Erin Harris: Passion for cheese drives her career

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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.

Editor’s note:

Erin Harris is the first Canadian to be awarded the John Crompton Memorial Scholarship by American Cheese Society (ACS). 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.

Crispy greens win Mac & Cheese showdown at CNE

Chef Andrew Farrell and Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese.

Chef Andrew Farrell and Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese.

Chef Andrew Farrell of Halifax took home top honours at the 2014 Grate Canadian Cheese Cook-Off for his Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese. The Mac & Cheese showdown took place at Dairy Farmers of Canada’s Canadian Cheese Counter at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in front of a crowd of cheese fans yesterday.

Four accomplished chefs and foodies from across Canada took to the stage in an attempt to create the ultimate comfort food using Canadian cheese, pasta and a little imagination.  In the end, it was Chef Andrew Farrell from 2 Doors Down in Halifax who emerged victorious.

Chef Farrell’s Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese was voted best overall by a panel of four cheese-loving judges. His dish packs a whole lot of Nova Scotia into one dish, with four cheeses from That Dutchman’s Farm—three Gouda and one Blue—produced in Upper Economy, Nova Scotia. Cheesy noodles are then topped with a kale-broccoli-Brussels sprouts crust and Sriracha hot sauce adds a spicy kick.

“The competition was as sharp as Canadian cheddar,” said Andrew Farrell. “All the dishes looked delectable and the crowd was really engaged. I am so thrilled my Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese, featuring three Goudas and Dragon’s Breath Blue cheese from That Dutchman’s Farm, won the hearts and taste buds of the judges.”

This year’s four fierce competitors included Bal Arneson, Food Network TV host and award-winning author from Vancouver, British Columbia; chef David Bohati, executive chef at MARKET Restaurant in Calgary, Alberta; Kevin Durkee, owner of CHEESEWERKS in Toronto, Ontario; and chef Andrew Farrell, head chef at 2 Doors Down in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The judging panel consisted of Sue Riedl, journalist, blogger and cheese ambassador; Rita DeMontis, Sun Media food editor; Jason Bangerter, executive chef and 2012 Grate Canadian (Grilled) Cheese Cook-Off champion, as well as Lorie Chater, cheese lover from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the winner of the nation-wide contest for a “professional mac & cheese taster.”

The Cook-Off was organized by Dairy Farmers of Canada to take Canada’s beloved Mac & Cheese to a whole new level and showcase the outstanding quality, variety, taste, and versatility of Canadian cheese made from 100% Canadian milk.

Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese.

Crispy Greens Mac & Cheese.

Cheese lovers across Canada can access the four Mac & Cheese recipes and find tips for making the perfect Mac & Cheese by visiting www.allyouneedischeese.ca/cookoff.

QC14 #buickdrive: Searching for seafood around Gaspé—and cheese, of course

Fresh, sweet, succulent, our first lobster in Gaspésie at Capitaine Homard in Sainte Flavie.

Fresh, sweet, succulent, our first lobster in Gaspésie at Capitaine Homard in Sainte Flavie. Click image for larger view.

It was everything we wanted and more. Poissonnerie after poissonnerie all the way around Gaspésie made hunting for fresh, local seafood a snap. See below for what we enjoyed over 14 days and 2,945 kilometres in a Buick Enclave on QC14 #buickdrive.

Of course, cheese was not ignored. We visited five fromageries, three within Gaspé borders (first three shown), two just outside the region:

Sights and eats as captured in Facebook photo albums:

Kamouraska:

  • Lobster roll
  • Shrimp with salad
  • Poached salmon with salad

St. Flavie:

  • Lobster steamed with garlic butter
  • Clams (fried calamari style)
  • Fish trio: poached salmon, trout and cod with fries and coleslaw

St. Anne des Monts:

  • Cod and shrimp over wild rice
  • Scallops with avocado/tomato salsa
  • Seafood risotto: shrimp, scallops, mussels and lobster

Percé:

  • Scallops with bacon
  • Poutine with lobster
  • Fish soup

Forillon National Park:

  • Shrimp with salad
  • Crab claws two ways: in shell and ready to eat
  • Crab cakes
  • Crab mousse
  • Smoked trout with country bread
  • Poutine with shrimps

Carleton sur Mer:

  • Scallops with bacon
  • Shrimp
  • Salmon, turbot and cod bon bons
  • Mussels from Chaleur Bay
  • Smoked trout
Our Buick Enclave is shown crossing a covered bridge near the end of our Gaspé #buickdrive.

Our Buick Enclave is shown crossing a covered bridge near the end of our Gaspé #buickdrive. Click image for larger view.

Earlier Facebook photo albums:

QC14: Festival des Fromagers Artisans du Québec

Some 10,000 cheese enthusiasts made the pilgrimage to Sainte-Elisabeth-de-Warwick.

Some 10,000 cheese enthusiasts made the pilgrimage to Sainte-Elisabeth-de-Warwick, population 374.

We begin our three-week tour of Québec with Festival des Fromagers Artisans du Québec, the annual celebration of fromages fins organized by the association of artisan-cheese producers. This year, the two-day festival was held at Fromagerie du Presbytere in the village of Sainte-Elisabeth-de-Warwick two hours east of Montréal.

With the support of Mayor Luc Le Blanc, Presbytere’s owner, Jean Morin, was able to convert the main street of the village into a cheese fair that attracted some 10,000 cheese enthusiasts. Morin’s cheese plant and shop—located in a former rectory (presbytere)—sits across the street from Ferme Louis d’Or, the dairy farm his family has operated for four generations.

A tiny bakery turns out wonderful breads adjacent to the cheese plant. Morin also invited local producers—a charcuterie specialist, a winemaker and a craft brewery—to complement the cheese available for tasting and purchase.

The annual festival rotates from one member producer to another. Next year’s venue will be announced soon.

Facebook photo albums:

 

Cheese-rolling madness returns to Whistler

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Dairy Farmers of Canada will host one of Canada’s most unique events again this summer when the Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival takes place August 16 from 12 noon to 4 p.m. in Whistler, British Columbia. In its seventh year, the festival features cheese rolling races, costume contests and other fun activities for the whole family.

An 11-pound wheel of Courtenay Cheddar cheese, produced by British Columbia cheesemaker Natural Pastures, will roll down a hill and enthusiastic and ambitious cheese lovers will chase after it. The first contestant to make it down the hill wins. The winners get to take home the giant, coveted wheel of delicious Canadian cheese and a Whistler season ski pass for two.

“Cheese-loving Canadians and visitors from all over the world eagerly await the Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival year-after-year and Dairy Farmers of Canada is thrilled to bring it back again,” says Sandra Da Silva of Dairy Farmers of Canada.  “With all the many activities the festival has to offer, it’s a great event for the entire family and a fantastic way to shine a spotlight on Canadian cheese.”

The race course will be set up in Whistler’s Upper Village on Blackcomb Mountain. Free round trip transportation to the Blackcomb Mountain Base 2 parking lot via Excalibur Gondola in Whistler village is available for everyone.  Anyone over 19 years of age can participate and contestants can register on site on August 16at 11:00 am. The downhill event will consist of seven men’s and four women’s races. The winner from each round will compete in the finals. For the kids, there will also be uphill races categorized by age.

A costume contest will be held again this year. All race participants are invited to wear costumes for the chance to win a $500 gift voucher from Marketplace IGA. Prior to each race heat, the official cheese roller will award costumed contestants a ribbon. After all the race heats, all ribbon-awarded costumed contestants will gather at the base of the course, where a panel of judges will select their top five favourite costumes, which will then be judged by the crowd. Team costumes will be judged as one participating unit, not individually. The contestant or team that receives the most applause will be selected as the costume contest winner(s).

Participants, families and spectators can take in a host of other fun things at the festival, including activities for children, free cheese seminars and a Cheese Market full of delicious samples of Canadian cheese made from 100% Canadian milk. Visitors will also be able to buy cheeses from different Canadian provinces. Vancouver native and Breakfast Television host, Riaz Meghji, will emcee the event again.

In addition to the numerous pre-promotion events in Whistler village a few days before the event, Dairy Farmers of Canada partnered with Sobey’s nationally and Marketplace IGA in British Columbia for in-store promotions and a contest. Visit any Sobey’s store in the Maritimes, Ontario and the Prairies until July 20, as well as Marketplace IGA in British Columbia until July 13, for a chance to win a trip for two to the Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival.

To learn more about the Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival and to view videos and photos from past festivals, visit www.canadiancheeserolling.ca.

Cheesemobile heads to Gaspésie this summer

Our elegant cheesemobile, aka Buick Verano Turbo, at Mt. Revelstoke in B.C.

Our elegant cheesemobile, aka a Buick Verano Turbo, at Mt. Revelstoke in B.C.

Another successful Great Canadian Cheese Festival is behind us and it’s time to start planning another road trip—in search of cheese and other delights.

 Last summer, an elegant Buick Verano Turbo served as the cheesemobile as we hunted for the best in cheese in British Columbia and researched venues for a future Great Canadian Cheese Festival West.

This summer, the general plan is to head into Québec and eventually circumnavigate iconic Gaspésie to satiate our second love—fresh seafood. Of course, a visit to the region’s sole cheesemaker, Fromagerie du Littoral, will be on the itinerary.

Here’s the travel plan that’s taking shape:

  • Initial destination: Ste Elisabeth de Warwick two hours east of Montreal.
  • Festival Des Fromagers Artisans du Québec held this year at Fromagerie du Presybytère. The annual festival travels from cheesemaker to cheesemaker and attracts upwards of 10,000 cheese enthusiasts.
  • Visit Fromagerie Abbaye deSaint-Benoît-du-Lac and Fromage de La Station in Eastern Townships.
  • Fromagerie FX Pichet in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade. home of Le Baluchon, the Canadian Cheese of the Year.
  • Grand tour of Gaspésie, some 1,200 km in all, searching for the freshest seafood and other culinary delights during 10 days along the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River and into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Breathtaking panoramas and tasty maritime cuisine await.
  • Fromagerie le Détour in Témiscouata-sur-le-Lac, home of Magie de Madawaska, a wonderful soft cheese worth driving many days for.
  • Overnight visit to Isle aux Grues in the middle of the St. Lawrence River east of Quebec City from whence comes Riopelle, one of Canada’s iconic cheeses, named after Jean-Paul Riopelle, a larger-than-life painter and sculptor who spent his summers on Isle aux Grues and died there.
  • Return home to Ontario with coolers full of goodies.

More, as it develops.

If you have recommendations for must-make-stops along the proposed route, we’d love to hear them. Click here to e-mail CheeseLover.ca.

Gunn’s Hill Shep Ysselstein claims $100,000 Grand Prize

Shep and Colleen Ysselstein of Gunn's Hill Artisan Cheese near Woodstock, Ontario.

Shep and Colleen Ysselstein of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese near Woodstock, Ontario.

MONTREAL, June 18, 2014 /CNW Telbec/ – The Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) yesterday announced that Canadian voters have chosen the turning point project Cheese Champs, submitted by Shep Ysselstein, owner of Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese in Woodstock, Ontario, as the winner of the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award $100,000 Grand Prize.

Shep’s project involves the construction of a 2,000 square-foot, climate-controlled curing and aging extension to his current building that would allow him to double his annual production of cheese to 60,000 kilograms. His business needs to invest in this expansion to keep up with high consumer demand for his premium cheeses from grocery chains and specialty food shops across the province.

“Winning the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest means a lot to our business and to the local dairy economy,” says Shep. “We’ve been overwhelmed by the amazing public support and I want to thank everyone who voted for us. I also want to thank BDC for creating a contest that inspires entrepreneurs to take a hard look at their businesses and come up with concrete projects that will drive new growth.”

“I congratulate Shep on winning the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award,” says Michel Bergeron, Senior Vice President, Marketing and Public Affairs at BDC. “His business illustrates how an entrepreneurial vision can create real opportunities for any industry, anywhere in Canada. Gunn’s Hill is more than a cheese plant; it’s a rural enterprise that creates jobs and economic activity and drives a small community forward.”

“We plan to use the $100,000 Grand Prize to accelerate the growth of our business,” says Shep. “The new curing and aging rooms will allow us to double our workforce, meet demand for our current products, and create new premium aged cheeses that will further boost our revenue. We also hope this boost will put us on track for a future national expansion, so we can start selling our products across Canada.”

The contest runner-up, who will receive $25,000 in consulting services offered by BDC, is the project Bee Wrapped, submitted by Toni Desrosiers, owner of Abeego Designs, Inc. in Victoria, British Columbia.

About the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest
Created by the Business Development Bank of Canada in 1988, the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest pays tribute to remarkable Canadian entrepreneurs between 18 and 35. For the first time in 2014, a national committee evaluated the quality of the finalist projects and gave each finalist a ranking that was combined with the public vote. The national committee evaluation was weighted to account for 30% of each project’s final ranking and the public vote accounted for the remaining 70% of the ranking. Online voting in the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest took place between May 29 and June 12 at www.bdc.ca/yea.

About the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award finalists
Nine projects competed for Canada’s votes in the 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award contest.  Each finalist described, via a video submission, a turning point their company had reached as well as their solution to achieve future growth and success:

  • Bee Wrapped, Toni Desrosiers, 34, Abeego Designs, Inc., Victoria, British Columbia
  • Waste with Purpose, Devin Goss, 29, BluPlanet Recycling Inc., Calgary, Alberta
  • Building Boom, Nathan Wilhelm, 30, Wilhelm Construction Services Inc., Estevan, Saskatchewan
  • Compost Kings, Dale Overton, 34, Overton Environmental Enterprises Inc. (OEE), Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Cheese Champs, Shep Ysselstein, 31, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese, Woodstock, Ontario
  • Room with a View, Louis-Philippe Noel, 34, Innvue, Quebec City, Quebec
  • Clear Waters, Pat Whalen, 33, LuminUltra Technologies Ltd., Fredericton, New Brunswick
  • Brighter Smiles, Paula MacPherson, 31, Southgate Dentistry, Bedford South, Nova Scotia
  • Northern Exposure, Nicole Redvers, 32, Gaia Integrative Clinic, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
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