Cheese fuels passion to organize a better Festival

Here are the cheeseheads who work behind the scenes to make The Great Canadian Cheese Festival happen. From the left, Lin Chong, registration co-ordinator, Jackie Armet, cheese co-ordinator, Becky Lamb, volunteer co-ordinator, Terry Chong, operations manager, Karin Desveaux, executive director, Peta Shelton, Prince Edward County liaison officer, Ivy Knight, cheese gala co-ordinator, and Rebecca Crosgrey, event co-ordinator and assistant to Georgs Kolesnikovs, founder and director.

When they worked up an appetite during a recent planning session, here’s the cheese they dove into for lunch:

Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese: Hard and Semi-Hard, two impressive cheeses, the first like a Gruyere, the second like a Gouda, produced by Shep Ysselstein, a young chessemaker, in southwestern Ontario.

Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser: Tomme du Haut-Richelieu, a lovely washed-rind, goat-milk cheese from one of Quebec’s artisan-cheese pioneers.

Brillat-Savarin: A luscious triple-cream Brie with a truffle from France was devoured with much smacking of the lips.

Fromagerie Le Détour: The distinctive Grey Owl—with its dark ash rind—is sweet, tangy and creamy, a terrific example of the high standard of goat-milk-cheese production in Quebec.

Fromagerie de l’Abbaye Saint-Benoît: Bleu Bénédictin, a Canadian classic made under the supervision of Benedictine monks in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Époisses Berthaut: An extraordinary washed-rind cow’s milk cheese with a natural red tint from Burgundy in France is too powerful for some, worshiped by others. Ours came to us courtesy of Glen Echo Fine Foods.

Fan mail, comments and ideas will reach the Festival event staff via cheeseheads @ cheeselover.ca.

Desperately seeking cheese in Montreal restaurants

What restaurants, bistros and cafes in Montreal present really nice artisan cheese plates? Or have artisan cheese on display and for sale?

Which chefs in Montreal do a wonderful job of using artisan cheese to create outstanding dishes on their menus?

Those are the questions I urgently need answers for because an international food magazine has given me the editorial assignment to produce such a featured report for an upcoming edition. Alas, I’ve let the assignment slide and now the deadline is imminent. I have a pile of notes from frequent visits to Montreal but I’d love feedback from locals.

When you eat out in Montreal, where do you go for a real treat in a cheese plate or a cheese dish?

Where is the best poutine served? Who grills the best cheese sandwich? Who makes the best cheesecake or the cheesiest pizza?

In Montreal itself and within an hour’s drive of downtown.

Please leave a comment or send me an email. I’ll give you a research credit in a future post.

Thank you for your help.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Our Cheesehead-in-Chief is a lifelong journalist. In his other life, he publishes Circumnavigator, an annual magazine about voyaging the world in specialized powerboats.

In praise of aged Comté and belle Bleu l’Élizabeth

Bliss: Comté, Bleu l'Élizabeth and a glass of Jim Jim.

Sometimes, a board featuring only two cheeses is more than enough to satiate the senses. Last night was such a time at our house. Significant Other and I started with a divine 24-month Comté and stopped talking for the longest spell while moaning with delight about Le Bleu l’Élizabeth.

The fully mature Comté was recommended to us by Geoff at Chris’ Cheesemongers in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. He knows how much we enjoy an Alpine cheese such as Beaufort d’Alpage.

Comté has been made in the Jura Mountains in southeast France since the 12th century. It has the highest production figures of all the French AOC cheeses (51,000 tons in 2005, or about 1,275,000 wheels every year), a testament to its distinctive deliciousness.

It’s a raw cow-milk cheese with a natural brushed rind that is aged on average for eight months. The maturing period ranges from four months (the legal minimum ) to 12, 18 or even 24 months.

Comté: Spectacular caves to age a spectacular cheese.

Being a French AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) cheese, its production is tightly controlled:

  • Delimited area of production: Doubs, Jura, Ain, elevation 1,500-4,500 ft.
  • Milk must be produced by local cows of the Montbéliarde (95%) and Simmental (5%) breeds. There are about 112,000 Comté cows.
  • Minimum of 2.5 acres of natural pasture for each animal.
  • Cattle feed must be natural and free of fermented products and genetically modified organisms (GMO).
  • Each fruitière must collect milk from dairy farms within a 20-kilometre diameter at maximum.
  • Milk must be made into cheese within 24 hours of the earliest milking. Of course no modified milk ingredients (MMI) are allowed.
  • Only natural ferments must be used to transform the milk into curds.
  • Wheels must be aged on spruce boards.

It takes as many as 530 litres of milk, which is about the daily production of 30 cows, all to make one wheel of Comté weighing 40 kilograms. Those numbers are staggering in a world where progress is measured in ever increasing productivity and, sadly, often decreasing quality.

The texture is firm, the rind is grey-brown and pebbled, and the flavours burst forth in so many ways: Complex, nutty and caramelized with a lingering but not sharp flavor. The taste is variable depending on the age and the season of the milk. It’s typically described as salty, mild, and fruity. Some Comté has strong hazelnut flavours, other exhibits subtle hints of nutmeg.

Comté goes well with either dry white or light red wines, but we’re fans of bold fruit-forward wines, thus, we paired both cheeses with our last bottle of Jim Jim, a 2008 Australian shiraz.

Our cave-aged Comté was made by Fromageries Arnaud. $8.99/100g @ Chris’ Cheesemongers

I only expected SO to pick up the Comté at Chris’s, but when she spotted Bleu l’Élizabeth, she couldn’t resist one of our favourite blues. It was the perfect match for the Comté and made for a memorable evening. Sides of duck paté with pistachio and rare roast-beef slices and a caraway rye only enhanced the experience.

Writing in The Globe and Mail, Sue Riedl described the cheese as a “mellow blue even the blue-skeptic will love.” Bleu l’Élizabeth is much more than that. As Kathy Guidi writes in Canadian Cheese: A Pocket Guide, “The flavour, initially sweet with balanced salt and a piquant finish, is impeccable.”

Indeed, Bleu l’Élizabeth is a beauty, and unusually creamy and rich, with prominent Penicillium roqueforti veins that are blue, or green, according to the eye of the beholder. In 2009, it was declared the gold standard in Selection Caseus, the chief cheese competition in Quebec.

A former rectory houses Fromagerie du Presbytère in Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick.

The cheese is made in Sainte-Elizabeth de Warwick in central Quebec at Fromagerie du Presbytère housed in the former rectory of the village Roman Catholic church. Across the street is La Ferme Louis d’Or where Holstein and Jersey cows provide the organic raw milk for cheesemaking, after feasting on clover, bluegrass and other organic grains in season, dry hay in the winter.

Brothers Louis and Dominique are the fourth generation of the Morin family to run the dairy farm. Louis started cheesemaking almost 20 years ago, under the Fromagerie du Presbytère label four years ago this month.

Bleu l’Élizabeth is a true farmstead cheese, generally aged two to three months. $6.99/100g @ Chris’s Cheesemongers

Louis d’Or, the Alpine-style cheese that won Caseus 2010, is also made at Fromagerie du Presbytère as is buttery Le Champayeur, a soft-ripened cheese.

The question is, after two gold medals in the Caseus competition, how will Jean Morin next knock our socks off?

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-In-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, plans to visit Fromagerie du Presbytère again in the next month or three to seek the answer.

Tasting the best of Quebec cheese from Caseus 2010

Georgs Kolesnikovs and Kathy Guidi taste and talk cheese outside A Taste of Quebec in Toronto. Photo by Tetsuto Ozawa.

You can tell two people meeting for an informal cheese tasting are head-over-heels in love with cheese when they both show up with cheese board and cheese knives in hand.

Kathy Guidi and I had a chuckle about that when we met at A Taste of Quebec in Toronto’s Distillery District to sample the gold and silver medalists in Selection Caseus 2010, the chief cheese competition in Quebec. (We used her board as it was larger.)

Kathy, who has forgotten more about cheese than most of us will ever know, is the author of the newly published Canadian Cheese: A Pocket Guide and a long-time cheese educator and consultant to cheesemakers and cheesemongers.

The Caseus 2010 overall winners are:

The first two are generally available at A Taste of Quebec managed by Thomas Sokoloski and other cheese shops. The third I’ve had to order from Leslieville Cheese Market; more on Le Monnoir in a future post.

The dairy goodness of Louis d'Or tastes as good as it looks.

Louis d’Or is a relatively new firm cheese made by Jean Morin, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, at Fromagerie Presbytère housed in a former rectory across the street from the Morin organic dairy farm in tiny St. Elizabeth de Warwick, about two hours east of Montreal.

When I visited Fromagerie du Presbytère last summer, Jean Morin told me he was proudest of Louis d’Or of all the cheese he makes, and that includes Bleu d’Élizabeth, a favourite at CheeseLover.ca, which was the Caseus gold medalist in 2009.

“It’s a beautiful cheese,” Kathy said of Louis d’Or, nutty, with floral notes. Me, I love the milky richness of the cheese, a testament to the organic raw milk provided by the Morin family’s Holstein and Jersey cows. The Louis d’Or we had was maybe a tad dry as it didn’t quite have the knock-your-socks-off quality that I recall from last summer.

Flavourful Hercule de Charlevoix is one of the many outstanding Quebec cheeses.

There was no question our Hercule de Charlevoix was at the top of its game. Fruity, creamy, complex, with a delicious rind. One of the great cheeses of Quebec, no doubt about it. Another example of what a powerhouse of gastronomy the Charlevoix region of Quebec is—and how Jersey cows often lead to superb cheese.

“Don’t let the bold aromatics intimidate you from trying Hercule,” Kathy writes in her book. The flavour is actually quite refined.

Bleu de la Moutonnière is an amazing blue made by Lucille Giroux.

For our third cheese, Kathy recommended we try Bleu de la Moutonnière—and I am so glad she did!

If you believe a blue cheese must be soft, creamy and veined, you might be put off by the appearance of this Bleu. It looks more like a clothbound cheddar than a blue, although bursts of blue are clearly visible. But so much taste, so much flavour, and very blue indeed. Kudos to cheesemaker Lucille Giroux and her partner Alistair MacKenzie.

In her book, Kathy says, “This distinctive blue offers the epitome of zesty blue piquant and salt flavour balance while allowing other mores subtle, sweet, grassy cheese flavours to shine through.”

When I gave two budding caseophiles a taste of all three cheeses a few days later, they could not say which one was their favourite because all three seemed so outstanding to them, each in its own distinctive way.

That’s the sign of memorable cheese plate, isn’t it? All cheeses so tasty you cannot pick only one as a favourite.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Three months after his last visit to Quebec, Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, says he’s overdue for another trip to La Belle Province.

The joy of working over lunch—with Canadian cheese

Jamie Kennedy's take on poutine at Gilead Cafe.

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.

Le Bleu d’Élizabeth, Pied-de-Vent and Louis d'Or at the home office.

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.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Have we mentioned that Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, loves his cheese?

A Canadian cheese plate fit for the G20

Le Belle de Jersey ~ Les Bergeries du Fjord

Thank goodness the G20 madness in Toronto is over. The politicians have departed, the hooligans are in jail, the barricades are coming down. As far as we can see, the only bright note was the promotional opportunity for Canadian cheese.

The main meal for the assembled world leaders in the Royal York Hotel began with an appetizer of fresh Atlantic seafood followed by custom-aged filet mignon from the Spring Creek Ranch in Alberta.

Blue Juliette ~ Salt Spring Island Cheese

They then sampled a selection of four Canadian cheeses: Blue Juliette from Salt Spring Island Cheese in British Columbia, a Toscano from Ontario’s Monforte Dairy, and two Quebec artisan offerings—Le Belle de Jersey from Les Bergeries du Fjord and La Fleurmier from Laiterie Charlevoix.

(No snide remarks, please, about the preponderance of soft “girly” cheeses at this alpha-male feast.)

Each course was paired with red and white Canadian wines, and the food will be served on white bone Villeroy & Boch china. A dessert buffet featured Nanaimo bars and the work of two Toronto chocolatiers.

Julia Rogers of Cheese Culture, a leading expert on Canadian cheeses, and foreign fromage, too, was delighted for the cheese producers involved:

“Bravo to the creative Canadian cheesemakers who’ve managed to score some face-time with the world’s leaders. The selection features delicate, surface-ripened Fleurmier, from Québec’s dairy mecca: the Charlevoix region. Belle de Jersey highlights the rich milk of English Channel Island cows—a rare breed in Canada—in a supple, Reblochon-esque washed rind. B.C.’s contribution comes from David Wood, whose Salt Spring Island cheeses are appreciated across the country. Blue Juliette is a petite, pillowy round with earthy, mineral flavours and a steely blue-grey complexion. Rounding out the plate, and giving it some muscle, is Monforte Dairy’s Toscano, a firm and forthright sheep milk offering that despite its Ontario origin, expresses Central Italian caccio di pecora typicity.”

La Fleurmier ~ Laiterie Charlevoix

Here are links to more information about the G20 cheese plate:

Le Fleurmier
Latterie Charlevoix
Baie-St-Paul, Charlevoix region of Quebec

Le Belle de Jersey
Les Bergeries du Fjord
La Baie, Saguenay region of Québec

Blue Juliette
Salt Spring Island Cheese
Salt Spring Island, Gulf Islands region of British Columbia

Toscano
Monforte Dairy
Stratford, Southwestern Ontario

Toscano ~ Monforte Dairy

At CheeseLover.ca, we’ve enjoyed Le Fermier and Toscano in the past, but now, thanks to the G20, we have Le Belle de Jersey and Blue Juliette on our shopping list.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs is Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca. His date with Le Belle de Jersey and Blue Juliette will have to wait as the cheese bin still is full of souvenirs from Warwick.

Sweet goat-cheese mousse: What a concept!

Spectacular fireworks open Winterlude in Ottawa. Photo by Dennis Catangay.

Kicking back in Zoe’s Lounge at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa is a fine way to conclude a road trip that started 10 hours earlier. We have a window table under the atrium with a view of the stately National Arts Centre and Wellington Street where pedestrians in parkas and toques scurry back and forth.

As we had a productive meeting earlier in Picton to discuss the Ontario cheese trail concept, I’d like to end the day on a cheese high. I order a French onion soup, make a “Canadian cheese board” my main, and finish the meal with what turns out to be an exceptional apple cake.

The aroma from the duo of cheeses—Gruyere and Oka, both from Quebec—on the onion soup makes it soooooooo inviting. Significant Other makes a note to combine the two on a grilled cheese sandwich sometime. The soup itself is rich and hearty. (Why is that the closer one gets to the Quebec, the better the French onions soups taste?)

The Canadian cheese plate is fine in an ordinary sort of way: Oka is always nice, three-year Balderson Heritage Cheddar has bite, Ermite from Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac has blue tang and a linger of mushrooms, while the Chevalier Triple Cream Brie is suitably creamy. On the side there is a tasty mission-fig chutney and a perfect cluster of small grapes.

But the piece de resistance is the apple cake, more specifically, brown butter apple cake served with roasted walnut vanilla ice cream, marinated cranberries, drizzle of creme anglaise and caramel sauce, and—Wait for it!—a dollop of sweet goat-cheese mousse.

What an amazing flavour! The sweetened whipped cream is a perfect match for the goat cheese. A perfect end to the meal and a day on the road to visit Ottawa for Winterlude.

Twelve Cheeses of Christmas

Pied-de-Vent from the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

With 12 outstanding cheeses to enjoy during the holidays, we’ve never had a Christmas quite like this one.

It all started when Significant Other and I decided to present cheese plates instead of sweets for dessert at our house, and to take cheese to friends as gifts. As a result, here’s what we tasted (after spending a small fortune on almost eight kilograms of cheese), sort of in the order of our preference:

1) Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage

After we finished our list of planned purchases at Chris’s Cheesemongers in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, we asked, Geoff, our favorite cheesemonger there, what he’d recommend that would blow our socks off. He didn’t hesitate: “Beaufort,” and gave us a taste. As soon as the cheese melted in my mouth, I didn’t hesitate either. “We’ll take it,” I said, motioning to the slab he held in his hand, not even asking what the weight and cost were.

Beaufort, specifically Beaufort Chalet d’Alpage, is an amazing raw cow’s milk cheese that comes from the Alpine corner of France bordering Italy. The term “chalet d’alpage” applies to cheese made from summer milk of Tarantaise cows that graze in mountain pastures above an altitude of 1,500 metres, with the milk coming from a single herd in the chalet property.

Beaufort Chalet d'Alpage from Haute-Savoie.

Beaufort has a natural smear rind and is immediately recognizable by its inwardly-curving sides. While a young Beaufort is said to impart a mild, fruity, sweet flavor, the Chalet d’Alpage variety that we had is aged longer and develops a lovely, rounded, more savory note. It’s rich and flavorful, apparently because the pasturing is done high up in the mountains. Think unpolluted summer pastures scattered with alpine flowers under clear blue skies.

2) Epoisses Berthaut

When we weren’t certain of finding Pied-de-Vent, one of our favorites, we asked Christie at Leslieville Cheese Market East in Toronto what she would recommend as a substitute.

Epoisses, from Burgundy in France, was an excellent choice for something creamy and powerful. It’s a washed-rind cow’s milk cheese with a natural red tint and it’s own rich and penetrating aroma to which it owes its renown. The mouth waters as I type.

3) Pied-de-Vent

We’ve been huge fans of Pied-de-Vent even before we visited the enchanting Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Smelly, creamy and tasty, Pied-de-Vent is our idea of the perfect cheese.

When you buy it right at the creamery overlooking the sea, the cheese has a fresh and mild flavor, but distinctive nevertheless. By the time Pied-de-Vent is sold in Ontario, it can be quite strong, almost pungent.

As our friend Matt said, Pied-de-Vent is “great on its own but ignited when paired with pears or fig jelly.”

4) Blue Benedictin

In the words of Matt’s brother Will, “This is perhaps the best blue I have ever had!” As Matt himself said, “It’s a beautiful, mild blue, great on its own but divine with honey.”

Made by the monks at Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Blue Benedictin is our favorite blue. Not as sharp a Roquefort (which we prefer in salads for that reason), but divine in so many ways.

Let it melt on your tongue and you’ll be taken away to the rolling green landscape around the monastery, propped up against a shade tree on a late afternoon in the summer, listening to the rise and fall of the monastic chant during Vespers.

Abbaye Saint-Benoit-du-Lac, home of Benedictine Blue (and the milder l'Eremite).

5) Blue Haze

Blue Haze is also made by the monks at St. Benoit du Lac, aged at Provincial Fine Foods in Toronto, and then smoked by Hansen Farms in Cayuga, Ontario. It’s essentially the same cheese as Blue Benedictin but the end result is a testament  to how the aging process—affinage—is everything when it comes to cheesemaking.

“If cheese could walk, Blue Haze would swagger,” Sue Riedl famously wrote in The Globe and Mail. “The rock ‘n’ roll-inspired name sets the tone for this blue cheese with a smoky edge and creamy base . . . the golden brown rind that develops when it’s smoked (over cherry and hickory chips) imparts the exterior ‘crust’ with a burnt caramel quality. The sweetness of the smoke is a perfect counterpart to the salty, buttermilk quality of the blue.”

Blue Haze might be a bit strong for the lightweights among cheese lovers.

6) Midsummer’s Night

“Midsummer’s Night, what kind of cheese is that?” you ask. It’s a caraway-speckled fresh cheese that I make at home.

In Latvian, my native language, it’s called “Janu siers”, literally, John’s cheese in English. In Latvia, for more than a thousand years, it has been made at the summer solstice to mark the midsummer festival of Jani. For this Christmas, I decided to start a new tradition and make it also on the winter solstice. It’s too good to eat only once every year. More, in a later post.

7) Migneron
8  Ciel de Charlevoix
9) Secret du Maurice

It wasn’t our plan to select three cheeses from one cheesemaker but when we returned home after shopping at four different cheese shops, we realized that La Maison d’Affinage Maurice Dufour dominated the pickings. And for good reason.

When affineur Maurice Dufour introduced Migneron in 1995, it’s popular success was key to launching the artisan cheese revolution in Quebec. It’s smooth as ivory, rich and buttery, tasting of the pastoral Baie-Saint-Paul region of Quebec.

Ciel de Charlevoix, a silky, earthy blue, is made from the milk of a single herd of cows and aged to perfection by Maurice Dufour. We found it growing stronger and stronger over two weeks in our refrigerator.

But the big find—thanks to Jeremy at A Taste of Quebec in Toronto’s Distillery District—was a unique goat’s milk cheese, Le Secret de Maurice.

When you unwrap it, you’ll see a circle slightly larger than a twoonie in the middle of the small wheel. With a sharp knife, cut out the circle, exposing the cheese. Dip with plain cracker or white bread and enjoy.

“What fun!” said friend Matt. “This cheese (would be) the talk of (any) party with everything but the kitchen sink being dipped into it. Actually, my favorite was dipping cured meats.”

10) Grey Owl

Another fine goat’s milk cheese from Quebec, Grey Owl provides a brilliant, strong flavor, not quite as sharp as Blue Haze or as rich as Le Secret.

It’s a striking cheese to add to a spread, and not only on account of it’s punchy taste. It’s a thing of beauty because of the way the white interior paste contrasts with the grey ash-covered rind—and thus gives the cheese its name.

11) Pag

Don’t look for Pag at your cheesemonger. You need Croatian friends, like our Ivan and Maria, to bring it over.

It’s a lovely sheep’s milk cheese that comes from the windswept island of Pag in the Adriatic Sea. Hard and flaky, it truly melts on the tongue, imparting the taste of sage and cypress, somewhere between an Oka and a Parmigiano Reggiano.

It’s said to be the best cheese of Croatia and, at least by Croatians, to be one of the best cheeses in the world.

12) Oka

Oka, my first love in cheese.

Yes, I know. What’s an industrial product (as opposed to hand-made cheese) doing on a cheese lover’s list? Simply because it was my first love almost 50 years ago, and despite the fact Trappists no longer make it, Oka has been my one constant companion all these years. Still mild, still buttery, still nutty, still delightful.

There you have it, the 12 cheeses of Christmas at our house this year.

Leave a comment, if you like, about the memorable cheeses of your Christmas.

At home with the Pristines of Cheese Boutique

Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique in Toronto.

What cheese will the Pristine family, the preeminent cheesemongers in Toronto, enjoy at home during Christmas?

“It’s impossible to say until it’s seven o’clock on Christmas Eve, we’ve closed the shop and I’m standing at the cheese counter to see what’s left—and what’s really ripe and ready,” says Afrim Pristine, one of four brothers who operate Cheese Boutique with their parents, Fatos and Modesta Pristine. “I can tell you it will be absolutely incredible, and there might be white or black ruffles shaved on top.”

With close to 750 cheeses to choose from at this time of the year, Afrim has the difficulty of choice that the rest of us can only dream of.

“My father usually opens a big northern Italian red at home, so a Parmigiano Reggiano that we’ve aged to six years would make the table,” Afrim says, noting that in his opinion it’s “the best cheese in the world.”

Then there would be a goat cheese—”I just love goat’s milk cheese”—from Quebec, or the Loire Valley of France which has been ripening at Cheese Boutique for 90 days to be ready for Christmas: “It will be phenomenal, so luscious, ripe, acidic.”

With 25 people on hand for the Pristine family Christmas, Afrim says he’ll aim to have something for every palate: “You have to contrast the flavours so you offer the best of all worlds.”

Quite definitely the table will include “a very rich and very creamy triple creme from Burgundy or Normandy where all the good ripe triple cremes come from. That will be a great time to shave some white or black truffles.”

Stilton blue cheese and port wine is “a classic combination” at Christmas, say Afrim, but he might serve Cabrales, the famed blue from Spain.

How will the cheese be served? “Really simply, really rustically, because cheese shouldn’t be taken out of its element.”

It will be a happy Christmas for the Pristines as holiday business has been good this year. Unlike last year, Afrim says, shoppers “can see the beauty of a $25 piece of cheese. We can’t keep the high-end stuff in the store.”

If you’re not familiar with the Pristines and their influence on the cheese and gourmet food scene, there’s an excellent feature in Toronto Life that tells all.