalberloh educates and encourages shoppers to try unfamiliar things. One recent afternoon she implored a hesitant taster to sample an aged provolone from Wisconsin. “It’s not like the provolone from the deli,” she insisted, and the customer was rewarded with a sharp flaky shard, markedly different from its waxy processed cousin.

Taste sells only wines and cheeses that are “ready to drink and eat tonight,” says Alex, and he and Kalberloh provide personal counseling on pairing the two. Kalberloh has assembled an impressive inventory based on her lifelong zeal for scouting interesting cheeses. Growing up, “we always had good cheese in the house,” but it was the cheese shops she browsed on a college trip to Europe that aroused her passion. She was a magazine editor before she went into the cheese trade, and while her descriptions may be flowery–“So yummy you’ll cry! So gorgeous you’ll blush!” she gushes about her deep orange aged Mimolette, a nutty, slightly sweet French cheese–they’re also appealing.

Shopping for new cheeses is the fun part; her challenge lies in maintenance. Caring for a collection of fragile dairy products is no minor task, mainly because they continue to ripen in storage. The process of controlled spoilage, started by the cheesemaker, contributes to subtleties of texture and flavor in the finished product. Kalberloh describes this natural process as a combination of “method and magic.”

“Cheese ripens under certain conditions,” she says, “which is why cheese has been ripened in caves for centuries.” A temperature of 50 to 55 degrees and high humidity (up to 95 percent for soft-ripened cheeses) are ideal. Kalberloh is actually pleased when her dairy cases fog up–the moist environment keeps soft cheeses (like her current fave, Perail de Brebis, a “luscious” sheep’s milk product from France’s Rouergue region) at their peak by keeping the bacteria thriving.

Soft cheeses, especially unpasteurized ones, are often best consumed within days of their peak, and Kalberloh keeps a close watch as her wares ripen. “Otherwise they can get too runny or just sort of go off,” she says. Hard cheeses like the best-selling Laack Brothers Wisconsin cheddar (aged nine years) are sturdier, though Kalberloh takes care to keep the cut surfaces from drying out while allowing the rind to breathe so the cheese can oxidize and mature properly. Her cheeses are rewrapped each time they are cut, and she keeps the more delicate fresh and soft-ripened cheeses in a separate cooler from more assertive cheeses like blues.

Kalberloh works closely with distributors and local affineurs like Sofia Solomon of Tekla to ensure that her cheeses are delivered at their peak. “I can get my crottins aged or fresh,” says Kalberloh, depending on how soon she’d like the young goat cheese rounds to achieve their ultimate state of ripeness. Soft-ripened cheeses, like the tiny Old Chatham Mutton Button, a sheep’s milk cheese from New York, ripen from the outside in (due to the coating of mold on their surface) until quite runny in the center. A few surface-ripened cheeses, like the clean Hudson Valley Camembert, are meant to be served when gooey on the edges but chalky in the center (known to the French as l’ame, the soul of the cheese). Kalberloh judges ripeness by how firm the middle feels when she gives it a gentle squeeze. If the rind slumps or sinks on the sides, the cheese is ready to eat.

Since the shop’s opening she has expanded her roster to about 40 selections, including unusual Australian cheddars and some treasures from London’s prominent Neal’s Yard assortment. She adds a few new varieties to the list every week. Though at first she finds customers tend to stick to more familiar cheeses, her repeat clients are usually willing to taste the more “frightening looking” ones. And most rewarding, she says, is introducing people to an extraordinary artisanal cheese that’s produced in the States–especially when it’s a variety they aren’t expecting. “Show ’em a goat’s cheese from Arkansas and they flip out!”

Taste is at 1922 W. North, 773-276-8000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.