Oka: Unique aroma, divine flavour, rich history

First made in 1893 by Trappist monks, Oka is the most iconic of all Canadian cheeses, known the world over.

Flashback to November, 1960, Deux Montagnes, Québec:

A young monk entered the guesthouse dining room at Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac bearing a large platter. He gently placed it in the centre of the table where eight of us were sitting. The platter appeared to be piled high with big chunks of pale yellow pineapple.

Pineapple in the middle of November in a Trappist monastery in Québec? I was mystified. Despite the no-talking rule, I turned to the man on my left and whispered: “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

“Fromage” was his curt reply, followed by “Ssshhhh!”

Fromage? I could handle cheese first thing in the morning, my first morning as a guest at the monastery. After the blessing and signal to begin eating, I didn’t hesitate to reach for a big chunk and popped it in my mouth.

“Oh, my goodness!” I could hardly hold back exclaiming out loud. I had never tasted a cheese so buttery, so creamy, so delicious. So many more chunks followed the first that I hardly had room for the farm-fresh scrambled eggs that were served for breakfast.

And so it came to pass that I was introduced to Oka cheese when the Trappists still made it. Indeed, that morning was the moment my passion for artisan cheese was ignited.

Flashback further, to February, 1893:

Brother Alphonse Juin arrives at the Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac—known as Oka Abbey after the small village on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, northwest of Montreal, on Lake of Two Mountains, where the Ottawa has its confluence with the St. Lawrence River.

Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac aka Oka Abbey: At its peak, the abbey was the permanent home to as many as 200 monks, who belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists.

The monastery was struggling, unable to make ends meet. Brother Alphonse had been sent from the Abbaye de Bellefontaine in France (from which the Oka monks originated) with a recipe for Port-du-Salut cheese created by Trappists a few years earlier. Brother Alphonse tweaked and adjusted Port-du-Salut recipe, creating a unique Quebec cheese that went on to win first prize at the Montreal Exhibition that same year.

Imagine the shock of judges at the exhibition to be presented with a unique semi-soft, washed-rind cheese when only cheddars ruled the day!

The Oka Trappist cheese continued to win awards and recognition. Soon, it became immensely popular, assuring the financial stability of the monastery. Today, it’s clearly the most iconic of all Canadian cheeses, known the world over.

Fast forward to 1981:

Agropur, Canada’s biggest dairy co-operative purchases the Oka cheesemaking operation from the Trappist monks and builds a state-of-the-art plant next door to the monastery. Eventually, an expansive retail store is opened, showcasing Oka cheeses and artisan products from across Québec. (Which makes a visit to Oka really worth your while.)

Over time, the product line is expanded beyond the original Oka cheese to include Oka Classique, Light, Raclette, L’Artisan, L’Artisan Smoke, Mushrooms, Ashed and Brother Alphonse.

The original Oka with the somewhat plain label remains my favourite and is closest to what I recall first tasting so many years ago.

Fast forward to October, 2006:

The monks, by now world-famous, announce they are selling Oka Abbey and moving to a smaller home in the forest 100 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

A local non-profit group will transform the monastery into a tourism and education centre. The Abbey of Notre Dame du Lac includes a large grey stone monastery and a dozen buildings nestled on 270 hectares of forested land. The monks also own farmland.

Thousands of people from around the world have visited the abbey to attend mass, meditate and enjoy the bucolic peace and quiet. The abbey has long welcomed men and women seeking short-term retreats, and also runs a monastic guest program for men interested in experiencing monastic life.

At its peak, the abbey was the permanent home to as many as 200 monks, who belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists. But the community has dwindled over the past generation, and only 28 monks, the majority of whom are older than 70, live at the monastery.

Fast forward to today:

Oka is semi-soft, washed-rind cheese with an edible copper-orange rind. It has a distinct aroma—some might call it pungent, especially as the cheese ages—and a relatively mild, creamy and buttery flavour.

My tasting notes say: Creamy and sweet. Nice touch of umami. Hints of mushrooms and nuts. Velvety and supple mouthfeel.

Regular Oka, as shown, is the closest I recall in taste to when the Trappists still made the cheese.

While Oka was once made from raw milk fresh from the abbey’s farm, today it’s made from pasteurized milk. Master cheesemakers used to wash the wheels with brine by hand to promote proper aging. These days, the process is facilitated by machines that allow for a more homogenous production and limit rind contamination.

The secret to the flavour and iconic aroma lies in the complex microbiology of the rind, found only in the cellars of the former monastery. The cheese is made in a state-of-the-art plant next door but still aged in the old monastery cellars.

Meanwhile, deep in the forest northeast of Montreal:

When the Trappists left Oka to escape suburban sprawl, they left behind an oversized, aging building. Their new Trappist abbey, L’Abbaye Val Notre-Dame, nested in the forests and rolling hills of the Lanaudiere region and known for its cutting-edge ecological architecture, has been heralded as the 21st-century monastery. But, more importantly, it has become pivotal in the monks’ sweeping spiritual renewal.

L’Abbaye Val Notre-Dame northeast of Montreal, the striking new home for the Trappist monks of Oka.

Moving here has made the Trappists rethink their relationship with their environment, as the community must earn its living from manual work. It’s no longer possible to take care of 3,000 apple trees or 2,500 sugar maples like they used to do in Oka. The monks have instead learned to tap the nurturing powers of the surrounding 187-acre forest.

Since 2014, the monks have transformed and commercialized edible forest products. They have discovered the riches of the abbey’s backwoods. At the monastery’s gift shop, one can find larch needles, marinated fiddleheads and products made from milkweed, next to the more usual chocolates and caramels. For the Val Notre-Dame monks, the forest holds a precious bounty. Occasionally, they even share a meal made entirely of ingredients harvested on their estate.

Meanwhile, out in Manitoba, the Oka story takes a twist:

In their own way, Winnipeg chefs Dustin Peltier and Rachel Isaak are continuing the Oka tradition with the recipe that was entrusted to Brother Alberic at Our Lady of the Prairies Monastery at Holland, Manitoba, and he in turn passed it on to the chefs after training Dustin in cheesemaking.

Dustin and Rachel are making the cheese, albeit with pasteurized milk. Obtaining provincial approval to use raw milk proved too onerous and costly.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs is Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca. He’s never met a cheese he didn’t like . . . well, hardly ever.

 

 

Empire Cheese in strong showing at Royal Winter Fair

Cheesemaker Mark Erwin with two first-place cheddars. (Photo by Rebecca Crosgrey.
Cheesemaker Mark Erwin with two first-place cheddars. (Photo by Rebecca Crosgrey.

Even though it was up against Canadian cheese giant Agropur, Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op won two firsts, two seconds and two thirds in the cheddar competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair—the best showing by an artisan producer. In fact, Empire’s Mild Cheddar was named Reserve Grand Champion in the judging, runner-up to Agropur Grand Cheddar 2 Year.

The Campbellford, Ontario, cheese producer, where Mark Erwin is the cheesemaker, took the following honours:

  • Empire Mild Cheddar – Reserve Grand Champion
  • Empire Mild Cheddar – First in class, Mild Cheddar 2-4 months
  • Empire Extra Mature Cheddar – First in class, Extra Mature Cheddar
  • Empire Medium Cheddar – Second in class, Medium Cheddar 6-8 months
  • Empire Extra Mild Cheddar – Second in class, Extra Mild Cheddar 1-2 months
  • Empire Marble Cheddar – Third in class, Marble Cheddar any age
  • Empire Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Third in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar.

Maple Dale Cheese of Plainfield, Ontario, won the following:

  • Maple Dale Stilton Shaped Cheddar – Second in class, Stilton Shapped Cheddar
  • Maple Dale 2 year – Third in class, Extra Mature Cheddar.

Ivanhoe Cheese of Madoc, Ontario, won second in the Extra Mature Cheddar class with Ivanhoe Classic Cheddar made May 15, 2011.

Four of the seven cheddar classes were won by Agropur, one of Canada’s biggest co-operatives owned by 3,400 dairy farmers. Among its 15 dairy divisions is Oka, Canada’s iconic cheese brand that dates back to 1893 when Trappists made it.

Pilgrimage to a Canadian cheese lover’s Mecca

Vanessa and I stopped shopping for cheese and charcuterie at Marché Jean-Talon when we were left with nothing but coins in our pockets. Photo by SO.

When they want to pay homage to fromage, cheese lovers in Europe make a pilgrimage to France. In the U.S., the destination is Vermont or California. In Canada, there is only one choice: Québec.

Despite much progress in Ontario and British Columbia in the last decade, Québec remains Canada’s leading artisan-cheese region. With about half of Canada’s 180 cheese producers based in Québec, its leading role isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

For Canadian cheese lovers, the easiest way to find Mecca in Québec is to visit Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal. Which is what Significant Other and I did with a great friend in cheese, Vanessa Simmons, cheese sommelier at Savvy Company in Ottawa. We have many friends who love cheese, many friends who love food, but only in Vanessa do SO and I find an appetite for food, drink and adventure to match ours.

We warmed up for Marché Jean-Talon by visiting Complexe Desjardins in downtown Montreal to say hello to cheesemakers taking part in the annual La Fête des fromages d’ici. It was good to see so many producers represented by Plaisirs Gourmets at the show. SO and I sampled our way around for several hours and then caught up with Vanessa to compare notes and purchases. No surprise that our wallets were $150 lighter and bags similarly heavier.

What makes Marché Jean-Talon such a perfect Mecca for cheese lovers is that here one finds:

and across the lane:

Short of spending weeks driving from cheesemaker to cheesemaker around Québec, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Two hours and more than $350 later, here’s what we had in our cooler bags:

OUR HAUL

IN VANESSA’S COOLER

CHARCUTERIE

Smoked meat at Schwartz's, fatty and fabulous.
Smoked meat at Schwartz’s, fatty and fabulous. Photo by VS.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Vanessa forced us to accompany her to Schwartz’s Montréal Hebrew Delicatessen for lunch of the most famous smoked meat in Canada. Oh, the agony!

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheesehead-in-cheef at CheeseLover.ca and director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival, lived in Montréal when Oka was still made Trappists at Oka. Way back then, his smoked-meat emporium of record was Bens De Luxe Delicatessen & Restaurant founded in 1908 by Latvian immigrants Ben and Fanny Kravitz.

Looking forward to Bra, and a long ways back to Oka

On the eve of departure for Italy and Cheese 2011 at Bra—the most important cheese festival in Europe—I’m meditating on an extraordinary washed-rind cheese made by Trappist monks in Manitoba. As you can see, there’s only a small wedge left of the cheese made according to the recipe once used by Trappist at Oka Abbey to make Oka—quite possibly the most famous Canadian cheese of all.

Trappist cheese from Manitoba.

The cheese from Our Lady of the Prairies Abbey is saltier, earthier, with a depth of flavours not found in the Oka manufactured today by Agropur, the largest dairy co-operative in Canada, which acquired the name from the Trappist monks in 1996, 10 years before they sold the monastery.

But the Trappists never sold the actual recipe—or a notebook full of notes, observations and how-to instructions dating back to 1893, the year Oka was first made in the monastery on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Montréal. That notebook now is in the possession of Brother Albéric, the 72-year-old monk who is the master cheesemaker at the monastery in Holland, Manitoba.

I remember full well my first taste of Oka at Oka almost 50 years ago. Somehow, I, a Lutheran, ended up in the guest house of the most Roman Catholic of monastic orders the week after dropping out of university. On my first morning at Oka, I found myself is a small dining room with a few other guests at a large table. In the center was what looked like a large platter of big chunks of pineapple.

Pineapple? It didn’t seem right to me, so, despite the rule of silence, I whispered to the man next to me, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” To which he replied in one hushed word: “Fromage.”

“Ah, cheese, I can go for that, ” I said to myself as I reached for a considerable chunk and popped it into my waiting mouth. Epiphany is the only way to describe what I tasted. In a word, it was divine.

And so it came to pass that my lifelong passion for artisan cheese was ignited . . . which has lead me to this evening, looking forward to Bra—and looking a long ways back to that morning in Oka.

 —Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, cheese-head-in chief at CheeseLover.ca, serves of director of The Great Canadian Cheese Festival. Of course, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in purgatory of getting Brother Albéric to the 2012 Festival, but hope and faith spring eternal.

Best cheeses of the “British Empire” in 2010

Lori Legacey, cheesemaker at Mariposa Dairy, has a sniff of a 19-kilo wheel of cheddar. The dairy's Lindsay Bandage Cheddar beat out 40 other goat-milk cheeses in the British Empire Cheese Competition. Photo by Lisa Gervais/The Lindsay Post.

Here are the results of the cheese competition at the 83rd annual British Empire Cheese Show organized by Central Ontario Cheesemakers Association:

The Alexis De Portneuf division of cheese giant Saputo was crowned Grand Champion.

Quebec cheesemaker Fromagerie La Vache à Maillotte was named Reserve Champion.

Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, an artisan cheesemaker  in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, was honoured with the Finica Food Specialties Award.

In the cheddar class, Parmalat Canada was recognized as Grand Champion. Reserve Champion honours went to Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues.

Glengarry Fine Cheese, after an excellent showing at Royal Winter Fair, picked up several more awards at British Empire, as reported in Eastern Ontario AgriNews.

Here are the top three in each class of the competition:

ARTISAN

Goat Milk Cheese

  1. Lindsay Bandage Cheddar, Mariposa Dairy (Finica Food Specialties)
  2. Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  3. Operetta, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

Sheep Milk Cheese

  1. Bonnie and Floyd, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  2. Toscano, Monforte Dairy
  3. Wishing Tree, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese

SPECIALTY CLASS

Hard Cheese Type

  1. Glengarry Fen, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Lankaaster Aged, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  3. Romano, St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Firm Cheese Type

  1. Lankaaster Medium, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Nouvelle France, Agropur
  3. Fondue Prestigio, Agropur

Swiss Cheese Type

  1. Artisan, Agropur
  2. Swiss, Fromagerie Lemaire
  3. Mont Gleason, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Semi-Firm Cheese Type

  1. Raclette du Village, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  2. Le Cabouron, Fromagerie Blackburn (Fromages CDA)
  3. Le Cendre, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Fresh Cheese Type

  1. Mascarpone, Arla Foods
  2. Ricotta, Quality Cheese
  3. Prestigio Ricotta, Agropur

Soft Rind Cheese Type

  1. St. Honoré, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  2. Triple Crème du Village, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  3. Cendre de Lune, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage

Smear Ripened Type

  1. Mamirolle, Fromagerie Eco Delices (Fromages CDA)
  2. Mont Jacob, Fromagerie Blackburn (Fromages CDA)
  3. Raclette, Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser (Fromages CDA)

Flavoured Soft Type

  1. Lady Laurier d’Arthabaska, Saputo/Fromagerie 1860 DuVillage
  2. Raclette Oka, Agropur
  3. Chevalier Tomato Basil, Agropur

Flavoured Firm Type

  1. Lankaaster Chive, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. Smoked Cheddar, Parmalat Canada
  3. Lankaaster Cumin, Glengarry Fine Cheese

Blue Veined Cheese

  1. Celtic Blue, Glengarry Fine Cheese
  2. La Roche Noire, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  3. Bleubry, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf

American Style Type

  1. Brick, St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative
  2. Monterey Jack, Bothwell Cheese
  3. American Mozzarella, Parmalat Canada

Pasta Filata Type

  1. Bocconcini, International Cheese
  2. Burrata, Quality Cheese
  3. Fresh Mozzarella, Quality Cheese

Goat Milk Cheese

  1. Le Paillot de Chevre, Saputo/Alexis De Portneuf
  2. Rondoux Chevre, Agropur
  3. Chevrita, Agropur

Sheep Milk Cheese

  1. Allegretto, Fromagerie La Vache a Maillotte
  2. Bedda Fedda, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese
  3. Blossom, Monforte Dairy

Process Cheese

  1. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada
  2. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada
  3. Spreadable Cream Cheese Product, Parmalat Canada

CHEDDAR

Mild White or Coloured Cheddar – Less than 2 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Empire Cheese & Butter Coop
  3. Black River Cheese

Medium White Cheddar – 3 to 6 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues
  3. Amalgamated Dairies

Medium Coloured Cheddar – 3 to 6 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Bothwell Cheese
  3. Empire Cheese & Butter Co-op

Marbled Cheddar – any age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Bothwell Cheese
  2. Empire Cheese & Butter Co-Op
  3. St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Mature Cheddar – 12 to 15 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. St. Albert Cheese
  3. Fromagerie Isle-aux-Grues

Extra Mature Cheddar – 24 to 36 months of age, 40 lb. or more

  1. Parmalat Canada
  2. Maple Dale Cheese
  3. St. Albert Cheese Co-Operative

Lunch of champions for Festival worker bees

There was a planning session for The Great Canadian Cheese Festival scheduled over lunch for the week following the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. When the question came up, “What shall we eat?” the answer was a no-brainer: “Let’s sample the champions and winners in the Royal’s cheese competition.”

Thus, it came to pass that we had one champion and five winners spread out before us on Friday, as you can see in the photo. We would have liked more champions but only Oka L’Artisan was available at St. Lawrence Market.

You’ll note the lack of wine glasses. After all, it was a working lunch. Just cheese, with sides of charcuterie, walnuts, grapes, bread, and, in the front right, Bleu d’Auvergne from France for dessert.

Here’s how the three of us informally ranked the award-winning Canadian cheese we tasted:

Cheddar, 5 year, Fromagerie Perron, $2.39/100g

Outstanding! If this what a cheddar that wasn’t even entered tastes like, we cannot wait to get our hands on Perron’s Doyen, Grand Champion, and 120th Anniverdsary Reserve, Reserve Champion.

Fromagerie Perron definitely will be on our list of cheesemakers to visit when we next travel on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Fromagerie Perron is located on Lac Saint Jean in the Saguenay region.

Champfleury, Agropur, $4.00/100g

It didn’t take us long to consume the entire small wheel of Champfleury. We loved the fruity creaminess of this washed-rind soft cheese but were stunned afterward to read on the label that modified milk ingredients (MMI) are used in making the cheese.

Champfleury is marketed as an “authentic fine cheese” in the Agropur Signature collection. Hmmm . . .

Bonnie & Floyd, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, $7.69/100g

No MMIs come anywhere near this excellent cave-aged sheep cheese made in Prince Edward County by the greenest creamery in Canada.

Oka L’Artisan, Agropur, $3.58/100g

No longer made by Trappist monks but still one of Canada’s most recognizable and noteworthy cheeses. Agropur cheesemakers make the cheese in the former Cistercian abbey. Whether the recipe is the original is arguable.

Cape Vessey, Fifth Town Artisan Cheese, $6.99/100g

Goat’s milk does have it distinctive lemony tang but Fifth Town has earned many awards with this washed-rind cave-aged cheese that has broad appeal.

Chevrita, Agropur

Snow white and satin-like to the touch, Chevrita is pure goat cheese.

Oka and chicken thighs: a winning pair

Voila! A grilled-cheese sandwich made with Oka and dark chicken. And butter of course.

Significant Other knows I love Oka. She knows I love dark chicken. And she knows I’m crazy about well-buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches. Yes, you guessed it! She combined all three in a surprise lunch that was outstanding.

Although I’ve been in love with Oka for almost 50 years, I’ve never ever had it in a grilled sandwich. Now, it will be part of the reportoire. It melts so easily, turns so gooey, and tastes so wonderful.

The chunks of chicken thighs in the warm cheese reminded me of a fine chicken Parmigiano. The caraway seeds in the light rye were popping with flavour. Sliced cucumbers and grape tomatoes made the perfect side.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-head-in-chief at CheeseLover.ca, has never met a grilled-cheese sandwich he didn’t like.

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.

Welcome, Cheese Lovers!

Cheesemaker for a day at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese in Prince Edward County.

A taste of Oka almost 50 years ago sparked in me a lifelong love for cheese. That love has ripened into full-blown passion as more and more mouth-watering cheeses are being churned out by artisan, farmstead and specialty cheesemakers across Canada. I’d like to share that passion by making CheeseLover.ca an informative and entertaining meeting place for all who love cheese.

Expect this site to grow in scope as I’m not beholden to any one cheesemaker or one style of cheese. Heck, there are even excellent mass-produced cheeses out there! Although my initial focus will be on my home province, Ontario, glorious Quebec and other regions of Canada will receive their due.

Visit often as I aim to add new content regularly. And please do leave a comment as feedback is always welcome.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs