The Big Cheese

As a lover of good food and explorer of this great city, I couldn’t believe I had lived on the South Side for three years and never heard of the Great American Cheese Collection. Opened about fifteen years ago by Giles Schnierle, this warehouse and foodie destination has over 300 cheeses from around 67 different small producers. Schnierle, a former chef, stepped into gourmet food distribution after selling his catering business in 1986, and eventually found a niche in artisan North American cheeses. Aside from a few retailers in Chicago, Schnierle distributes nearly all of his cheese to chefs and restaurants across the country. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a professional gourmand to walk away with a piece of this valuable collection–the warehouse is open to the public for tastings every Saturday morning.

The warehouse, just off 47th Street, sits among auto repair workshops, hardware stores, and food manufacturers in the Brighton Park neighborhood. Visitors walked through the loading dock door into a refrigerated room with a long table covered in wheels and wedges of cheese. The Myrtlewood, a soft, natural rind cheese from Sweetgrass Dairy in Georgia and inspired by those in the French Pyrenees, has a “complex” flavor, which is really another way of saying “extremely pungent.” The Fontina from Park Cheese in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was quite dense and different from any I’ve ever tasted. Schnierle explained that it’s temporarily covered in a yeast rind, giving it a flavor he calls “tacky.” It should make an incredible mac and cheese. The Pepato, also from Park Cheese, is a romano cheese with whole peppercorns. I found that the peppercorns’ bursts of sharp, acerbic flavor overwhelmed any taste of the cheese itself. I expected the Olive Tapenade Gouda from Eichtens Hidden Acres in Minnesota to have the same intense pockets of flavor, but was pleasantly surprised to find its flavor homogenous, an excellent balance of olive and gouda. The woman serving us mentioned that another customer suggested thin slices of the Olive Tapenade Gouda melted on a ham sandwich. “This cheese is soon to be famous,” she said.
Great American Cheese Collection, 4727 S. Talman Ave. Every Saturday, 10am-1pm. (773)779-5055.