Ever since the FDA announced last month that it was planning a crackdown on unpasteurized cheese imports, people have been making furtive requests of Matt and Sarah Parker, owners of the Lincoln Square shop the Cheese Stands Alone. “Customers come in and say, ‘Got any real Brie back there?'” Sarah says. “It’s like we’re selling fireworks.”
Unfortunately for foodie scofflaws, the Parkers’ goods are legal. But there’s plenty of consolation. The store stocks more than 100 varieties of domestic and imported cheese, as well as prosciutto, Serrano ham, pancetta, gourmet condiments, rows of bright, coarsely chopped giardiniera in glass jars, and locally made Riggs & Forsythe sodas in flavors such as bitter lemon and dry cola. They also offer sandwiches made with ingredients from the store, and by fall they’ll carry chocolates made by Sarah, who recently graduated from City Colleges of Chicago’s French Pastry School.
The Parkers used to think of Chicago as a cheddar town. But their biggest sellers so far have been French triple creams like Brillat-Savarin, made from pasteurized cow’s milk and named after the French epicure.
Matt finds it hard to pick favorites, but Three Sisters Farmstead’s dark, hard Serena cheese, made from raw cow’s milk, might top the list. Just as appealing to him as its full, nutty taste is the story behind it. “It’s made in California by a 19-year-old girl,” he says, “unless she’s turned 20 by now.” Marisa Hilarides, co-owner of Three Sisters, has been making Serena with her father, Rob Hilarides, since 1999. The cheese’s original name, Sareanah, was a combination of Marisa’s name with those of her two sisters.
Another domestic favorite is the Humboldt Fog goat’s milk cheese, made in northern California by Cypress Grove. It looks vaguely rotten–a thin gray line of ash wends around its edge and through its center to promote the rind’s growth–but tastes like a thick, savory custard. About a third of the store’s cheeses are American made, many of them from small-scale producers with their own animals. “They have lots more control over the milk” than larger manufacturers do, Matt says, which strongly affects the cheeses’ flavor.
Of the imported cheeses, Matt favors the Spanish. “They’re more rustic. They have more character,” he says, and they’re not terribly expensive. He’s particularly fond of the Cabrales, a raw-milk blue cheese made in only four villages in Spain: “This is one case where they trump the American cheeses.” Its flavor is so strong that he suggests saving it for the end of tastings, so it doesn’t numb the palate. He also recommends Drunken Goat, a much milder Spanish cheese cured in red wine.
Before opening the store in June, the Parkers worked at the Village Tap, which Matt managed for four years; Sarah still tends bar there. Cheese has been their hobby for five or six years now, says Matt, and they have made expeditions to France, Holland, and Belgium to taste local cheeses and learn about their production. The idea for the shop was sparked by the Parkers’ realization that the north side is short on stores focused primarily on cheese. “In Paris, there’s one in every neighborhood. In Vancouver, they have six,” Matt says. They’re hoping the store will become part of a larger specialty-food culture in the area–it’s just a few blocks from Delicatessen Meyer, and the Chopping Block is planning to open another store nearby in August. Location aside, the building has a bit of sentimental value for Matt–he lived there years ago, before he got married.
In learning about cheese, Sarah has had some illusions dispelled. “What I thought was Muenster isn’t Muenster at all,” she says. The real European kind, she found out, is “salty, creamy, wonderful goodness.” It’s also tender–when you slice it, it sticks to the knife like butter–and satisfyingly smellier than its plastic-wrapped supermarket counterpart. And cheddar doesn’t have to be orange; it’s usually dyed that way with annatto. The English cheddar they carry, Borough Market, is reassuringly white.
Part of the fun is demystifying cheese for their customers. “Sometimes it can be really intimidating to just walk up to a counter of cheese,” Sarah says. For a basic cheese course, Matt suggests “three cheeses–five at the most–and end with a blue. Maybe a Gouda, then a sharp cheddar, then a blue.” He thinks a minute. “Maybe add a triple cream in there somewhere.”
Do the Parkers get sick of cheese now that it’s turned from a hobby into a business? No, says Matt. “I’ll be in the store for ten hours and then go home and eat cheese.”
“To me, aged Gouda is like candy,” Sarah says. But, she adds, “there’s a place for Kraft. I’m not a snob. I still like grilled cheese with American slices.”
The Cheese Stands Alone is at 4547 N. Western, 773-293-3870.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.