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May 27, 2011

Food Fight: Three cheers for wine, cheese, and beer at Pastoral

This is the third installment of Food Fight, a competition we're having to find next year's food columnists. We will make our decision based on a combination of reader and Maroon editor feedback. Go to chicagomaroon.com to voice your opinion.

“In my dreams/…the moon is made of bleu, / rivers flow with fondue, / and Limburger wafts in the breeze.” This tasty little verse is written on the chalkboard above the checkout counter at Pastoral, a small but satisfying shop that sells wine, beer, and, not surprisingly, cheese. Pastoral offers a sizeable, though not overabundant, selection of incredibly diverse artisanal cheeses running the gamut from funky to fresh. Since a large part of Pastoral’s mission is to provide customers with the highest quality products, they have plenty of local options from Vermont, Wisconsin, and even Michigan-- though there is a decent amount of imported cheese as well, mostly from England, Spain, and France. Pastoral has three locations throughout Chicago, each one bound to satisfy your need for cheese.

Pastoral also sells scrumptious sandwiches, ranging from about 6 to 10 dollars, all of which are made from the premium ingredients sold in the store. Le Canard is filled with melt-in-your-mouth duck confit, Fromager D’Affinois (a creamy, mild cloud of cheese), shallot confit, and grainy mustard. It’s definitely one of the best sandwiches I have ever had in Chicago. Their Sandwich Campagne (country pate, gruyere, cornichons) is also delicious, and their turkey sandwiches are supposed to be exceptional. Also up for grabs are salads, crusty baguettes made fresh every day, charcuterie, spreads, and small curiosities such as long-stemmed artichokes and artisanal crackers. If that isn’t enough, Pastoral creates lovely gift baskets sure to please any friend who goes all romantic and starry-eyed at the mention of fine meats and cheeses.

But I was not there to barter for gift baskets—oh, no. I only had eyes for the cheese counter, but I was going to need a little bit of help. If you ever choose to go to the Loop location ask for Gene, a possible culinary student who was destined to be my very own heavily bearded Virgil for the next half-hour. My guide allowed me to taste everything from roquefort to ricotta. For a good creamy cheese Gene gravitated towards Zingerman’s cream cheese, which, he explained, is not as sweet as your average shmear and has a slightly tangy, yogurt-y taste to it. Stinkiest cheese definitely goes to the ardrahan with its pungent notes of acerbic herb and chocolate. Gene’s personal favorite cheese is flagsheep, an English clothbound cheddar whose cheese maker, confusingly enough, also produces a cheese called Flagship. Another favorite is the winnimere, a cow’s milk cheese that is washed in lambic (dry, Belgian) beer, then wrapped in spruce bark, and ends up with a smoked bacon taste. It turned out to be yet another stellar recommendation from my own personal Gene Genie.

Maybe you can live without bark-rind beer-cheese, but can you live without wine? Body in wine is usually determined by alcohol content, and pungency in cheese by age. Essentially, you don’t want your wine to step on your cheese or vice versa. Pastoral helps in this matter by roughly organizing their wines into categories that compliment certain types of cheeses (e.g. light bodies pair with light and soft; creamy and gooey; and fresh and mild cheeses). Furthermore, cheese tends to go best with wines that are produced in the same area, and Pastoral, with its commitment to selling local wines and cheeses, is perfect for finding loads of well-matched combinations. Gene had several basic recommendations for wine and cheese pairings such as epoisses (a smelly, incredibly robust, and wonderful cheese with a mushy orange rind) with champagne or the classic Stilton blue cheese with port. Bottles range from $20 to $25, save for a select few that are a bit pricier.

In the summer time, though, nothing beats beer. Gene waxed poetic on the effervescence of beer bubbles for a while, then gave me a few recommendations. Pair goat cheese with French farmhouse beers such as Saison Du Pont, or finish off your fruity lambic beer with either wash-rind cheese or sturdy blue. Pastoral sells an excellent option called Point Reyes Blue—semi-firm, briny, luscious heaven. If you’re going to drink beer, you might as well eat cheese.

But enough about cheese and wine and beer and long-stemmed artichokes. What ultimately makes Pastoral a great find is that it’s a small space with a homey and unpretentious vibe. “Quality food and local economy come first,” Gene said. “We’re a small business, and we support small business.” Even though Pastoral is expanding, you will still get personal attention from its knowledgeable yet laid-back staff, something that’s hard to come by. Gene eventually convinced me to go with the Dante (sheep’s milk from Wisconsin,) and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I left the store, a dreamer in a cheese daze, and as the door swung shut behind me I enjoyed a final waft of the Limburger breeze.

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