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Cheese, Please

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In the Old Town warehouse of Tekla, Inc., Sofia Solomon gingerly unwraps, several giant pyramids of Pointe de Bique, a goat cheese from the Loire Valley in France. Next to the wrinkly, golden-hued pyramids that have been aged 30 days, a group of similarly shaped but moldy specimens rests in a wooden crate, resembling something you might find in the back of your refrigerator after several weeks of neglect-splotchy, discolored, and somewhat deflated from the humidity. Solomon offers me a taste of the moldy cheese, which has already begun to ooze after 45 days of aging. "On cheeses, molds are good," she says. "The more you age, the more complex the characteristics." In this case, the older cheese is nuttier, with a more pronouncedly acidic aftertaste. "The mold acts as a skin," she says. "it allows the inside to develop more... it's like putting a coat on."

Solomon his been educating cheese lovers for the past 20 years, since she and her husband, E. Leonard Solomon, started a modest wholesaling business out of their home. Tekla, named after Sofias Ukrainian mother, has grown steadily the past two decades to become the largest importer of specialty cheese and caviar in Chicago, supplying most of the city's finer restaurants and gourmet food markets. But Solomon says she'd probably still be in bookkeeping if she hadn't met Leonard in the mid-1960s.

Leonard Solomon was the owner of Marina City Drugs & Liquors and one of the biggest wine importers in the city when he approached Sofia, then 19 and a regular customer, and offered her a job. She was already employed as a bookkeeper, but went to work for Leonard in the evenings as a cashier. The two started dating a few months later and were married in 1971.

The Solomon family, owners of Solomon Drugs, had started importing wine during prohibition, when only drugstores could sell liquor--by prescription. This eventually led to an expanded business in gourmet foods and a retail outlet, Leonard Solomon's Wine Warehouse. The Solomons had also imported caviar from Russia and Iran since 1933, but in the late 70s Leonard's suppliers in Iran evaporated as the hostage crisis consumed the headlines and trade with Iran was prohibited. They set up Tekla to import caviar through a French connection. In 1980, Sofia flew to Paris to meet with Christian Petrossian, of the largest importer of Russian caviar in the world. She instantly won him over and became Petrossian's exclusive midwest distributor.

In their cozy Old Town coach house, the Solomons began stockpiling tins of caviar, as well as smoked salmon, eel, sturgeon, and foie gras, to sell to a few select customers. Weekly shipments started heading out to the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton and Ambria from their tiny, four-by-five-foot cooler.

"I would try to find things no one else had," Sofia says. "I was the first to bring in shiitakes.... Chefs started asking for all kinds of things, so I tried to accommodate them."

Ten years later Sofia went to a food fair in Avignon. There she met Chantal Plasse, a Frenchwoman living in San Francisco. She was the U.S. importer for the famed Parisian cheese store Androuet, and they were looking for a partner to bring French cheeses to the midwest.

Tekla began importing about 100 pounds of cheese every two weeks, and Sofia convinced stores like Treasure Island, Convito Italiano, and Chalet Gold Coast to carry her products. But after several years of business with Androuet, one day her shipment did not arrive. Instead, she received a letter saying the company had been sold and would no longer be exporting to the U.S. "That was it," says Sofia. "I was expecting my shipment, and had nothing. Air France had bought the company and had sold it off. They weren't interested in the cheese." Undeterred, she contacted Chantal Plasse, who was in Lyon recuperating from an injury. Plasse got on the phone with Pierre Androuet, who eventually agreed to put her in touch directly with the producers--provided, he said, she could arrange for the affinage.

Affinage is, in Sofia Solomon's words, "the finishing school for cheese"--the careful process by which cheese is handled, aged, and cured. Without proper affinage, fine French cheeses would never survive the trip to the U.S. The process had always been the domain of Androuet, but Plasse agreed to set up her own warehouse in Lyon and act as affineur for the Solomons.

Now, Plasse buys cheese from small producers in France, which is aged and cured under her supervision in Lyon, then packed by trained affineurs at the airport for shipment to O'Hare, where it's unloaded and trucked--still crated--to Tekla's warehouse. "They're living, breathing things" says Sofia. "Not Kraft slices. They give off gases; they need to be handled carefully."

These days Tekla imports more than a thousand pounds of cheese every other week and up to two thousand pounds a week during the holidays. Sofia stores the cheeses at a constant 50 to 55 degrees in a low-air-current cooler to prevent them from drying out Some of her favorites include a French sheep's milk cheese called P'tit Severin, which gets its flavor from the straw it's cured on, and a handmade Roquefort Carles ("the king of cheeses"). "Some are seasonal, and some we bring in because we want to reflect the various districts, different milks, and geographic balance of France," she says.

While Tekla's warehouse is not open to the public, the Solomons' other business, Leonard Solomon's Wine & Spirits (which shares office space with Tekla), still does retail business online (www.winecheese.com) and. you can find many of their 200-plus cheeses in local restaurants. The Ritz and Ambria are still two of their biggest supporters, but Tekla products also appear at Tru, Charlie Trotter's, Les Nomades, Spiaggia, 160 Blue, and Everest, just to name a few.

Tekla, Inc., 312-915-5914.

STEVE DOLINSKY

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

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