Photo by Uriah Carpenter

A small specialty Chicago grocer with a chef-driven product selection modeled after European markets is finding itself in the curious position of leading a growing renaissance in the affinage of American artisanal cheese.

Although the focus at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois is on perishables, the cheese case, with its 200-300 cheeses from around the world, is where the action is at. That’s because Cheesemonger David Rogers and staff are dedicated to showcasing the quality of artisan cheeses. And while some shops focus on imports, Rogers says: “American artisan cheeses is where the most interesting things in cheese are happening right now.”

Rogers patterns his Standard Market’s affinage program after Murray’s Cheese in New York. Yet, while Murray’s has built a stellar selection of five different aging caves, each built below street level and dedicated to a different category of cheese, Standard Market is focusing on just one 10 x 11 foot aging room, glass fronted right in the retail area so customers can watch the aging process.

In this micro aging room, Rogers adopts small batches of local Midwest cheeses and puts his own spin on them. And as Standard Market grows as a company, he hopes each store will have its own cave dedicated to aging one particular style of cheese.  

Most recently, Rogers has been aging a batch of Little Darling from Fayette Creamery/Brunkow Cheese in southwestern Wisconsin that he’s pretty proud of. He’s also just released a version of LaClare Farms’ Evalon, and is working with cheesemaker Katie Hedrich on a bandage wrapped cheddar.

“Our goal is always to partner with the cheese maker,” Rogers says. “And while we do hope that what we age shows a unique perspective on their cheese, we also look at it as an opportunity to connect our customers with the cheesemaking process and to have them get as excited about local cheesemakers and creameries as we are.”

In a taste test of three of Rogers’ specially aged cheeses, pictured above – clockwise from right – LaClare Evalon, Fayette Creamery Little Darling, and a semi-hard cheese from Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Fithian, Illinois, the most stellar of the trio was the Standard Market Aged Evalon.

Original Evalon, a perennial favorite of mine, is a goat’s milk cheese, typically aged about six months and is creamy and tangy with a clean finish. Standard Market’s version, however, is 10 months old and is a bit dryer, yet creamy on the tongue. But a magical transformation happens in the finish – where once all one could taste was the tang of goat’s milk, a new pineapple candy flavor has emerged. It’s as if Evalon has become the Pleasant Ridge Reserve of goat’s milk cheeses.

“I’m eager to both age out cheeses that we sell all the time, like the Evalon, to show a side by side comparison to our customers, as well as working with cheesemakers to develop unique cheeses for us,” Rogers says. “It’s nice in that we can continue the conversation about what makes these cheeses special and what sets artisan production apart. And, since the aging room is glass fronted and clearly visible to customers, it helps encourage that conversation.”

Rogers says the aging program has been an interesting journey for him and his mongers, and all feel fortunate to be working directly with cheesemakers to create cheeses unique to Standard Market. And he only sees the program growing.

“Right now we have just one store, but will be expanding to a second location in late 2013 in Naperville,” Rogers says. That location will also have a small cheese aging room, enough to handle around 4,500 pounds of cheese at a time. He plans to set up each store’s cave for a particular style of  cheese. Because the current cave in the Chicago shop is mostly set up for natural rind cheeses – nothing that would require more than 90% humidity – the cave at the next store will likely be set up for soft ripened cheeses.

“We will age and then distribute cheeses to all our stores, grills and restaurants,” says Rogers. (Each store has a grill built in and a freestanding restaurant nearby). “It’s one of those things where I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be able to work with the cheeses I am most passionate about.”

If Rogers’ success with Evalon and Little Darling is any indication of what Standard Market is capable of, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

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