Canadian chefs discover the time-honoured treasures of artisanal cheese
By Sandra Eagle
It’s late in the afternoon and Gurth Pretty is getting a little anxious. He’s waiting for a delivery of 20 kilos of cheese curds and he thinks his driver is going to be about four hours late. Such is the bane of Toronto traffic. Pretty is the president of the Ontario Cheese Society, member of both La Societe des fromages du Quebec and the American Cheese Society and a current jury member for the 2011 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix. Besides that, he’s a chef, an author and distributor of fine and Canadian artisanal cheeses to restaurants in the greater Toronto area. Pretty is just crazy about cheese.
For the last two years in row, artisanal cheese has made the Top 10 hot trends list in the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association’s Canadian Chef’s Survey, with locally produced food and locally inspired dishes at the top of that list. You would be hard pressed to find a more local product than artisanal cheese. From Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from P.E.I., Thunder Oak Gouda from Thunder Bay, Ont., to Old Grizzly from Sylvan Star Cheese Ltd., in Red Deer, Alta., and tiny Pied-de-Vent fromagerie from the IIes de la Madeleine, Canadian artisanal cheesemaking has exploded in scope and variety.
In 1998, the Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC), hosted the first-ever Canadian Grand Prix of Cheese, showcasing the best Canadian cow’s milk cheese. Artisanal cheesemakers have captured the coveted Grand Champion Award five times in the biennial competition. This year, a record 203 entries from six provinces were entered, vying for the 18 category and one Grand Champion prize.
Ten to 15 years ago you would have been hard pressed to find any Canadian artisanal cheeses on a menu. But the industry is now well established and thriving in a number of provinces, not just in Quebec, where the art of artisanal cheesemaking first flourished.
Pretty says, “I believe that Canadian chefs have truly realized the amazing variety of cheese being produced in this country, whether it’s cow, goat or sheep milk. I think it’s a combination of savvy consumers wanting local products. Chefs want to use products from their ‘terrior’ and they’re finding that local cheese has amazing flavour and great stories behind them.”
And that’s why Pretty is waiting for his delivery of curds. “We have wonderful cheese in the province, but the challenge is distribution. It’s hard for chefs to get their hands on the cheese. That’s why I personally assist by doing distribution of mostly Ontario cheese.”
In Canada, some artisanal cheeses will never be found outside of the province it’s made in. Because of restrictions imposed by Canada’s dairy supply management system, cheesemakers have to apply for and receive a federal license in order to ship interprovincially.
Despite these challenges, Pretty thinks it’s time to expand the repertoire of the standard cheese course on foodservice menus. “There are simple ways of enhancing a dish that you already have on your menu, just by adding some cheese to it. But more importantly,” he says, “is to name the cheese you’re using on your menu. Cheese is such a versatile ingredient, you could pretty much use it in any course, and you just have to choose the right cheese for the right application.” He adds, “it’s important for any restaurant to think ‘in what other way can I use this ingredient?’ You just don’t want it for one menu item. You can use artisanal cheese for hamburgers, melted on a steak, in macaroni and cheese sides or a gratin dish. Suddenly you can create many dishes for that one product, and it can be served different ways at different times of the day.”
Kathy Guidi is certainly in agreement with Pretty on that score. Guidi is the author of Canadian Cheese A Pocket Guide. She is also founder of Cheese Education Guild and president of Artisan Cheese Marketing (ACM), so she certainly knows her way around a wheel or two of Gouda. She feels restaurateurs are a little too ‘in the box’ when it comes to serving cheese on the menu. “Offer cheese as an appetizer, serve it for lunch, and put a couple of cheeses in a salad. What about offering a trio of cheeses with beer or wine at the bar for happy hour?” she says.
Guidi says that artisanal cheese came into its own when the Canadian wineries started to mature. “I credit the wineries. They get the promotional idea, and they always have. As soon as the Niagara and Okanagan regions wanted to serve Canadian cheese, the cheesemakers had confidence that their market would grow.” ACM is a cheese-focused public relations company that helps people sell more cheese, whether that’s at retail or foodservice. There has been a void in that area, Guidi says. “It’s important for servers to know how to pronounce the names of the cheeses and some good basic knowledge goes a long way for all staff. There’s enough information in this book that a front of the house person could easily explain to wait staff tasting notes of these cheeses. There are so many background stories about artisanal cheese, and with 480 varieties being produced in this country, these anecdotes give servers something to talk about. Cheesemaking is just as much a part of our history as it is in Europe.”
Crème de la Crème
The ne plus ultra of cheese caves commands the middle section of TOCA by Tom Brodi restaurant at Toronto’s luxe The Ritz-Carlton,Toronto. Although the 9 x 10-ft. cave is small, its $250-thousand price tag makes it one of the most expensive rooms in the city. Inside the inner sanctum, softwood birch shelving supports about 44 different kinds of cheese, a majority of them from Ontario and Quebec, in keeping with the Canadian inspired menu of the restaurant.
The right side of the cave is reserved for aging waxed cheeses, which need to be brushed by staff at least once a day to remove the natural oils exuded by the ripening process. One such offering, a Ragusano, an unpasteurized sheep cheese from Sicily, is three years old. The chef plans on serving the cheese in five years’ time. The left hand side of the cave stores the soft cheeses that require at least 90 per cent or higher humidity, so staff sprays the inside of the storage cabinet with water every 25 to 30 minutes all day long. Afrim Pristine, co-owner of Toronto-based The Cheese Boutique selected the cheeses for the cave.
TOCA by Tom Brodi servers choose a daily trio for diners, including a blue, a hard cheese and a soft cheese selection. The serving board is complemented with crisp crostini, dried cranberries, granola, dried apricots and honey in the comb. TOCA’s signature cheese, exclusive to the restaurant, is a Forfar Ottawa Valley cheddar infused with maple syrup and 18-year-old Wiser’s Canadian whiskey.
In Canada, all cheese is produced under supply management which limits the amount of milk produced domestically and applies tariffs of 250 per cent or more on most imported milk and cheese. The end result is that Canadian restaurateurs and consumers pay some of the highest prices in the world for cheese. Because supply is so tightly controlled, some provinces have set up special programs to help artisanal cheesemakers gain access to milk at a discounted price to produce new, innovative products. These special programs have helped bring to market a number of new cheeses, despite the tight supply and high prices related to supply management.