By ERIN HARRIS
Three years ago, I made a significant change in my 20-year career in the food and beverage industry. I was looking for a career in the area of greatest passion in my life: food. But I also wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and more fulfilling than I had been doing at the university where I had worked. Out of my passion for food and my desire for individuality and creativity came my own cheesemonger business: The Cheese Poet.
But let’s start at the beginning: I’ve always loved cheese. Cheese was always around, on the dinner table, in my sandwiches, in the cheese drawer. My Dad loves a really good nippy cheddar cheese, and also a nice stinky blue. My mom, she is equally a lover of cheddar, but also brie, especially when baked and served with something sweet. My sister loves a good goat cheese . . . fresh chevre, gouda, tomme. And then there was me: I love them all. I always wanted to learn more, going to the local market to try something new each week. Cheese parties with my friends, cheeses abroad while traveling, cheeses every day, if I could!
My love of cheese really came alive the year that I took La Cucina Italiana: Italian Culinary Diploma at George Brown College in Toronto. While living in such a great metropolitan area I had a huge variety of food shops to choose from so, nearly every day I would walk the five blocks down to St. Lawrence Market and check out all three cheese shops. I would pick up little 2-ounce pieces of cheese that looked different and interesting to me, take them home, and savour them. I spent most of my grocery money on cheese!
As part of the diploma, I was required to do a work term in Italy, home of the King of Cheeses! For six months I worked in Italy, and fell in love with a country that truly celebrates food—especially cheese (and wine, and pasta!). The first cheese that really made an impression on me was the Stracchino, a cheese that the lady of the house where I worked, would eat every day at the end of her meals with a piece of fruit. She would share her cheese with me in the early days, but then my own container started to show up on the table. “Get your own Stracchino!” was the clear message. And then there were all of the Pecorinos. Young, aged, rolled in herbs, soaked in wine, drenched in honey. I consumed more Pecorino than any other food in those six months.
Perhaps the birth of The Cheese Poet was inevitable. It has been operating for just over two years. Located in The Western Fair Farmers and Artisans Market in London, Ontario, The Cheese Poet is a one day per week (Saturday) business in which I sell predominantly local, all artisanal cheeses. I specialize in sheep milk cheeses, as we are fortunate to have some amazing local producers using good fresh local sheep milk. Many of my loyal customers who came to me with lactose intolerance issues, are now happily enjoying local sheep and goat milk cheeses in their regular diet. Working directly with my customers is truly the most enjoyable aspect of my job (next to always getting the first taste of a new wheel of cheese!). I have watched customers develop their own love of good cheese blossom. I have watched eyes light up and listened to excited voices as people experience the quality that Ontario cheesemakers are bringing to the table today. Without a doubt, the customers are the best part of my job. I am their Cheeselady!
In 2013, I attempted to expand The Cheese Poet to a six-day-per-week operation not once, but twice. The combination of high lease rates, and poor local economy, held me back from expanding my operation into a stand-alone shop.
Furthering my cheese industry awareness and education will allow me the confidence to move my business forward to its full potential. Attending the American Cheese Society (ACS) annual conference in Sacramento would afford me further insight into the cheese industry outside of Ontario. It will introduce me to the big world of cheese, and specifically, to all of the artisans in the USA who are producing award-winning cheeses that I read about but have not been able to experience for myself.
If I were given the opportunity to participate in the ACS conference in Sacramento—something that I cannot financially afford to do for myself at this time—I would expect to gain a level of awareness about the cheese industry in North America that would allow me to participate in and give back to this industry in a much larger way.
Not only am I passionate about the cheese industry, I am truly following my dream—something that John Crompton and I would have in common. I believe that Mr. Crompton would have appreciated my tenacity, and would have recognized the joy this industry brings me as something that it brought to his career as well. I have also not been able to afford the ACS individual membership, which I believe is an incredible resource for a small cheese business like mine. Additionally, I have applied for the 2014 Certified Professionals Exam. I will only be able to afford this invaluable certificate if I am awarded the 2014 John Crompton Memorial Scholarship. It would truly be an honour to be awarded this Scholarship, and I will do my best to honour his memory during my time at the ACS Conference in Sacramento, and with the energy and education that I take away from the experience.
Erin Harris is the second Canadian to be awarded the John Crompton Memorial Scholarship by American Cheese Society (ACS). The first was Nancy Peppler of Nancy’s Cheese in Toronto. The scholarship provides funding for travel and attendance at the annual ACS conference which this year was held in Sacramento, California, in August.
This essay—which earned the scholarship—was written prior to a new verse being added to Erin’s cheese poetry. She closed Cheese Poet in May 2014 to begin a new role as Cheese and Catering Manager for Sobey’s Urban Fresh, first to work in Toronto for the remainder of 2014, and then to help open the new Urban Fresh store in Ottawa, winter 2015.