We’re in Vermont for the sold-out Vermont Cheesemakers Festival which takes place today. Yesterday, we took a guided tour to three farmstead cheese producers—and tasted our first Vermont cheese. The tour was conducted by the personable Chris Howell of Vermont Farm Tours.
Third stop: Twig Farm, home of farmstead goat milk cheese.
What is so striking about these three cheesemakers is how small they are, how devoted they are to farming, what care they give to their animals, the handling of the milk and the making of excellent cheese, and, especially, how hard they work.
Spending an evening tasting and discussing Ontario artisan cheeses under the guidance of a passionate professional is a wonderfully indulgent experience. Adding expertly paired VQA Ontario wines to the mix only serves to increase the decadence of the experience.
Culinarium hosted an evening of wine and cheese tasting last week that adhered to the Toronto gourmet food shop’s mantra “All Ontario, all the time.” Kathleen Mackintosh, founder of Culinarium, chose the evening’s cheeses, and she guided the eight eager students in attendance through the process of cheese tasting.
The Wine Rack provided the VQA wines, and Sherinne Quartermaine, the store’s manager, selected a variety of Ontario wines to pair with Kathleen’s four cheese choices. Both Kathleen and Sherinne gave their students general guidelines for tasting cheese and wine, but ultimately, they agreed tasting is a personal experience. They encouraged everyone to approach tasting in whatever way worked for them.
We started each pairing by tasting the cheese on its own, then the wine on its own. We discussed the flavours and characteristics of each, and then we tasted the cheese and wine together. First, we had a bite of the cheese followed by a sip of the wine, and we noted the ways in which the flavours changed, became more apparent, or were lost with the pairing. We then reversed the steps, tasting the wine first and then the cheese.
The first cheese we sampled was a sheep’s milk cheese produced by Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Prince Edward County near Picton, Ontario. The cheese, Lemon Fetish, was a firm, dry, feta-style cheese with citrus flavours.
Lemon Fetish was paired with Strut Sauvignon Blanc. When the cheese was sampled first, followed by the wine, the sauvignon blanc mellowed out the strong citrus flavours in the cheese, while the saltiness of Lemon Fetish made the Strut wine taste sweeter.
The tasting group as a whole agreed that when the approach was reversed, and the wine was followed by the cheese, the subtleties of the wine were lost to the strong flavours of the cheese. This was the case for most of the combinations sampled that evening, with the exception of the second pairing, which featured a bold Inniskillin Two Vineyards Merlot. The merlot was paired with a sharp 5-year cheddar produced by Maple Dale Cheese. The two paired nicely as neither overpowered the other.
During the evening’s tasting, the passion of both Kathleen and Sherinne for the craft of Ontario’s cheese and wine producers became apparent. Kathleen explained the human quality of artisan cheesemaking, describing it as a “hand-touched” and “human-tended” craft that required patience and care on the part of the cheesemaker.
Kathleen insisted this handcraft deserved the respect of the taster.
She argued that a taster should never ignore the rind of a cheese. As the only part of the cheese the maker can really affect, Kathleen believes we should taste the rind of every cheese we buy, out of respect for the cheesemaker.
We all gamely tried the rind of the Comfort Cream Camembert made by Upper Canada Cheese in the Niagara Peninsula. The bloomy rind added another dimension to the nutty flavours of this cheese. It was paired with a Jackson Triggs Reserve Cuvee Close, and they worked well together. The cheese made the wine taste creamier and sweeter.
Sherinne told the group of tasters the price of a wine is often a reflection of the care a grape receives. For that reason, she explained, ice wines are often pricier than other varieties. She described the labour of ice-wine making, in which pickers hand pick the frozen grapes in the middle of the night, in temperatures below minus 8 degrees Celsius.
In the case of Inniskillin Vidal Ice Wine, the hard work certainly paid off. The 2006 vintage we sampled is a multiple gold medal winner, and an older vintage of Inniskillin’s Vidal ice wine was served to President Barack Obama at his Nobel Peace Prize Dinner.
The ice wine was paired with Glengarry Fine Cheese’s Celtic Blue. The two paired nicely. While on its own, the ice wine was a bit syrupy and sweet for my liking (with a sugar code of 24), when paired with the sharp, tangy blue, I appreciated the sweetness of the ice wine.
When our four pairings had all gone down, and our taste buds were thoroughly satisfied, the night began to wind down. My tasting companion and I lingered in the store a bit longer, admiring the cheese selection. We finally took advantage of the 10 per cent discount offered to the guests, and picked up Fifth Town’s Lemon Fetish.
Perhaps we will be inspired to experiment with some wine pairings of our own.
Planning is well under way for the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival in 2011. That often means lunch meetings which, happily, means cheese on the table.
I had a chance to meet with Canadian cheese maven Kathy Guidi over lunch at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Cafe recently. What a treat it was to talk to Kathy—what with her decades of experience in Canadian cheese—and to enjoy one of Chef’s unique poutines: perfect frites with a healthy dollop of sauce bolognaise laced with Monforte Dairy’s Toscano cheese. I could have easily ordered a second serving but we had decided on a cheese plate for dessert, so I had to hold myself in check.
The cheese plate featured:
Le Rassembleu, an organic farmstead blue cheese from Fromagiers de la Table Ronde in the Laurentides region of Quebec. It has a lively creamy flavour, with the aroma of hay. The producers are fourth-generation cheesemakers.
Mouton Rouge, on the other hand, pleases the nose with a fresh and grassy aroma. A raw sheep-milk cheese created by Ewenity Dairy Co-operative in Southwestern Ontario, it has a lovely buttery taste that plays against the nutty reddish rind.
Grey Owl, a pasteurized goat-milk chèvre from Fromagerie la Detour in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec, near the New Brunswick border, looks and tastes outstanding, from its snowy white interior to riper regions to the black ash exterior.
A working lunch in the home office with festival co-ordinator Kip Jacques isn’t half bad either when the cheese plate features:
Pied-de-Vent, from the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is an an all-time favorite of mine. Smelly, creamy and tasty, Pied-de-Vent is my idea of a great cheese. Despite what some cheesemongers may tell you, it is available in Ontario.
Louis d’Or, a flavourful, complex Gruyere-like washed-rind cheese is made with the raw milk of the cheesemaker’s own Holstein and Jersey cows at Fromagerie du Presbytère in Central Quebec. Quite possibly, it’s Canada’s best “Swiss cheese.”
Le Bleu d’Élizabeth comes from the same Fromagerie du Presbytère and is an outstanding example of a Quebec blue. No, it’s defintely not named after Queen Elizabeth but rather Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick. The creamery occupies a former rectory in the village.
There is one other cheese plate in my notes from another working lunch but it was so disappointing that the proper thing to do would be to return to the name restaurant for another tasting before naming names.
One name I’d like to mention is Ezra’s Pound, a fair-trade coffee shop on Toronto’s Dupont Street. I’m so glad Andy Shay, a man of many talents when it comes to cheese, suggested we meet there as the croissants are to die for.
Have we mentioned that Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, loves his cheese?
A cheesemaking plant is a practical, utilitarian thing. To see one showcasing large pieces of both high and street art is unexpected, to say the least. But Ruth Klahsen, the cheesemaker responsible for the new Monforte Dairy plant’s artsy makeover, seems to enjoy keeping the public guessing.
The idea of a dairy-as-art-gallery began five years ago, when Ruth purchased a billboard-sized piece of art from an exhibit in Stratford. The billboard, created by Toronto-based artist Corinne Carlson, features a single word in a black font set against a silver background. The one word: “Baa?”
Ruth says she always knew she would display the billboard one day, but didn’t have the proper space for it at the old dairy. The unadorned walls of the new cheese plant seemed like a perfect spot for the billboard.
For the next art project, Ruth decided on an edgier direction. She commissioned an art piece from a group of Toronto graffiti artists affiliated with Life Opportunities Food and Technology, or LOFT, an organization devoted to inspiring youth involvement in community development projects.
For 10 years LOFT has run a graffiti art program that mainly produces murals in Toronto’s Bloorcourt neighbourhood. After hearing about LOFT’s artists from CBC’s Jane Farrow and learning about the community work done by the organization, Ruth invited LOFT’s artists to come to Stratford and paint the new plant.
For an entire weekend in June the artists, under the direction of Javid Alibhai, worked on a graffiti mural that covers the west side of the plant and a silo. Ruth left the content of the murals completely up to the artists.
“I gave them free rein. I didn’t want to interfere or put any restrictions on them,” Ruth says.
The result is a colourful mural featuring traditional farm images of cows and pastures, with a funky, urban feel. Large graffiti script covers the silo, including the words “Monforte Dairy.”
Ruth has no concerns that visitors to the dairy may find the plant’s artwork odd or unsightly. She says so far, both the mural and the billboard have been well-received.
“The response has been huge. I’ve heard nothing negative. Maybe the people with negative opinions aren’t saying anything, and that’s just fine. I think for the most part people enjoy seeing something innovative and exciting.”
Monforte began producing cheese at the new plant a month ago. So far, Ruth and her apprentices have made fresh sheep and goat varieties. By the end of July, Monforte will move on to cow’s milk cheese, and also begin working with buffalo milk when supply is sufficient.
All the cheeses produced are available at Monforte Dairy’s in-house store or at a number of farmer’s markets in Ontario.
Cheese makes news every day. That’s why we’ve started collecting links to the most interesting news reports of the week on a special page under the News tab at the top of the blog. Check it whenever you visit CheeseLover.ca.