Ruth Klahsen: Rebel cheesemaker with a cause

Ruth Klahsen in a classic cheesemaker portrait photographed by Nigel Dixon for Toronto Life.

If you ask Ruth Klahsen, owner and lead cheesemaker at Monforte Dairy, how she got into making cheese, she’ll tell you, in that self-deprecating way she has: “I’m just an old broad who had a mid-life crisis!”

The real story is that Ruth is a graduate of the inaugural class of ’83 at the Stratford Chefs School where she also teaches cheesemaking. Her cuisine is well-known to patrons of premier restaurants Rundles and the Old Prune in Stratford, Ontario.

For 11 years, from 1990 to 2001, Ruth was the Chef and Manager of the Green Room of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival responsible not only for the entire smooth functioning of the kitchen but also the special on-site catering. When she walks into the Festival today, she still gets hugs from Festival staff and actors. She’s the one who bolstered their bodies and souls with truffles and caviar and anything their hearts desired . . . sometimes on the sly.

While at the Festival, Ruth dreamed of being a cheesemaker and made her own chèvre.

But managing a big operation took its toll and when budget restrictions conflicted with Ruth’s strong principles, she threw in her apron and apprenticed at a local sheep milk dairy.

By 2004, Ruth and a partner opened Monforte Dairy (refinancing her house for the start up money) and started making sheep-milk cheeses in a rented facility in Millbank, Ontario, just north of Stratford.

The partnership dissolved early on but Ruth continued making cheese and Monforte soon became known as southwestern Ontario’s premier artisanal cheese company. Ruth, clad in her vintage apron, sold her signature Toscano and other cheeses at numerous markets in the GTA, quickly gaining fans and followers among foodies, chefs and people who like cheese and remembered when almost every small town in Ontario had a dairy. Monforte doubled sales every year.

Known for its range of extraordinary cheeses, Monforte has become supplier of choice to five-star restaurants, leading wineries and progressive food retailers throughout Ontario. In the fall of 2009, Ruth was invited to the State dinner for Prince Charles and Camilla at Rideau Hall where her cheese was featured on the menu.

Not one to follow the well-worn path and no fan of bureaucracy and procedure, Ruth made the tough decision in January 2009 to pull out of the facility where she was making Monforte cheese, striking out on her own to realize her dream of creating a permanent home for Monforte. Monforte Renaissance 2010, a revolutionary microfinancing campaign through Community Shared Agriculture (CSA), was conceived to raise the capital to build Monforte’s new dairy.

CSAs were offered at three different levels—$250, $500 and $1000—paying out in cheese over five years. Close to $400,000 was raised from her loyal customer base—people who both love Monforte cheese and want to add their support to microproduction, sustainable farming and just food. Ruth has always said the farmers from whom she buys milk have to earn enough to afford piano lessons for their kids.

And the dairy got built. And the party thanking the subscribers and community is now the stuff of legend.

Located at 39 Griffith Road in the heart of an industrial park in Stratford, the dairy has a store front and garden and the sexiest, blingiest, edgiest paint job around thanks to installation artist Corinne Carlson and the graffiti artists at The Loft in Toronto.

Monforte has added cow’s milk cheese to the repertoire of sheep and goat cheese, crackers and charcuterie from the pigs fed Monforte whey. Faced with financial “pinch” in January 2010, Ruth once again appealed to her supporters for help. Within a week her supporters came through with a loan of $100,000.

Says Ruth in her blog, “What a privilege it is to be in this place at this time.”

When you meet Ruth Klahsen, ask her why the integrity of ingredients matter, why turning milk into cheese is a craft, why the bond between and farmer is important‑and worth preserving. Then stand back and listen.

—Maureen Argon

Maureen Argon, a widely published writer, was fortunate to work as the “shepherdess” at Monforte Dairy keeping the community in know during Monforte’s Renaissance year. Maureen now is the Chairman of Chairman Mo Media, a digital consultancy where she helps business people use social media to spread their message.

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