Wherein the Fearless and Intrepid Lindsay and Matt Consume Much Free Meats and Cheeses Before Purchasing Even More.
The Pastoral Artisan Producer Fest, an annual April tradition held in the Chicago French Market, serves up a crowd-pleasing recipe for disaster: free samples of meat, cheese, and alcohol to any hungry Chicagoan who wanders in the door. With nearly one-hundred locally-sourced, artisanal, and talented vendors, the Fest may be one of the city’s best opportunities to eat well at zero cost. When we arrived at 11am, no wonder the place was already packed to the gills.
One can easily get overwhelmed in the crowds, and the many patrons cutting in line to get samples. Here’s the thing, though: there is enough for everybody. Really. As such we tried, as best we could, to take our time: wait in lines, sample everything we could, talk closely with the vendors and makers about their products, snap photos when we had the chance, and save our favorite selections for purchase at the Pastoral counter at the back of the market. So, we meandered amongst the fifty tables, each showcasing two of the nearly one hundred producers of fine meats, cheeses, wines, spirits, and other accompaniments from around the country. With this slow-going method, we sampled the offerings at about half the tables (snaking through the lines at all of them would have taken all day) and took special attention to spend time at the section devoted entirely to Wisconsin cheese makers.
Matt quickly made a bee-line for the charcuterie purveyors. Deservedly, much praise has been heaped upon West Loop Salumi right here in Chicago, and we did love their selections. At the end of the day, though, we could not escape the draw of the Stagberry Salame (pictured at center in the above photo) made by Smoking Goose Meatery in Indianapolis. Stagberry features ground elk – a meat neither of us had tried before – studded with blueberries and soaked in honey wine. A brilliant balance of bold flavors, this hiking-trip in a sausage was worth every penny of its $36.99/lb price. At the end of the day we purchased half a stick for a very reasonable eight dollars.
Cheese was everywhere at the fest, with over one third of the vendors dedicated specifically to cheese. Wisconsin, as we mentioned before, boasted its own section – including the amazing offering of a free map of Wisconsin cheesemakers, which now sits in our glove compartment in case of emergencies. We made a point, however, to venture outside the Dairy State this day: Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor, Michigan (above) served up samples of its aged, soft Manchester and Little Napoleon cheeses. We were also big fans of their burrata, a creamy mozzarella mixture, and went back for seconds. Our were won, however, by the Bijou produced by Vermont Creamery: a simple, French-inspirted, aged goat’s milk cheese that was perfect for spreading and reminded us of similar table offerings we often encountered in Portugal. At $10.99 for two, we took one and ate it for lunch (in addition to all the other samples we had).
Finally, while meat and cheese ruled the day, we can’t overlook the other offerings. Patrons had a seemingly endless choice of wine and spirits, dessert items, as well as other accompaniments. A great match for many of the cheese would have been one of the local, organic fruit spreads orpreserves from Pear Tree Preserves, based right here in Chicago. We had a cherry preserve that was delectable, great for pairing, eating alone, or thickening into a pie filling. You can check out their current flavors list.
While we were forced to make purchases – and we hope others did as well, as it seems sinful to wade through all these free samples of skilled labor and not buy anything - honestly, we didn’t dislike a single thing we tried. As such, don’t consider our list exhaustive or best-of-the-best by any means. Take a look at the Fest’s vendor list, and support these local makers even if you did not have a chance to attend!