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?

Good cheese hunting: Day 15, paradise found in Warwick

For a cheese lover, Le Festival des Fromages de Warwick certainly isn’t formidable but it sure is fromidable—as the signs all over town proclaim. (Fromage, fromidable, get it?)

In its 16th year, the festival, the largest cheese event in Canada, generally welcomes more than 40,000 people to Warwick, a town of 3,500 two hours east of Montreal, in mid-June. This year, for reasons that are puzzling, attendance dropped to 28,000.

Thirty Quebec cheesemakers offered more than 100 varieties of cheese for tasting. It was impossible to taste them all, as much as one might want to. We focused exclusively on cheeses we did not know but managed to sample barely 20 cheeses over two days. Among the most memorable:

  • Louis d’Or, a flavourful, complex Gruyere-like washed rind, firm cheese made with the raw milk of the cheesemaker’s own Holstein and Jersey cows. Fromagerie du Presbytère, Sainte-Élizabeth de Warwick, Central Quebec.

  • Mont Jacob, a semi-soft, interior-ripened cheese, with a pronounced flavour and fruity aroma. Fromagerie Blackburn, Jonquière, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean.
  • Tomme des Cantons also caught our fancy but there is no information available on the La Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage site. Perhaps it has been discontinued.

Saturday and Sunday are the busiest days at le Salon des fromages d’ici, the cheese show that is the heart of the Warwick festival. We’d recommend Friday as your primary day at the event. In addition to cheese, the 2010 festival featured 14 producers of artisan foods, eight vintners, three producers of ciders, one microbrewer, one beekeeper and two grocery-store chains, plus non-stop entertainment in the festival theatre, a children’s activity park, a farm yard complete with sheep, goats and chickens, a spectacular fireworks display on opening night, and popular Quebec bands and singers in concert every evening.

For lunch, supper or anytime, one could withdraw from all the goings-on to the 750-seat festival bistro under a big-top tent and enjoy a cheese and salad plate like the one pictured. There were six choices on the menu, each one with its own assortment of four cheeses, one pâté, one condiment, grapes, crudité, crisp greens and fresh bread.

Click on this or any other image for a larger view.

Down the street from the festival is La Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage, now owned by giant Saputo, which has a cheese boutique and a restaurant that features, among other dishes, 15—Yes, 15!—different ways to serve poutine, the cheese-curd-gravy-with-fries Quebec delicacy that was invented in Warwick.

Quite frankly, it was distressing, on account of all the fabulous cheese already in the belly, not to be able to dive into a plate of poutine in its birthplace.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, has returned home to Frenchman’s Bay east of Toronto with a cooler full of Quebec and Eastern Ontario cheese.