Eat This

Sigel's Crazy Wonderful Irish Cheese Lady

In 1940's Belfast, Ireland, there lived the Magee family. Six daughters were born one after the other, followed by five sons all squeezed into a two-bedroom row house. The neighbors on one side were the McCormicks, who had 10 kids. On the other side were the Dunnigans, also with 10 kids. All told, more than 30 children in three row houses through which they all ran rampant.

And stuck in the middle was little Theresa Magee.

Growing up Magee always wanted to come to America, so, as a teenager she got a job as a nanny in New Jersey. The family she stayed with ran a gourmet food shop, thus beginning her lifelong love for fine food.

Fast-forward about 40 years. To set the stage, we're at the Sigel's liquor store off Inwood near Belt Line Road in Addison. The one with the retro-Vegas sign out front. Through the front doors, past the cash registers, opposite the rows of wine and liquor is a deli. It's spacious and clean, although for some odd reason, there's not a retro-Vegas sign with bright flashing lights announcing that just ahead is the best-kept secret in Dallas.

Magee works behind a large cooler filled with a bouquet of cheeses. Handwritten signs stand like flags above all the wrapped wedges and wheels declaring their countries of origin and best qualities. It's along the lines of the opening ceremonies at the Olympics.

On my first visit, as soon as I walked up Magee handed me some cheese samples. She's a giver. I didn't have to ask or stammer about how I didn't know where to start. It was an Old Québec March 2006 super sharp cheddar. Then we worked east. Second was a five-year Parmesan that she told me she aged in the back. What? You age cheese? In the back of a liquor store?

"All of my Parmesans are aged three to five years," Magee said. "I just know when cheese is ready. It's sort of a sixth sense. When I get wheels in I can tell if they're ready just by squeezing. Same with soft cheeses. Sometimes they're not ready in the middle so I'll keep them in the back while they ripen."

So, a vivacious Irish lady ripens and ages gourmet cheeses in the back of Sigel's...

We keep moving. Next is Parrano cheese, which is a semi firm cow's milk cheese, produced in Netherlands. It's sharp and reminds me of Parmesan, but is technically Gouda. Sort of like my friend's cat that thinks she's a dog.

I begin to get parched and contemplate the Champagne demo upfront. But just as I turn toward it, I hear glass shatter and see the store director, Dimitrios Economu, standing over a small pile of broken shards with two coworkers. They're all grinning sheepishly. Magee yells at them, "Keep the pieces for good luck."

She explains it's his birthday, and he's Greek (so they break glass). Then this little firecracker named Leah, who works there too, came running back to the deli where she and Magee started talking 90 mph. I couldn't understand a word they're saying, but I figured out she's from England, and I think they've developed one of those secret languages like twins do.

They laugh and cut up. Economu comes over, hands me a sample glass of Champagne and joins the ruckus. He jokingly asks me not to make fun of the way Magee talks and continues to chide her. They're having too much fun for "work" and the health or labor departments surely should be notified. I never had a job like this. In my jobs I sat in a cube with bad lighting and had a boss with poorly chosen highlights. Here was the League of Nations Comedy Tour surrounded by booze and cheese.

And I haven't even gotten to half of it yet.

We continued the cheese tour with a Castello Denmark triple cream blue cheese. Magee scampered to the back and returned with a sliced crisp red apple and told me to eat it with the cheese. Then we had a Meadowkaas first spring Gouda. Please allow me to explain why this is such a great cheese: After the long, dark bitter winter in Northern Holland, and the snow has melted, the cows leave their cozy little red barns to gorge on sweet lush spring grass. This cheese, which comes in limited quantity, is the product of that first joyous outing. After you try it, you'll agree: Them's some happy cows.

Next Magee had me try a Chaubier semi-soft cheese from France, which is half cow and half goat milk. It is just as wonderful as the others although in a completely different way. I suppose it would be like having 11 kids -- you love them each for their own special qualities.

Magee is an expert at pairing customers and cheeses. She's like a matchmaker. Everyone who walked up eventually walked away with a look on their face like they had found a gem. Others came with purpose and went directly to the cheese they wanted, said hi to Magee and left. I thought she would surely tell everyone about the happy cows in Holland, but she steered differently explaining, "I'll watch their face for reactions. Sometimes I just know from previous visits what a customer likes, but sometimes their tastes change over time. And it doesn't matter at all what I like. It all depends on each customer."

She proudly added, "I have customers that have followed me around for over 15 years. Some tell me I'm the best-kept secret in Dallas. Tell me about it, I says."

Impressed by her high energy I asked her age, "Twenty-one and a wee bit." Then she peered over her glasses at me and said, "And the wee bit is my own business."

Aside from a deli at the back of a liquor store with a jubilant Belfast native at the helm, a Greek guy cracking jokes and a cute-as-a-button English girl running amok, there are many other surprises here. Perusing the cooler cases in the deli, of course I found duck potpie made from scratch by our Irish hostess. Every around-the-way liquor store has duck potpie, right? The flaky buttery crust is a delicate, perfect little home for the ample portions of duck meat that are sautéed in a succulent white wine and cream sauce. Each bite has something different to offer -- crust, meat, sauce, vegetables or a combo of any.

Magee also makes gourmet sandwiches on-the-spot, all made with premium meats like San Pietro prosciutto, Ponto Panino ham and Molinari & Sons salame. She uses fresh bread that is baked in the kitchen in the back of the store and piles each sandwich with half a pound of meat. There are also whole roasted chickens and ducks (call ahead for availability).

Paying homage to the food on which she was raised in Ireland, Magee carries Irish sausage and bacon along with flat potato bread. If you ask, she'll explain how to properly make a traditional Ulster Irish breakfast as well.

By far, though, Saturday mornings are the most fun. That's when Magee and Pedro, who also works in the kitchen, arrive early to make Irish soda bread. Once an Irish guy came in all surly and said, "I'll try one loaf of soda bread to see if it's real."

Magee said he came back the next week and said, "Yep, it's real," and bought five loaves.

One Saturday while I was there to talk to her about her quaint deli, she made me a cup of hot tea, served the Irish way (lots of sugar and milk). Then she wanted me to sample the bread so she smeared a heap of creamy butter onto a fat slice of fresh soda bread. The tea and buttered bread were pure goodness, the kind of stuff that sustains people.

The duck potpie is worthy of a special trip in and of itself. Make it on a Saturday though, so you can get the Irish soda bread fresh. It freezes well, so, buy extra. Grab a sandwich for lunch, then pick out a wine and have Magee pair it with some cheeses for the evening. Finally, get the potato bread and Irish ham for breakfast on Sunday morning to go with the second loaf of soda bread (after you eat the first that day). I recommend the loaf with raisins.

Now you know the best-kept secret in the city. Let's keep it on the down low though. No flashing neon signs. Just those happy cows in Holland and us, OK? Shhhhh...

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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