|Sofia Solomon examines several rounds of aged cheese in the cooler at Tekla, Inc. Solomon is one of the most respected importers and distributors of cheese in the Chicago area. |
When we arranged to visit Sofia Solomon, we knew very little about her, just that she was one of Chicago's foremost purveyors of fine foods and wines, and that Judy Schad of Capriole Farms
esteemed her so highly that she'd named a cheese in her honor. Searching for the address Sofia had given us, we didn't know if we would find her in a restaurant, a retail grocer's or an office building. A sudden thunderstorm had burst over the city, coloring it a strange purple and obscuring the building numbers; wending our way through a maze of cobbled streets and gentrified industrial buildings, we nearly missed the office. Damp and bedraggled, we rang a buzzer for Tekla, Inc., the business Sofia named for her mother, and were ushered into a warehouse, stacked to the ceiling with balsamic vinegars, imported oils, and preserved fruits. Sofia, gracious and polished in a casual black suit, introduced herself, welcomed us, and motioned us to a reception area near her desk. She seemed utterly unfazed by our appearance (though, since I was covered in Godfrey's hair, she did ask that I sit in a leather chair to spare the upholstery), and promptly offered us champagne and a plate of cheeses and condiments. Coming in from a thoroughly wretched day, nothing could have been more restorative.
Tekla, Inc., was founded by Sofia and her late husband, Leonard, in the 1970s. What had evolved from the original business of spirits and caviar--Sofia told us of running a finger around the inside rim of a caviar barrel, licking the dried, briny bits--was a wholesale business in gourmet foods of all descriptions. Since they began to carry it in the 1990s, however, Sofia's love has been cheese. As she's educated herself on the subject, she's become passionate about it, and has passed along this fervor to her customers. Many of the renowned restaurants in Chicago, including Avec, Tru and Spiagia, come to Sofia for their cheeses. Often, she conducts mini workshops, discussing different varieties and principles of cheesemaking with chefs and restaurant staff. In some cases, she organizes tastings for the chef, in others, she's given rein to select trays for them from her caves. Most of the restaurants she works with rely on Sofia for their cheese's affinage, or aging, and in her two caves, she is continually assessing their ripeness in order to provide cheeses at their optimal state.
Though she deals primarily in French cheeses, Sofia has great praise for American artisanal cheesemakers. What she loves about them is their loyalty, to her, to the customer, and to each other. In her experience, she's found that American cheesemakers like to help each other, and often her latest finds come from the recommendations of rival cheesemakers. A wonderful Vermont cow's milk cheese she'd given us to sample, in fact, had come to her attention that way.
In the course of our discussion and tour of Tekla, Inc., we only briefly touched on the place of goats in the cheese pantheon. There was so much to see and taste in that bliss of rarefied foods that we wanted to experience and savor every morsel. That, it seems, is how Sofia Solomon conducts her life. Gesturing to the room around her, Sofia smiled and declared simply, "We like what we do, and as Leonard said, we eat and drink well." MMH