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The Only Cheese Shop in Town

Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page F07

With a nod to the Old World practice of highly specialized food shops, a charming store dedicated to American and European artisanal and farmhouse cheeses opened in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria last week. Cheesetique is owned by Del Ray resident Jill Erber, a former software developer and gourmet food products wholesaler who was looking for a new challenge. It turned out to be cheese.

"I just love cheese. There's always something new to learn," says Erber, who transformed a vintage television repair shop into an inviting space with wheat-colored walls and a painted checkerboard floor. "I love the whole process, the small farmers taking care of their animals and producing great cheeses."

On opening day, there were about 50 cheeses on display. "It's not huge. I'm going for quality and diversity but I don't want it to be overwhelming," she says.

Prices range from $9 per pound for a mild, nutty, Swiss Emmanthaler to $29 per pound for a hearty, herb-flavored, sheep's milk pecorino from Tuscany. There are surprises. What appears to be a white-iced cake displayed on a pedestal turns out to be an unusual Stilton studded with fresh mango and ginger. The beautiful Bundt is a not-too-sweet, lemon-flavored, baked ricotta cake. Detailed information cards describe where the cheeses are from and serving suggestions.

There is more than cheese. Along one wall are cheese serving trays and platters and the all-important selection of crackers, as well as cheese accompaniments such as fruit pastes, honey and olive oil.

"People want this sort of thing, in this neighborhood in particular," says Erber after offering a sample of a very nice aged Gouda. "People like the experience of shopping at independently owned stores where the owner is in the shop and they can tell you about the products."

Cheesetique, 2403 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; call 703-706-5300; see www.cheesetique.com. Open Tuesday to Friday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., Closed Monday.

-- Walter Nicholls

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